Book Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

best01While looking up similar books to Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road (LibraryThing), I stumbled across Karen Lord’s novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. The summary sounded promising: “Now Lord returns with a second novel that exceeds the promise of her first. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.” Thus I picked I up (one of the libraries I work at happens to own a copy, which was even better). That review was, in fact, correct (in spite of my not having read her first novel). The Best of All Possible Worlds is fantastic for many, many reasons.

There are lots of books about space and aliens and the future of the human race. There are lots of books that combine these elements together, some good, some not so much. But The Best of All Possible Worlds does something different, something better. Karen Lord’s novel is centered around a woman, Grace — while she is not our only character to have a voice, she is in mabest02ny ways the main character of the novel. She lives on a planet that is home to refugees from all across the galaxy, most (if not all) of them are some form of human, but they are also very different, very alien. But what Lord does is find a way to tie them all together, to make them find their similarities, instead of their differences.

Grace is works for the government and can speak many languages, which is how she ends up befriending Dllenahkh, who is Sadiri and from a planet that no longer exists. Grace is tasked with helping Dllenahkh and his fellow Sadiris find genetic matches to keep their people from extinction (think of it as similar to when Vulcan is destroyed in the new Star Trek reboot and how the elder Spock, at the end of movie, has decided to devote to helping the popular rebuild). In a way, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very long road trip, as Dllenahkh, Grace and the rest of their assigned crew travel across Grace’s planet.

In way, Lord combines some of the more interesting aspects of Stragate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis into her novel. Grace and Dllenahkh’s travels remind me, in a way, of the Stargate teams traveling to different planets and learning about the people (and discovering that, in many cases, that are not that differbest03ent from themselves). Not only do Grace, Dllenahkh, and their crew find compatible people, they also find out more about the different cultures of the planet and, more significantly, about each other.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a story about people more than anything else. It is about Grace’s relationship with her coworkers, with the people of her planet, and with her family. Grace learns things about herself, about the people in her life, and about the history of her people and all peoples in her galaxy. In many ways The Best of All Possible Worlds is akin to a space opera, but I’ve never read one quite as beautifully written as Lord’s novel.

There is a love story within the novel as well. Grace and Dllenahkh find in each other something they didn’t even know they were looking for. The love story is subtle, it’s gentle, and it’s also really, really satisfying. Which sums up the novel as a whole, actually.

I really loved The Best of All Possible Worlds and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

9780385680141_0This book caused me quite a bit of trouble, ironically (I discovered upon reading it) because I kept misremembering and misreading the title as world exchange instead of word. I finally figured it out (actually, I went through the process of trying to remember the title a couple of times, two of them involving other librarians) and set about reading it.

The Word Exchange is a novel about the future, it’s a dystopia set in a world not far off from our own. In that world, devices reminiscent of today’s smartphones basically run people’s lives (predominately Americans, but other countries as well). These devices, called Memes, do everything smartphones do for us today — and then some. They can basically figure out what it is we need at any given moment, from directions to music to clothing. But, at the same time, they’re slowly replacing that which makes us who we are — our brains.

Of course, the majority of the characters in Graedon’s novel don’t realize this. How can they? They’re so attached (addicted) to their Memes that they don’t realize something’s gone wrong until it’s too late. The Word Exchange takes place right before the word flu strikes and society (at least temporarily) collapses.

The novel is told in the format of a transcript, complete with letters. Anana is writing her recollections of the events surrounding the word flu pandemic. Her chapters are separated by journal entries from a friend of her and her father, Bart. There’s some romance, Anana’s ex-boyfriend Max is partially responsible for the word flu’s spread, if not it’s creation. Bart himself is tangled up in the mess of the word flu and Max (they were friends, of a sort).

the_word_exchange_1024x1024Each chapter is a letter and below the letter is a word beginning with that’s letter, followed by a definition. Anana, her father Doug, and Bart all work for something called The Dictionary. This is something similar to the OED, but in North America. Anana’s father is in charge of the rewrites for the 3rd edition. One day, not long after Max leaves Anana, she and her father are set to have dinner when he fails to show up. This sets in motion events that will change Anana’s life, at that of her family, friends and the whole of the globe.

Of course, Anana, like the readers, is unaware of what’s happening. But, of course, because the story we’re reading is Anana’s recollections, we also get the benefit of her hindsight. She  intersperses her story with insight (explaining things that she won’t know until later, among other things) that moves the story along in a very interesting way.

Both Bart and Anana catch the word flu, though the severity of their diseases vary. It’s through the disease, the word flu, that Graedon’s story is most effective. Anana recalls a moment on the train with her father when he uses what she calls an ‘obscure’ word and she pulls out her Meme (discretely, as her father doesn’t like them) which supplies her with the definition. And thus begins what I find to be quite terrifying.

You see, one of the ways the Memes worm their ways into the lives of the characters is by remembering things, remembering words, for us. You’ve been there. You’re staring at something (in the novel, it’s a fork, in real life it’s an armchair, a pen, a notebook, a lamp, anything ordinary) and suddenly you can’t remember the word for it. You know what it is, but you can’t come up with it. It’s happened to all of us. I blame our reliance on technology, the same way that Doug (Anana’s father) does with the Meme.

resizeIt’s through these devices, the Memes and others, that the virus spreads. The details of the virus, the impact it has on people and the delivery mechanisms, those are all  for you to discover when you read the book. There are, of course, bigger things at plan that just addiction to Memes and the fears of Doug and eventually Anana, too. But, really, at the heart of the novel is the importance of communication — what happens when we’re cut off? — and the written word — how do we communicate when you cannot speak?

Books, magazines, reading and writing, conversation and debate, all of these are important to the characters in the novel. But, really, I think that Graedon is trying to get across the idea that these are also important to us, today. Others may disagree, but I never really felt like she was trying to hit us over the head with the idea that these “ancient” technologies are any less important today than they were when, say, printing was invented. Perhaps some thing she’s being heavy handed, but I felt that wasn’t the case. If anything, it made me want to put down my phone and read more books.

So, if you’re looking for something that’s not quite science fiction, but not quite fiction, either. This straddles that boundary in an excellent fashion. It might slow to start, but it’s well worth the effort. And while the conclusion is rather open ended (I could see a sequel), I rather liked it’s conclusions (or lackthereof).

Rereading Terry Pratchett: Mort

Mort-Terry-PratchettFor such a short book, it certainly took me a long time to listen to this. I think it’s not so much the book (though that’s part of it) but the fact that I’ve been listening to a lot more music recently. But, I finally finished Mort and while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I liked it.

The story starts with Mort and his father at, well, a job fair. Of course no one picks Mort to be their apprentice, he’s a gangly, not-much-to-look-at boy. Eventually, after everyone’s left, it’s just Mort and his father, waiting around. And then, of course, Death shows up. Unlike in real life, most Pratchett fans are big fans of Death. He’s a truly great character and I’m looking forward to the other books where he’s a main character. Unfortunately, Mort is not one of the better Death offerings. That’s not to say that Death’s not great, there are just other things going against it.

As with all Discworld novels, there’s magic and magicians involved. But also some rather overt sexism, which is disappointing but not surprising. But more on that later. Where were we? Oh, yes. Death wants to take a holiday and decides to train an apprentice — Mort. Unfortunately for Mort, not only does no one remember his name (they all call him boy, much to his dismay), he has no idea what he’s getting into. Being Death is a whole lot of work.

The novel follows Mort’s (all too brief) training and then he’s set out on his own to gather the souls of three people who are set to die. Death, on the other hand, has embarked on his vacation (this, too, will not end well). I will give Mort credit, he gets the first two right. And then there’s the princess. On one of the training missions (I don’t know what else to call them), Mort and Death arrive at a castle to take the soul of a monarch. Mort makes a (one-sided) connection with the Princess and when he shows up again to collect her soul, well, you can imagine it doesn’t go well.

The idea is actually pretty interesting. What happens in the Discworld when someone who is supposed to die, doesn’t? Chaos, basically. The world tries to correct things and Mort tries to get in the way. In the end, of course, things work out and Death realizes he doesn’t really need an apprentice after all (and Mort finds that reaping his not his calling, either).

While Mort is wrecking havoc in space and time, Death is wrecking his own havoc. He’s eating and drinking, getting drunk and then, toward the end of the novel, he actually gets a job — as a cook! But as things are wont to do, they go awry and Death must swoop in to fix things, and he does, sort of.

But then there’s the sexism. The way Mort treats the princess, the way the wizard (who is kind of in love with the princess) treats the princess. And then you have Ysabell, Death’s adopted daughter. She’s described in rather annoying terms (and described as being rather annoying), but she turns out to be the best character in the novel. I like her because she’s got her head on right and she understands how the world works, while the men in her life (Mort, Death, and Albert, Death’s manservant and a former wizard) are basically bonkers.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. And while I did enjoy how Mort and Ysabell ended up together and it felt mostly natural, I was annoyed at how she’d been portrayed in the earlier portions of the novel. It’s been so long since I’ve read these books that I’m hopeful that the sexism decreases and my enjoyment increases. Though so far, all four of the Discworld novels are sexist, but I do acknowledge that and try not to let it color my view of the novels too much (Mort aside).

Book Review: Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Not every book I read comes easily to me. I don’t mean that it was hard to get a copy of this book, it wasn’t, but I mean that in order to read it, I really had to work at it. Sometimes when you have to work at a book, it’s not necessarily a good one. But, of course, this isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t the case with the first book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (according to Wikipedia and some googling I’ve done, it’s u2333sually referred to as the Three Body trilogy).

Three-Body Problem was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (an excellent author in his own right). It’s a science fiction novel about aliens, but you don’t really meet the aliens until you get closer to the end of the novel. It’s really the story of two character from two different time periods in China. The beginning of the novel is set during the Cultural Revolution and gives us our first main character, Ye Wenjie. She watches the horrors that befall her father and his fate and black class status follows her throughout her young life. But, because this is a novel, after all, Ye’s scientific background ends up balancing out her father’s black marks on their past. She ends up entangled and then deeply entrenched in looking for alien life.

Our second thread follows that of Wang Miao and is set 40 years in the future (basically, present day China). Wang, like Ye, is a scientist, though they study different sciences. Wang is contacted by a strange group of people and ends up befriending Ye, though he doesn’t know how their stories truly intersect until later. Wang must infiltrate an organization that is bent on world destruction and when he does, what he discovers blows his mind (but that would be spoiling things for me to tell you, so I won’t).

The novel is full of Chinese history (Liu helpfully includes footnotes of his own, in addition to Cixin’s, to make sure Western authors understand what they’re reading and the historical context of the novel), science and computer games — among other things. You do not need to understand physics or Chinese history to enjoy this novel.

We follow Ye and Wang as their lives are intertwined, bringing us to the climax and conclusion of the novel. We discover what really happened to Ye once she started working on a mountain (what saved her from her black status) and we participate (though not directly) with Wang as he explorThreebodyes a computer game that proves to be very important to the story. And, toward the end, we also get to go inside the heads of the aliens.

Cixin Liu’s writing is excellent and I trust Ken Liu’s translation. I didn’t feel like I was reading a translated work. And now I want to return to something I mentioned at the start of this review — this novel was a lot of work to read. Not because it was hard, but because Cixin Liu packed it full. It’s a dense, enthralling read, but it also took me a long time to read it. In many ways, it reminds me of many of Kim Stanely Robinson’s works. Hard reads, but worth the effort — which is exactly how I feel about Three-Body Problem.

If you like science in your science fiction, plus a murder mystery, and mixing of time/story lines, you should read Three-Body Problem. It sets up it’s sequel very nicely, leaving me wanting more, but ends in such a way that I’m not angry there are three books in the series. Instead, I’m just ready for more of this universe that Cixin Liu’s created.

The Wednesday Four: (06/03/15)

What a strange mix of links today.

Of those 100 books, I’ve read four: Eleanor & Park, Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Before I Fall and Station Eleven. Of those, I would only recommend two of them. Before I Fall was an enjoyable fantasy-esque novel about a girl who only has one day to live. Station Eleven is a truly excellent piece of dystopian fiction set in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, Hollywood and Toronto. I cannot recommend Station Eleven enough. Go read that one.

I don’t remember why I don’t like Daughter of Smoke & Bone, except that I didn’t find it interesting in the least and wasn’t fond of the main character. I did like Eleanor & Park, though I didn’t love it (I also didn’t like Rowell’s other YA offering, Fangirl). But a friend of mine sent me a link (I’ve long since lost it) that explained why E&P is a terrible novel and the more I think about the book, the more I agree. Though I can’t find the original link, here are some other reviews that sum up why I no longer like nor can recommend E&P.

As for the rest of the list? I can think of plenty of YA, Science Fiction and Fantasy titles that should be on that list that aren’t. I don’t really understand why there are so few of them, but there are some popular (to library patrons, at least) titles on the list. It’s worth checking out, even if I think they give short shrift to YA, SF&F books.

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road

I’ve been a fan of Seanan McGuire since before I knew that her pen name was Mira Grant. It was my sister who hooked me up with McGuire’s series under her own name (October Daye, for those who’re curious — highly recommended) and it’s her copy of Sparrow Hill Road that I read.

Let me start by saying that I like ghost stories. I’m not a big fan of movies about ghosts or the stories you tell around camp fires, but I do like ghost stories in novels, especially ones that are more X-Files than traditional. And while there aren’t any FBI agents running around in Sparrow Hill Road, that doesn’t make the story any less X-Files-ish or amazing. Of course, even if you’ve never watched The X-Files, this book is still pretty great.

Sparrow Hill Road is about a road, of course, but it’s really about a network of roads … and even then, it’s about a girl (she’s known as the phantom prom date, among other names) named Rose. Of course, Rose is dead. She is the ghost of our story (full of many ghosts).

When Rose was sixteen, she was waiting for Gary to pick her up and take her to prom. When Gary didn’t show, Rose went after him and was then subsequently run off the road and thus she died, in her prom dress, at age six. That was in 1952.

McGuire’s writing in Sparrow Hill Road is some of her best. Rose’s story is always entertaining, always engrossing and thoroughly engaging. We follow Rose across the years, from 1952 (and even a bit earlier) to 2014. Rose crosses the country and we go with her. In some ways, Sparrow Hill Road is a young adult novel, much of Rose is still sixteen — but the truth is that she’s not. She’d be almost 80 if she’d been alive, but ghosts don’t age.

Sparrow Hill Road is a love story. It’s a sad story. It’s beautiful and thoughtful. It’s about both kinds of family — those by blood and those made. It’s also about Michigan, as Rose is from Buckley Township (there is a Buckley Michigan, though I don’t know if these are one and the same). If you live in the state, you’ll definitely recognize some of the city names.

Rose died on the road and thus her ghost lives on the road. She’s what’s called a hitchiker. She travels the ghost roads, looking for rides, among other things. But really, Rose is chasing the man that killed her, all those years ago. Unlike many suspense-filled novels, there’s only a sense of urgency when Rose feels it. I didn’t want the book to end, I wasn’t ready to stop reading about Rose. But as the the stories that make up the novel converged into the present day, Rose was ready find some sort of closure.

Do we get it? In a manner of speaking. Is it satisfying? You better believe it.

Sparrow Hill Road is also about cars and drivers, about staying alive and what happens to the dead in this world of Rose’s. It’s also a bit of a philosophical read, which was a pleasant surprise (perhaps intentional, perhaps not, that’s not important). If you’ve never read anything by Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road‘s not a bad place to start. In a way, it’s like the best of both Mira Grant (her pen name for when she writes horror/zombies/etc) and Seanan McGuire (the urban fantasy author). So, go pick it up. You’ll enjoy the ghost story, I promise.

Book Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst by Justin LarbalestierI’ve said many times to many people that I’m not a big fan of historical fiction unless there’s some sort of fantasy/SF twist and, as a general rule, this is almost always true. There have been a few exceptions, but mostly I find the genre boring without something else. It’s personal preference, I know plenty of people who love historical fiction. I’m just not one of them.

Justine Larbalestier’s new YA novel, Razorhurst, is historical fiction with that twist. The main character in Rarzorhurst is Kelpie, a young girl who can see ghosts. She lives on the streets of Sydney in the 1930s, when gangsters ruled the city.

At the end of the novel, Larbalestier gives a brief history of her interest in 1930s Sydney and that the events in the novel are basically fiction, but they’re taken from real events and some of the characters are also borrowed from history. But, unlike so many historical fiction novels (that I don’t know), Larbalestier puts more of her fiction into the novel than reality — which is part of the reason I like it.

Prior to reading Razorhurst, the only novel of Larbalestier’s I’d read was How to Ditch Your Fairy, which was a cute and lighthearted fantasy novel (almost urban fantasy). Razorhurst is about as far away from that as you can get.

Kelpie’s life isn’t easy, in fact it’s exceptionally hard — though she has a couple things going for her. She looks younger than her actual age, she can read, she knows the streets of the area she lives in (this Razorhurst area) and she can see and talk to ghosts. Kelpie doesn’t see the last thing as something that helps her, or at least recently she hasn’t. Growing up, she’d been raised by some ghosts and a couple of actual humans (Neal Darcy and a man named Snowy). But her interaction with people is rather limited and she feels, mostly, more at home with the ghosts than with people.

Kelpie’s luck holds throughout the novel, though in some ways it doesn’t hold at all. The world Kelpie lives in is ruled by two ruling gangsters, Mr. Davidson and Gloriana Nelson, and it’s by sheer coincidence that Kelpie finds herself in the middle of that world. She stumbles into the aftermath of a murder and runs into the most popular woman in Razorhurst, Dymphna Campbell.

Soon, Dymphna and Kelpie are on the run. Much of the novel is told from Kelpie’s point of view, but many other characters get chapters. We follow Kelpie as she tries to figure out how to survive and what to make of all these people (and ghosts) suddenly in her life. The story skips around and as we follow Kelpie we learn about her past in some chapters, before catching up with the present. Nothing’s neat or easy, which Larbalestier does an excellent job of illustrating throughout the novel. Characters do die and the story isn’t pretty, but it’s not meant to be.

I’ve read a couple of review that talk about how this doesn’t seem to be a YA novel, but I beg to differ. The story is mature, but it’s no darker than others I’ve read. But it does set itself apart from other YA novels — even with the ghosts, Razorhurst is a very real novel. It’s dirty and gritty, just like Kelpie’s world. But it’s also about found family, something that I really love (remember my Fast & Furious post?).

The heart of Razorhurst (and yes, there is one) is Kelpie’s struggles and how her world changes when she meets Dymphna. It’s about the importance of having people care about you, no matter what your circumstances are. It’s also tangentially about the importance of reading (one of the ghosts in Kelpie’s life taught her to read). It’s also about the differences between poverty and the upper classes, between the middle class and the lowest classes. It’s also about the idea that no matter how much money you have, crime is still crime and you can’t buy respect — and it’s kindness that really counts.

I don’t know if Larbalestier will write more, I haven’t read if there will be a sequel, but the story doesn’t need one (though it could have one). In some ways I hope it doesn’t, not because I don’t what to know what happens to the characters, because it seems more real that we don’t know. They don’t know, either, and neither should we. Much of the novel is spent waiting to see what’s around the next corner, how long the’re going to survive and not having all the answers makes the book all that much better.

I definitely recommend this book. It’s a fast, harsh, read, but it’s also clear that Larbalestier cares about her characters and we should, too. The story skips around, as we follow Kelpie we learn about her past in some chapters, before catching up with the present. It’s not a perfect novel, few are, but it’s a good book.