I’ve decided to read more sci-fi in 2020 – hopefully about one a month. I know little about the genre and want to learn more about the various sub-genres and what I like and dislike. You can only find this out by reading a range of different books. It makes sense for me considering some of the most memorable books I’ve read come under sci-fi, including Never Let Me Go, Station Eleven, Flowers for Algernon and The Chronicles of St. Mary’s. But do I prefer soft sci-fi, first contact with aliens, space operas (what even are space operas?) or dystopians? I hope to find out.
Where The Forest Meets The Stars by Glendy Vanderah
“Sometimes bad things happen to make good things happen.”
At the start of January, I picked up and put down maybe 5 or 6 books. It turned out what I needed was something I rarely read: light contemporary fiction with a bit of romance. This story is about a little girl who brings together two neighbours who have become fearful of a relationship for different reasons. The child turns up at night in rural Illonois showing signs of abuse. Ursa claims her home is in the stars and will go back once she has seen five miracles. She’s a bright kid and worms her way into the affections of Phd student Joanna and gruff, Gabe. It’s a sweet, hopeful tale which stops short of cutesy. Joanna is a field biologist and I especially liked the sections out in nature. I was In the mood for something undemanding and heart-warming and this fit the bill perfectly. 4/5
Recovery by Russell Brand
“The instinct that drives compulsion is universal. It is an attempt to solve the problem of disconnection, alienation, tepid despair… the problem is ultimately ‘being human’ in an environment that is curiously ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that entails.”
This book explains the 12-step recovery programme used in AA, NA etc. You’ll get the most out of it you have an addiction or any kind of compulsive behaviour from overeating to excessive retail therapy. I have more generalised issues but I still found the book interesting and benefited from doing steps 4 and 5 which involve facing and releasing your past resentments. 4/5
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Eight different scents and eau-de-cologne were laid on in little taps over the washbasin. She turned on the third from the left and dabbed herself with chypre and, carrying her shoes and stockings in her hand, went out to see if one of the vibro-vacuum machines were free.
I’ve heard that if you really like either 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale you are likely to struggle with the other two. This certainly rings true for me. I loved 1984 but found the writing in the other two dry with a plodding pace. In Brave New World, babies are born in hatcheries so no one has a family. Children are conditioned to consume and not to form emotional attachments.
The ideas are extremely interesting but I had trouble getting invested in the characters. Bernard sees the system’s flaws and is aware of the effects of the conditioning but is full of his own self-importance. ‘John the Savage’ acts as a contrast but this white man brought up on a Native American reservation never feels quite right. The final quarter where we learn more about rationalisation behind this brave new world is riveting but it’s all told by one of the World Controllers rather than shown. I know it’s a monumental work of sci-fi literature but I base my ratings purely on my level of enjoyment so it’s a 3.5/5
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
“But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity, splendour or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.”
I loved Lanny so much I thought I’d give this author’s debut book a try. It’s a novella dealing with grief as the title suggests. We hear the different points of view of a bereaved family who have lost their wife and mother: ‘Dad’ and ‘The Boys’.
Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar and the third character we hear from is Crow (the title of a Ted Hughes book). He tells them he is there until they no longer need him and his parts are more in a form of prose poetry. Crow is a trickster and the most raw, brutal caregiver they could have. But then, what is more raw and brutal than grief?
They all react in both expected and unexpected ways, trying to deal with that which they have lost. The portrayal of a grieving family is touching and visceral. However, Crow is a pretty scary persona and it didn’t capture my heart in the way Lanny did. 3.75/5
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
“I’ve always known, on a purely intellectual level, that our separateness and isolation are an illusion. We’re all made of the same thing—the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars.”
Dark Matter has glowing reviews almost across the board. I’d classify it as a sci-fi thriller. Jason, a college lecturer with a wife and child, is abducted and drugged. When he wakes up, nearly everything has changed. People tell him he is a genius physicist but he’s also a single man without a family. It’s pretty obvious to the reader what has happens but it takes a while for him to catch up with us. I was inpatient for him to start solving the mystery and take action. When he does, the plot speeds up and it becomes gripping. I had questions about the logic of the science which meant I found it a bit frustrating. It’s a mind-binding read about identity and the turns we take and don’t take in life. 3.5/5
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
“Of course I was afraid. But I had learned to fear other things more: being despised, whittled down one small piece of myself at a time, smirked at and taken advantage of. I put my chin up and said, as cold as I could be in answer, “And what will you give me in return?”
Last year I read Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted which had rave reviews but I rated 2/5. I loved the writing and setting but hated the way the male protagonist treated the female protagonist and their twisted relationship ruined it for me. I had the chance of reading Spinning Silver for 99p so thought I’d give Novik another try. Lucky I did, because this was just my cup of fairy-tale tea. There’s nothing I like more in January than an atmospheric, wintry read and this book is set in an imaginary realm called Lithvas (very like Russia) where the winters are getting longer and malevolent mythical creatures, the Staryk, are encroaching on the villagers more and more. One of the things I liked about the book the most is that the central family in the story are Jewish and it explores themes of anti-Semitism – not something I’ve seen in fantasy before. It revolves around three young women and the narrator switches many times without warning but it’s not difficult to work out who’s talking. I thought the way one of the women’s storylines was tied up was unnecessary but still had a great time with it. 4.75/5
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”
Vanessa mentioned in a post on Bonkers About Perfume that I had read 50 books last year and a commenter said that it’s more about quality than quantity, citing two Dostoyevskys being worth more than 50 Mister Men books. My reading level is a little above Mister Men but I took his point and decided to give Dostoyevsky’s most famous tome a try. I think my first error was choosing a book with a theme I have little to no interest in. I don’t care for crime fiction or the motivations of criminals and this book is a philosophical examination of crime and its consequences on the psyche of the criminal. Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex-law student who kills and robs an elderly woman he pawned some valuables to. He kills more out of a feeling of superiority and an intellectual test of character than financial need. Though he suffers a spiritual crisis as a result, he never feels remorse for the woman he murdered. He’s deeply unlikeable as are most of the male characters in the book. The ‘romance’ came from nowhere and the police investigator was ludicrous. But what makes it arduous are the interminable internal and external dialogues that are either like lectures or delirious ramblings. I will say however, that it’s easy to read, the female characters are a saving grace and learning about Petersburg in the 1860s was interesting. I was much more engaged by the final quarter but this Russian classic just wasn’t for me. I tried, Roger, really I did. Next time, I’ll take a run at Tolstoy instead. 2.5/5
Do you feel that you should make an effort to read books that are challenging or is okay just to read what appeals to you?