January Review Round-Up

Shana will start reading future classics by women next month but I thought I’d round-up a few reviews published this month of books by women. I’m planning to make more of the BSFA’s archive of reviews available online so let’s start with a couple of re-prints from Vector. Firstly, Nic Clarke on White Is For Witching:

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is a subtle little gem of a ghost story, written in a sparsely elegant style and paced as a page-turner whose mystery lies mostly in its characters’ fears and flaws. It centres on a haunted bed and breakfast in Dover, and the people – living and dead – whose lives are entwined with the house, and with each other.

Then Niall Harrison on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else. Those details interest Beukes, too, I think.

I also reviewed Moxyland to inaugurate a year of reading science fiction by women:

This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.

Ian Sales started a similar project by reviewing The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein:

Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading… And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem.

As you would expect, Strange Horizons covered several books books by women in depth, perhaps most notably Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin. Here is Farah Mendlesohn on Who Fears Death:

There is a hint in Who Fears Death that we are in the far future of Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor’s debut novel. For all the resemblances to our own Africa, this is a distant planet in a distant time, and the story the Okeke and the Nuru tell, in which the Nuru come from afar, might well be true. This is a science fictional world with water captures, hard-tech computing, and newfangled biotech. It is also a world of magic, of small jujus and powerful sorcerers.

And Paul Kincaid on 80!

Conceived by Kim Stanley Robinson and compiled by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, 80! was intended as a personal birthday present on the occasion of Le Guin’s 80th birthday in 2009, and originally came in a specially bound edition of one. But now, a year on, Le Guin has agreed that the book should be made more generally available. It is worth it for parts, if not for the whole. It is not easy to describe this book. I suppose it comes closest to being a festschrift, and there are several pieces that would not be out of place in such a volume. But it is also an opportunity for people simply to express gratitude, which is genuine and often moving, and certainly not out of place in a birthday card

Finally, Abgail Nussbaum reviewed both Bold As Love and Life by Gwyneth Jones:

So that’s Gwyneth Jones seen through two novels–a feminist who seems not to like women, or perhaps people in general, very much, a science fiction writer who can’t seem to keep both feet in the genre, an ideologue who mocks her own convictions at every turn, an angry feminist who can’t quite keep from winking at her readers. What I feel at the end of these two novels, mostly, is intimidated–by Jones’s intelligence, her forcefulness, and the complexity of her vision.

The 2010 Contenders

No books published in 2010 received enough nominations in the poll to make it into the overall top ten. This is probably not a surprise; the books haven’t been out for very long, so fewer people have read them. And some 2010 books received enough support to suggest that, were this poll to be run again in a couple of years, they might have matured into strong contenders. I thought it would be worth breaking those books out into a separate post, since their poll ranking is probably not reflective of the strength of feeling about them — and because they may be awards contenders next year. And so here they are:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City cover

Lauren Beukes’ second novel has been picking up rave reviews all over the place. John Clute reviewed the book in his Scores column at Strange Horizons:

Zoo City may dive a little too glamorously into terrible high-rises and worse tunnels, and its protagonist (who survives the tale she tells) may wear her deformations and her scars and her cabaret presentation of self like war ribbons, and the present tense of the tale’s telling may try a little officiously to shove our faces in the fleuve of the overwhelming nows of an alternate-2011 urban South Africa (Johannesburg is hardly exited), but throughout the horrors and the almost synaesthesical complexities of the scenes unfolded we get a sense of vigour, some of it irrepressible. The main joy of Zoo City is the energy of the thing, that it doesn’t stop for breath until it stops for good.

Also worth noting is a strong showing for Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland; thanks to Moxyland‘s first US edition this year, both books are Hugo-eligible.

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn cover

I think of Bujold, rightly or wrongly, as occupying the sort of position in US sf that Iain M Banks occupies in UK sf: absolutely central in her home country, somewhat marginal beyond its borders. I’m not sure any of her books has ever been published over here, and as a result I’ve not read any of them (although the recent free ebooks of her entire back catalogue may change this). On the other hand, Cryoburn may also be a suitable jumping-on point, for all that it’s the latest entry in a long series. Tansy Rayner Roberts:

Cryoburn, while not actually hitting the heights of my very very very favourite Vorkosigans (honestly it’s hard to top Memory which is one of the best books I’ve ever read) has all the ingredients of a very successful Miles Vorkosigan outing. It also shows that yet again, Bujold is not afraid to take risks, to change up any patterns her series has developed, and even the world itself. I’m not going to address in the least the most important change she brings down upon Miles’ world, because it’s the massivest spoiler of all spoilers, but suffice to say – this is, like Civil Campaign and to some extent Diplomatic Immunity, a book which could stand very successfully as the last of the series, and yet unlike both those volumes it could as easily be the new beginning that refreshes the books so entirely that we see another five out in the next decade.

Feed by Mira Grant

Feed cover

Winner of this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not A Hugo), this is the first of Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant’s books to be published in the UK, and was one of Publishers Weekly’s top five sf/f of 2010. It’s a zombie novel, but don’t let that put you off. Roz Kaveney:

Mira Grant’s Feed is less well-written [than The Passage] but has a can-do brio that Cronin would regard as whistling showtunes in the dark. Grant’s zombies are the result of experiments gone wrong – everyone is infected and everyone might turn in a moment. Yet civilisation does not collapse, and there are even elections; business as usual. Grant isn’t writing a horror novel at all – just an SF novel with zombies in it. And with bloggers – her heroine would die, or become undead, for a scoop.

Scoops follow her around. Hardly has she and her brother and team been embedded in a Presidential campaign than a saboteur tries to get the Candidate eaten or turned. Georgia and Shaun are supremely irritating young smart-arses, but Feed is a perfect antidote to Cronin’s gloomier excesses; sometimes after a well-cooked heavy meal, you really need a tub of ice-cream, with sprinkles.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death cover

Okorafor’s first published adult sf novel is another one that’s been appearing on end-of-year lists, not just Publishers Weekly but also Amazon US. Matt Cheney loved it:

So much reverberates between the lines of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death that the greatest marvel among the many here is that the novel succeeds in creating music and not cacophony. Archetypes and clichés jangle against each other to evoke enchanting new sounds, old narratives fall into a harmony that reveals unseen realms, and the fact of the book as artifact becomes itself a shadow story to that on the pages within. Okorafor is up to all sorts of serious, necessary mischief, setting up one expectation after another and dashing them all like dominoes made of dust. When the dust settles, rich realities emerge.

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Blackout cover

All Clear cover

As Willis notes on her website, and as pretty much every review of either volume has noted, this is one novel split into two volumes: a sprawling epic set in London during the Blitz. Clute again:

Indeed, the least useful pages of All Clear are spent tracing its cast’s ultimately baulked attempts not to see anything, and it does take a while to grasp the beauty of All Clear, the intense humility of its portrait of London as her cast increasingly ignores Dunworthy’s strictures, especially in two superb, hugely extended setpieces: one devoted to the terrible first bombing raid on 7 September; the second massively expanding on the events first depicted in “Fire Watch” as Saint Paul’s almost burns at the end of December. Almost certainly some bad mistakes leak into the text (how else, given the oceans of data she had to attempt to master); but I for one found nothing to complain about. The main errors I noted myself were in fact easily correctible: Willis seems to have consulted a contemporary map of the London Underground, which seems to have led her to assume that the Victoria and the Jubilee Lines, both constructed decades later, were there in 1940; nurses bewilderingly tell patients their temperature in centigrade; and the term “disinformation” seems not to have existed before 1955, the first year it was used to describe false information created, usually by a government, for purposes of deceit. But none of these slips opened any plausible gulf into the alternate realities whose potential irruption haunts her cast. All Clear is a song of London, a song of England, and she has gotten the song right.

Short Story Club: “From The Lost Diary of TreeFrog7”

The story, and the comment, starting with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro at The Fix (link to Google cache, since the site seems to be down):

“From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7” by Nnedi Okorafor is an inventive tale of exploration in which the pregnant TreeFrog7 and her husband Morituri36 compile entries to upload to the Greeny Jungle Field Guide. Their quest is a fabled mature CPU plant, in pursuit of which TreeFrog7’s friend BushBaby42 mysteriously disappeared. The story takes the form of the field guide entries themselves, a neat structure that provides firsthand perspective on the field guide’s scope and the author’s travails in obtaining their knowledge. Also, it allows first-person narration by both main characters, a useful point-of-view flexibility. The hyperlinking to entries on mentioned creatures is a nice added touch.

Okorafor’s displayed strengths are her imaginative detail and the immersive quality of her world. The plot, though, doesn’t generate as much suspense as I might have wished, and leads to an almost foregone conclusion. This isn’t helped by some of the expository repetition, perhaps resulting from the notion of each entry as self-contained. This story isn’t quite at the level of last year’s other guide, “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antartica” by Catherynne M. Valente, but it is more accessible and more immediately rewarding.

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

There is much here to delight readers: TreeFrog7’s narrative voice, the jungle setting described in evocative prose.
[…]
The journey in this case is the reward, more so than the destination. But I have to wonder, if the wingless hawkmoth is guarding the CPU plant, why it has gone so far away to follow the explorers. I wonder also at Morituri36’s name, if it was meant to telegraph the ending, and why. There seem to be hyperlinks in the text to entries in the Field Guide, but they did not work on my computer—as in fact none of this site’s links ever do.

James is less keen:

The language is evocative of the jungle and eventually reveals the characters. However the plot didn’t do enough for me, it was more or less the standard alien exploration story. And I’m not really a big fan of zoological or botanical style stories, I think it might be because I gave up Biology at school as soon as I could and did Physics instead, so the descriptions of the creatures didn’t really do anything for me.

In the end, I kept waiting for the story to go somewhere else, somewhere promised by hints in the story. Instead all we got was a tantalising glimpse of that.

And a lengthier discussion by Charles Tan:

That digression aside, it’s all too easy to admire the widgets and forget the actual story. Okorafor goes for a character-centric piece and her conceit–that her protagonists are explorers who are keeping records–gives the perfect excuse to tackle the setting and its unique ecosystem. If you don’t like the world-building aspect, one will likely drop the story early on but if you’re like me, discovering the nuances of Okorafor’s fabricated world is a pleasure albeit one that can get tedious due to the length. There’s several points of tension in the story but because of the format, only one is truly explored. The interaction between the characters feel human and fleshed out, but the danger of a stalking predator loses much of its effectiveness because of the epistolary form. There’s clearly a build-up in the story but somehow, it lacked the impact I was hoping for. Overall not a bad piece, but it lacks that compelling voice as there’s still a certain sense of detachment despite the first person point of view.

So: what did you think?