SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Original Book Reviews, Recommendations and Discussions


The magic didn’t work for me – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally published: January 26, 2016,
publisher: Tor Books, 320 pp. hardcover

If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2.  Continue reading


What makes an AI human? – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette UK company, 2016, 378 pp. e-book. Kindle edition – Oct. 20, 2016. Hardcover edition: Hardcover – Jan 31, 2017

This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms.  Continue reading


Hard-hitting Alt-history novel – Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover.

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover. (Classified as alternative history, thriller, detective fiction, and suspense fiction.)

Ben H. Winters wrote the acclaimed, award-winning Science Fiction series, The Last Policeman. I called the hero of the series, “Detective Hank Palace”, “the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” –  and the detective in his latest novel Underground Airlines is another yummy crumpet. Like No. 3 in The Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble, Underground Airlines was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category, amongst other kudos. So one can safely say he knows how to write a hit and create really appealing, admirable protagonists. I was expecting something good, and was not disappointed; a polished, refined, sharp piece of alternative history writing which, due to its premise, is also a bugle call for the defence of democracy, freedom and the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading


Finnish Weird at its best – Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo

"Troll

Troll – A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo; Copyright 2000 by Johanna Sinisalo; English translation copyright by Herbert Lomas, 2003; 278 pp., paperback

ABOUT TROLLS –There is a whole body of memes about trolls. There are cute troll dolls, like in the 2016 animated movie, Trolls, and the more “realistic” trolls, hairy, ferocious, living in forests, and confined by the emissions of electricity pylons, that feature in the 2010 Norwegian “found footage” film Trollhunter. For the Trollhunter film’s final scene, a clip of former Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg speaking about an oil field outside Norway called the “Troll Field”, was edited to create the appearance of him admitting to the existence of trolls.”

Madam, I’m afraid he’s come down with a bad case of Trolls

If you’ve never imagined that trolls are an actual “thing” to people in Scandinavian countries, read this. Honest to Pete, you will come to believe this troll is as real as your dog or, more disconcertingly, your husband or wife. It is haunting, marvellous, and really refreshingly different, and confronts the reader with questions about the nature of love and alienation. It is no fairy-tale, nor is it a fantasy, though it is about a troll. A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, classified somewhere between a smart animal and a cave-dwelling humanoid. Despite today’s globalized world of connected technologies and electronic media, there are ancient folkloric beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland, for instance. Surveys show that more than half the nation believes in elves and “hidden people”, elf-like “Huldufólk” who live amongst the lava rocks, or at least don’t deny their existence since it is considered bad luck to do so.

Similarly, there are people in Finland who believe that trolls are real – or just want to believe trolls are real. Every country in the world has its mythical beings, and so long as people have story-telling and imagination, that will continue, helped along by mass communication and imaging methods. The Finns, in particular, have trolls. Continue reading


GoodReads 2016 – A Year in Books

Your Year in Books Report from GoodReads, 2016

Your Year in Books Report from GoodReads, 2016

This is the report of my year on GoodReads.com, where I repost short versions of my reviews. Goodreads still has the “star” system of ratings which I’m not crazy about, simply because it lacks subtlety. You can “not like” a book while having found it excellent. It might have been masterfully written but left a bad aftertaste – or recurring nightmares. Or you can say you “really liked it” but have to confess that you don’t know why, or that you didn’t understand it, or that it is forgettable. It’s a flawed system, but nou ja, as we say with a shrug in Afrikaans, it is what it is. I note with interest that Science Fiction, as a genre, is simply not as popular as any other, and that Paul Auster, though brilliant, is still an acquired taste, especially his latest novel. It reminds me that I gave Sjón a rare five-star-rating – Icelandic authors was a delightful discovery in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the very-hot-right-now Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien has been highly rated on GoodReads. Most people I’ve spoken to say it was hard to read, and even harder to make sense of, but they nevertheless were moved and thought it was worthwhile. Funny that – it’s almost on the edge of  being unreadable. But there is a thin line between genius and madness, and a thin line between daringly brilliant and plain old confused, isn’t there. And this one teeters on the tightrope. Continue reading


Who’s up for some Surrealist warfare? The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville

China Miéville’s novels lend themselves to illustration, as his legions of fans have demonstrated. This excellent collage is by the (nameless) author of the French Sci-Fi blog, avant-critique. The artist did not think that the graphics in the novel were adequate to reflect the tone.

China Miéville’s novels lend themselves to illustration, as his legions of fans have demonstrated. This imaginative collage is by the (nameless) author of the French Sci-Fi blog, avant-critique. The artist did not think that the graphics in the novel were adequate to reflect the tone.

To give some background on this peculiar novella, The Last Days of New Paris, consider this: No adult, dedicated Science Fiction (SF) novel has ever won the Man Booker prize for literature. It has been vehemently debated that the Man Booker Prize judges, like the judges of other high-profile, establishment literary awards, shy away from submissions from SF writers, because, firstly, SF is viewed as “low-brow” youth culture writing, being frequently confused with Fantasy writing. Secondly, SF is seen as too obscure or leading-edge, and thirdly, they presuppose that in order to understand SF, readers have to have read a lot of it or have specialized knowledge of technology or science, limiting its appeal. Practically speaking, SF is often hard to read and appreciate because of futuristic subjects and the introduction of new concepts that authors have to create new words or languages for. (For instance Klingon and Na’vi.) Both authors and readers need tremendous powers of imagination. China Miéville has invented new words and languages for many of his mind-boggling SF works, and in The Last Days of New Paris, he does it again. Reading it made me realize that I simply do not know enough about the SF genre. It was impossible for me to judge it one way or another. A thumbs up or down was out of the question. Why? Because, apart from producing a doozy of an SF adventure, he turns many SF conventions on their heads in this book. It isn’t a Man Booker contender, for the reasons listed above, but is sure is a candidate for every SF literature award out there. Continue reading


Almost incomprehensible English – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Penguin Random House, 2007 (1st ed.)

Penguin Random House, 2007 (1st ed.)

Hard to read but worthwhile reading

Some books are hard to read and hard to finish. It could be because of obscure references, bad editing, bad translation, weird printing, etc. But I’ve recently got through two novels that were hard to read and to finish because of the style in which they were written. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which it is literally the language that is the problem – it might as well have been partially written in Klingon for all I understood of it when I read it the first time. Another problem was the subject – it is about immigrants and the persistence of their culture even in their new life, like invisible hands pulling them back to their homeland. The specifics, that of the Dominican Republic, were completely foreign to me until I read this. However, by the time I got it, three, four readings later, the poetry of Junot Díaz’s English/Spanish had completely infused my mind.

Tomorrow’s review: the flipside of this argument; Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. Watch this space. Continue reading