BSFA Shortlist Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

lagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Setting: Lagos, Nigeria

Summary: A scientist, a soldier, and a rapper lead this multi-character exploration of Lagos in the midst of first contact with aliens.

Actual summary: A social peephole into Nigerian society.

Synopsis quote/Commentary about Western politics: We can work with you people, the alien tells the people of Nigeria.

How it feels: Hyper and lampooning. Primarily dialogue-driven, with some confusing head-hopping in scenes. Might disappoint critical readers with its initial pedestrian style, but the second half of the novel drives home Okorafor’s dark and funny observations about Nigerian social sectors, civil unrest, and mob mentality.

Characters you’ll meet: Shapeshifters and crossdressers, profiteering preachers and machete-wielding youths, a crazy Christian church lady and some level-headed Muslims. Oh, and a highway that eats people. (Nigeria and Texas have a lot in common.)

Best enjoyed: The audio format is supreme, and available in the U.S. (The book will be released in the U.S. in July.) The Nigerian performers are brilliant and wonderful and SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR THIS YEAR’S AUDIE AWARDS AND WERE NOT.

Unanswered question: So why do all of the main characters’ names begin with ‘A’? They ask, but did I miss the alien’s answer?

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

Irrelevant observation: I get excited when giant story-weaving spiders show up in books. What’s that about?

 ***

This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings

 

 

BSFA Shortlist Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

TheMoonKingThe Moon King by Neil Williamson

Setting: An island bound to the cycles of the moon.

Summary: Glassholm’s first king captured the moon and tethered it to the island city. For five hundred years, the moon’s presence has influenced the mood of the people, who experience dramatic swings in temperament over the course of each month. But crime during the Dark days has become more heinous, and now leaks into the Fullish days. No one feels safe anymore.

Synopsis quote:

The earth moved around the sun, the moon moved around Glassholm. After that it was all a matter of shadows. [Loc. 1520]

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Gives new meaning to the phrase “that time of the month.”

How it feels: Fleeting moments of glittery fish scales and pearlescent moondrops are juxtaposed with a smoky crime story aesthetic. However, strained dialogue and strained motivations overshadow the intriguing, albeit flimsy, setting and premise. Many scenes feel blocked, as if in a play, as if the author is shouting, “Places, people!” An imaginative effort by a first-time novelist who is unpracticed in long fiction transitions.

The message: Loaded with positive, superficial messages about bipolar disorder and atonement. Ultimately about the importance of being different. Might also serve as a political allegory about the power of our leaders to make our lives miserable, and the passive compliance of citizens to allow misery to continue.

Celebrity blurbers: Jeff VanderMeer and Nina Allan have both praised this novel.

My response: Did we read the same book?

Should you read this? Passive readers looking for a unique secondary world setting might enjoy this. Critical readers might not buy the initial premise or the general passivity of the citizenry. (British colonists rioted over taxes; I should think state-induced suicidal depression might warrant regicide after the first month of lunar-entrapment.)

Ultimately: In general, reader feedback is split, most reviews are very positive, but this was my least favorite of the BSFA shortlist.

Publishing observation: The ebook version is loaded, LOADED, with typographical and grammatical errors, which, for this reader from a bilingual household, is not terribly important. (In my house, words make themselves!) More distracting is the urge to rewrite entire sentences to make them less explanatory, and more alluring.

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This is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge

Next week’s BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings

 

BSFA Shortlist Review: Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge

cuckoosongTitle: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Setting: post-WWI English village

Summary: 11-year-old Triss wakes up in bed after a mishap she cannot remember. She barely recognizes her family, or her home, and she always feels hungry. Her little sister Penny knows more than she’s letting on, and her parents are receiving strange letters that they won’t talk about. Triss needs to solve this mystery to make things normal again. But were things ever normal?

Flavor quote:

’I…I don’t…’ Triss trailed off helplessly. She didn’t know what she didn’t, but she was frightened by how much she didn’t. [2]

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Münchausen syndrome by changeling proxy.

How it feels: Roomy and light, as middle-grade fiction should be, dappled with eerie aesthetics. Feisty little sister relieves the tension with humor. Dysfunctional family insight from the POV of an unaware insider. At times, less hand-holdy that some adult novels.

How it does not feel: The blurbs make it sound like a horror story. May be scary for very young children, but everyone else gets the green light to read this at night.

How it does not feel, part 2: Without the occasional references to car cranking, wristwatch history, and displacement of the war-time female workforce, it’s easy to mistake this for a more recent time period.

Supplemental use: Could be useful with young kids suspected of a binge eating disorder. Multiple descriptions of relentless hunger and unsated void-filling might get them talking.

But let’s be serious: It’s cute, but inferior to the rich and sophisticated adult fiction that populates this shortlist.

Should you read this? Your little niece or nephew should read this, while you read The Race. Then you can have a nice chat over scones about the importance of psychological and feminist aspects in speculative fiction. (Both The Race and Cuckoo Song do a fine job of this without reducing feminism to a marketing point.)

*************************************************************************************************************

This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
The Moon King by Neil Williamson

BSFA Shortlist Review: The Race by Nina Allan

theraceThe Race by Nina Allan

Setting: Begins in an imaginary near-future decaying resort town in England, transformed by frakking and toxic marshland, and later provides glimpses of re-imagined continents.

Format: Four intertextually linked novelettes, too dissimilar to give the reader a strong grasp of the textual reality.

Summary: A family trains smartdogs for racing, and the daughter has a special connection with them… A writer grapples with her traumatic upbringing… A journalist copes with love and heritage… A girl is confined and trained for her communicative abilities with animals…

They are all tied together loosely. The intent is consistent, but elusive.

Synopsis quote: Get real. This book is the anti-synopsis.

Flavor quote:

…that fishy smell and the slippery texture, sour and salty and not quite natural. Those frankfurters seemed to sum up my life, really. It was not a good time. [Loc.104]

How it feels: Not dark, but heavy, melancholy, uncomfortably intimate. Evocative, dreamlike, wispy. Conveys the limited affect of the traumatized. Hard to read.

Reading advice: Watch a good comedy with easy laughs after each reading.

Further reading advice: Trigger warning, SF debacles be damned.

Typical reader criticism: This isn’t really a novel!

My response: But it’s not really a collection, either. It’s not just a few stories tied together by a common theme. Its essence is ether, hard to grasp, but it’s there, and it cannot be perceived without a complete reading, maybe two.

Why it’s special: Nothing so real has ever felt so surreal. Forget graffiti-writing slug-monsters; read this for a text dripping with mood and tone, without the use of a thousand descriptors. I still can’t figure out how she did it.

Why it’s really special: A prime example of SF doing something different. Will inspire endless coffeehouse conversations about its meaning and significance. Speculative fiction that invites speculation.

My interpretation: How abouts you go read it and then we’ll talk about it over a coffee?

A better review: Jesse always says it better than me.

Parallel reading experience: I read this on the treadmill.

Should you read this? You mean you haven’t read it yet? I’ve been talking about this for months!

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This review is part of a review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Review: Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson

Next BSFA Shortlist Review: Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge

BSFA Shortlist Review: Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson

europeinautumn Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson

Setting: Near-future Europe, a balkanized mess of ineffectual and often short-lived mini-states, including an anarchist neighborhood in Potsdam, and a sovereign transcontinental railroad.

Summary: An underground system of Coureur messengers do the complicated dirty work of trespassing the numerous physical, digital, and bureaucratic boundaries to maintain communication and crime networks. Rudi, an Estonian restaurant cook living in Poland, gets a taste of the Coureur lifestyle and becomes enmeshed in the underground world, building Legends and Stringers, while uncovering the most underground secret of all.

Synopsis quote:

The Union had struggled into the twenty-first century and managed to survive in some style for a few more years of bitching and infighting and cronyism. Then it had spontaneously begun to throw off progressively smaller and crazier nation-states, like a sunburned holidaymaker shedding curls of skin…

Officially, [the European Union] still existed, but it existed in scattered bits and pieces, like Burger King franchises, mainly in England and Poland and Spain and Belgium… [Loc. 425]

Flavor quote:

In Rudi’s opinion, whoever had set up the Coureurs had overdosed on late twentieth century espionage fiction. Coureur operational jargon…sounded like something from a John le Carre novel. [Loc. 713]

Moment of prescience: Coincided with last year’s Scottish Independence referendum.

How it feels: Grounded, but imaginative. Complex, but full of dry funnies. The protag is stiff and unaffected, while the peripheral characters sometimes steal the show. Not a book for people who want emotional, character-driven content. Not suspenseful, but uncertain-y. This is more about exploring the continent, getting the feeling of something bigger, yet intangible, going on. Lonely Planet with a stiff upper lip.

SF literary sibling: Mieville’s The City and the City, but with European sightseeing.

Irrelevant observation: The story is way better than the cover.

Future status: Ends on a cliffhanger, sequel in progress.

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

*The UK version lists the author as Dave Hutchinson, while the US version lists him as David Hutchinson.

*************************************************************************************************************

This is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review: The Race by Nina Allan

 

Introducing the 2014 BSFA Best Novel Shortlist Review Series

BSFA-logo-with-Celebration-slice_v2_2An American WereReader in CyberLondon

Uck, horrible. No.

*****

Putting a temporary hold on my normal vintage review fare to share my thoughts on the rich and varied 2014 British Science Fiction Association shortlist. Over the next couple of weeks, as we count down to Eastercon and the BSFA ceremony in April, I’ll be posting a series of infobyte-style reviews of the novels on the 2014 BSFA shortlist.

Why infobyte reviews? Because eight books, the BSFA. Eight.

europeinautumntheracecuckoosongTheMoonKing

lagoonancillarySwordTheFirstFifteenLivesofHarryAugustwolves1

 (Now you know why I’ve been so quiet lately.)

Above is the order in which I will be posting these reviews, probably Monday through Thursday for the next two weeks.

Did I love them all? Nope! So my concerns about sounding too squee-happy were unfounded, thank goodness. BUT, there is something for everyone on this diverse list of undeniably progressive and intelligent speculative fiction. I strongly encourage all readers to sample something.

See you tomorrow, when we will begin with David Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn!

The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin

TheLatheofHeaven1One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way. Continue reading