Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Life After Life

Historical fiction novel about the chance to relive a life

Content warning: stillbirth

This is one of those books that you buy because based on the little you’ve heard about it and the pretty cover, you’re certain you’re going to enjoy it. Sometimes books like this are cursed with waiting on the bookshelf for a long time because you’re never quite sure when the right time to read it is going to be. I guess I was in need of a good book, because I finally picked this one up. I read it a little earlier in the year, and there are quite a number of chapters that deal with the Spanish Flu, which, given circumstances at the moment, seemed like quite the coincidence.

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“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is a historical fiction novel about Ursula, born into a well-to-do English family during a blizzard on 11 February 1910. Despite her family’s relative privilege, Ursula does not survive the birth. However, Ursula is reborn again during a blizzard on 11 February 1910 and this time she does survive. However, surviving life is no easy feat. Gradually, Ursula begins to vaguely remember things from her past lives and atrocities to come, and starts to wonder if she could prevent them altogether.

This is a beautifully written book that gently explores the impact that small decisions made in the moment can have on the rest of our lives. Atkinson also closely examines identity, family and what it means to be British. There is so much in this book, and it extremely well-executed. I adored the scenes with Ursula’s family, particularly her brothers Teddy and to a lesser extent Jimmy. I also loved how the family collectively disliked her older brother Maurice but included him in everything anyway. Her parents are fascinating characters, and at the end of the book, you find yourself wondering if perhaps there was even more to them than met the eye.

Fox Corner is a beautifully idyllic home that is a respite from the atrocities later experienced in the UK during the first half of the century. However, I also enjoyed how Atkinson shows that Ursula, in many of her lives, outgrows Fox Corner and her mother’s values that, while once progressive, are now conservative.

However, there were definitely parts of this book that I enjoyed more than others. While I certainly felt that each chapter had something to say, there were some chapters that were a little more slow and abstract than others without Atkinson’s knack for interpersonal relationships to drive them as they had the others.

Nevertheless, I was not disappointed at all in this book and I am very tempted to go and buy the second.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books

The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

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“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

Black Swan

A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Science Fiction

Festival Muse 2019

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Festival Muse has become a Canberra Day long weekend tradition, and although I didn’t get to attend as many events as I would have liked, I did get to attend one very good one.

Creating Worlds

After a little silent reading picnic, a couple of friends in my fantasy book club and I decided to finish off the afternoon with something very on-theme. Horror and speculative fiction author Kaaron Warren chaired a discussion with other local authors Sam Hawke and Leife Shallcross on what goes into creating worlds.

From left to right: authors Sam Hawke, Leife Shallcross and Kaaron Warren

The event began with readings by each author of a passage from one of their books. Shallcross read a passage from her novel “The Beast’s Heart”, a retelling of classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Hawke read a passage from her epic fantasy novel “City of Lies” and Warren read a passage from her book “Walking the Tree”. One of the most striking differences between the three novels was the size of the worlds. Where Warren’s book takes place on an island and Hawke’s in a city, Shallcross’ world is much smaller and takes place (for the most part) within the confines of a single house.

The authors talked about finding a balance in how much detail to provide the reader. Hawke said that as a writer, it is a game she plays with readers deciding how much description to give them and how much to let them imagine for themselves. They also compared writing different points of view, and the difference it makes to what characters notice and focus on.

Warren then asked the authors how they found coming up with names and words when writing speculative fiction. Warren said in her own book, she drew on botanical names to name her characters. Hawke said that she focused a lot on food that she wanted to eat, however she was careful not to exhaust the reader with too much new vocabulary. She said that she struggled quite a lot with names, and in fact wrote a third of her book with [name] in place of her main character’s name.

Hawke also gave us a little behind-the-scenes insight into a tool that she uses to come up with new fantasy words. She explained Vulgar, an online tool that generates fantasy languages which, if you’re a fantasy writer, you may wish to check out yourself. She said that she had been reluctant to adapt existing languages because she didn’t want linguists asking her why she called a lady “Chamberpot” or something!

Shallcross said that she drew a lot from Germanic names, and used names from a map, but did receive critique from a cartographer friend who pointed out that all the names she had used had the same rhythm. Warren said that she had received criticism from the same cartographer when she first drew a map of her world. She said that it had been terrible, because it was basically just a big circle, and the cartographer said that people living in her world on the edge of an enormous tree would think of themselves as being connected to other communities in a line rather than in a circle.

The writers agreed that when worldbuilding, you need to get the parts that you’re focusing on right and everything else can be fuzzy and allow readers to use their imagination. Hawke said that unlike many people, she was not particularly visual and when she imagines things, she tends to focus on touch, smell and other sense. She said that as long as you get the little things right, readers will trust you.

Warren then explored how the writers felt about actually knowing a place. Shallcross said that it was challenging, not having traveled to France, and instead she used meticulous research of maps and historical photographs to understand place. Hawke said that she had not traveled much growing up, and what she lacked in personal experience she tended to make up for with imagining her own worlds and research as she went along. Warren then shared about a short story she is working on about the demolition of the Northbourne flats. She said that after seeing all the steel, brick and glass as she drove by, she was drawn to visiting them in person to see how they felt and to get the smell of them as inspiration for her story.

The talk then opened up to audience questions. There were quite a few speculative fiction buffs in the audience and it was really great to see so many different takes on what goes into to building fictional worlds. Although unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to catch all the other great events of Festival Muse this year, this one was definitely a great way to round off a long weekend.

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The Power

Content warning: gender, sexuality, sexual assault

A lot of people have been talking about this book. Friends, bookshops, Obama. It was the most recent book for the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, so naturally I had to give it a go.

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“The Power” by Naomi Alderman is speculative fiction about what would happen if women worldwide suddenly discovered that they had the power to create electricity. This new ability drastically shifts the global power balance between men and women. The story follows the journey of four main characters. There is Roxy, the plucky English girl with huge power whose family is embedded in the criminal underground. There is Allie, an American girl who escapes her abusive adopted family and finds a calling. There is Margot, the ambitious American politician and mother. Then, there is Tunde, the Nigerian journalist who watches and tells the world what he sees.

This book could have been fantastic. It had all the elements for an incredibly interesting and creative story. I really liked the way that Alderman conceived the way that the power worked. I liked the touch of the archaeological interludes with illustrations and artefacts. I liked the diverse cast of characters. Probably my favourite part about this book was the characters. I found Roxy and Allie’s friendship fascinating, and at times actually quite romantic, and was disappointed when Alderman decided to keep it strictly platonic. I found the tension between Margot and her daughter Jocelyn whose own power was faulty to be really interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more on that. Tunde was a great male lens through which to experience the changing world.

It was fast-paced and Alderman is an engaging writer, but ultimately this book is really a series of missed opportunities.

First of all, Alderman’s vision of a world turned upside down by providing women with physical power felt so limited. Alderman suggests that if this were to happen, the result would basically be a mirror image of the world today. Women would start to be responsible for all the crimes that men today are responsible for. Men would be afraid to walk alone at night. Women hungry for power would ascend political ranks purely for self-interest. Surprisingly, I found this world vision much harder to believe than the idea that women would suddenly develop the ability to shock other people. I can see how Alderman wanted to throw gender inequality into sharp relief but the result was that it made inequality seem like it was a question of physical strength rather than a question of thousands of years of social and cultural attitudes. It would have been much more interesting to depict a world that was fundamentally different to ours rather than a world that was simply the reverse.

Then, of course, were the missed opportunities. Here you have a book about gender, all the women have the power to give electric shocks, all of the men don’t, you then have a female character whose power is faulty and you have a male character who is able to use the power and you don’t write about the LGBTIQ implications that that might have?! I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t take the obvious next step and comment on, at a bare minimum, the implications for intersex people in her new world. None of the women seemed to be queer. There were no trans characters. It’s 2018, we all know that sex, gender and sexuality aren’t black and white and I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t say anything about Margot’s daughter Jocelyn’s difficulty with her power and the implications that that might have had on her sex or her gender identity.

The other thing I couldn’t understand either is how you can apparently have swathes of women rampaging across the world having (sometimes non-consensual) sex with men but have absolutely no discussion whatsoever of pregnancy, children and motherhood (except in relation to the mothers or existing motherhood of the main characters). There was so much focus on the power as the singular biological difference that completely governed behaviour, yet no focus on the actual biological difference between the male and female sexes that arguably does have the biggest impact on our lives: the ability to have children. I just couldn’t understand how this consideration was absent on the narrative and the only time children were mentioned in this story it was utterly abhorrent.

Instead, the story focuses on Middle-Eastern war, American politics and British gangs. Alderman clearly views the Middle East and South Asia as the worst places in the world for women, and so she makes them equally the worst places in the world for men. I think this choice, and in particular the scene in India, really showed a lack of imagination and sensitivity.

There is so much going on in this book, despite some of the missed opportunities I listed above, and one thing that I felt I could have done without was the voice in Allie/Eve’s head. The somewhat motherly, sassy voice that encourages Allie’s rise to spiritual power, I really didn’t think it added much at all. If it was designed as a mechanism to make Allie seem like an unreliable narrator by suggesting that she experienced auditory hallucinations, it could have been done much more realistically and sensitively towards people who do experience that particular mental health issue (especially given Allie’s trauma). If it truly was intended to be a spiritual voice, I don’t think it achieved that either.

Anyway, I could continue but this review has really gotten quite long. I think that this is probably going to be a pretty divisive book. Some people are going to enjoy it, and some will be annoyed by it. For me, I think if you have such a good idea, why not be brave and push the boundaries a bit?

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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction