Top Ten Tuesday: Lost in Space

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is all about books set in a particular place. Due to my recently conceived obsession with space-set stories, here’s a list of some of my favourite interplanetary tales.

Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman
One of my favourite books of the last year (maybe ever?); Illuminae was the book which made me seek out more books set in space, with its high-speed chases and AI villain. I really don’t know if I can wait until October for Gemina.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This is one of my dad’s favourite books and he lent me his copy to read when I was a teenager; I swiftly wolfed down the whole series and have reread them a couple of times since, finding them just as hilarious each time. Marvin the depressed robot and the Vogons with their terrible poetry are highlights.

The Loneliness of Distant Beings by Kate Ling
This YA space fantasy came out earlier this year and is well-worth a read; it has a really interesting premise in which a whole society exists on a spacecraft, having taken on a mission generations ago, meaning the younger residents have never seen life off the ship.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
This has a distinctly Hitchhiker’s-esque air in terms of humour, with a crew consisting of both humans and aliens on a mission across the galaxy. I did wish there had actually been a proper ending, but I’ll be picking up the next book in the series to see what happens next.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
An intriguing novel about another planet, populated by the descendants of a crew from Earth who crashed there. It’s slow to start with, but the exploration of a strange planet makes this an interesting read.

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
I love this author; his books are hilarious and the kids I teach have enjoyed studying both this and Millions. Cosmic is about a primary school boy who accidentally goes into space when his height means he’s mistaken for a grown-up. It’s both silly and touching; FCB’s trademark.

Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars by Jeff Lemire
This graphic novel focuses on AI and features further exciting whizzing through space. I really enjoyed the artwork as well as the story; I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.

This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger
If you weren’t a teenage girl in the 1990s, you might not have heard of Paula Danziger, in which case I feel deeply sorry for you. Just writing her name makes me want to reread all her books (they are very short, so I might). This one is about a teenage girl who is forced to move to the moon with her family. Of all Danziger’s brilliant books, this was always my favourite.

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
This and its follow-up, This Shattered World, are both excellent space-set romances; These Broken Stars is my favourite of the two because it’s more space-oriented and, obviously, because of the relationship between Tarver and Lilac, both of whom I love . I’ve not yet read the third in the series, Their Fractured Light, but I’m looking forward to doing so.

Winnie in Space by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
My daughter is a big fan of Winnie and her bemused cat, Wilbur; in this one, Winnie magics a spaceship which is inconveniently eaten by space rabbits.

Honourable mentions go to the section of Max Brooks’ World War Z which is set on the international space station (the best bit in an extraordinary book), Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day and Marcus Sedgwick’s If Only In My Dreams, a contribution to the UKYA anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, all of which are awesome representations of space in literature.

If you have any space-set recommendations for me, I would love to see them in the comments.

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Review: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

underground airlinesUnderground Airlines has a unique premise, which can basically be summed up as follows: what if the American Civil War never happened?  The answer to that question, according to Ben H. Winters’ novel, is that slavery would still exist in four southern states, tolerated by the rest of the Union because it’s easy to ignore. The story is told by a “freed” slave now working as a bounty hunter for a shady government agency, tracking down escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. It would, presumably, be called alternate history, apart from the fact that it takes place in the present.

If you’re interested in reading an intriguing and well-paced thriller with a bit of mystery thrown in, Underground Airlines is worth picking up. There are a number of good twists to keep the reader engaged, and the depiction of subterfuge and the protagonist’s increasing lack of comfort with his own actions are well-developed. If you enjoyed Stephen King’s 11.22.63, there’s a really strong chance you’ll like Underground Airlines; it’s very similar in terms of its main character, subplots and propulsive conclusion.

My problem is that I didn’t like 11.22.63, and once I realised how much Underground Airlines shares with it, I couldn’t help but make comparisons. The narrator of Winters’ novel (who I keep calling ‘the narrator’ because his name changes so many times in the story) is, like King’s, not particularly interesting, and the cursory addition of a female character to add obstacles to the solving of the plot in both books was a huge source of irritation to me. I really wanted to like Underground Airlines; I’m a fan of alternate history, but I’m not sure the use of historical concepts works here. For me (and surely everyone), a key part of successful alternate history is that the fictional concept has to be believable and, maybe I’m just very naive, but the continuing existence of slavery in the 21st century just wasn’t convincing. I also found myself pondering what purpose a narrative in which slavery does still exist and the rest of the US and, indeed, the world, are prepared to turn a blind eye. I believe that a really tight, convincing alternate history could highlight continuing racial conflict; I just don’t think that Underground Airlines is that book.

Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

nevernight.pngThe review I was drafting in my head a quarter of the way into Nevernight bears very little resemblance to the review I’m writing having finished it. After a couple of chapters, I wasn’t feeling it and, having checked on Goodreads, I discovered I wasn’t alone. But, of all my negative qualities (and there are a lot), being a quitter isn’t one of them and I’m glad about that because it was pretty awesome in the end.

The problem with Nevernight’s early chapters is largely that they are quite impenetrable; dense with description, detail-heavy and featuring a number of footnotes which seems excessive, it was hard to get into. To begin with, the narrative switches between Mia Corvere’s past and present; in the former, she witnesses the destruction of her family, while in the latter, she’s hellbent on revenge through joining a school for assassins. Put like that, it seems a lot more straightforward than it appeared when I was reading it. (I should probably also point out that I was reading a couple of chapters a night just before going to sleep, which definitely wasn’t the best way to experience this book).

Mia has to overcome a number of obstacles in order to join the Red Church, but, once she’s there, the plot really gets going and I found it all very exciting. Gruesome, but exciting. The Red Church is a kind of psychotic Hogwarts; if you can imagine a Hogwarts in which Snape was genuinely trying to kill everyone in Potions and the scariest person there was the school nurse, you’re pretty much there. The apprentices of the Church compete in some crazy challenges (those of them who don’t die in the process, anyway), in a trope which is very familiar but still enthralling. The idea of the Red Church is bound up with the slightly confusing religious set-up of Nevernight; essentially, I think there’s a god of light and a goddess of dark and people who follow the goddess are heretics, or something. The novel takes its title from the conceit that there are three suns in this odd version of early modern Italy (a version where everyone swears like a top-level footballer), so it’s hardly ever night. I thought this aspect was a bit underdeveloped; the title gave me the impression that the idea of ‘nevernight’ would be central, but it isn’t really. I have some questions though; for example, if it was never night, wouldn’t everyone go insane quite quickly? Anyway, it’s a cool idea which will perhaps be developed more in the rest of the trilogy.

Nevernight is really violent – like, Tarantino-levels of blood and gore – and features a really long description of oral sex; for these reasons, I don’t know how far it can really be seen as YA. In fairness, the very first sentence of the novel is “people often shit themselves when they die, did you know that?” which gives a pretty clear indication of the level of detail to be provided in describing even the most taboo of subjects. There’s nothing chaste or subtle about Nevernight, but its brashness is what sets it apart from the fantasy series it might be compared with; Throne of Glass, for example, features a similarly ruthless yet bookish young, female assassin and, in a move familiar to everyone on the planet, Mia appears to own what could be described as an invisibility cloak, while the set-up of the Red Church reminded me of the similarly psychotic school in Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. I don’t mean to suggest that Nevernight is particularly derivative of these other books, but there are touchstones here for the YA fantasy reader.

Jay Kristoff looks and Tweets like a rock star, and Nevernight shows that he writes like one too. The prologue that introduces us all to the excretions of the dead also tells us “your narrator shares no such restraint,” so it’s not like the reader isn’t warned of what will follow. The best rock stars push the boundaries, perhaps even producing things which are hard to listen to – think Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which showed an artist doing whatever the fuck he wanted just because he could, or the more bombastic songs of Led Zeppelin, showing off how good they were just because they could too – and I enjoyed that kind of cocksure confidence that runs through Nevernight. It’s definitely worth sticking with and now I want the second book in the series. Seriously, now.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Heroines

This week’s TTT is a rewind week, so I’ve scrolled through The Broke and The Bookish for past topics and decided to think about my favourite heroines.

Bathsheba Everdene from Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
How many times do I need to bang on about this book? I love Bathsheba; she’s a total feminist, ages before feminism was even a thing, with her lack of interest in marriage and refusal to let a man boss her around. Even when she does marry, she does it because she just feels like it. She rules.

Willowdean from Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
Will is fat and basically gives no fucks whether people have a problem with that. Dumplin‘ is a book I want to cuddle so I might absorb some of its immense gloriousness.

Eponine from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Oh look, another book I mention approximately every seven seconds. Eponine is ace; she deals with her horrible family, sleeps in trees and ends up in a loving but revolutionary relationship with my other favourite from this book, Enjolras. Okay, so some of that actually only happens in my brain rather than in the actual book.

Mina Harker from Dracula by Bram Stoker
For the millionth time, I love Mina. She plays a classic feminine role in Dracula, by which I mean the men think all she can do is take notes but actually she survives vampire attacks, keeps an eye on everyone and manages not to go crazy despite doing all the work.

Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Becky Sharp might not be the nicest character in fiction but she is pretty much the best one; she’s got her eyes on the prize and, if she has to upset everyone to get that prize, she will do it anyway.

Amani from Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
This book is one of my favourite YA reads this year and Amani is a big part of that; she’s an excellent feminist role model, risking death to avoid marrying an old dude and then taking names through the whole book.

All the girls from Front Lines by Michael Grant
Rio, Frangie and Rainy (and Rio’s friend whose name I cannot currently remember) are all consummate badasses in their own ways; their different roles in WW2 in Grant’s alternate history novel are inspiring. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Memory from The Book of Memory by Pettina Gappah
I only read this recently, so Memory is still in my thoughts; this is a completely brilliant novel which I reviewed here. She’s a superb narrator who seems to be unreliable at times, combining witty commentary with retelling the tragic events of her life.

Lila Bard from A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
While reading these two books, I’ve felt a growing sense of sadness that Lila isn’t actually real which means she will never be my best friend. She’s so brave and funny and takes no crap from anyone. She gives me goals.

Patricia from All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I read this at the start of the year and remain slightly obsessed with it. Patricia is gloriously weird but manages to make something of her pariah status. I feel a strong urge to read this again. My review is here if you’re interested.

Who are your favourite heroines? Maybe they’re EXACTLY THE SAME AS MINE and we’re actually sharing a brain. I’m looking forward to seeing which random topics everyone picks this week, so please leave me a link in the comments.