Review: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

spaceman of bohemia.pngThe Premise: in an effort to escape the legacy of his politically derided father, Jakub undertakes a mission into space to investigate a strange dust cloud covering Venus. But the glory of being an astronaut is undercut by the impact his mission and newfound fame have on his marriage, as well as his sanity.

After penetrating the cloud, I was to gather samples with the help of Ferda, the most sophisticated piece of Space engineering to ever come from Central Europe, and study them inside my custom designed lab on the way back to Earth. This was the reason the Space Program of the Czech Republic had recruited me, a tenured professor of astrophysics and accomplished researcher of space dust at Univerzita Karlova. They had trained me for spaceflight, basic aerospace engineering, and suppression of nausea in zero gravity. They asked if I would take the mission even if there was a chance of no return. I accepted.

Thoughts: I’m not sure I even have the vocabulary to explain how wonderful Spaceman of Bohemia is. It’s dense and complex, particularly at the beginning, when significant amounts of background detail are almost dazzling. As if a plot about an experienced astronaut from the Czech Republic isn’t different and engaging enough, there’s a backdrop of complicated political drama too, with Jakub’s late father having played an unpopular role in a hated regime. In flashbacks, the narrative shows us the ways in which this affected Jakub both as a child and an adult. The combination of imaginative sci-fi with politics and family tragedy is irresistible; I was utterly enthralled by the story from start to finish.

The parts of the story set during Jakub’s ill-fated space mission are reminiscent of the film Moon, which I really liked; being alone in such an unimaginably unfamiliar environment has understandable effects on Jakub’s psyche, and his own questionable grip on reality means the reader can never be sure how ‘true’ his account of events is. I’ve seen Spaceman of Bohemia compared to The Martian too, which I can’t comment on as I haven’t read or watched it (I started the book but it appeared to be all about potatoes, so I parked it on the ‘maybe another time’ shelf). My feeling is that Spaceman of Bohemia is entirely its own thing: so original and stunning that it’s almost unbelievable.

In Conclusion: guess what? I loved this book. Have I mentioned that? It’s so different to most of what I read, so complex and sophisticated, such an enthralling narrative with absorbing characters. It’s going to the top of my list of best books about space.


Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Additions to My Poetry TBR

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, asks us to list the ten books from a particular genre we’ve recently added to our TBRs. Due to my eclectic tastes, I’ve been adding all kinds of random books to my ‘want’ lists, so I’m going to focus on poetry because I can realistically pretend that’s a genre.

100 Days by Juliane Okot Bitek
This is about the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It sounds harrowing but like the kind of thing that changes your whole mentality by reading it.

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi
A debut collection of poems by a Zambian-born poet, this covers, according to one review, “black boyhood, masculinity and grief.”

The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage
Armitage is the not-so-secret crush of all the female English teachers in my department and this is just one reason I want to read this, his eleventh collection of poems.

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank
I’ve recently got really into verse novels and this is another one. It’s about the developing friendship between two teenage girls sharing a hospital room.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong was born in Saigon in 1988 before moving to the US as a young child. He’s described in one review as “the Walt Whitman of Vietnamese American literature” and I’m intrigued.

American Ace by Marilyn Nelson
This has been on my radar for ages; it’s an exploration of American history and race through the experiences of a teenage boy who discovers the man he thought was his father actually isn’t. It’s another verse novel.

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry
My reasons for wanting this are slightly superficial; I have a weird love for these simple Faber and Faber covers and the colours on this one appeal to me. It focuses on grief and is Berry’s second collection of poems.

Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins
This is another verse novel, this time focusing on a half Native American, half African American sculptor working in the years following the Civil War. It sounds like nothing I’ve read before.

Silencer by Marcus Wicker
Influenced by hip-hop, this poetry collection is described as being set in “Marcus Wicker’s Midwest, where the muzzle is always on and where silence and daily microaggressions can chafe away at the faith of a young man grieved by images of gun violence and police brutality in twenty-first century America.” Whew. It sounds really amazing.

New American Best Friend by Olivia Gatwood
I am trying really hard not to buy books until I’ve read a chunk of the millions I’ve bought this year, but this one is testing my resolve. I saw a video of Gatwood performing a poem called ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’  (I’m linking to her website here because I think this needs to be watched) and it blew my mind; I love it when I find a poem that so perfectly captures my own feelings. I might actually go and order this now. I have no self-control.

Have you read any of these or do you now feel a tremendous urge to do so? If you have any recommendations for me, please fire away (although be aware that I read The Princess Saves Herself in This One and hated it, and am sworn off that style of poetry forever).

YA Review: October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson

october is the coldest monthPremise: 16 year old Vega has to to find her older brother before the police do, after he was involved in a terrible crime. In their rural Swedish community, it’s easy to hide the truth, because nobody’s talking, other than to say vaguely menacing things. In amongst trying to find her brother and dodge local weirdos, Vega harbours feelings for a boy who doesn’t seem particularly bothered.

Thoughts: in my search for more obscure YA, I was excited to read some Scandi-noir and this book was very different to anything else I’ve read in YA. Carlsson does an amazing job of building atmosphere; as Vega journeyed around her locale, I felt absorbed in the setting and creepy, foreboding ambience. The dialogue is so clipped and frosty, adding to the general sense of isolation. It was all pretty cool.

I was all set to recommend this book to the teens I teach and was building up to a really positive review, but one thing about October is the Coldest Month that I was unhappy with; I was surprised by the amount of sexual content and this means I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable recommending this book to the young adults I teach (most of the keen readers I work with are 14/15 and I think they’d be uncomfortable with parts of the book). I’m not a prude (okay, that’s not true. I am kind of a prude but am forced to confront this in many of the books I read, so I can live with it) but Vega’s willingness to describe her intimate encounters – and those of her mother – in explicit detail made me squirm.

It’s a very short book, which is advantageous to one’s Goodreads challenge and certainly creates a sense of pace towards the end, as the mystery is resolved although I felt like it was a little rushed. I’m hard to please though.

Conclusion: if you’re looking for a change from the norm in your YA reading, October is the Coldest Month is an intriguing choice. Its Swedish setting sets it apart, along with its gritty, dingy subject matter and characters. It’s a really different kind of contemporary read; I had a few reservations about it, but it’s refreshing to read something that strikes such a contrasting note.

6 Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

Welcome to 6 Degrees of Separation, my favourite monthly-book-linking-feature, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Kate names a book; we come up with a chain of 6 more books based on very sensible/barely comprehensible links. It’s fun.

This month’s starter book is Shopgirl by Steve Martin, which I read specifically for this feature and really disliked. I could say that it was really reductive in its attitudes towards women, but this wouldn’t quite do justice to a book which is reductive in its attitudes towards everyone. All humans should be vaguely offended by this book.

Anyway, I’m linking it to something less objectionable: Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, which is about a book shop so obviously it’s good. I don’t actually remember anything else about it. Oh well.

One of the meanings of the word “penumbra” is, apparently, “a space of partial illumination (as in an eclipse) between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light.” This, along with the book shop theme, links me to The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which is partly set in the cemetery of lost books, A.K.A. my dream home. This book’s main appeal is that it’s set in Barcelona, which is one of my most favourite places, and I get really excited every time Zafon mentions somewhere I recognise.

Barcelona is what takes me to my next link: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell is a big man in Barcelona; I have eaten croissants in Plaça George Orwell, which actually has no connection to him at all, but I do quite like seeing his name.

Orwell’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which inspired Homage to Catalonia, makes me follow a revolutionary tangent; recently I read Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, set during the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia. It’s a fairly harrowing account of a family’s attempts to stay alive and out of trouble (or in the middle of the trouble, depending on which character we’re talking about) and it’s very much worth reading.

The rioting and chaos of Ethiopia in Mengiste’s novel takes me to something more current: Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which has been very deservedly talked about extensively on Twitter and lots of book blogs. Thomas’ protagonist, Starr, is caught up in the murder of a friend by a police officer and then the riots that come after, and it’s terrifying to even read, let alone considering it’s very much based on real life.

I’m going to stick with the idea of street riots for my last link and big-up Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa, set during Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests. It’s another really powerful and remarkable novel, and one which I like mentioning just because it’s really good and everyone should read it.

Have you participated in 6 Degrees? I’d love to see your chains. Have you read any of these books? Do you too think Shopgirl is really terrible and that Steve Martin should stick to over-reacting about weddings?*

*I bloody love Father of the Bride, by the way.