Review- Nothing is Strange

Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell

4/5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 144
Publisher: CreateSpace
Publication date: December 31, 2015

25099252A man called Dunce who is bald with a pointed head, a couple who wishes that their genitals would fall off, and a clone who gets locked up in a shed, are all different types of people who make appearances in Nothing is Strange. The 20 short stories exist in their own fantastical lands that each have their own special laws of physics. What happens when right arms are nonexistent or the act of crying is never heard of? These things are just normal occurrences in Mike Russell’s writings.

Earlier this year, I was gifted a copy of Mike Russell’s other book, Strange Medicine. It was the first short collection in a long time that I actually enjoyed. I went into Nothing is Strange with high expectations and I was not disappointed. Thank you to the Strange Books team forsending me this title!

Mike Russell has a brain similar to Douglas Adams’. His stories make almost no sense at all, which actually makes them sort of make sense. He begins each short story in a world with at least one strange concept and then builds off of that with seemingly random events and characters. Reading his work is almost like riding a roller coaster, except you can’t see and don’t know where all the curves and drops are. Although, I don’t like roller coasters, but I liked Nothing is Strange.

My favorite thing about these short stories is that most of them don’t make any sense until the last paragraph or last sentence. Or in some cases, the stories don’t make any sense and the last sentence makes even less sense. For example, “Lesley Visits the Barber” ends with “thus beginning the universe”. While reading the story, I had no idea where I would end up, but the beginning of the universe was not it. I haven’t read a book that blindsided me so many times since finishing the “Dirk Gently” series a few years ago. That’s truly saying something about Mike Russell’s writing technique.

I also want to comment on the story length, as I think it says a lot. The stories range from 3 to 9 pages. That is not very much room to develop a made-up world and characters. The fact that Mike Russell can give enough detail and context for a reader to imagine the setting of each story is amazing. While reading Nothing is Strange, I never felt confused due to the short length of the book.

It’s clear to me that it takes quite a bit of talent to successfully write a collection of short stories such as Nothing is Strange. I’m so honored that Strange Books sent me a copy of this title in exchange for an honest review. It was such an enjoyable read for me, as I love science fiction. If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you’ll love this book.

Review- A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

4.5/5 stars

Binding: Hardcover
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: October 20th, 2016
Page count: 365

29475447Lovelace is learning to navigate to her body kit, something that she doesn’t consider part of her ‘self”, since she is really a program running inside of it. She is getting used to her new home with Pepper and Blue and they are getting used to having her, as they’ve had to make many changes to keep her comfortable. Lovelace doesn’t understand why Pepper is so adamant that she can survive in a kit; She feels like it’s not possible due to the way she was programmed specifically for a ship. She has no idea how Pepper grew up and what AI’s were in her life from a young age. Slowly, Lovelace learns to function in her new world and Pepper opens up about her dark upbringing.

I’ve loved Becky Chambers since I got through the first 10 pages of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last year. The way she creates and describes alien cultures is so real. Honestly, it makes you feel like these species have been around your whole life, not that you’re just learning about them now.

In her last book, I loved the way Becky Chambers played around with gender. Some of the alien creatures she describes change genders throughout different periods of their lives. This also means that their pronouns change many times in the book. A Closed and Common Orbit was no different. Tak, one of Lovelace’s friends, changes from female to male. No one questions it or struggles with the pronoun change. Tak just is Tak and everyone adjusts to the way their identity changes. I think Chambers does an amazing job showing that gender is a social construct and, also, that it is completely different from sex. In addition, everyone is assigned gender-neutral pronouns until they indicate their gender or pronoun preferences. This kind of trans-inclusive language is key for transgender folx to feel safe and respected, and it really makes the reader think about the preconceptions we hold about people before getting to know them in our own society.

Becky Chambers completely has the sci-fi formula down pat. She includes everything you need in a well written, page turning, science fiction novel. Some of these ingredients include a system of unique planets that house different species, space travel, artificial intelligence, alien cultures, and alien relationships. I have yet to come across another author who completes their sci-fi formula so efficiently. I swear, I could give A Closed and Common Orbit to anyone, even those who don’t enjoy classic science fiction novels, and they’d enjoy it. She really knows what she’s doing.

Lastly, I want to point out the way Lovelace is treated– as a character. Yes, she’s a spaceship program loaded into a body kit. Yes, she’s not considered a full human in her world and is technically committing a crime by merely existing. Despite all this, Chambers treats her like a ‘real’ person and gives her the same existence as everyone else in the book. I know AI’s aren’t really part of diverse reading, but it was comparable, in my mind. Giving someone, who society considers a less-than, the same opportunities in a story as the rest of the characters is what queer characters, characters of color, and characters suffering from chronic illnesses want to see in literature. I know it’s not the same, but I felt really good reading A Closed and Common Orbit for this reason (and many others outlined in this review!).

Just as I expected, I absolutely loved this book. It’s definitely different from her first book, considering most of the plot takes place on a planet and not space, but that’s not a bad thing in the slightest. I will continue to support Becky Chambers throughout all of her works, as I recognize the importance of the way she treats gender, in addition to the extraordinary way she describes alien species and their behaviors. If you’re looking for an outstanding science fiction novel, this is it.

Review: Ascension

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

177512745/5 stars 

“Pain is just the world wanting us to pay attention to it because we’re so damned beautiful it can’t stand being ignored.”

Alana Quick is stuck; she repairs spaceship engines for a living and doesn’t make enough to pay for the advanced medication she needs for her chronic pain. Her and her aunt Lai both suffer from a disease, Mel’s, that puts their bodies under enormous stress and pain when they don’t take medication. Alana dreams of being able to afford treatments for her and Lai someday, and the only thing she needs is a steady job. The opportunity finally arises when Alana gets a visit from a spaceship captain in search of her sister. Alana makes the gut decision to stow away on the ship in hopes that, once they are far enough away, the crew will be forced to keep her on board for the remainder of their current mission. This is Alana’s only chance at making a better life for her and her aunt, maybe the crew of this ship can understand that and take her onboard as an engineer.

WOW. This book has a mix of everything I’ve ever wanted. It has a space ship, a crew of multi-alien-cultures, a main character of color with a disability, and many queer characters whose plot lines don’t revolve around being queer. If this sounds like something you’d love, like it does for me, read on!

Sidenote: This book is VERY comparable to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I loved both books and would recommend them to basically anyone who likes science fiction.

Ascension is full of diversity. One of my favorite parts about science fiction is getting to read about new, unique alien cultures and species, and Jacqueline Koyanagi really incorporated that into this book. Really, all of the characters ware anthropomorphic (mostly,,,), but all of them are from different cultures and go through life with unique things in mind. The author really does an amazing job portraying that they all have their own sets of values and beliefs about how the world works. Often, it’s hard to give each character their own personhood, especially when there are many individuals in a regular length novel, but Jacqueline does it very well.

This is the first adult book I’ve read that really puts chronic illness and pain in the spotlight. It’s a very easy thing to get wrong, by trivializing it or romanticizing it, but when it’s done right, it is done RIGHT. Alana is an independent woman with a strong work ethic and heart full of determination. In addition, she also suffers from a chronic illness. This disease, Mel’s, acts up unexpectedly. Alana has some good days and some not so good days, just like a real person with chronic pain. When Alana has flare-ups, she takes her medication as prescribed and works through it. Seeing her push through the horrible pain and tremors is heartbreaking because real people suffering with real invisible illnesses experience this all the time. I think it’s very important to normalize books that have main characters with disabilities because actual people like that are EVERYWHERE.

I also want to mention the representation of people of color in Ascension. Many books introduce characters by giving a physical description—hair color, skin tone, and clothing style. Ascension does this by mentioning that Alana pulls her “locs” back out of her face and the dark complexion of her skin. The thing that this book does that most others don’t is that it doesn’t let the reader forget that Alana is a person of color. Her locs, the texture of her hair, and the color of her skin are all mentioned multiple times. Jacqueline did not write Alana and just add on the fact that she’s a person of color, she wrote Alana AS a person of color. This is so important for representation.

Everything about this book was an A+ for me– The characters, the storylines, the writing, and the takeaways. It’s everything you could ever want from a sci fi book. This book made me happy in so many ways but there are two I want to highlight: Ascension does an amazing job portraying what it’s like to live with a chronic illness and it successfully uses minorities (sexuality and race wise) as more than just plot devices. Thank you, Jacqueline Koyanagi, for this brilliant book.