The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse – Jason Hazeley, Joel Morris

Zombie Apocalypse CoverSeries: Ladybirds for Grown-Ups
First Published: 20th October, 2016
Genre: Humour / Fictional Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon UK

The old Ladybird books covered a wide range of subjects for children. They were small books with hard covers, with the general layout of a page of text opposite a full page picture. People grew up with these books, which led to the adult realisation that there were some unintentionally funny things about them. Ladybird decided to get in on the action, by producing their own satirical versions for adults. This one tells grown-ups all about the zombie apocalypse.

My reference book for this review was Life of the Honey-bee, one of the genuine old Ladybird books for children. Funnily enough, one of the bee pictures is included in The Zombie Apocalypse. The pictures all look like they’re from the original books, but with new text to put them into an apocalyptic context.

The text is in the classic cheerful tone of the books. Some pages are more general, but many focus on a character and what they say or do. The language is simple, with a few short paragraphs on each page. Ladybird books did vary in how they were written (my bee book is a little more wordy and doesn’t focus on characters), but this is a reasonable reproduction of how the books were put together.

I liked the book’s opening statement that there are still interesting things to do after the zombie apocalypse. Also, that the police may be very busy. There’s a polite optimism about the end of times, as well as educational discussions about the nature of zombies. My favourite potential zombie cause was: “It could even be a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, but one that explodes mushrooms through your face and makes you eat everybody.”

There are some other nice touches when it comes to making this look like one of the old books. There were little series within the series, which were given a number. The bee book is part of Series 651, which had four books. This information was listed on the back. The zombie book has copied this, putting itself in Series 999 with five other pretend titles. Though if they really published The Martian Invasion or Giant Underground Worms, I’d be there.

Inclusion in the art is the same as the old Ladybird books. That means it’s mostly nice middle class white families. Everyone is dressed very neatly and they’re usually smiling (or looking horrified in an over-the-top way, which was not originally because the images were intended to be people thinking about zombies). There’s usually a father, mother, one son and one daughter. Boys often have dark hair and the girls are blonde. There is one black family and also some construction workers on one page, because that was as far as diversity went in the Ladybird era. Everyone else fits into a stereotype of the perfect British family, in the sort of way where you might wonder when someone was about to get murdered in the village. Ladybird books and cozy mysteries are really the only place this family exists.

It’s also notable that the few pictures rebranded as zombies, where there are people who are either shot or attackers, have darker skin. One shows tipi frames in the background and another looks like the zombies are wearing buckskin clothing. I’d assume they were originally intended as scenes of Native Americans, which is pretty messed up considering their skin is darkened in a way that looks distinctly unnatural. They’re not brown, but more of a greyish-black. They really do look more like zombies.

As someone who grew up reading these books, I appreciated the humour. I also think there’s something here to appeal to those who’ve never read a Ladybird book, as the satire works as a general poke at the way children’s books (and the apocalypse) are presented. However, it does make me reflect on how Ladybird books were very much products of their time in a bad way. The perfect stereotype family contrasted with everyone else was a common theme of the books. The racism in the imagery went largely without comment when I was younger. This is something that works as satire for adults, but it’s something I hope we leave behind for children.

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Tales from Perach – Shira Glassman

Tales from Perach CoverSeries: Mangoverse, #5
First Published: 19th July, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a collection of short stories linked to the main novel series. The original edition contained five stories. I read the updated edition, which also contains two stories previously published as Tales from Outer Lands. I haven’t read the novels, though mostly the stories worked on their own and had self-contained plots. An exception was “Every Us”, which came across as more of an extra scene for people who know the characters.

“Rivka in Port Saltspray” is the strongest in terms of standing alone. Rivka needs money, so ends up taking on a job to rescue a woman. I liked that Rivka and the woman she rescues use their shared faith to communicate: they don’t speak the same daily language, but do know the same stories and prayers. This is also the odd one out in the collection, as it has a fair bit of violence.

The rest of the stories had a generally lighter tone, though I didn’t always react to them in that way. There are microaggressions and threats, which made the stories where they appeared rather more uncomfortable. The one that particularly didn’t work for me was “Aviva and the Aliens”. It’s otherwise a very silly story about hungry locust aliens. But the aliens have all the same attitudes as the men on the planet below, so there’s a forced marriage threat. It changed the tone of the story with a jolt.

I enjoyed the domestic focus of many of the stories, such as running a business and family celebrations. “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” was a particularly fun story, about two children gathering flowers to surprise someone. There’s some interesting fairy lore in this one too.

Many of the characters are queer. This includes trans, bi, lesbian and gay characters. One story has an asexual aromantic supporting character. I appreciated seeing these characters getting to have happy endings. I also liked that their Jewish faith was shown in a positive light. Religion was part of their daily lives.

There’s a lot to like here, but I felt there was an overall mismatch between how I reacted to the stories and what was intended. These are billed as being fluffy, which I could see for some, but not for others. Situations where rape is threatened, leering and microaggressions are all things I find decidedly non-fluffy. It’s not graphic, but those themes are there in some stories.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time – Hope Nicholson (editor)

Anthology CoverFirst Published: 24th August, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Grace L. Dillon; Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair; Richard Van Camp; Cherie Dimaline; David A. Robertson; Daniel Heath Justice; Darcie Little Badger; Gwen Benaway; Mari Kurisato; Nathan Adler; Cleo Keahna
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This anthology focuses on Native American two-spirit and QUILTBAG stories. All authors are Native, but not all of them are QUILTBAG. It opens with an introduction from the editor, followed by two pieces that introduce the theme and a little bit about the history of two-spirit people. There are eight stories and one poem, so it’s a relatively short anthology.

There are a number of reoccurring themes. Nations sending out colonists into space is one, and is handled differently in each story that raises it. Another is what makes someone a member of a tribe. “Valediction at the Star View Motel ” (Nathan Adler) has a white girl who was adopted as a child, and “Imposter Syndrome” (Mari Kurisato) is about a non-human trying to get on a colony ship. Both stories share a similar theme, of the tribe viewing a person as a member for being part of the community, and the outside not wanting to acknowledge that. I also liked that “Imposter Syndrome” has an asexual aromantic character. It’s clear this is not because she’s non-human, as another non-human wants a relationship.

A number of the stories are romances. “Né łe!” (Darcie Little Badger) was my favourite of these, as it was about slowly getting to know someone, rather than love at first sight. The concept of transporting pet dogs for wealthy colonists was also fun. A more serious note to the story is about sovereignty, and the contrast between tribes when it comes to being able to maintain it. The Navajo Nation has its own space colony. Whereas the protagonist is Lipan Apache, and her family is forced to leave their farm, with no new home in the stars.

I liked the focus on a parent and child relationship in “Legends Are Made, Not Born” (Cherie Dimaline). Auntie Dave is raising the protagonist, which includes training in two-spirit community responsibilities. It shows ties between two-spirit people outside of sexual relationships, which really shouldn’t be as rare as it is in stories.

Though there are a lot of positive things, I didn’t like “Aliens” (Richard Van Camp). Unfortunately, this was the first story, so wasn’t a good start to the anthology for me. I did like how it was told as people verbally tell stories, but I had some concerns when it was suggested that Jimmy being a gentle person who wasn’t having relationships would mean his life was forgettable. As though it’s not a proper life without sexual relationships. And then once he does have a relationship, the shift is to making fun of his genitals. It’s implied he’s intersex, though even if that wasn’t the specific identity intended, he’s still going to be in one of the groups that frequently gets reduced to being a set of genitals. Those jokes do not feel like jokes to the person constantly on the receiving end of them. Had the story been told from Jimmy’s perspective, and not treated like it was funny, I might have reacted differently. But it was from the perspective of the people doing the laughing. It was presented as a warm and positive thing. Fortunately, it’s the only story in the anthology that isn’t from the perspective of a two-spirit person.

There is some representation across the QUILTBAG, though it’s stronger on LGT than the rest. Lesbians are particularly well represented. Others are less so. I do wish the one possible intersex character had not been handled that way. The binary-gendered language of some of the stories also stood out. This is talking about both genders, rather than all genders. It’s having male roles and female roles, but no room for other roles. Which is an odd choice when the focus is on two-spirit people.

Note that some stories contain descriptions of rape and assault (particularly “Imposter Syndrome”). The term halfbreed is used in a few stories. It’s in a reclaiming context, rather than being used as an insult, but still something mixed race people might want to know is coming in advance.

It’s generally a strong anthology, with a range of approaches to speculative fiction. There are stories where the speculative elements are very light, space adventures, and fantasy. It has cultural representations that do not fall into stereotypes and othering. The QUILTBAG content was mostly good, but there were areas where it was spotty.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]