Adoara, a marine biologist, Anthony, a famous rapper, and Agu, a soldier who's gotten into trouble for not condoning a superior sexually assaulting a civilian, all met on Lagos' Bar Beach when the aliens arrive on earth. The three of them are weighted down by their own personal problems, but those have to be laid aside as they are pulled under by a tidal wave and spat back out together with an extra-terrestrial being named Ayodele. Lagos is already in a state of great upheaval and the presence of the alien guests, once the fact leaks out, does not help matters. Regardless what happens, nothing will ever be the same again.
In her acknowledgments, Okorafor thanks the 2009 science fiction movie District 9 "for both intriguing and pissing me off so much that I started daydreaming about what aliens would do in Nigeria. This novel was birthed from my anger at District 9, but it quickly became something else entirely." While any overt references to the movie are, as far as I can tell, missing from the finished story, Okorafor provides a telling as well as amusing commentary on how western-centric most science fiction (as well as popular culture at large) is when more than one character bewilderedly asks whether the aliens are lost and if they weren't supposed to end up in New York instead. It is funny, but it also says a lot about how extremely narrow the focus of SF stories and popular culture is when the idea of aliens on Earth is easier to accept than that they would land anywhere but in USA.
Lagoon is a fascinating first contact story, focusing less on the aliens themselves, who remain somewhat obscure both in shape and motives throughout the novel, and more on humanity response to their presence. Many flee from Lagos in fear, but others are more inclined on using the alien presence to their own advantage - to gain money, recognition, fame, power or acceptance. Adoara, Agu and Anthony try to aid Ayodele in her mission to help Lagos heal itself, but it is not so easily done with the country caught up in a state of crisis.
While the focus remains on the three protagonists, several chapters are narrated by other characters which allows for Okorafor to capture how Lagos and its population responds to the presence of the aliens. It is not only the people that is affected, but also the animals, the sea, the roads and even the air itself. Usually I find the use of multiple one-time POV's unnecessary and messy, but Okorafor pulls it off really well, making every character and every voice feel unique and integral to the story, rather than just there to provide a specific clue to the plot. Some of the narrators are somewhat unexpected, which makes it interesting - especially in the first chapter that, thanks to an unconventional narrator in the shape of a swordfish, manages to immediately pull the reader in.
What the story lacks, however, are fully fleshed out protagonists. That Ayodele and her kin remains obscure I can contend with, but, apart from Adoara, the main characters are all a little too flat, and as such becomes rather uninteresting. It is just one flaw in an otherwise great novel, but it becomes a major one when the swordfish narrating one chapter is a more engaging character than the majority of the story's protagonists.
To conclude, the paper-thin characters is a small problem in an otherwise great novel. I am admittedly very partial to any kind of science fiction story that takes place in or focuses on the big blue sea (other noteworthy ocean-themed SF works are Peter Watts' Starfish and Seanan McGuire's short story "Each to Each"), but even putting the beautifully rendered setting aside, Lagoon is an imaginative and well-written first contact novel. I highly recommend it.
So what if the temperatures are a bit lower than what you'd like for this time of the year? So what if the shelves are a-bursting with books you haven't found the time to read (yet - always yet - hope eternally does spring after all!)? I say it is high time to start planning that favourite activity I like to call "summer reading". Which is basically reading, which is when you think about it really as everyday as, say, brushing your teeth, only way more fun. Still, there is something special about planning the books you hope to read during those all too brief days of relative freedome, isn't there? Here are some of the books I intend to read this summer (actually, I hope to read a great deal more).
THE BRAND NEW (IN FACT, HARDLY EVEN PUBLISHED)
First of all, you do know that Caitlin Moran has a novel out in July, don't you? Described as "The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease", this is surely one of this summer's most anticipated releases. I nearly laughed myself comatose/incontinent/silly/all of the above while reading How to Build a Girl, so can't wait for this!
In recent years, Jennifer Weiner has gone from the most promising voice of chick lit to one of the most promising voices of lit, period. I am in awe of, not to mention all girlcrushily in luurve in, pretty much all her protagonists. All Fall Down is out 17 June.
Ooh, and when we talk about love: obviously, I will be throwing myself at the new Dublin Murder Squad installment by the always fabulous Tana French, The Secret Place, in August. She is one of those writers that just keep getting slightly better with each new novel: Broken Harbour was breathtaking in its dark, tragic complexity.
This year's finest moment in books simply must have been when a certain bookseller – you know who you are – managed to get me a signed advance copy of Sarah Waters' upcoming novel The Paying Guests at a London Bookfair do. I will be reading it in my garden, savouring every word, and yes, you may envy me.
Speaking of Caitlin Moran: she's quickly becoming one of my most trusted blurbers, along with previous champs such as Harlan Coben, Stephen King (he led me straight to Gillian Flynn and Sharp Objects, for which I shall always be grateful), and Jennifer Weiner. When Caitlin blurbs stuff like "I wish I'd written this book", I – and needless to say a faithful legion of Caitlin fan girls around the globe – are bound to take note. Also, Emma Jane Unsworth's Animals is apparently about hedonistic literary party girls, something that I occasionally fancy myself to be in, you know, an alternate universe without 5 pm fish finger dinners and crack of dawn caffeinated Disney marathons. (Aw, delusion, that fickle friend.)
Another recently published must read is Sadie Jones' The Fallout, set in the 1970's London acting world. Loved her debut The Outcast, found her second novel Small Wars intriguing, if not as stellar as its processor, haven't actually got around to reading The Uninvited Guests yet but undoubtedly will, at some point. I plead "too many books, too little time".
There was so much gritty promise, so much gloriously unpretty (which, obviously, means pretty) writing in So Much Pretty that I immediately put Cara Hoffman on my "to watch" list. Her latest effort, Be Safe, I Love You, has received nothing but rave reviews and deal with military service, small town life, and relentless love. Colour me intrigued.
This year's most talked of novel in the Swedish literary world is, refreshingly enough given our society's general obsession with everything five minutes ahead, a novel that was written in the early 1960's. All the buzz around John Williams' cult novel Stoner, which was recently published in Swedish, has got me curious. (I will be reading it in English, of course.)
What is it about summer that makes me want to re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald? Apart from a certain balmy-evening-in-Long-Island-feel, a certain slant of light, the taste of icy cold Martinis on one's lips, I wholeheartedly attribute Donna Tartt to my sudden desire to re-read The Great Gatsby. She mentioned it as one of her all-time favourite novels during her publicity stint in Stockholm a few weeks ago, which made me realise that I haven't read it since school.
These are some of the books that I intend to hang with this summer, but needless to say, other titles will emerge: from the dusty depths of my bookshelves, from a certain bookshop, from sheer serendipity... And that, my friends, is just how I like my summer reading. Make a plan, then make room for more.
Nicola Griffith is likely to most people, or at least to readers of this blog, known as the author of the sf-novels Ammonite and Slow River, but her latest novel is a historical one. It takes place in seventh century Britain, centring on the historical figure of Hilda of Whitby, a Christian saint. In Hild, Griffith envisions what Hilda's childhood might have been – the book begins when Hild is three years old and is the first instalment in her journey towards sainthood of a planned trilogy.
Before Hild's birth her mother, Berguswith, dreamt of her child being a great jewel shining light over the world and Hild learns from an early age that she is, as her mother explains to her, the light of the world. Berguswith teaches Hild to be ever watchful and attentive, in order to be able read and understand people and to understand what is happening in the world around her. After she has been widowed and her children orphaned, Berguswith places her daughter in King Edwin's court, making her his seer. The young Hild uses her knowledge of the world and people to prophesy everything from weather to victories for him, securing her own and her family's safety and future. But the world around them is changing: small kingdoms are merging, King Edwin reaches for more power and more land and foreign priests begin to arrive, bringing with them a new religion called Christianity. In this power struggle Hild becomes an important player, using her influence and uncanny abilities to weave together political alliances, ensure victories and defeat in battle and shape even life and death.
Hild is above all a gorgeously written and richly imagined novel. Griffith's extensive research combined with her storytelling abilities has created an absorbing read that brings this, to me, little known period to sprawling, glorious life. Ironically enough, considering that the novel is historical fiction, it many times reminded me of why I used to like epic fantasy so much with its massive amount of characters and storylines, the obligatory frontispiece of a map, and all the political intrigues and bloody battles. While the novel does not include any strictly supernatural phenomena (even though it, upon occasion, flirts with the supernatural), it does introduce many words and concepts that are new to most readers and Griffith manages to make what is often an unfamiliar world intelligible to me more deftly than many fantasy authors.
The main focus of the story, however, remains on Hild – not only as the king's seer, but also as a small girl growing into a young woman learning to navigate power, femininity and sexuality in a frequently difficult world. To the reader, Hild comes across somewhat eerie but at the same time as thoroughly human; while gifted with unusual powers of perception and constantly caught up in the intrigues and battles over the British isle, she is above all struggling to keep herself and her loved ones safe in the midst of King Edwin's ever-changing court.
Admittedly, I'm still hoping for more science fiction from Griffith, but in the meantime I will gladly contend with the promise of two more Hild-novels.
To me, spring hasn't really arrived until I have managed to get my paws on the latest Harlan Coben standalone. This has become a ritual of some ten odds years: me reading Coben while watching the White Witch slowly yet mercilessly thawing. Ever the stickler for a good ritual, me, it goes without saying that I've already read this year's standalone, Missing You. This time, the protoganist is – somewhat gasp worthy given the general, um, guyness of Coben's oeuvre – female, but despite this, things are very much recognisable in Coben land. NYPD detective Kat Donovan – good cop, loner, heartbroken over the death of her father year back, fan of the plonk – begrudgingly finds herself on an online dating site one booze-fuelled night. Out of the blue, a very familiar face appears. It is that of Jeff, her fiancé who broke her heart some eighteen years ago. Soon Kat finds herself up to her ears in a sordid affair where the bad guys prey on the most vulnerable of hearts. Meanwhile, details of her father's murder come spinning back with a vengeance. What does it all mean? Well, I will let you find out for yourself. Suffice it to say that you're in for a bumpy ride... again. Otherwise it just wouldn't be Harlan Coben writing.
Coben's books are as eerily similar as they are unputdownable. I always devour them, racing through the pages in a near-bulimic fashion. Later, the last page turned, the first spring flowers detected out in the garden, I always find myself thinking "was that in the last one, or am I thinking about another Harlan Coben novel?". Flawed but sympathetic protagonists, twisty events, mobsters and kidnappings are abundant in the darkly alluring world of Coben – as are, in the latest two books, remote farmhouses where evildoings take place. I sort of saw the ending coming here – parts of it, anyway – but that didn't stop me from having a grand old time all the way through. I tend to judge a book's page turning qualities by the amount of time spent in the bath reading it. In the case of Missing You, I went through nearly 200 pages in the bathtub, ending up all cold and wrinkly. Perhaps last year's standalone, Six Years, was slightly better but take it from me: Coben definitely still has it.
This Is Where I Am (Karen Campbell)
I was a massive fan of Campbell's dark and gritty Glaswegian police novels starring Anna Cameron and must admit to a certain degree of alarm when I learned that she would be changing genres entirely. No need to fret: this is as exquisitely written and atmospheric as anything she has written, with plenty of Glaswegian grit, albeit with a lighter, more heartwarming delivery. This story of the unlikely friendship between recently widowed Deborah and asyulum seeker Abdi deserves all the praise that's been coming its way. More than anything, this beautifully realised tale breathes hope. We all need a bit of that these days, don't we?
Dust and Shadow (Lyndsay Faye)
Loved last year's Edgar nominee The Gods of Gotham – so much so, in fact, that I was rooting for it to win, despite noble competition (Lehane, Flynn). Was delighted to find out that she has previously written a novel of Sherlock Holmes' close encounter with that most elusive of Victorian villains, Jack the Ripper, as accounted, of course, by Doctor Watson. This is, needless to say, a must-read for all fans of Victoriana. As in The Gods of Gotham, Faye manages to get the tone just right. Lovely stuff. Will be picking up the sequel of The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret, asap. (It is currently looking very pretty on my nightstand.)
Fans of snappy, laugh out loud funny, and genuinely moving chick lit – make that lit, period – ought to check out Jennifer Weiner's work. Her later novels in general and, perhaps, Fly Away Home in particular, have a more mature feel to them, but I LOVED revisiting original Weiner heroine Cannie Shapiro – big, brazen, utterly relatable – in these two early books, to be read in the correct order starting with Good in Bed. Can't wait for her upcoming novel, All Fall Down, due out in June
PS: I will be covering the Edgar nominees this year, too, so stay tuned for that!
Zombies have eaten their way into our brains. From the halloween party at your neighbour's to the plots of major Hollywood features, they've become part of our culture. But is there some kind of reality behind the vulgar scenes of flesh-ripping re-animated corpses we are exposed to through popular media? Is there any way for scientists to create real zombies? The notorious science punk Frank Swain made it his mission to explore the science behind the walking dead, and the brain-child of his in-depth investigation is the book “How to Make a Zombie” (OneWorld 2013).
Unlike creatures like vampires and werewolves – who have inhabited western myths and fantasies for quite some time – zombies did not take their place in the western bestiary until the first half of the 20th century. In search of the origin of zombies, Swain dives into Haitian mythology. Here he is following the trail of earlier explorers who became fascinated by the darker sides of this cultural melting pot. We get to read about the first time a foreigner met with a so-called zombie, working in a field. When he tried to establish eye-contact it was like staring into the “eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing”. Such reports led the zombie straight into popular culture. Their silver-screen début “The White Zombie” was released as early as 1932. But where’s the science?
Both mind control and reanimation had been the objectives of scientific endeavours, and the stories about the zombies of Haiti did not go unnoticed. Several research programmes were embarked upon, many crossing the line of what is considered ethical today. All attempts at fully controlling the mind of another person, or genuinely reanimating the body of a freshly deceased animal met with failure. So it seems like we’re safe, so far, from the possibility of a mad scientist creating an army of undead warriors. Nevertheless, the danger of falling under the influence of another organism is not nearly as remote. Other humans might not be our biggest threat in that respect, but rather parasites – and one of them might already be altering your behaviour.
We are surrounded by biological entities that make thier living by invading the bodies of others. Many have the potential to gain access to the brains of their hosts and manipulate their behaviour. Perhaps it’s because I’m a biologist by training, but I find the part of the book dealing with parasitic mind control to be the most fascinating one. Altering people’s behavior by mixing drugs and creating illusion, or by plane old mental illness, are all well and good. However, parasites have already mastered mind control. The Emerald Wasp can dictate the will of a cockroach by releasing a surgically precise volume of venom at exactly the right place in its brain. In that respect, zombies do exist: they are animals who have lost the control of their own bodies, puppets for the parasites to master.
Things get creepily close to home when Swain describes the influence of the one-celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii – because this is a parasite that might be in your head right now. Although Toxoplasma rather end up in a mouse brain than in yours, it still seems to behave in a similar way inside your head as it would in the brain of a mouse. There, it removes the mouse’s inherited scare of cats as a part of its plan to get eaten – the parasites final goal is to end up in a cat’s body where it will breed. Our sanity is such a fragile thing, easily broken not only by our own intrinsic biological processes but also by unwanted guests in our brains. Toxoplasma may not be the most vicious of parasites and its effects may be rather subtle, but it does make us more prone to risk-taking behaviour. So is the mad driving and other acts of seemlingly illogical behaviour that some of us display the result of our own conscious decisions, or is it the parasite in our brain that makes us do it? Who knows, today’s Toxoplasma infection in humans might be the first small steps on the way towards the zombie apocalypse.
Who loves all humans, completely and unconditionally, with all of their faults? Some will tell you that God loves us like that. But what if we made robots, to be like us, but hardwired to love and help and serve us?
I don't think anyone has gone as deeply as Madeline Ashby into the ethics of creating what is actually a new sentient species, and make it into a servant caste. Servants with no choice but to love humans.
What is love anyway? How much is choice, how much is affliction, and how much is the craft of building and manintaining relationships?
iD is the sequel to the brilliant novel vN, about a near future where self-replicating robots live alongside humans. This is a story about love, and the differences between enslaved machines and biological masters. It is also a story about sex: how it can be an expression of affection but also a medium for power and and a kind of violence.
At the heart of Madeline Ashby's stories is the human fear of losing privilege. This is a dark theme, and touches on every aspect of human power struggle. At the same time it illuminates some very deep questions about humanity.
More than 70 years ago Isaac Asimov invented the three laws of robotics, intended to make sure that our machines never harm us.
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
He explored these ideas in many stories, and other authors have expanded and elaborated on these ideas. If you like Bladerunner you will notice a lot of replicant references.
We are currently seeing a lot of new interest in stories about artificial humans, and about the sometimes very close relationship between human and machine. If you find this even remotely interesting I think you will want to read these books.
Well, I've been home with the flu a few days and I managed to finish three books I thought I'd tell you about.
1. Alan Bissett - Death of a Ladies Man
This scottish boy wonder is inventive, political, gripping and clever. On the surface this is the story of Charlie Bain, a school teacher, losing the plot. Only slightly deeper in it's the story of how men and women act towards each other, and why. Incisive, no less. Also - loved his novel Pack Men. Can't wait to see what he does next.
2. Gabrielle Zevin - The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry
This lovely, endearing homage to bookshops and the real values of life lands somewhere between 84 Charing Cross Road and Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society if Alan Bennett had been holding the pen. Well, you get my drift
3. Matthew Specktor - American Dream Machine
Epic sprawling tale of the people surrounding a talent agency in Hollywood. Comparisons to the fantastic What Makes Sammy Run and, well, any multigenerational tale of sons and fathers. Jonathan Lethem loved this. I enjoyed it greatly.
After the genocide that destroyed their homeworld and wiped out most of their race, the remaining Sadiri, few and scattered, settle on the planet Cygnus Beta in an attempt to not only survive but to rebuild their society anew. By reading the blurb on the back of the cover, the premise of the novel seems, and certainly is, dark. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord deals with decidedly gloomy themes, but surprisingly it is, in fact, a light and often humorous story centred on one of the Sadiri men, Dllenahkh, and a native to Cygnus Beta, Grace Delura, whose boring government job becomes much more interesting once she is assigned to work with Dllenahkh to help the Sadiri build their settlement on Cygnus Beta.
Not unexpectedly, these two soon take a lot more than a strictly professional interest in each other and the novel develops into more of a giddy romance story than anything else. It makes an for interesting contrast and while I have to say that Lord is certainly using these stereotypes – Grace is basically the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to Dllenahkh's tall, tortured and stoic – a lot more deftly than is the norm, I have quite frankly had my fill of these formulaic love stories.
It also seems a bit of a waste, because for the most part Lord is definitely not an author to retort to lazy stereotypes and formulaic storytelling. Her worldbuilding is impressive and interesting and a far cry from the usual white-washed and americanized futuristic societies that the SF-genre is all too saturated with. Furthermore, she handles the effects the Sadiri genocide and subsequent settlement on Cygnus Beta very well. While I normally do not mind the inclusion of a romance plot in the slightest, as long as it is done well, the fact that the love story is given precedence in the text is where most of my consternation with the novel can be found.
For me it seems a little bit like The Best of All Possible Worlds is somewhat struggling to decide what story it wants to tell. With such an interesting premise, why not focus more on the many issues this premise raises in regards to for example sexuality, reproduction, and gender politics? The Sadiri are basically settling on Cygnus Beta in order to marry women and reproduce, so those issues are very much present in the novel but never really addressed directly. That's what I had expected the novel to focus on when I began reading it, which probably is the root of the problem: The Best of All Possible Worlds is simply not the book I expected to find when I began reading it and thus it disappointed me. That is not to say that the novel does not have it merits, because it does, but it succeeded more in making me interested Lord's other works than engaged in whatever story it is trying to settle on telling.
There is a quote in Neil Gaiman's latest novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane that, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, sums up the book rather nicely:
”I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
The ”I” of the tale is a young boy who, growing up in rural Sussex nearly forty years ago, encounters unspeakable evil from other dimensions. I will keep the plot details sparse and simply urge you to pick up this beautiful, darkly magical book! Part horror, part fantasy, part coming of age, this has something for everyone who loves great storytelling. Something in Gaiman's heartwrenching depiction of just how vulnerable children are, and what can happen when something evil preys upon them, reminds me of Stephen King's finest moments. This isn't an adult story, nor is it a children story. This simply is, and how gloriously so! Easily Neil Gaiman's best efforts in years.
ALSO RECOMMENDED THIS MONTH
The Wicked Girls was one of the best thrillers I read last year, so I had very high hopes for her latest novel. I finished it in less than 24 hours (clearly, this is the way her books are supposed to be read – I remember pretty much gulping The Wicked Girls down in two sittings) and was genuinely terrified by this tense psychological thriller. Set in a dodgy house in south London, it gives the reader close access to the house's tenants, one of whom is a serial killer. Silence of the Lambs meets Shallow Grave, sort of. Highly recommended – not for the faint of heart, though.
Did I just say ”tense psychological thriller”? Here's another one! Haynes' debut novel – she has written two more just as compelling thrillers since and has a fourth one out soon – deals with domestic abuse, destructive relationships, and OCD. It is absolutely unputdownable, as are her other two books: I've read all three in just over two weeks. I like how all her books depict deeply real problems and how she doesn't shy away from unimaginable darkness but rather revels in it. Her books are perfectly paced with an impressive narrative flow and she often uses multiple points of view in an elaborate and successful way. Clearly one to watch. Liked S J Watson's Before I Go to Sleep? Do yourself a favour and pick this one up, too.
Finally, with the publication of Helena fave Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People but weeks away, I'd like to bring up another McMahon title from 2011: Don't Breathe a Word. It is an utterly enthralling blend of thriller, coming of age, and fantasy, featuring dark Vermont woods, fairies, and lost children. It is every bit as delicious as it sounds - perhaps even more so. That got your attention, didn't it?