Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

When it comes to the sci-fi and fantasy section at work I tend to lean heavily on the side of fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett. Trudi Canavan. Tolkien. Sherri Tepper. I’ve dabbled in the harder sci-fi, like the Martian, but I tend to go for something humorous like Douglas Adams or something which blurs the line between fantasy and sci-fi like Anne McCaffrey or Julian May. I tend not to read books set purely on spaceships or space-opera-ish stuff. Rob has hinted that I might like to try Arthur C Clarke but I’ve never taken him up on it – and the fault is mine not Clarke’s, obviously. Maybe it is just that I’m more interested in the human side than the science. Or maybe I tend to associate hard sci-fi with lots of explosions and shouting (which is certainly how the films appear to me), and with characters who are created with more thought to potential action toys than actual human qualities. Not there is anything wrong with blowing stuff up and merchandising but it is not usually my cup of earl grey (hot).  And then, like so many others recently, I discovered Becky Chambers and was re-introduced to the human face of science fiction. Actually to be fair I didn’t so much discover Chambers’ first book, the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, as give in to the encouragement of many of my bookselling colleagues (and, it seemed, a fairly large chunk of bookish people on Twitter). They enthused me so much that I didn’t even see if I could get a freebie from the publisher (although they were on offer) but went straight for buying my very own copy. I don’t regret it in the slightest, though, as all those folk pushing me towards this marvellous novel were absolutely correct – this was a fabulous book. The fact that it was a debut novel made it even more remarkable.

51l6elkiidlI didn’t show any such restraint when a proof copy of a Closed and Common Orbit – not quite a sequel, more of a linked story – showed up at work. I had really enjoyed getting to know all the characters in the first book – a varied band who gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘diversity’. Humans, aliens of many races, and even a close relationship between a human and the ship’s A.I. system – so I knew I’d be interested in what happened next to some of them. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about either book so if you haven’t read TLWTASAP (as I understand its fans call it) then I’d nip off and read it now before you carry on with this review. Done? Good, I’ll go on…

Lovelace, the A.I. system from the Wayfarer has been removed from the ship and is currently learning how to exist in a very realistic – but totally illegal – human body. She is helped by Pepper and Blue who obviously have a complicated back-story of their own and, instead of a spaceship, the story is set on a very cosmopolitan planet where commerce and technology seem to be the order of the day. Although there are a lot of differences between this story and the first book what has remained is the importance of great characters. We discover who Lovelace is (or Sidra as she now calls her human form) at the same time that she does – she has to discover how to be human, how to be limited by her own body and how to fit into society – and, as Pepper and Blue’s past is gradually revealed, we realise that there is more than one way of being human. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of Chambers’ writing (but only a very few – the vast majority are hugely positive) which seem to take objection to the fact that qualities like equality, fairness and basic niceness are given such prominence but I think they may be missing the point. This is a universe where humans are pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order and where more enlightened alien races keep control. There is a sense of equality – in terms of gender, colour and species – but there are still taboos (especially in terms of mixed-species relationships). We can see that A.I.s are the very last group to be given equal status just as, in the shape of Sidra/Lovelace, we are learning how much like humans they can be. There are not many explosions but lots of people – and people of every colour, gender, sexuality, species and programming.



French Rhapsody – Antoine Laurain

I’m going to be honest here – I quite like a bit of Euro-pop. I enjoy watching Eurovision (well, I like the actual songs, but the voting can get a bit annoying), know just about all the Abba songs and used to do the whole dance thing for Whigfield’s Saturday Night. I like some of the cooler stuff too – I was listening to Björk when she was still with the Sugarcubes and, thanks to my brother, am pretty familiar with the work of Manu Chao. When it comes down to it, in terms of pure pop, Europe is just plain more cool than the UK. We do cheese: they do ‘fromage'(which I always think sounds much hipper…)

french-rhapsodyWhen I reviewed Antoine Laurain’s previous book I was struck by its charm, subtle romance and all-round general gallic air. I enjoyed it so much that I snapped up the chance to read French Rhapsody, which is where my appreciation of continental pop comes in. Because the heart of this story is Alain Massoulier, a doctor in his 50s, and the band he was a part of in the 1980s. When Alain receives a letter which has been sent over 30 years earlier – offering the band, the Holograms, a recording contract with a major label – he decides to track down the rest. Stan, the drummer, has become a well-known contemporary artist, the keyboard player runs a resort in Thailand, the bass-player is a scarily popular right-wing politician and the singer has returned home to her parent’s hotel near Dijon. The song-writer Pierre died (in a rather dramatic fashion in the window of his antiques store) and his brother, the band’s producer, has become a business guru.

This is another charming story with subtle depths. As well as exploring the lives of the band members we get to consider what they might have been if they had travelled down the trouser leg of reality in which they were pop stars. In the end though we have to focus on life as it actually is rather than might-have-beens. Alain ends the book as a wiser, but possibly a sadder, man: we end the book contemplating whether we’d rather live in a world with 1980s French cold wave music or with 21st century politics. (Clue: as I said, I love a bit of euro-pop…)



The Hidden People -Alison Littlewood

For someone who thought she didn’t read horror/ghost stories I certainly seem to be getting through a few of them recently. To be fair it is October – the time of year when all the creepiest books are released onto readers eager to balance Halloween sweeties with some spine-chilling stories. Of course what I have read quite a lot of in the past are 19th century novels, full of Victorian manners, so how could I not be intrigued by a book which promised to tell me a Victorian tale of suspense (but written in the full knowledge of our twenty-first century world?)  Because as well as being an age of rationality, science and moral rectitude the Victorian era was also an age of fairy tales and folklore – culminating in Bradford’s very own Cottingley fairies in the early part of the 20th century. Alison Littlewood seems to be known as an author of horror and ghost stories but I would say this book, The Hidden People, is more of a dark fairy story. Nothing sparkly or delicate but the kind of fairies who think of humans as something to be used and then discarded. If you’ve ever read Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies you’ll know the sort of thing.

hiddenWe start this book on the rational, scientific side of the age – at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – where young Albie meets hit pretty young country cousin Lizzie. Despite an initial attraction Albie follows his father’s wishes, joining the family firm and marrying a sensible, suitable girl. He forgets all about Lizzie until, shockingly, he hears of her death. In fact, her murder at the hands of her young husband. Albie decides to travel to the little Yorkshire village of Halfoak where Lizzie lived and died and this is where he comes up against what he thinks is superstition and ignorant belief in fairies. Lizzie was killed because her husband believed she was a changeling (and by burning alive because that’s one of the only ways to guarantee killing a fairy). We 21st century readers tend to agree with Albie’s rational view – fairies aren’t real and changelings don’t exist – and yet we, like him, are sucked into an otherworldly atmosphere where the impossible becomes almost believable.

I really liked the way that the reader is kept on edge – Albie, and his wife Helena when she joins him, are changed by Halfoak. Are they bewitched by fairies or do they just suffer some inexplicable breakdown? Early in the story Albie notices that the village clock has three hands so that it can tell local as well as railway time – the whole book leaves us unsure which timeframe we are in: whether we are in a rational or a fantastical world.


It’s so hard to choose…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last twenty years and, naturally, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the books I’ve read in that time. I can’t remember them all – I do spend a lot of time reading – but I did start to wonder if I could try to pick a favourite out of the books I’ve read which were published since 1996. When it comes down to it it’s a lot harder than it looks so I decided to ask around and see if I could get some inspiration.

I started at home. Yes, pity poor Rob as I demanded he review his past two decades of reading…Luckily, after a quick trawl through the bookshelves he came up with a few suggestions. They range over the genres – travel writing, fiction, environmentalism, science writing and science fiction – but the one that stood out for me from his list (like I said, it’s hard to choose one) was one we both loved. Nick Harkaway’s Gone-Away World is a remarkable book with a crazy plot which has more to it with every re-reading and some memorable characters. To be honest I don’t think either Rob or I will ever forget Ronnie Cheung.

Next I asked around my colleagues at work. Starting with Bex herself. Impressively she found it rather easy to choose the book that meant most to her (and I quote) ‘Harry Potter – I’m a first generation reader…I was the same age as Harry when Philosopher’s Stone was published’ . Although is it cheating to pick an entire series? Who cares! It is such a great series to choose… And I even got a bonus choice from Bex’s daughter who, at 18 months old, just can’t get enough of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s Tales from Acorn Wood which she described as essential pre-Gruffalo reading. (That’s Bex, not her daughter, obviously…). Ian the manager (who has recently moved to our Leeds store) also found it simple to narrow down his favourite – I reckon he had to move to Leeds since he has already recommended Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to the whole of Bradford. I also cornered Jamie (our new manager) who named Kill Your Friends by John Niven as his favourite. Up in the coffee shop Luke (lead barista and store hipster-in-chief) was quick to name Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Megan (our newest staff member – she makes a mean bacon buttie…), when pushed, plumped for Khalid Hosseini’s  A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although she did say this was subject to change – there are so many great books out there!

I decided not to stop there and have been bothering lots of other people – some who have worked in the store in the past 20 years and, of course, some of our customers. Sarah, who supports us in choosing and ordering stock for the shop, chose a graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson. She described it as her favourite graphic novel of all time and one that redefined the genre. Charlotte, a customer, author and occasional contributor to this blog showed her penchant for horror and fantasy by being undecided between Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. And we both agreed that her daughter Sophie was still a huge fan of You Choose (we’ve both read it with her for entire afternoons…). And Kay, one of regular customers and member of our monthly book group, tells me that the book she regularly recommends or gifts to family and friends (always a sign of a true fave)  is Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons.

So, has all this made it any easier for me to choose my own favourite? Of course not…The best I can hope for is a short list of books which have left a lasting impression on me (and which I would happily reread – always a sign of a great book for me). Hugh Howey’s Wool makes the cut, as do all Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (or Connie Willis’ book of the same name…). And then, of course, there’s always the fabulous Rosie Project or a dozen other books which I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last two decades. I don’t think I can pick just one (and the way things are going my own personal shortlist is just going to keep on getting longer).




Death at the Seaside – Frances Brody

After enjoying my first foray into the world of Frances Brody and her 1920 sleuth Kate Shackleton I was very much looking forward to this next adventure. I was not at all disappointed either – and I do love finding another reliably good writer, adding another one to my personal collection (so I can pick and chose between golden age crime, science-fiction or romance depending on my mood). The fact that this particular writer sets her books in my adopted home of Yorkshire is an added bonus.

seasideAfter various stories set around a number of Yorkshire Dales villages our heroine decides to travel east to visit Whitby. She plans to see an old school friend, Alma, and her daughter Felicity, to enjoy the peace and quiet of a seaside town and to make the most of the fact that crimes tend to be thin on the ground in the sleepy month of August. Of course things don’t go strictly to plan – Felicity has disappeared and a local jeweller, Jack Phillips, is found dead. Alma considered Jack to be her ‘special gentleman friend’ but although she want’s Kate to investigate his death the local police would rather she minded her own business.


Once again the story is beautifully plotted – although I could see some twists ahead of time there were still plenty of surprises – and I enjoyed the various characters, both recurring ones and those specific to this story. Kate’s usual helpers, Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, are fortunately also holidaying in the area (and both seem to find that sleuthing is more rewarding than trying to relax!) so we get see them at work once more. The Whitby characters are an odd mixture of businessmen, artists and fortune-tellers and they all seem to have secrets for Kate to uncover. The period detail is well researched and, because everything fits so well into that period, this does mean that this book is one I can happily recommend to those who prefer their murder mysteries without graphic sex scenes or lots of swearing.

Of course my only problem now is that I still need to find time to go back and read the first six books in the series. I could definitely do with a time machine of some sort…



Thin Air – Michelle Paver


I’ve never really considered myself a fan of horror. I’ve sat through the odd Friday 13th film at Uni (my date’s choice – probably for the chance that I would fling myself into their arms for protection, ppfffft) but I see little to interest me in all that blood, gore and overdramatic musical cues. That sort of thing makes me jump (as do big spiders lunging from under the sofa) but they don’t keep me awake at night. They are startling but not horrific – my feeling being that stuff inflicted on bodies (even graphically brutal stuff) isn’t half as terrifying for the reader as that little voice in your mind that says ‘there is something out there that wants to harm you’.  And that little voice is what makes ghost stories, for me, scarier than horror.

thin-airMichelle Paver’s Thin Air seems to do all the things that a good ghost story really should. An intriguing story about a group of young men attempting to be the first to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga in the mid-1930s: check. Plenty of interesting characters, with detail given about each man’s strengths, faults and relationships with the others in the group: check. An extra layer of detail for our narrator, Stephen Pearce, the expedition medic including the failed engagement which drove him to join the mission and his difficult history with fellow team member Kits (Pearce’s brother): check. So far this would be an adventure story – men against mountain – until we start to get into the history of a previous attempt to do the climb and the actions of that group’s leader, General Sir Edmund Lyell: who we first see as the celebrity author of an account of his failed mission which emphasises his own heroism and general superiority. You know the sort…Kits is keen to follow in the footsteps of his hero but Stephen has his doubts. These are backed up by the beliefs of their Sherpas (although, of course, your average gung-ho hero of the mid 30s dismisses this kind of thing as laziness/superstition/native nonsense) and by the general air of menace the team begin to feel.

This book was both a fantastic description of the majesty of the Himalayas and a wonderfully creepy ghost story. In equal measures it showed why some are irresistably drawn to these mountains and why, possibly, they shouldn’t be. This would be a great read for Halloween (but make sure you know exactly where you left your rucksack…)

Jane Continue reading

Strangers – Paul Finch

I generally like my crime fiction to be either classic Golden Age stuff (I’m a huge Dorothy L. Sayers fan) or a bit silly. I’m still hoping that Jasper Fforde will write more in the brilliant Nursery Crimes series – it took the mickey out of all the clichés of crime fiction and finally answered the vital question of whether gingerbread is a cake or a biscuit – and am planning to work my way through Ian Sansom’s County Guides book. Of course I also enjoy a good historical sleuth, like C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake or Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Vesuvia, and I’m not immune to the lure of a psychological thriller like Gone Girl and the Widow. Oddly, what I don’t read much of is traditional, gritty, detective novels. I read a couple of Jo Nesbo novels, the Big Sleep (for our book group) and a couple of Donna Leon’s Brunetti stories but not much else. But, at Harpercollins’ recent Big Book Bonanza, I had a copy of a crime novel pressed into my hand (while in the presence of the author, ex-policeman and Bill writer, Paul Finch). In these circumstances it would be rude not to, surely?

strangersThe author gave a bit of a talk about the background to the story – he was moving away from his usual character Mark Heckenberg and the fictional National Crime Group to write about a young female officer in Manchester – and, I have to admit, I was intrigued. I know Manchester reasonably well and the officer, PC Lucy Clayburn sounded like an interesting character.

The story gripped from the beginning as we meet Lucy (in a sort of prologue), a very young officer who makes a near fatal mistake while left in charge of a dangerous prisoner. Her ambition is to be a detective and this seems to have scuppered her chances for advancement. Ten years later she hopes to impress and resurrect her career by getting involved in the search for a very unusual murderer – a female serial killer. This is dangerous work, involving going undercover among the street prostitutes of the North-West and, potentially, contact with the biggest names in the Manchester underworld. In the end, however, it is the secrets Lucy discovers about her own family which could be the most dangerous.

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was nicely convoluted, the characters were well-defined and the action fairly rattled along. I particularly liked the way that female officers were shown in both junior and senior roles – and that they were shown to have as many flaws as their male colleagues. If you enjoy a fast-paced, northern detective story with lots of gruesome detail then I think I can recommend Paul Finch to you…