No, not The Plague, at least not yet!
I recently read/re-read the three books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ve loved these books since I read the first one, and even though they are relatively recent (in the case of the last, quite recent, only a year old), they have swiftly made their way onto my shelf of comfort re-reads. (If you are deducing from this paragraph that I’ve recently been in need of comfort, well, you aren’t wrong.)
For anyone who hasn’t read them, the Wayfarers books take place in a future in which humans have destroyed earth and moved off-planet, where they have encountered other species who have banded together to create a “Galactic Commons” government. In the Wayfarers world, humans were relatively recently granted Galactic Commons (GC) membership and are lower-status members of the galaxy.
These books have been quite successful. The first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, began life as a Kickstarter-funded self-publishing project; it went on to be nominated for the 2015 Kitschies (Best Debut) and was subsequently picked up and republished by Hodder & Stoughton and, in the US, Harper Voyager. More awards nominations followed – the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (Best Foreign-Language Novel), 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2016 British Fantasy Awards (Best Newcomer), and 2016 Women’s Prize for Fiction – as did the following two novels (not sequels per se but rather books set in the same universe), which racked up an impressive list of awards nominations as well. The series won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series.
The thing about the Wayfarers series, for me, is that none of the books are strongly plot-driven. A Closed and Common Orbit is a bit more so than the other two; the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is like a character-driven science fiction television series (I will not be the first to note that it has a similar feel to Firefly, although Chambers’ Galactic Commons is quite different than the universe inhabited by the ship Serenity) while Record of a Spaceborn Few reads like an engagingly-written piece of ethnography. The world-building and the characters are what make these novels so fun to read, not the plot. They are also unfailingly optimistic, and given the current state of the world, who couldn’t use a little optimism? But the character- and world-driven nature of these books is startlingly unusual in the recently published books I’ve come across. I’m amazed that they were published by big publishing houses – tremendously grateful, for chances are I would never have found them otherwise, but amazed nonetheless. I’d have guessed that their non-plot-driven aspects would have immediately flagged them as no-go for major publishing houses. And I suppose I wouldn’t have been wrong to make such a guess, as it’s only after the success of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a self-published work that they got picked up.
In this sense, the Wayfarers books are not dissimilar to Check, Please! Both are optimistic as well as episodic rather than plot-driven; both were self-published, gained success, and were subsequently picked up by major publishers. Obviously they are substantively different in other ways – but to me, both reflect how self-publishing has been changing norms about what types of books will be successful. I can’t help but hope their publication signals a shift among traditional publishers, an increased willingness to take a chance, to move away from marketing-defined pigeonholes and to publish some works that have unusual and perhaps risky characteristics and yet are nonetheless truly quality.
I am probably hoping too much. But my experience with Wayfarers, and with Check, Please! too, highlights a reason why I am hoping this: if these works had not been picked up by major publishers, I almost certainly would not have encountered them. Self-published and small press-published works are difficult to find if what you are looking for is quality rather than something that falls squarely in a genre; there are so many of them, and they are so all over the map in terms of their execution. I was lucky enough to find Younger-Older Ones and Tales from Rugosa Coven on my own. How many similarly quality books have I missed, all the while bemoaning the lack of innovation among recent traditionally published books? And yet, the pool of self-published and small press-published books is so very large as to make the task of sorting through it nearly impossible.
Chambers has a new standalone novella out this fall. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it.
Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only. The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.
Somehow, in my sporadic and lazy return to blogging over the past few months, I forgot to write about Check, Please! How could I have forgotten? This book/webcomic lifted me up and got me through a very difficult week earlier this summer. I can’t remember how I discovered it – maybe it was Rachel Hartman’s blog interview with author/illustrator Nogozi Uzaku – but once I began I was hooked.
Check, Please! is a comic about college hockey, growing up, and baking, among other things. The first three years of main character figure skater-turned-hockey player Eric Bittle’s years at (fictional) Samwell University are available online and in Kickstarter-funded self-published editions, but a volume with just the first and second years (plus additional content) came out in September 2018, with the third and fourth years slated to be released in Spring 2020. Uzaku has also created a ton of supporting content (that link just goes to some of it; there’s so much that it’s difficult to link to it all!) for the series, which is well worth checking out.
I came across Check, Please! back in June, during a weekend when my partner was out of town and I was having an attack of the blues. Because my library had Check, Please!: #hockey available as an ebook and it sounded like a good antidote to my mood, I downloaded it – and then spent the rest of the weekend reading, first the book I’d downloaded, then going online to catch up through the third year, then reading through all the extra content. By Sunday I had ordered all three of the self-published books, and as soon as they arrived I devoured them too. It was the kind of this-book-is-perfect-for-right-now reading experience that I hadn’t had in quite a while.
I don’t really want to say anything more about the plot of Check, Please! because part of the pleasure of this series, for me, was discovering it as I went along. It crossed my path at the perfect time, when I needed something that made me happy. The comic is not all sweetness and light, but it is consistently fun and upbeat and I highly recommend it. I’ve been giving the book as a present at pretty much every relevant gift-giving occasion since June, and everyone I’ve given it to loves it too.
I’ve been relatively slow in my reading this winter; too much else going on. Here’s where I currently stand on the 2019 Sirens Reading Challenge:
Guests of Honor (two more to go)
- Borderline by Mishell Baker
- Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
- The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Heroes Books – Required (category complete!)
- Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
- The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
- Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
- Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
- The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera
Heroes Books – Pick Five (four to go)
- The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Middle Grade/Young Adult Books – Pick Five (not started)
Adult – Pick Five (not started)
I had planned to write extensive reviews of the various things I’ve been reading, but the fact is that I’m not great at writing extensive reviews. At least not on demand, and not while traveling, especially not while traveling for work. So instead, here’s what I’ve been reading with a few short thoughts.
Acquired at ALA:
- Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork. This is a bit of a departure from Stork’s previous work, as it’s a thriller (though still written for the young adult market). At the same time all the elements that I love about his writing – a fundamental kindness towards humanity, the struggle with the “real world,” an underlying attention to issues of spirituality – are in it. I’m not objective about Stork’s work as (like Cashore) he’s one of my favorite authors, but I thought this was a fantastic read (and possibly one of my favorites of his). It’s due out in September 2017.
- Leona: the Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby. Swedish thriller (the Swedish version was published a few years ago; the version I got is the English translation, the paperback of which is due out on August 1, 2017). This one wasn’t for me.
- Murder in Saint-Germain by Cara Black. Mystery, part of a series about Parisian PI Aimée Leduc. Again, not for me.
- White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht. This is the story of a young Korean woman kidnapped and forced to work as a Japanese “comfort woman” during World War II. I read it while sitting at a cafe waiting for my short-term apartment to become available and cried myself into a pulp – and this despite some unbelievable elements. Maybe not the best choice for reading in public, but definitely moving! It’s due out in January 2018.
- Minik: the New York Eskimo by Kenn Harper. This biography of Minik, one of six Polar Inuit brought to New York by Robert Peary, is another heartbreaker. Minik was seven when he arrived in New York, and four of his traveling companions (including his father) died within months of their arrival. The fifth returned to Greenland, but Minik remained in New York. While I’ve long known the story of the Inuit group in New York (it’s one of the more shameful chapters in American anthropological history), Mink’s story after that first year was new to me. The back cover copy reads “…Minik never surrendered the home of going ‘home,’ never stopped fighting for the dignity of his father’s memory, and never gave up his belief that people would come to his aid if only he could get them to understand” and this is a fair summary of the book, I think. The are passages from Minik’s own writings included in the biography, and these I found especially compelling. This revised and updated edition of Give Me My Father’s Body is due out in September 2017.
- Want by Cindy Pon. This is another author about whom I’m not objective, and it’s also a departure from her previous work. Want is young adult science fiction, set in a near-future Taiwan, rather than fantasy. It has an interesting combination of political, heist, and romance elements, making for a fun and page-turning read. Others agree with me: Want has been recommended in the LA Times and the New York Times. Out now.
- The Waking Land by Callie Bates. I have to admit I picked up this beautiful adult fantasy because I liked the cover so much…but I’m glad I did. The magic in this book is what really drew me in, but there are many other things to like: heroine fighting against the odds, interesting world, etc. Out now.
- Fire by Kristin Cashore. A re-read of an old favorite.
Every once in a while I read something new and realize, “this is one of my authors.” And I will then track down everything that person has ever written, and (if they are alive) will wait eagerly for their next book. I don’t, of course, enjoy all books by these authors equally, but I always like to read them; even when an individual book doesn’t work for me, because of my relationship with that author’s writing I will read anything the author publishes, usually more than once.
Readers of this blog will already know: Kristin Cashore is one of these authors for me. I truly enjoy her writing, whether it’s a book or her blog. Her new book Jane, Unlimited will be released this fall, and I was lucky enough to get a (signed!) copy at ALA last week. Naturally it was on the top of my ALA pile.
I won’t spoil anything by saying that this book is very, very different from Cashore’s other three books – but at the same time, I can see connections. Imagine a mashup of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, Run Lola Run, and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; add in a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca; and write it explicitly for 21st century young adults and in Cashore’s inimitable style, and you’ll be there.
So yeah, it was a little weird. I liked it; it was both fun and interesting. I maybe wished for a little more tying-together of the various plots in some way, but I’ll see if that feeling persists on a re-read. I did gather (from the book’s acknowledgements) that Jane, Unlimited was, in original drafts, an actual choose-your-own adventure, written in second person and with various decision points. So maybe the lack of integration is deliberate. I also felt like the house, though definitely a character (more in some plots than others) was not as fully realized as it might have been, but again that might just be a first-read impression….
Whatever else one might say, though, Jane, Unlimited is both different and daring. I also found it fun. Definitely, I’ll be re-reading it.
The downside of reading a lot, and reading critically – at least for me – is that I rarely get swept away by anything I read anymore. If I want an immersive read, it’s safest for me to re-read something that I *know* will transport me into another world, because the vast majority of new things I read (even when I like them!) don’t do it. When a book that’s new to me grabs me this way it feels like winning the lottery.
I picked up The Fifth Season because it was the next book on my Sirens Reading Challenge list (the author is one of the guests of honor, so the book is required), and I had a long flight ahead of me. I wasn’t expecting that immersive experience; I just hoped it would be entertaining enough for a difficult travel day.
And then…it just blew me away.
I’ve never done any kind of reading challenge before; usually I read plenty without structure. But between all the horrible world news and the general business of life, I haven’t been reading as much as I would like recently – and when I have been reading, I’ve been subject to periodic reading slumps. Some structure seems in order.
The Sirens Reading Challenge has five parts, two required (in which you read all the books in that part), and three where you have a choice. I am beginning with the “Required Theme” section. I’ve already read two (Chime by Franny Billingsley, an old favorite; and Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, which I read last year and very much enjoyed), which leaves me five more.
I began yesterday with Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky. There’s been a lot written about this one (here is the LA Times review) so I won’t rehash the plot points. What I will say, though, is (a) the writing is incredibly skillful and yet (b) the book overall kind of left me cold. It might be the science-vs.-nature setup (although Anders resolves this nicely, this dichotomy is one that bugs me). It might be that (again, given the awful news in the world) I can’t handle books with a dystopian bent right now. It might just be my mood.
Can’t say. I can say, though, that despite all this I did both enjoy and admire this book. Definitely it is worth a read.