Feb 24, 2020

Book Recommendations February 2020

Our event schedule is finally taking shape and there is good news for fans of chinese SF! Especially (but not only) due to the insane success of Cixin Liu’s Trisolaris-books people hereabout started asking and wondering about similar books and thus are discovering unknown gems from the East. In cooperation with the magazine “Kapsel” which publishes SF from far Asian countries, we have the pleasure to have as our guests author, translator, anthologist Ken Liu and chinese author Xia Jia! This event will for once take place on a Sunday, March 28 and starts at 6.30 pm. Admission is free as usual.
On March 5 the dice will roll again at the role playing evening. If you want to join us please drop an email to Jakob or Simon (service@otherland-berlin.de).
Other than that our book clubs are thriving inexorably! While in February we still have the Mythic Fiction session to come up on Friday the 28th (we’ll be discussing Freshwater by Emezi, please see Clarence’s review below), on March 13th we’ll be discussing Armed in Her Fashion by Kate (the Great) Heartfield, a historical fantasy novel about a Flemish widow declaring war to Hell, and two weeks later, March 27th, the Horror Special Book Club is finally meeting again after a longer break than usual. The theme of that session is “Creature Feature - animals in horror” and the book is At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. All book club discussions start at 7.30 pm at the Otherland Bookstore. You don’t need to sign up to join us, but please do read the book in advance if you want to discuss it.

Upcoming book club books and sessions are:
February 28 - Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (MYTHIC)
March 13 - Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield
March 27 - At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson (HORROR)
April 17 - Jhereg by Steven Brust
April 24 - "Dystopias now" by Kim Stanley Robinson, together with "Why we
need utopian fiction now more than ever" by Eleanor Tremeer (SPEC THEORY)
May 8 - Little Sister Death by William Gay

Enjoy our recommendations!


A Song For A New Day by Sarah Pinsker
Berkley: €17,50
Sarah Pinsker's debut novel comes on the back of her Nebula-winning novelette "Our Lady Of The Open Road". That story is about Luce, a middle-aged guitar player and rock singer trying to make ends meet on tour, in a world where live concerts have largely been replaced by virtual reality shows. A Song For A New Day explores the backstory of that situation, we follow Luce through earlier years and learn how she and her world were shaped. Pinsker's descriptions and observations of the nitty-gritty elements of touring life in a small band are fabulous; reading her story and novel feels like sitting on stage or in the van together with her characters. She is also an excellent science fiction worldbuilder, and the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read of a near future that does not entirely suck.
Also do check out her short fiction collection Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into The Sea (out now from Small Beer Press, €19) which contains the above novelette and several more of her prize-winning stories.

Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer
HC: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 27,50 €
PB: 4th Estate: €17,00

This one blew my mind. Here’s a book I am going to read many times over, already looking forward to the many new details and layers I’ll discover after this first reading that basically left me stunned, and in awe, by how much a story, a thesis, a plot, language itself can be chopped up and jumbled and still retain such clarity, such poignancy.
The actors (among others): A blue fox. A duck with a broken wing, the Dark Bird. A Leviathan. A mad scientist called Charlie X. A lost girl called Sarah at the edge of a city in decay, hunted by pale men from the factory and haunted by images of a burning shed.
The plot (if you dare call it that): A trio, attempting to invade the Company responsible for the devastation of the land and city, for mutilation, mutation and madness. They try, and fail, again and again and again, on every new timeline they create, but quitting is not an option. Barely human as they are, they manage to hold on to each other, even as they dissolve, spread, lose, get lost in that hostile, inexplicable landscape.
Dead Astronauts is so much madder than Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy: experimental language that seeped into my mind while I was reading, so the text continued off-page long after I put down the book; devastating images of biochemical experiments on living creatures; nightmarish flashbacks of traumatizing events in somebody’s past; the cold vastness of space, in which a dead astronaut and a living are the same thing; collapsing boundaries between human and non-human, nature and the un-natural, between inner and outer space; seething hate against those who destroy habitats, nature, life, ways of living; but amidst all this, love, resilience, resistance.
Apparently Dead Astronauts is connected to the novel Borne and the novella "The Strange Bird", but from my point of view, not having read the latter two, it is perfectly alright to start with the former. Taking the everything but linear narrative structure into account, I highly doubt they form a coherent ‘story’ in the traditional sense of the word.
When you read this, make sure you read every single word (you’ll know what I mean when you get there). Try reading out loud, if concentration falters, and feel the text. It is remarkable.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
solaris: €25,00
Wendig takes the zombie paradigma and shakes, turns and squeezes it until Wanderers comes out: an epidemic infects people and forces them to walk to an unknown destination. Obviously all of them to the same destination. They are not able to take care of themselves, they are harmless but their numbers are growing. So is the number of the people not infected, but walking with them and taking care of them.
Curious what this is all about? Well, I was and I was baffled in the end. So, put on your reading shoes and wander off between the pages!

The Outside by Ada Hoffmann
Angry Robot: €16,50

It's not so easy to classify this novel within any usual genre boundaries. It is clearly space opera, but also cosmic horror and has definite traces of New Weird in it. And that doesn't even cover the extremely interesting topic of neurodiversity that is central to both the protagonist and the plot. If all of this sounds like a hard combination to pull off, yep, I would have thought so too, but Hoffmann does it really well.
The setting is the far future, humanity is ruled by artificial intelligences that are so powerful that they are referred to as gods. These gods are not exactly the benevolent kind. They help humanity mainly because the souls of dead humans are their source of power and brutally quell any instances of what they consider heresy. The protagonist, Yasira, is from a culture that prides itself on being very accommodating towards their neuroatypical members. She is herself autistic and also a genius of sorts, capable of scientific feats that are beyond normal humans, and which are of interest even to the gods. This is a fairly unconventional setup in itself, but when the titular Outside makes an appearance it becomes a different, and far stranger, game altogether.
The novel is fast-paced, not afraid to throw high-level concepts together with blood-churning action, and covers a lot of ground over the course of the story. If I have one complaint then it's the fact that the unknowable horrors don't actually feel all that unknowable, there is never an instance of having the rug completely pulled out from under you that I'd hope for; Hoffmann's brand of horror is more Charles Stross than China Miéville. But that's a minor quibble, readers who want a dark space opera (and then some more dark) will not be disappointed. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Sisters Of The Vast Black by Lina Rather
Tor.com: €19,00

An order of Catholic sisters is traversing one of a few solar systems colonised by humans.Their spaceship is a genetically modified giant sea slug, able to house and transport them and withstand “the pressures of outer space”. The Mother Superior of the order only speaks through sign language, for a very good reason. At the same time, the central Earth government is trying to reexert control over the outlying systems that have slipped from its grasp in a past disastrous civil war.
The setup for this novella is interesting, the story competently told and the language poetic. And yet this book did not quite work for me. The science is loosely hashed out and there were constant easy mistakes which broke my suspension of disbelief. The plot seems too purposeful and directed, there is too little space for the characters to breathe and take on a life of their own beyond the narrative necessities. The mood and tone are well done, and if this review has made you curious then I’d still recommend you test read a few pages of this book, because its upsides may win you over in a way they did not win me.
A word on pricing: at 152 pages (with lots of blank space around the margins of the print) this is a very short book, and at €19,- you are paying an order of magnitude more per word than with some bigger tomes. Tor.com has been bringing out a steady stream of novellas for the last few years, some of them excellent (the Murderbot series, “The Deep”, “Dream-Quest of Vellit-Boe”), others of lesser (or even little) quality. They are mainly sold as ebooks (for a far lower price) because paper books are quite expensive to produce in small print-runs, and regardless of literary quality the book-buying public is not ravenous for novella-length works (with exceptions, like the Martha Wells series). I for one find this strategy totally acceptable, publishing works such as “Sisters Of The Vast Black” is a wholly worthwhile endeavour. There are certainly people who will read this with pleasure despite the economic necessities, and I applaud Tor for the courage to publish a diverse set of stories that helps to make our store selection as varied as possible.


Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
faber&faber: €11,10

Freshwater is the highly acclaimed 2018 debut by writer Akwaeke Emezi. Offering up a multi-perspective narrative, the Nigerian-born author stated in a 2019 New York Times interview that Freshwater is “based in indigenous West African ontology” and features a main character, Ada, who is “a spirit trapped in flesh." Ada is the embodiment of a type of child spirit known as ogbanje who, in an unusual turn, continues to have access to both the ethereal realm and the earthly realm of humans. Ada thus eventually develops separate selves, an occurrence which further shapes who she is when she travels to the U.S. to attend college and faces great trauma. Taking on everything from colonialism to transgender identity, Emezi talked more about the book in The Guardian.
Emezi has asserted that the autobiographical Freshwater should not be categorized as a form of magical realism or speculative fiction though authors who explore the fantastic are among her favorites, including Zen Cho, N.K. Jemisin and Terry Pratchett.

Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children #5: The Conference of the Birds by Ransom Riggs
Penguin: €18,00

The fifth installment of Ransom Rigg’s amazing series picks up #4’s massive cliffhanger and continues just as fast. While still trying to fulfill his mission of protecting Noor, Jacob and his peculiar friends must also help to keep the peace between the American clans.
This volume is much more fastpaced than the fourth, but still a great read for all who just can’t get enough of Rigg’s fantasy ladden world of peculiars, children and adults alike.

Licanius Trilogy # 3: The Light Of All That Falls by James Islington
Orbit: €19,50

(No Spoilers)
What a pleasure it is to read the final volume of a series! I am not saying this to spite those of you who are still waiting for the latest installments in the Kingkiller Chronicles, the Song of Ice and Fire series, or Brandon Sanderson’s megalomaniacal Stormlight Archives - instead, while you wait, I recommend reading Islington’s trilogy to you. Compared to the above-cited specimen, it is fairly modest in scope (only three books, the last one a mere 830 pages), while still telling a thoroughly epic story about the end of the world and the last battle between good and evil.
At the beginning of #1 (The Shadow Of What Was Lost) a centuries-old plot was set in motion and got the story going. In #2 (A Shadow Of Things To Come), we learned that there is, indeed, a plot, but that, unfortunately, the person who came up with it, despite being still alive, doesn’t remember a thing about it. Now, in #3, their memories come back to haunt them and they begin to doubt their own convictions (again) - while being fully aware of how deeply they have drawn all their present friends into the machineries of fate and time, the two basic concepts to the narration of the trilogy.
Aside from all the epicness (the gigantic wall behind which grotesque monsters lurk and wait for their moment to break through; the magically powered weapons of mass destruction; the millenia-spanning scale of the saga; the Big Questions of fate and free will; the constant time travel paradoxes and the two distinct magical systems) I enjoyed reading the series because it is also a story about friendship, more than about heroism or about romance. It is about how who you can be depends on how others see you, how identity is shaped by what relationships you choose to value, and that your past does not have to dictate your future. Add to this Islington’s talent for describing scenery and the fact that he’s not overdoing it with the different angles from which the story is told and you find yourself with a solid traditional fantasy trilogy that deserves to be enjoyed in it’s own right - even if you’ve just picked it up while waiting for someone else to finish their stories.

Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
Del rey: €10,95

In the final book of her “Winternight” Trilogy, Katherine Arden delivers a strong finale to what was already a fantastic series. Winter of the Witch picks up right where book two, The Girl in the Tower, left off: Moscow has been rescued just in time from burning to the ground in a terrible fire. Our heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, is at once the instigator of the fire and the saviour of the city, putting her in a precarious position once the dust and ash have settled. It’s a typical situation for this character we’ve come to love, and it’s what makes Arden’s books so engrossing. Her characters sometimes make good decisions and sometimes make bad ones, but they always feel 100% authentic for the character in question. It makes them feel so lovably human, even when they’re actually so-called chyerti, creatures from Russian folklore. The colorful spirits are consistently the books’ most engrossing elements, often overshadowing the human storylines. Arden, who studied Russian in college and lived in Moscow, goes far deeper than your basic Baba Yaga mythology, introducing her reader to a rich world of rusalka and leshy. Mythic fiction fans be warned: these minor deities will have you up till 3 a.m. on a Wikipedia binge!
But what makes Winter of the Witch stand out, is that Arden employs these folklore characters to tell a story that’s far more complex than any fairy tale. She deconstructs their moralistic binary, never relying on the simplistic “good vs. evil” trope. While her readers delight in the rich characters and setting of a Russian fairy tale, all the while Katherine Arden is leading them in a far more interesting direction.

I just finished the Winter-Trilogy right now, too - I can’t agree more with Lindsay! And since I read the Winter-Trilogy right after I read Spinning Silver from Naomi Novik which takes place almost at the same time in medieval Russia I can recommend reading Spinning Silver too if you like the setting. Ah, aaaaand watch the 6th season of Vikings. Also medieval Russia!


Echoes: The Saga anthology of Ghost Stories edited by Ellen Datlow
saga: €25,50
I once promised myself that I will not read ghost stories in bed but Ellen Datlow makes it hard for me to keep this promise… The stories in Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories are awesome - in whopping eight hundred pages Master Datlow lets her magic work so well that you will never want to leave this book once you have started. As I will not read these gorgeous stories before sleeping, I have been riding the Berlin Ubahn to places I really don’t need to be, just so I can read one more chapter.
Beside stellar horror regulars such as John Langan, Paul Tremblay, Brian Evenson, Gemma Files, Nathan Ballingrud and Stephen Graham Jones, this book also comprises names that surprise with their presence in a work of horror, like Aliette de Bodard, Richard Kadrey or Pat Cadigan and it couldn’t be more wonderful! BUT it is the unknown names in Datlow’s collections that secretly matter most. If you’re on the lookout for good horror authors, keep in mind that she has a knack for giving space to exceptional unknown authors in her anthologies and I have thereby discovered many a talented writer. This time I was impressed the writings of authors such as Terry Dowling, Allison Littlewood, M. Rickert, M. L. Siemienowicz or Bracken MacLeod, let’s see if we hear more of them.
Here you can experience the full scope of ghostly presences; ghost dogs, avenging ghosts, sad ghosts, angry ghosts, funny ghosts, creepy ghosts… My favorites were Pat Cadigan’s hilariously creepy revenge story “About the O’Dells”, Gemma Files’ gradually dreadful “Puppet Motel”, Terry Dowling’s mummy-Story “The Unwrapping”, the both "simple but phew!" stories “Mee-Ow” by Garth Nix and “His Haunting” by Brian Evenson, and and and… Basically every story in this anthology is a hit and on top of everything it ends in a super cool bonus track, a novella by John Langan! A masterpiece I would not want to miss reading!

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
Saga: € 19,00
Mouse has been given a very tedious task: she needs to empty her late grandmother’s house who was a hoarder. Thankfully it is not long before she finds her also late step grandfather’s diary, where he noted some truly weird shit. Like Arthur Machen kind of weird… As she tries to make sense of what she has been reading, creepy things start to happen in real world.and with the help of the hippie commune across the road she sets off to solve the mystery that has been haunting her step grandfather.
I need to heavy-heartedly admit that this was the biggest let down of the year 2020 for me so far. Main reason: this is not a horror book. At least not all the way. It starts as one, and a very good one too, and then turns into some kind of wannabe experimental dark fantasy thing. Even if you don’t mind intense non-scary dark fantasy elements in your horror, then you should be prepared for a very tiresome and annoying protagonist who just keeps on cracking jokes and does not stop. A pity, it started off as super refreshing…

Kill Creek by Scott Thomas
Inkshares: €18,00
This book has been around since 2018 and why haven’t I read this is cleverly structured, highly self aware, engrossing, absolute DELIGHT of a read before?
The premise is simple enough: Four horror authors representing four different horror subgenres are invited to spend one night in a notoriously haunted house for a PR campaign organized by an utterly mysterious figure to boost their careers. It in fact starts eye rollingly stereotypical, but don’t be fooled dear horror lover! Thomas knows better than to serve you the same old story that has been circulating around for ages. “Kill Creek” is much more than a conventional horror story - a reckoning with the publishing scene, a genuine meditation on horror, an honest confrontation with hypocrisies surrounding the genre. Yet, at the same time, it is a literally hell of a story that you will find hard to put aside!

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