Book Review: And The Ocean Was Our Sky

and the ocean was our skyAnd The Ocean Was Our Sky
by Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Rovina Cai
Fantasy
160 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve seen the movie based on Patrick Ness’s previous book, A Monster Calls, but I haven’t actually read the book. I definitely see similarities in style between the two stories, though. The blurb calls it “lyrical” and “haunting” but I’d call them both trippy.

In And The Ocean Was Our Sky, the story is told from the viewpoint of Bathsheba, a whale. In her world, whales and humans have been at war as long as she can remember. Whales have learned the human language, and how to build ships and use harpoons. (Though how they actually DO these things with flippers is never explained. Just suspend disbelief and go with it.)

I think the hardest thing to wrap my mind around was the whales have an inverted view of gravity. To them, the human world of air is called the Abyss, and it lives below them. The ocean is, well, their sky, as the title says. Bathsheba mentions the dizzying moment when she breaches and the world turns on its axis as gravity changes around her. When the whales talk of swimming up, they mean deeper into the ocean, or down, to us.

It’s a crazy, inverted, fantastical world, and you just have to go with it. The illustrations both help and confuse further, but I think the fever-dream feel of it is intentional.

Bathsheba and her pod are hunters of men, and they come across a sign from Toby Wick. (You know, instead of Moby Dick.) Toby Wick is a devil in the eyes of both men and whales, and Bathsheba’s captain, Captain Alexandra, resolves to hunt him down once and for all and rid the oceans of his menace. On the way, Bathsheba talks to their human captive and learns not all men are hunters, and they have dreams and fears just like whales do. Disturbed, she begins to question her own morality, and what makes someone a devil.

The book is a quick read at 160 pages, probably half of which are full-page illustrations. But it is magical and surreal and well worth reading.

From the cover of And The Ocean Was Our Sky:

CALL ME BATHSHEBA.

With harpoons strapped to their backs, the proud whales of Bathsheba’s pod live for the hunt. Led by the formidable, dangerous Captain Alexandra, they fight in the ongoing war against the world of men. So it has been, so it always shall be. 

When they attack a ship bobbing on the surface of the Abyss, they expect to find easy prey. Instead, they find the trail of a myth, a monster, perhaps the devil himself . . . .

Now, with their relentless Captain leading the chase, they embark on a final, vengeful hunt, one that will forever change the worlds of both whales and men.

From the inimitable author of A Monster Calls comes a dark, lyrical, harrowing tale, hauntingly illustrated, that flips a classic story of violent obsession on its head with heart-stopping questions of power, loyalty, and the monsters we make.

Book Review: A River of Stars

river of starsA River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
Contemporary Fiction
292 pages
Published August 2018

I’ve said many times I don’t tend to like contemporary fiction, but for all that, I’ve been reading a decent amount of it. And liking some of it. In trying to read inclusively, I’ve come across books like this one and Number One Chinese Restaurant. Both books were on my summer TBR/beach read list, but having read them, I’m not sure I’d classify them as such. They are both quite good, though!

Scarlett falls in love and gets pregnant by her boss, the owner of the factory she works in, and he sends her to the US to give birth so their son will have citizenship. Which is a little shady, but I can totally believe it’s done among wealthier families. She’s one of only two unwed mothers at the secret maternity home in LA – the rest are wealthy wives there to get the same benefits for their children. When one woman goes into labor unexpectedly, Scarlett turns out to be one of the few people in the home that know how to drive, and is charged with driving the laboring mother to the hospital. After dropping her and the head of the house off, she simply drives away in the van.

Her first stop is McDonald’s, which is quite believable, from what I understand. (I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I’ve seen the cravings of my friends!) On her way back to the van from the restaurant, she finds Daisy, the other unwed mom-to-be, getting out of the van. The two women make peace with each other and wind up heading for San Francisco, where they get an apartment in Chinatown.

In Chinatown, they dodge private investigators, scratch together rent money for the tiny room they share, and take care of each other through delivery and raising their newborns. Daisy was born in the US, but Scarlett lives in fear of being deported.

The book is a fascinating look at the perils immigrants face, and especially immigrant women, who don’t always move of their own free will but then have to make the most of their situations while taking care of children and loved ones.

The ending seemed a little too…neat. I actually liked the way things were going before the last couple of chapters, even if the way it ends is a happier ending for the two women. I still enjoyed it, but I think it would have been more interesting to end the book in a slightly different way. That’s about all I can say without spoiling things!

From the cover of A River of Stars:

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, Boss Yeung is overjoyed because the doctors have confirmed that he will finally have the son he always wanted. To ensure that his child has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van – only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit by an author the San Francisco Chronicle says “has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions.” It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

Book Review: Redshirts

redshirtsRedshirts
by John Scalzi
Science Fiction
317 pages
Published 2012

Some books are surreal suspensions of disbelief. Some books just make you go “WHAT the FUCK” every couple of chapters when a new twist is revealed, and this is one of the latter. Just – what the FUCK.

Imagine your average sci-fi space opera TV show on cable television with hand-wavey science and half-assed special effects – take those characters and make them realize they’re IN A TV SHOW. Let them realize all of their woes are due to shitty writing, and see what they do with that knowledge. THAT is this book, and it is crazy and hilarious and weird and eye-roll-inducing.

Between the time travel, the Box that does magic science behind the scenes so things work out on-screen, the Narrative taking control and making people say and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do – this book is wacky and just full of what-the-fuckery. It’s fun, though, and if you can keep yourself from groaning out loud every few pages, it’s a pretty good read.

From the cover of Redshirts:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is even more thrilled to be assigned to the ship’s xenobiology laboratory, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.

Live couldn’t be better . . . until Andrew begins to realize that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) sadly, at least one low-ranked crew member is invariable killed.

Unsurprisingly, the savvier members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is . . . and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

number one chinese restaurantNumber One Chinese Restaurant
by Lillian Li
Contemporary Fiction/Family Drama
288 pages
Published June 2018

I don’t tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I had several on my beach read/summer reading list, and this one is set in Rockville, Maryland, which is pretty close to where I live. Having read it finally, I wouldn’t call it a beach read, though!

Number One Chinese Restaurant follows the owners and staff of The Beijing Duck House before and after a devastating fire. There’s a lot of chinese culture revealed in the book, from familial obligation to amending names with an Ah- prefix, to the immigration process to America, to knowing what region someone is from by their accent and forming opinions of them based on that. (Although I suppose we do that in the US, too – that last one might be universal.)

We start with the two brothers, Jimmy and Johnny. Jimmy is the current owner of the Duck House, while Johnny is out of the country for the first part of the book. The two brothers are opposites in most ways, with Jimmy being the back-of-house hardliner and Johnny being the diplomatic schmoozer.

(Speaking of back-of-house, this book PEGGED restaurant life. I’ve worked in food service quite a lot, and from the chaos of rushes to the drug and alcohol abuse, to the confusion between front and back of house but at the same time feeling like you’re all in it together – yeah. This book NAILS it.)

From Jimmy and Johnny, we have their strong-willed mother, Feng, and her cousin, “Uncle” Pang, who has mysterious connections and can get things done but isn’t exactly benevolent about it. The last member of the immediate family is Annie, Johnny’s daughter. There is a staff chart in the inside cover of the book to help keep everyone straight, and it’s quite handy, because then we get into the staff. There’s really two main plotlines going, though they revolve around each other and intertwine in places. There’s Johnny’s efforts to open a new restaurant, and then there’s Nan and Ah-Jack.

Nan and Ah-Jack have both been working at the Duck House for thirty years, and have married other people but have always adored each other. As the restaurant enters crisis, so do their personal lives, and things get messy.

In order for me to like contemporary fiction, there have to be personal hooks that interest me, and this book hit food service, minorities, and the local area. That was more than enough to make it an enjoyable read.

From the cover of Number One Chinese Restaurant:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multivoiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silk-screen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.

Book Review: Autonomous

autonomousAutonomous
by Annalee Newitz
Biopunk
301 pages
Published 2017

Autonomous is an interesting story that poses a lot of moral questions. It doesn’t really take sides; both the pharmaceutical pirate and the agents tracking her down are painted in sympathetic ways, as if we’re meant to like them all. We see why Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate; medicine is only available to those rich enough to pay for it, so the poor stay poor and sick and short-lived. She wants to change that. She reverse-engineers drugs, manufactures them, and distributes them to the needy through her associates.

Meanwhile, Eliasz is a conflicted military agent who is sexually attracted to robots. Or at least to his partner, Paladin, though a flashback shows what might have been the start of his attraction to robots. Paladin is probably the single most interesting character in the entire book, as she muses on the nature of being indentured, and searches through her memories and the internet for information about her situation.

The book does have LGBT content – Jack is bisexual, and Eliasz is – robosexual? Is that a thing? Paladin could be called nonbinary or trans; she repeatedly mentions that gender isn’t a thing to robots, but because she’s a military robot, most people call her a he at the beginning of the book. She learns the brain inside her is female, and to make Eliasz more comfortable with his attraction, she decides to use female pronouns. Eliasz does use the F word to refer to himself being attracted to the robot at the beginning, when they were using male pronouns. This puzzles Paladin for a while, causing her to search the term and figure out what Eliasz meant by its use.

There’s a lot of complex world-building in this book that is barely brushed past. From the corporations who own patents covering everything, to the system of indenture that covers humans as well as robots, to the bio-domes that cover cities (but it’s livable outside the biodomes, so why are they needed?), to the new federations that cover continents that used to be divided into several countries – there’s a LOT going on. And there’s not just robots, but also some pretty advanced cybernetics implanted in humans as well as an everpresent network of data that can be tapped into with implants that everyone has.

Ultimately, for as complex as the world is, and cohesive as the plot is, I’m left wondering who, if anyone, was in the right in this story. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be happy with the ending or not. I’ve seen other reviews saying Neuromancer was a way better book in a similar vein, and I actually have copy of that waiting to be read. So we’ll see.

From the cover of Autonomous:

When anything can be owned, how can we be free?

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, a pharmaceutical Robin Hood traversing the world in a submarine, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack leaves a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, repeating job tasks until they become insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his partner Paladin, a young indentured robot. As they race to stop information about the hacked drugs at their source, they form an uncommonly close relationship that neither of them fully understands, and Paladin begins to question their connection – and a society that profits from indentured robots. 

Book Review: Seafire

seafireSeafire
by Natalie C. Parker
Young Adult/Fantasy
374 pages
Published August 2018

First, Caledonia Styx is an AMAZING name, and the Mors Navis is another fantastic name. I had to google it – it basically translates to Death Ship. Possibly Ship of the Dead. Something to that effect.

Seafire is the first book in a trilogy, and it’s very well done. The main goal in the first book was achieved, but we can definitely see the story arc that they’ve set themselves on for the trilogy.

The world of Seafire is post-apocalyptic, though so far post-apocalypse that the old world has faded into myths and stories, and all that’s left is a mish-mash of old technology, like solar power and electricity, used on more primitive objects, like boats and rope-and-pulley lifts. Most ships are equipped with sun sails – sails covered in tiny solar panel scales to provide energy to the ship’s propulsion engines. If you’re limited to wind power, you can’t hope to escape or fight the powered ships. Instead of grappling hooks for latching onto an enemy ship, there are giant magnets. It’s an interesting mix of old and new tech, but a believable one in this context.

The geography is also fascinating; there’s a sea of constant storm bordering the known lands, and the known lands are mostly sea themselves. Caledonia and her crew are women and girls she’s rescued from the grasp of Aric Athair, the warlord who controls pretty much all of the seas. He does this by forcing boys to serve him and getting them addicted to a substance called Silt, which encourages loyalty. The threat of going through withdrawals from Silt also encourages loyalty! We never actually see Aric on-page in this book, but I have no doubt he’ll show up in the sequels, which I am anxiously awaiting. Aric is ruthless, killing those who defy him as Caledonia’s parents did. She only survived because she was off-ship gathering food when the attack came.

I realize this review is a little disjointed, but the book is a bit hard to explain. The world-building is complex but makes perfect sense, and the plot is fast-moving. The blurb compares it to Mad Max: Fury Road, and I definitely get that vibe from it. I can’t wait to see where the next two books take us, but they don’t even have titles or publication dates yet!!

There is a little bit of LGBT content in the book as well, with relationships forming between girls in Caledonia’s crew.

From the cover of Seafire:

The first in a heart-stopping trilogy that recalls the undeniable feminine power of Wonder Woman and the powder-keg action of Mad Max: Fury Road, Seafire follows the captain of an all-female ship intent on taking down a vicious warlord’s powerful fleet.

After her family is killed by corrupt warlord Aric Athair and his bloodthirsty army of Bullets, Caledonia Styx is left to chart her own course on the dangerous and deadly seas. She captains her ship, the Mors Navis, with a crew of girls and women just like her, who have lost their families and homes because of Aric and his men. The crew has one mission: stay alive, and take down Aric’s armed and armored fleet.

But when Caledonia’s best friend and second-in-command barely survives an attack thanks to help from a Bullet looking to defect, Caledonia finds herself questioning whether to let him join their crew. Is this boy the key to taking down Aric Athair once and for all . . . or will he threaten everything the women of the Mors Navis have worked for?