Book #136: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

author: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 213 pages
finished reading on: 12 May 2017

I like it when I find a book that’s just nicely-presented, which is the main reason I bought this novel, if I’m honest. Usually I avoid the ones with movie tie-in covers, but the paper and layout of this novel is very good quality. So I actually feel like I’m getting better quality than I would if I bought the Kindle version.

I watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago – there are a lot of things I’d forgotten about the movie, but I kept remembering moments as I read through this. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, and it’s directed by the book’s author, which is pretty rare. One thing I’d forgotten is that the movie awkwardly tries to keep the conceit that the main character is writing letters to an unnamed stranger – the so-called epistolary style – by having him type the letters out on screen. It doesn’t work on screen, and I was a bit skeptical about the book when I first picked it up, but I found it works quite well.

It’s very easy to read, especially after the last book I read, which had quite thick and heavy prose. This is written in a more colloquial style and is often speaking directly at the reader. That and the shorter length of the book meant that I finished it much quicker.

I think it’s refreshing to have a young male character who’s unashamed of being emotional and upset – so much media, even modern media, still stereotypes men as being unable to express their emotions. And this tackles quite a lot of mental health issues directly, which is also good. I don’t have a lot to criticize about the book – perhaps that the main character is self-centred despite trying hard to be a “wallflower”, and annoyingly clueless at times. But I also recognized that awkwardness I and a lot of others I know have experienced in our high school days.

And there’s the ending twist, too, which I’d completely forgotten – it comes on the second-to-last page in the book. I don’t want to reveal it – I think the book is easy enough for people to read and I really liked it, so I think people should seek this book out. Perhaps it’s a bit young for me, really – the issues are distinctly teenage, after all, and I’m well past that stage of my life – but I still enjoyed reading it a lot. (And one of the side characters is gay. Also good.)

Book #130: Openly Straight (2013)

author: Bill Konigsberg
language: English
length: 339 pages
finished reading on: 6 Mar 2017

It remains the case, at least from what I can see, that it’s easier to find young adult LGBT novels than it is to find more grown-up stuff. Perhaps my readers have a different perspective? Let me know if you know anything good! Anyway, for me this follows on from similar books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which I read last year. It’s similarly easy to read, and the story is also generally optimistic.

The conceit here is a boy called Rafe who is openly gay, but tired of being The Gay Kid at his school, and wants to be treated “normally”. So he ups and moves right across the country to attend boarding school in Massachusetts, where he decides he’s not going to reveal his sexuality straight away – going back in the closet, as his best friend and family term it.

The arc of the story is very predictable – I could tell what was going to happen within the first two chapters, as all the main characters are introduced. But this predictability is a boon in this genre, actually. It’s comforting to be able to know what will happen next.

The exploration of identity is interesting, but I’m definitely out of the target audience of teenagers still trying to work this stuff out. But I could see parts of myself in it too. I was never “out” in high school, but I would never have wanted to be seen as The Gay Kid. I’m reminded of something my coworker said recently – being gay is important to me but it’s not my primary identity, nor the first adjective he’d describe me with. His impression was that Americans seem to be more eager to make it the centre of their identities, and if I was American I might want to be seen as That Gay Guy.

Not sure about that, but that idea is reflected to some extent here – the other characters are shocked when they find out the main character is tired of broadcasting his identity in such a way, and it looks into the labels we apply to each other. Once he stops broadcasting that he’s gay, he immediately picks up other labels, such as “jock”. And it’s more subtle, but names, too, are very important in the book – the main character goes by different names to different people, and his friend gets angry when people call her the wrong name. I think this was a sensible choice from the author to demonstrate other shifts in identity that everyone makes.

I’m not so into many sports myself, and sports are also a big theme of the book – so I switched off a bit for the descriptions of soccer or American football, but I liked the bits where they went skiing. Selective, perhaps.

It gets very, very awkward at some points, though, in that way of teenagers unable to express their feelings well. Similar to Boys, the last movie I watched, it reminded me in a bad way of the anxiety of coming out.

So while I enjoyed its exploration of the character’s identity, and in general I found it easy to read and enjoyed the variety of characters and situations, I still think I need to get away from stories of coming out and coming of age.

And thus I reiterate my initial request – does anyone know any gay novels that aren’t about coming of age?

Book #123: Just One Damned Thing After Another (2013)

jodtaaauthor: Jodi Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours, 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 November 2016

This book is another one that kept coming up in the sci-fi section of Audible, and eventually I got around to listening to it. It’s about time travel, and some historians who go back to investigate real life events and get a better insight into what actually happened.

It’s an interesting idea, and it’s one that is obviously carried out lovingly by someone who’s well into her history, as a lot of things are described in great and accurate detail. Linguistic and cultural matters are not glossed over, so the characters take a great deal of training to be ready for their travels.

The book’s sense of humour very obviously takes after Terry Pratchett, especially with the idea of a very disorganized band of misfits saying “bloody hell” a lot. It works well, but I think it’s Taylor’s first book, and I think she needs to find a bit more of her own style.

One thing I found, though, was the book was so full of ideas it was often spilling over. One the one side, there are the sci-fi aspects with time travel paradoxes and the like, and the intrigue plot with the breakaway characters from the future timeline, but it’s also trying to depict a bunch of disparate time periods, and the present-day characters’ relationships and interpersonal drama – and there are also a lot of characters to juggle. There’s also frank discussion of issues such as sexual assault (which is dealt with sensibly and sensitively), but it often comes as a bit of a shock after the romping nature of a lot of the rest of the book.

I felt when listening to the audiobook that I could often miss key points due to the fast pace – the time travel paradoxes were often explained in an almost throwaway sentence, or five years suddenly pass in the middle of the book when it glosses over their years-long training period, or a character seems to go missing and I had presumed her dead until she arrives back in the story later on. I think a slower pace would work well for this. I also had a bit of trouble distinguishing minor characters, or even major characters like the “chief” and “boss”, who were different, although the narrator had a good voice for accents and could mitigate this a lot.

But the story was well-told, overall, and it left enough mystery at the end that I might like to continue with the series. I’ll see, though – it’s pretty long at about nine books already. I don’t know if I have the stamina!

Anyone else read this?

Book #116: Ultima (2014)

ultimaauthor: Stephen Baxter
language: English with bits of Latin and a couple of other languages that would be spoilers
length: 513 pages
finished on: 20 October 2016

I had a bad experience with the audiobook of Proxima, the previous book in this two-part series by Stephen Baxter, which takes place largely on a tidally-locked exoplanet. They’ve actually found such a planet orbiting the real-life Proxima Centauri, by the way – exciting times!

The narrator of the audiobook was truly awful, as he’s putting on a fake British accent and failing badly at it. So for this instalment I decided to read the paper book instead. I’m pretty glad that I did – I enjoyed Proxima enough that I wanted to continue the series, but that narrator was painful to listen to, so this time I could enjoy the story much more easily. I did something I rarely do, which was sit down for several hours just devouring the last two hundred pages of the book (I had other stuff I wanted to get to).

Anyway, the last book leaves on a big cliffhanger – the characters have just walked through a cosmic gateway called a “Hatch” by the story, and they find themselves face-to-face with spacefaring Romans. This book goes into the details of how the Romans came to be in space. Essentially the whole thing takes place in a kind of parallel universe – it’s like the universe reset itself when they walked through the Hatch and when these special wormholes called “kernels” (still only described in passing and vaguely) were exploded with a nuclear weapon, releasing a stupid amount of energy. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, to be honest – I thought the Romans were just coincidentally in space, and we’d find out about a convoluted chain of events that got them there.

It turns out that the Library of Alexandria hadn’t been destroyed, or something, and the Romans had discovered spaceflight – and their empire had stayed intact, eventually rivaling the Chinese (“Xin”) and British / Celts / Scandinavians (“Brikanti”), who partially conquer and discover the Americas, calling it Valhalla in a not-so-curious echo of some of Terry Pratchett’s works – it was alluded to in Pratchett and Baxter’s joint works like The Long Earth, and originally came from one of Pratchett’s older pre-Discworld novels, I think Strata.

Baxter has also recreated the three deadlocked empires-at-arms structure of 1984 almost exactly (Europe, China, and UK/America). As in 1984, I didn’t quite buy it, as I don’t perceive the modern world that way. I liked Baxter’s fleshing-out of the civilizations, though, and when (spoilers!) the universe resets itself again halfway through the book, and they discover Incas living in a deep space habitat, this civilization is also described nicely in a lot of detail.

I think this kind of storytelling, focusing on the bigger picture and describing whole civilizations, is Baxter’s strength. I wasn’t as impressed this time with his characters, as I thought too many of them weren’t developed enough. I found some of them bitter and vindictive, even when they should have had enough time to get over their gripes. I also found that there were too many minor and undistinguished Roman characters. One of them stays to the last act, and only then develops a distinctive comic verbal tic.

He also had some of his characters stay behind on their ship when they go to meet the Incas, and it took me a while to realize where they’d gone, as it was in a throwaway sentence. I found this just indicated he’d ended up with too many characters and had to get rid of some for a while. It was a bit of a long while though, timeline-wise. At the same time, he’s not afraid to kill off characters. In a book with such long-reaching arcs and grandiose scope like this, it can be make or break. It was certainly “break” for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, which suffers from similar characterization and overpopulation problems, but refuses to kill off its main characters, to the point that they become uninteresting.

Linguistically the book cut a lot of corners, too – the two robot characters, one a glorified farming machine that is later compressed into a tablet and carried around by a Chinese slave boy, and the other a scheming mastermind type, seem to both have universal translators, even for languages that have never been discovered before. By modern technology, this is absolutely impossible, and I have a hard time believing these science fiction models could do any better. Classical Latin is also still used by the Romans in what is essentially the modern day, and to match this, their technology is also oddly old-fashioned. Again, not believable – there’s a concrete reason this didn’t happen in the real world.

Incidentally, this sets it apart from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, where a similar level of technology exists (I already mentioned on that review that both books contain a kind of iPad-like tablet, but with different invented names), but that book and author, while not quite as up on scientific lingo, treated linguistic issues much more realistically – they need a trained interpreter, for example, instead of hand-waving away the issue.

In the final act it becomes clear what the purpose is of the Hatches, and it turns out to be these great world-level brains reminiscent of Solaris, embedded in the rock of many different planets. The name “Ultima”, furthest, is supposed to be the opposite of Proxima, nearest, and it turns out the furthest planet is actually the same planet as Proxima, just at the end of time. This was also not explained very well, but it goes that there is an end event like a great release of energy somehow – also the origin of the so-called “kernel” wormholes. But I found the explanation of this to be flimsy, something about statistics and the assumption that we must be in the middle times of the universe. People have conjectured it and put the idea forth in papers, and Baxter has a bibliography at the back of the book to check – but I find it more of a philosophical than scientific question, more of a conjecture than a theory.

Basically I was happy to read about this story again. I think it’s run its course now, and I’m happy with this conclusion overall, even if I don’t agree with the ideas in the ending times event. I don’t think this book was as strong as the previous one, however – it’s a bit too grandiose in scope, and not focused on character in the same way. The previous book is more concerned with life on an exoplanet, and this descends into almost-but-not-quite philosophical discussions on the multiverse. Ultimately, I recommend that one over this one.

Book #112: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)

lwsmaauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English
length: 941 minutes (15 hours 41 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 September 2016

I chose to listen to this audiobook after Audible kept pushing it on me, basically, but I’m glad overall that I chose it. It also coincided with me getting on my bike more often as the weather mellowed out at the beginning of September, and my sore wrist started healing well enough that I could get on my bike again, so thinking about the book reminds me of going out on my bike and listening to it.

It’s a space opera in the traditional sense of the word, a soap opera in space – it calls to mind things such as Star Trek, and many have compared it to Firefly… but its alien species are much more inventive than either of those (did Firefly even have aliens, come to think of it?). You can do a lot more in book form than it was easy to do on TV in the 20th century without CGI.

Here we have bipedal giant lizards, insectoids, and these blob-shaped things who need mobility scooters and are somehow in effective control of the galaxy. I’ll come back to them later. Having done a bit of cursory research, I’ve realized that I don’t know how to spell any of the names of the aliens (Aandrisk, Aeluon, Quelin, instead of Andrisk, Aluon, and Quellin as they were in my mind), however, and probably most of the characters too – I know at least that the main character is Rosemarie instead of Rosemary. Such are the risks of going with the audiobook version of something.

It follows the story of a “tunneling” ship, whose job it is to create hyperspace links between different parts of the galaxy. They get the job of a lifetime, but it’s going to take them a year to get there. The aforementioned Rosemarie is a new addition to the crew, which is why I think of her as the main character – we’re introduced to the assortment of other characters through her eyes, after all – but each character gets in the limelight eventually. The number of characters is manageable, and they’re all fully fleshed-out by the end of the book. I’m glad the author managed to avoid introducing too many characters. That said, the two “techie” characters blended in my mind, and the narrator wasn’t always good at distinguishing characters by voice, so I still lost track sometimes.

Overall it focuses on these characters and their interactions rather than the grandiose galactic politics going on in the background, and this also worked well in its favour. It does raise some interesting questions using its characters – identity politics is front-and-centre, as it seems it’s not easy to adopt a new identity in this world, and there are other questions raised by interspecies romance (interspecies lesbian romance also features, which is nice!), and even human-AI romance. There’s also a religious question with one species. The author is sending out a message of tolerance, which is nice. She’s also obsessed with sex, I think – so much of the novel is devoted to the different sexual mores of the other species.

I liked it, and I enjoyed the road-trip, episodic nature of it, although (spoilers!) the climax was a bit… anti-climactic. I liked seeing all the different species and I also thought it was good that they didn’t all speak the same language – the main characters speak “Clip”, and the others don’t necessarily do so. Something else I read recently was guilty of using “universal translators”, which might as well be magic. I also liked that it fits into a wider sci fi canon – it uses “ansibles” (a kind of hyperspace communicator), popularized by Ursula LeGuin way back when and used by many other authors since (Orson Scott Card, for example). I liked the glimpses we got into how the culture and technology has changed since the present day, like “scribs”, the author’s word for iPad-like tablets (I’ve noticed these show up in a lot of sci fi recently, and no authors seem to want to call them tablets), although she abbreviates “ansible” to “sib”, so this was confusing for me, as the words sound the same.

I did have a few problems with it, though. First off, the “human culture” that she describes (averse to touch, likes handshakes, and all that) is very America-centric. True, humans don’t go to the extent of her Aandrisks, who are more like bonobo chimps in their sexual proclivity, but it was that and a few other points that made me want to introduce the author to cultures outside her own in the real world.

Similarly, the term “solar year” should be “Earth year” or “terran year” or something – the main character Rosemarie grew up on Mars, so her solar year should be different. It’s a minor point, but it bothered me. The book has its own calendar, using “GC standard years” (GC is… galactic core?), but it’s never explained what this means other than that it’s longer than an earth year. It uses “tendays” instead of “weeks” and “months”, which I think would look good in print, but is often ambiguous when said out loud (the narrator reads “tendays later”, with a meaning like “about a month later”, the same as she would say “ten days later”). That said, the author uses new words relatively sparingly for a sci-fi novel, and it’s easy to get used to the new words.

The bigger thing I had a problem with was the treatment of gender across different species. The author and some reviews have made a big deal of the use of gender-neutral pronouns (xe and xir, or something like that). I’m ambivalent about these in real life anyway, as I don’t think they sound natural, and the narrator stumbled over them a few times. Most places where they’re used it’s in a place where it’d be more natural in English to use epicene “they” – but “they” is reserved for a character who considers themselves an amalgamation of two minds. I got a bit annoyed by the idiosyncracy here, really, but I don’t really mind, because they’re not supposed to be speaking English, so this is like a translation-convention kind of deal.

OK, so that’s fine, but I was expecting there to be a stronger motivation for having a separate epicene pronoun in the first place, and it turns out all of Chambers’ alien species had male/female dichotomic sexual reproduction. Even the insectoids and the aliens that look like blobs. Some transferred from female in earlier life to male later, and one has parthenogenesis in some females, but I found that the few times the epicene pronouns were even used, it was the situation where the other characters didn’t know their gender yet. The situation where modern English always uses “they”, even transphobic grammar-nazis. Honestly, I’d have liked to have seen an alien species which genuinely had no genders.

There was a point when the author pointed out in-story that, yes, all her species are based on DNA, and I think sexual reproduction was probably part of that package. I think this was so that she could work in a familiar framework when designing new species, and so that they could all eat each other’s food, but that doesn’t have to mean a binary gender system for everyone. For all the inventiveness of Chambers’ biological diversity, the lack of diversity in gender and sex systems bothered me more than just the use of invented pronouns, which is a really minor thing.

But even that’s pretty minor. The book is fun, and there’s a lot to like about it. As I mentioned above, I liked a lot of things about it. I think it’s a strong debut from the author, and I hope that some other people have read it. I have more thoughts about this that I don’t really have space for, by the way. I’ve already said enough – it’s always the ones I like that I write more about, after all. Maybe we could discuss it – leave your thoughts down below if you agree/disagree!

Book #109: The Long Cosmos (2016)

The-Long-Cosmosauthors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 385 pages
finished on: 25 July 2016
others in this series: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Terry Pratchett’s still turning out to be prolific beyond the grave, it turns out – this is the second book released in the Long Earth since he passed away last year. Apparently the last chapters were finished off by Stephen Baxter alone, in fact.

This picks the characters up as old men – the character Joshua Valienté is now in his sixties or seventies, and goes off for a final trip through the Long Earth, that strange multiverse introduced in the previous books in the series. He’s very similar to the authors’ ages now, and they wrote this very successfully, I thought. He gets trapped somewhere when he gets injured, and is taken care of by a troll, one of the other species of hominids that can step from world to world.

So where The Long Utopia, the fourth book, was about Valienté’s family history, and the history of the Long Earth by extension, this book explores the other species of the Long Earth, including the trolls, and what they call “elves”, introduced in the first book and almost forgotten since then. The trolls are depicted as a gorilla on the front cover, which I don’t think is accurate – it should be more like Homo erectus, or like neanderthals, from the descriptions in the book. They can also communicate with the human characters using a kind of translator microphone thing, briefly mentioned a few books ago, although somehow humans and trolls can’t truly learn each other’s language – this is hand-waved away a few times by saying the grammar doesn’t match properly. I liked this look into trolls – they were always elusive before, and even disappeared completely during one of the stories.

Not to deliberately spoil anything, but the book ends with a very grandiose cosmic tying together of loose threads, with a philosophical justification for the Long Earth that I didn’t buy completely. It’s at this point that I start to tease out Baxter’s style from Pratchett’s, which I found difficult to do in the first book, but having now read two of Baxter’s books – Proxima and its sequel Ultima, which I’ve yet to review – these both have similar themes, exploring the nature of the multiverse with slightly far-fetched explanations. Despite this, I was overall satisfied with the book’s conclusion. Of course, I only recommend it if you’ve read the other books first!