To Be Taught, If Fortunate (CBR11 #48)

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I knew what to expect from a Becky Chambers book after reading two of her previous novels in the Wayfarers series (which apparently this novella is not part of… but I swear its in the same universe). To Be Taught, If Fortunate would have some vivid writing, exceptional world-building (seriously, what Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build an entirely new environment is insane), and diverse characters. I knew nothing else when picking it up, and I’m glad. I didn’t need to.

Like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this novella is at its heart a road trip story treated in an episodic way, but it’s also so much more. At its core this is a speculative fiction work about where we as a species could be headed in the near future. Our narrator, Ariadne O’Neill is the engineer on OCA spacecraft Merian (crowdsourced space exploration following the defunding of national endeavors) is writing a message sent back to Earth recounting their mission so far. Ariadne is one of four who must balance their mission for exploration of four previously unexplored planets outside our solar system with the domestic dramas of a functional family unit in a small space. Because Chambers is a pro, we do not get caught up in stereotypical space opera style events, even though there is plenty of drama possible.

There is much that I enjoyed about this, including its exploration of somaforming (altering physiology) instead of terraforming to facilitate exploration of far flung planets. Communication is also at the heart of this – how we do it, when we need to, when it can feel like a burden, and what we do when it stops. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly human things I have read in a long time and presented to me something I hadn’t expected (and also gave me a new fear, which thankfully won’t be something I ever personally have to deal with).

Even if you don’t think solarpunk or speculative fiction are for you, I bet this one is.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

Her Body and Other Parties (CBR11 #31)

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Her Body and Other Parties is all about expectations – both the ones on the page for the characters Machado created and for the reader as they come to the much hyped but little described work. I knew going in that the book was pushing boundaries, igniting conversations (the husband stitch, for example), and refused to stick to one genre at any given time, let alone for the entire collection.

Having completed the book I understand why reviewers have, one the whole, been relatively mute on details. There isn’t an easy way to try to capture what Machado is working towards. Her Body and Other Parties is simultaneously gothic and speculative, bending the lines of realistic fiction and fantasy. Most reviews cover “The Husband Stitch” and the novella-within-a-short-story-collection reinterpretation of Law & Order: SVU, “Especially Heinous”, which are admittedly very dramatic and easy to focus on, but my favorite in the collection is a much quieter look at the end of the world, “Inventory”. Machado takes one woman’s coping mechanism (list making) to recount a component of one’s life not often so honestly and quietly spoken of (bisexual sexual history) that in turn tells the story of the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic. It reminded me of Station Eleven in all the best ways while taking the appropriate sized bite of a narrative.

Because, that is my complaint about this collection, and it pains me to have a complaint at all with such a well-written, mechanically beautiful collection. Machado swings big in this, and sometimes it feels that she overshoots what is currently within her powers. “The Husband Stitch” plays with its origin points and makes a larger point, right up until it doesn’t – the landing is missed. Once I noticed that in the first story, I noticed it again in several other places. It is such a tough line in novellas, finding the right amount of story to tell. I’m hopefully Machado continues to refine her technique, because she is one of the few people working in this medium that I know I want to read again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

All Systems Red (CBR10 #57)

Bless Cannonball Read, praise be for friends who you know share a similar taste in books, and let the world rejoice for Murderbot. I’ll be using a slightly modified plot summary from Goodreads because, well, I’m really tired.:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are (required to be) accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder (you’re shocked, I know), safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant (uninhabited) planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is (and go back to watching the serials on the feeds). But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.”

I have a very hit and miss relationship with novellas, but Martha Wells seems to have nailed just the right amount of characterization and world building and forward momentum of the plot without the equation going out of balance. I identified with Murderbot from very early on – Wells has written an android that has depression and social anxiety, and is generally apathetic about the whole “life” thing.

It’s subtle in the best possible meaning of the word. The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective and we are thrown into a world where we are at the whims of said apathetic android to piece the world together.  As Murderbot becomes more invested (particularly in keeping tits entertainment feed and keeping its rating from going any lower), we learn more about why the humans are where they are and why.

Murderbot’s deadpan delivery and dark humor underline how it views itself. While self-aware and in control, Murderbot still prefers to be thought of as just another piece of equipment. Due to that, it struggles to finds ways to keep itself separate from the humans while still performing its job of keeping the humans alive. I was pulled in by the sheer uncomfortableness Murderbot feels – it gets injured early in the book and I frankly aghast at its failing human parts and fluids and just wants to be left in peace to regenerate. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing and humans looking at it and seeing the details of  said personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious. This is definitely a different way into unpacking a story about relationships and our humanity.

It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”

I’ll be picking up the next three in the series for my holiday travel reading.

Her Every Wish (CBR10 #28)

Her Every Wish (The Worth Saga) by [Milan, Courtney]

For my next review and #CBR10Bingo square, let’s stay on brand, shall we? This morning I woke up unconscionably early and decided I had time for a novella before I had to deal with the day: so off to my bingo list and the award-winning novella by Courtney Milan, Her Every Wish.

Her Every Wish won the 2017 RITA for Romance Novella. The RITA awards are given by the Romance Writers of America, aims to promote excellence in the genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas (there is a separate award, The Golden Heart, for unpublished work). It is a wide field, up to 2,000 romance novels are entered in the competition into one of over a dozen categories (that number fluctuates year to year). There are two rounds of judging and the winners are announced each year at the RWA conference in July.

As beloved as she is, it is hard for me to believe that this was her first win and her second nomination, but Romancelandia is a wide and busy place and whether it affects things or not, Milan self-publishes. For those wondering, she was nominated a third time this year for her novella “The Pursuit of…” in Hamilton’s Battalion, a collection sitting on my digital shelf, and her first nomination was in 2014 for The Countess Conspiracy. I’ve not read the book which precedes this one, Once Upon a Marquess, as it was a bit of a disappointment to others and this series is still early in the writing stage, and set to be seven novels long. I had decided to wait it out until there was more of the series to read (although Emmalita’s review of After the Wedding got me to purchase that book and this one). In broad strokes Milan is endeavoring to continue her feminist romance mission but adding even more to the expected tropes of historic romances set in England. Milan is an author on a mission to stop the whitewashing of history and include people of color and a variety of sexual identities into her work.

This novella focuses on Daisy and Crash. Daisy is the daughter of a failed grocer, her mother is in ill health, and financial security is a memory. The local parish announces a Christmas charity bequest to help young people start a trade; she sees it as her last chance to get her wish of security for herself and her mother. Her only problem – the grants are intended for men, but it didn’t say so explicitly so she’s attempting to bluff her way into a future. It all goes as roughly a one might expect for 1860s London and her former beau, Crash, steps in the help her succeed as best he can. Crash comes with his own baggage – his family line is filled with slaves, whores, and sailors, he has no idea his true heritage, and the world would not let him forget it, but he has been raised to do his best to keep going. He is determined to help Daisy keep going for her own sake.

In its short 100 pages Milan packs her novella with plot and characters, but also with the robust themes of learning how to accept someone as they are, for who they are, and finding value in yourself, of being worthy of your own wishes. It was an uplifting, jam-packed Milan novella in the style of some of my favorites, without the drawbacks of some of her missteps in the past. I am not at all surprised, and a bit glad, to know that this won last year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Romancing the Werewolf (CBR10 #5)

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In some ways my CBR history is the history of my reading Gail Carriger books. The third book I ever reviewed for Cannonball was Carriger’s Soulless book. Heck it and the next three books in the Parasol Protectorate series make four of my first 10 reviews. Carriger showed back up in my reading in CBR6 as I started her Finishing School books (a prequel series) which spread out over Cannonballs 7 & 8. I am a big Carriger fan; I enjoy her online presence, and find the tempo of her writing fun and soothing. When last year I saw that her second novella in this universe was going to focus on the love story of two of my favorite supporting characters from the Parasol Protectorate books, Professor Lyall and Biffy, I pre-ordered it to read at the end of CBR9. Of course, it ended up in the beginning of CBR10 instead because that’s just how I roll.

While this is a perfectly serviceable romance novella and an interesting piece of Carriger’s Steampunk Universe I made a mistake. In the Note on Chronology Carriger tells us readers that her Supernatural Society novellas can be read in any order, and that this book takes place chronologically after the events of Imprudence (in 1895), and ties romantically to events in Timeless. I focused on the Timeless portion of that sentence but I should have paid closer heed to the Imprudence part as I have read a sum total of zero of the Custard Protocol books which follow the Soulless books in chronological order.  I should have just gone and spoiled myself so the setup made more sense.

That said, this novella still has all the things I love about Carriger’s writing: her brand of humor, werewolves, vampires, fancy dress and hats, intrigue, and a quick little mystery to solve, and a peak into an alternate Victorian England. It also is a sweet romance between two characters who have been separated for a long time and aren’t sure what they are to each other anymore. Any time spent with Biffy and Lyall is time well spent. I wish there was a little more ahem, romance, in this novella, but I’ll take what I can get.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Hangman (CBR9 #18)

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A moment of fair warning: I did not enjoy this Gamache short story very much. However, I have come to find out that it was written for a good cause, and I feel a bit of an asshat for not enjoying it. Louise Penny wrote the book for an initiative put on by ABC Life Literacy Canada, which aims to increase life literacy skills. The Good Reads program specifically aims to have inexpensive and short books anyone learning English or English speakers learning to read later in life. For more information, Louise Penny has you covered.

So this book wasn’t for me, and if I had done a little more research I would have known that before diving in, but I have an Armand Gamache problem, so I probably would have read this anyway. I love him. I’m also a completest. C’est la vie.

This novella sees Gamache and Beauvoir back in Three Pines following the events of Bury Your Dead. There’s been a man found hanging from a tree. The man was a guest at the Gilbert’s Inn and in quick order the medical examiner and Gamache agree that this man did not commit suicide, but was instead murdered. Gamache and Beauvoir gather the evidence to determine who killed this man, and why.

While I was reading, I had the distinct impression that this story was not fully formed. It was, it has all the requisite pieces and plot points, but it felt underdone to use a baking metaphor. It makes sense looking back as to why this would be, but I have to say I prefer my Gamache books to be a fully cooked and prepared banquet.

On to book number 7, A Trick of the Light. Soonish.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.