Thoughts: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

So, given all the Covid-19 that’s going around, it’s probably a good time to catch up on reading, yes? I have a bit of a (totally normal) cold right now, so I’m feeling particularly sympathetic to the quarantiners.

And happy coincidence, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a good choice for comfort reading. It is just lovely. Spoilers will follow so if you haven’t read it yet, save it up for when you might need it and don’t read this.

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Thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

I mean I’m going to open with this: if you want to read the thoughts of people much more interesting and intelligent than me, read the (wonderful) Guardian reading group’s posts on it, and the comments. My thoughts are not going to be this informed or thoughtful.

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Thoughts: Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss

When I was a wee bairn, I was nosing around the stalls at my primary school’s summer fayre with a few pound my parents had given me to amuse myself and raise whatever funds those fayres were for (they were spelt that way, I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules), and I stopped at the secondhand books stall, because it is the best stall. One of the books waiting for new homes ticked a lot of my boxes – it was thick (good), sci fi (good) with an exciting front cover including weird flying snakes (awesome), so I duly parted with my money and took my new baby home.

That book was not Non-Stop. It was Helliconia Spring, also by Brian Aldiss, and it blew my little mind. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it, either old primary school or new secondary school (I had a string of relatives at that primary school after me so I frequented the summer fayres for years after I’d left) but I’d never read anything even vaguely like Helliconia Spring. For years I kept my eye out for the others in the trilogy, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, until I eventually gave up believing that our little North Eastern town would ever have something so weird and cool and old in it. When you grew up in Teesside in the 90s and early 00s, you sometimes just had to put these dreams on hold. Finishing old sci fi trilogies was something for other people, not for you. We had one indie bookshop (since closed when the owner retired) and a Waterstones had opened in Middlesbrough, which was dedicated to the new and/or popular (still there), a pair of small libraries (consolidated into one affordable monthly library now, though they did sometimes turn up absolute gold) and a host of charity shops (thriving). And yes, I could have asked our indie bookshop to order in the others, but I was young and didn’t know this was a thing.

Anyway, not long before I moved to Germany, I finally got my hands on the SF Masterworks edition of the Helliconia trilogy (a gift from a fabulous friend). I finally got to finish the story, and my mind was blown once again.

When Brian Aldiss died in 2017, I put Non-Stop on my TBR list. It was an arbitrary choice, because Brian Aldiss has written a hell of a lot of stories, and I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I chose his first novel because why not start at the beginning?

Probably spoilers ahead! If you want to read the book, I’d recommend just diving in not knowing much about it.

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Thoughts: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would! Not because I was thinking ugh I will hate this book, better read it, because I uh definitely never do that (let me kick Thomas Wolfe under this carpet here), but I guess when I heard the premise (women evolve an electrical organ they can use to stun/incapacitate/kill) and (forgive me) that Margaret Atwood had mentored the author* I had a certain image in my head.

Anyway let’s dive in. Spoiler warning.

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Thoughts: Findings, by Kathleen Jamie

This is going to be a short one, partly because I’m implausibly still full of cold and partly because I just couldn’t think of a lot to say about this one – but not in a bad way.

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Thoughts: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is in a genre of book that I tend not to gravitate towards but pretty much always enjoy when it finds its way into my hands – long, sprawling family saga. I don’t know why exactly I don’t seek them out myself – maybe I just don’t know enough about them to feel like I can make a good choice, or maybe there are just too many books in the world that remain impolitely unread by me.

The upside of this is I am surrounded by people with good taste in literature, so when a long, sprawling family saga does find its way into my hands, I can be assured I’m going to enjoy myself.

Pachinko follows a Korean family from a hardscrabble life under Japanese rule in Korea to immigration to Japan, living through the war, the hard postwar years and up to Japan’s economic boom in the 80s, and all the while navigating the brutal structural oppression built into Japanese society.

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Thoughts: Wagner the Werewolf, by George W. M. Reynolds

I’ve been meaning to get back around to writing my book thoughts for a while (let’s not talk about how long) but reading Wagner the Werewolf has been an irresistible lure to let myself get dragged back into it.

In short, Wagner the Werewolf is a classic penny dreadful, written by a man who appears to have been fiercely progressive for his time but so personally unpleasant that nobody wanted to work with him. This man outsold Dickens in his time. Remember that all the way through this journey.

First things first, I thoroughly loved this book. I had an absolutely fantastic time from beginning to end, and gleefully shared various excerpts on my Twitter. There are about fifty different plots going on, the language is not so much purple as ultraviolet, and the only thing missing is the werewolf action. Wagner only changes about three times, and though he does kill people (and snakes, and swans) every time, it’s mostly from running into them really fast. Spoilers galore will occur below, you have been warned.

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Thoughts: The Fall of Gondolin, by JRR Tolkien

So. Been a while. Moving on.

After frying my brain with Nnedi Okorafor in German, I tret myself to some pure comfort reading, going back to the start of my love affair with the speculative literary genres. When I was seven my dad gave me his copy of The Hobbit and that was that. When I was eleven I borrowed his satisfyingly fat copy of The Lord of the Rings and my mind was blown. That was it. I taught myself (incompetently) the elvish script in which to write all my secrets, and discovered The Silmarillion and invented fanfiction. I wrote terrible epic poetry and filled in gaps and spent altogether too much time thinking about Feanor’s sons (Maedhros 4 lyf, don’t @ me).

It’s probably important to point out that I’m the worst kind of reader – I loved every song in The Lord of the Rings. I would sit and memorise whole stretches from the Lays of Beleriand, which I found in our local library, now sadly gone. I could genuinely recite the whole bit where Sauron and Finrod have their rap battle, right up to And Finrod fell before the throne, which still gives me chills, and about which I could probably talk for hours.

I’m not much of a nerd compared to some, but I am exactly the kind of fantasy reader other fantasy readers think gives them a bad name. Sorry guys. It’s just who I am.

The Fall of Gondolin is a gorgeous illustrated hardback dealing with the end of the city of Gondolin throughout Tolkien’s work. It gathers the different versions of the event in various unfinished poems, putting together the fragments of a full story that was never quite told. The whole history of the writing down of these stories is almost as interesting as the stories themselves, how they were picked up and put down and fought for, and how Tolkien needed to fight against the world as well, the paper shortages after the war that remind us that stories and art aren’t only abstract things. They exist in the world, and to an extent have to abide by its rules.

It’s a book for people who are interested in the deep dive, in nosing around all the nuts and bolts and reading different versions of the same story, in which the most detailed and polished one is frustratingly incomplete. As an amateur writer I love reading drafts anyway, and seeing how someone’s ideas change with time, so if this is you, you might enjoy it. Some knowledge of Middle Earth is necessary, though Christopher Tolkien does a pretty excellent job of keeping it all straight and explaining name changes etc.

All in all I loved The Fall of Gondolin (sorry Gondolin), and I was aware all the time I was reading it that I was enjoying it. There were worthier and more challenging books I could have been reading, but I was too busy indulging that young me, feeding her love of fantasy and worldbuilding, inspiring her to keep fighting that long defeat because it’s all we can do. And maybe teaching my present self a thing or two about striving for excellence in my own writing and stories.

Thoughts: Wer Fürchtet den Tod, by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Claudia Kern

Right, let’s skip the apology for taking so long and just assume it at the beginning of every post, OK? OK.

Another German book, but this time with a twist – it was translated FROM English INTO German! The English title is Who Fears Death. To everyone who read it in English, I apologise in advance for anything I misunderstood because of my imperfect German! I haven’t read the English version.

Also there are spoilers coming!

I was really nervous about this one – it’s a brick, and not just a brick but a sci fi brick, and not just a sci fi brick but a post-apocalyptic African sci fi brick, and my knowledge of the African continent is embarrassingly embryonic, and combined with my child-German I was legitimately worried that it would impair my understanding.

But happy news! Wer Fürchtet den Tod is really clearly written, and the language didn’t impair my understanding. I have skimmed a few Goodreads reviews just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major, and there are a few complaints about the simplicity of the language, but you know what? It really helped me out, so I’m grateful for it.

It occupies this really weird space, half post-nuclear war and half pure fairytale. The scenery and world are very detailed and the images strong, but there are pure fairytale, almost magical details. The main character, Onyesonwu, is a shapeshifter, and her mother can’t speak any higher than a whisper since she was raped (and Onyesonwu conceived), which I couldn’t help seeing symbolism in. The way a lot of the tech is described means it basically functions in the narrative as magic, even when it’s based on real technology. For instance, the device they use to get water from the ambient air is described in the same way as a fantasy novel would describe something magical, and yet something about it recalls (to this white Brit) inventions you’d see shared in Facebook video adverts, designed to make life easier in the developing world. You know the type of thing? Some of the tech had that type of feel – real and rooted to the setting. The book straddled a really interesting line.

It deals with weaponised rape, child soldiers, light-skin/dark-skin discrimination, structural misogyny and FGM, so it’s not an easy or lighthearted read (I learned a lot of words, LET ME TELL YOU), but it’s a powerful one. The way Okorafor deals with FGM in particular is really complex and nuanced. I don’t think any one book should bear the responsibility of being the be-all and end-all of debate about an issue, but I’ve never seen FGM dealt with ever at all in spec fic, and Okorafor has made an incredible contribution to that conversation which needs to be had.

Firstly, FGM is a coming-of-age ritual in the place Onyesonwu and her mother have ended up after her (beautifully drawn) childhood in the desert, and as an outsider both in terms of being new to the village and being mixed race and therefore automatically despised, Onyesonwu wants to belong as much as she can and she sneaks out of her house against her mother’s wishes to participate in the ritual. The other girls who have come of age in the same year as her are all bound together with her by this ritual in a strong friendship. It’s almost a community-building or reinforcing thing, and the village elder women make it look really attractive too, offering a safe space to discuss sex and also taking on themselves the protection of Binta, one of the girls, who has been repeatedly raped by her father.

But it doesn’t last – their intervention with Binta’s father is ineffectual, and the ritual has magically (literally by magic, I mean) destroyed all pleasure in sex for the girls until they marry, which they only realise later. In the end, the injustice of placing the burden of community morals on the unconsenting girls is unignorable, as is the violation of the way in which it’s done.

I do agree with some of the other reviews’ complaints about the middle – the journey does wander a bit, and petty squabbling between the characters overshadows the bigger picture a few times. The end gets a bit mad, but that’s something I enjoy in an ending, to be honest, so your mileage may vary.

Definitely recommend this one, both for the story and for any German learners looking for some practice!

Bookthoughts: Die Entdeckung der Currywurst – Uwe Timm

Okay, it’s been A WHILE, and I’ve read SEVERAL BOOKS, but now it’s time to try to catch up. I was focused on writing at the end of last year, and this year I’ve been trying to submit things because I’m a glutton for rejection and disappointment, and that’s all been compounded by a rough January.

And now I come back to find that WordPress is totally different.

Whatever. On to the book. This is the first book I finished in 2019 – I’m going to catch up here and then go back to 2018, I think. It was given to us when we came to Germany, and until now has been a reminder of my less-than-great German. But I’ve been working on my German, and I finally decided it was time.

Warning, this won’t be a particularly long or insightful post, because the book is short and not in my native language, but let’s get stuck in.

The title of the novella translates to “The Discovery of Currywurst”, referring to the popular German street food of sausage in spicy ketchup-based sauce. There are tons of apocryphal origin stories for currywurst, and this one is decidedly fictional. The narrator is visiting the elderly Lena Brücker, self-styled creator of currywurst, in her nursing home to find out the story. She says quite early on that it was an accident, and if you’re wondering if one day curry powder accidentally falls into ketchup in a happy disaster, then, you know, congratulations, but that’s also not really the story.

Die Entdeckung der Currywurst spends a lot of time flashing back to the last days of World War 2, when the rusted out flasks and old bullet casings the narrator went hunting for as a child were still shiny and in use. During an air raid, young (or not that young) Lena meets a soldier briefly stationed in Hamburg, they end up at her flat, and she inadvertently finds herself hiding him as he inadvertently deserts.

It’s not a story filled with drama and action. It’s quiet and tense, evoking a small community under the immense pressure of a losing war, the shortages from that war, and the psychological control of the Nazis policing everyone’s behaviour so well that people police themselves effectively instead. It drifts from past to present, narration to dialogue with little fanfare. It’s slow and strangely immersive, all these mundane daily details beautifully invoked – and of course living in a world where you have to make coffee from acorns and trade potatoes off the back of a wagon for a flask of petrol isn’t mundane to me.

The love story at its heart is doomed, we know that. But for a while it’s in perfect balance. Right up until the war ends, and Lena doesn’t tell Bremer. Right up until Lena asks if Bremer’s married, and he says he isn’t. But for that short time…

My German is still not perfect – I had to look up a lot of the military words during the war – but even I could appreciate the way Lena’s voice was written, the way it shone through the text. It slowed my reading into her rhythms and made it feel like I was really being told a story. And not just a story about the creation of currywurst, but about luck and connection and what people need, about finding the means of survival and realising that they were inside you all along.