Space Opera: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★

‘In space, everyone can hear you sing’. That tagline more or less sums up the spirit of this novel. When I said that I was looking forward to reading more of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, I wasn’t expecting anything quite like this. I don’t even know if I can conjure up its atmosphere for you. Imagine if Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams got together, drank a bottle of gin, smoked something illegal, watched Velvet Goldmine, and then decided to write an intergalactic, sequin-drenched skit on the Eurovision Song Contest. And turned it up to eleven. It’s mad. No, it’s more than that: it’s exuberantly, gleefully insane. Its labyrinthine sentences spill over the pages like a Victorian lady bursting from a corset several sizes too small. But perhaps the biggest surprise is its humour: an anarchist, deliberately absurdist brand which feels very, very British.

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The Museum of Second Chances: A.E. Warren

★★★

Museums and curators don’t have enough of a place in fiction in my opinion, unless they’re doing something frankly unlikely, like hunting down relics in the Amazon. And so I pounced on this novel about a post-apocalyptic future in which a new society is doing its best to overcome the tragedies of extinction – but at what cost? It starts with a young woman getting her dream job. Unlike other Sapiens teenagers at Thymine Base, Elise Thanton isn’t going to spend her life slaving in the manufacturing factories. On the contrary, she’s about to become the Companion to one of the exhibits at the Base’s Museum of Evolution. Her experiences will lead her to question the justice of the world in which she has grown up, and to confront the very nature of humanity itself.

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New Pompeii: Daniel Godfrey

★★★

New Pompeii: Book I

Any book which begins with a murder attempt at the British Museum is bound to catch my attention. Nick Houghton, a specialist in Roman history who’s struggling to find tenure at a university, is unwillingly caught up in the chaos. With one of his friends deeply implicated in the plot, he expects to be arrested; but instead the unthinkable happens. He is offered a job by the CEO of NovusPart, one of the most powerful and controversial companies in existence. For NovusPart has developed a technology that can cheat history, plucking people out of the ‘timeline’ and transporting them forward in time, saving them from plane crashes, death or disaster. And they’ve decided that Nick is just the person to help them out with their most recent and most ambitious project: the wholesale relocation of the population of Pompeii (in 79 AD) to the present day.

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Tales of Strange Encounters from Tor.com

Tor.com

Time for another collection of short-stories from the reliably thought-provoking archives of Tor.com. This time I’ve selected a group of tales which focus on strange encounters, in which curious creatures add meaning to characters’ mundane lives, or people unearth odd threads in their own family histories. The stories also have a refreshing cultural and historical sweep, stretching from the modern-day anonymity of a big American city, to the parched grasslands of a post-apocalyptic future; to the exotic charm of medieval China and India at the turn of the 20th century.

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The Book of Strange New Things: Michel Faber

★★★★

Peter Leigh believes in miracles. He has escaped a past of alcoholism and addiction, and rebuilt his life with his beloved wife Bea at his side. As a pastor, he hopes to inspire others with the love of God that eventually gave him the strength to break out of his own spiral of destruction. And yet even he is amazed by the marvellous thing that has just happened to him. The vast corporation USIC has selected him, from the hundreds they interviewed, to travel out to the newly-settled world of Oasis, where he will minister to the indigenous population. It’s the greatest missionary opportunity since the days of the early Church. Peter can’t wait to get started. And yet there is one bitterly sad thing about his new adventure. He will have to leave his darling Bea behind.

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Fever Dream: Samanta Schweblin

★★★

Sometimes you feel you’ve completely missed something. You end up suspecting there was a big revelation in the final pages that you completely overlooked and which would have made everything make sense. I feel that may have been the case here, so I’m hoping we can get into a discussion in the comments about exactly what was going on. Schweblin’s novella unfolds in the course of a single unbroken, breathless dialogue. Here is Amanda, lying in the dark in a hospital bed, running out of time. Here, at her side, is David, a young boy who keeps probing her with ruthless questions. They have to find something among the confused tangle of Amanda’s memories: a clue; a moment that will bring everything into focus. But what has happened to Amanda? And who is David?

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Slade House: David Mitchell

★★★

If you’re looking for Slade House, you have to keep your eyes open. The way in is through a little black metal door, set into the wall of narrow Slade Alley, and it can be hard to find. To be precise, it only reveals itself once every nine years on the last Saturday in October. But don’t worry too much about that. If you’re looking for it, chances are you’ve been called. The door will open at your touch and reveal a wonderful garden leading up to an old stone house. You might, for a moment, wonder how these grounds fit into the modern estates you walked past on the way, but this won’t matter for long. You’ll be drawn in, captivated and entranced by the house and its inhabitants. And then, before long (or perhaps it will seem like a long time), you’ll suddenly discover that there’s no way out. Paradise has become prison. And something is coming to get you…

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Under the Skin: Michel Faber

★★★½

Every day, Isserley spends hours driving along the A9, the arterial road which runs like a backbone through Scotland. She’s always on the lookout for hitchhikers, but she has a few ground rules. She only stops for the tall, well-muscled ones. And she loses interest pretty quickly if it turns out that they’re married, or have a girlfriend. You see, Isserley’s very careful. She’s only really interested in the ones no one would miss. The twisted offspring of a sci-fi novel, a murder mystery and an urban legend, Michel Faber’s story plays with expectations in a way that’s fascinating – but deeply disturbing.

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Sparks: David Quantick

★★★

Paul Sparks, commonly known even to his nearest and dearest as Sparks, is a waster. An overgrown man-child, he’s a lazy aficionado of videos, junk food and the pub closest to his ‘office’, where his job involves (infrequently) replicating 1970s t-shirts. It’s a sorry state of affairs, but it has always suited Sparks and it’s only when his girlfriend Alison dumps him in exasperation that Sparks realises he could have handled things a bit better. When he stumbles across a very esoteric website, which suggests the possibility of alternate universes, Sparks comes to a decision. He might have lost Alison in this world, but if there really are parallel worlds out there, he’s determined to search through them until he’s found the one, perfect world, in which he can win her back forever.

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Dystopian Short Stories from Tor.com

Tor.com

Here is the next batch of short stories from Tor.com. I’ve collected together five stories which deal with near futures in which the world has changed: often clearly for the worse, but sometimes for the better with a poignant kick. Here we find people relieving others of pain or emotion; a virus that traps you in a fatal dream of happiness; and the cruelty of the fashion industry taken to extremes. And a reminder, should you need it, that dystopias don’t always need to be outside our own heads…

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