Just One Damned Thing After Another: Jodi Taylor

★★★★

The Chronicles of St Mary’s: Book I

Madeleine Maxwell – short, opinionated redhead – is a maverick. She’s also an historian, which amounts to much the same thing. At school, Max is saved by her teacher Mrs De Winter, who channels her disruptive tendencies into a deep passion for history. Many years later, having gained her PhD from the University of Thirsk, Max has a second reason to thank Mrs De Winter, who puts her up for a job at the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The historians of St Mary’s have a public reputation as eccentric, shabby and lovable: a band of chaotic academics who pursue the bits of history that others don’t reach. How do you drive a quadriga? How far could Icarus have flown? What are the constituents of Greek fire? But the initiated soon learn a different story. Once Max has passed her interview, she enters a thrilling world where ‘practical history’ takes on a whole new meaning. For St Mary’s have discovered the secrets of time-travel, and there are no limits to their research. A roistering tale of historical skulduggery, physics, and plenty of tea, this is a glorious, geeky gem of a book: historian’s catnip.

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Becky Chambers

★★★★

Wayfarers: Book I

Despite enjoying the recent reboot of the Star Trek series, I’ve never been much of a girl for spaceship-based sci-fi. However, I’ve been seeing this book pretty much everywhere for the last three years, and my powers of resistance only go so far. And what a pleasure it was to finally read it! Equal parts space opera and character piece, it takes us onto the tunnelling ship Wayfarer – scruffy, banged together, and home to a hugely lovable crew. This is more a story about friendship, compassion, tolerance and cooperation than it is about techno-jargon or deep-space exploration: at its heart is a group of people, of various species, who have lived and worked together long enough that they have become a kind of endearingly dysfunctional family. And, as the novel opens, they have a new addition to their numbers: Rosemary Harper, freshly-trained clerk and space newbie, who is willing to go to the other end of the galaxy to escape her past.

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The Last Children of Tokyo: Yoko Tawada

★★½

I keep reading modern Japanese fiction in the hope that, one day, it will suddenly all make sense; but it hasn’t happened yet. This slim little book is, for the most part, a gentle and achingly tragic tale of a near future that feels all too plausible. Environmental and nuclear catastrophe has led to political isolationism, mass extinction and the reversal of the natural order: the old remain spry and sprightly into extreme old age, while the children suffer from genetic mutations and endemic sickness. We watch an old man struggling to care for his great-grandson, and trying to come to terms with the guilt of an entire generation. It all flows along terribly well until the last pages, when a sudden and utterly unnecessary narrative shift leaves you floundering at the final curtain.

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Witchmark: C.L. Polk

★★★½

The Kingston Cycle: Book I

Miles Singer is a psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans’ Hospital, treating men who’ve come back from the front line shattered by their experiences in war. A former soldier himself, Miles knows only too well what they’re going through and he does all he can to help them; but he must be careful not to be too clever with his healing. For Miles is in hiding: a magically-gifted member of one of Aeland’s greatest families, who has escaped his family and his destiny to find his vocation elsewhere. Better that he should help these men, than spend his life as a moderately-talented Secondary, bound as a source to his more talented Storm-Singer sister Grace. Unfortunately, his family don’t agree. And, when a dying man turns up at his hospital one day, with Miles’s real name on his lips, claiming to have been poisoned, Miles will find that he can no longer keep at a distance from his powerful clan. But at what cost? For he isn’t the only one with secrets.

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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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