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Book 54: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014)

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9781473619814Location: Red Peppers…on one of the rainiest days in living memory in Birmingham. We practically could have swum there.

Theme: Sci-fi

Chosen by: Lorna

The theme suggestion of sci-fi has been banded around a few times, but this is perhaps the first sci-fi book we’ve actually gone for—in part because we were all given a free copy thanks to World Book Night. A beautiful velvet-feel-cover paperback at that.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet follows the quirky crew of the Wayfarer, a battered spaceship that’s been patched together. The novel kicks off when new crewmate Rosemary arrives, a human from Mars with a secret. The crew are a melting pot of species, from the very affectionate reptilian pilot Sissix to the Sianat pair navigator Ohan, and the centipede/otter-looking Dr Chef. The crew take on wormhole-building missions around the galaxy, including one large and particularly dangerous mission to the far side of space.

So, it’s probably worth mentioning that none of us particularly like sci-fi. Most of our reviews started with “Well I don’t read much sci-fi” or “I avoid sci-fi books like the plague”, so kudos to Becky Chambers for the fact that we all finished reading the book, which believe me doesn’t always happen. What’s more, all but one of us enjoyed it. So while the book has taken some criticism for not being “pure sci-fi”, this may well be the reason that most of us were onboard with it.

At 432-pages long, Chambers does a magnificent job of worldbuilding, or should I say universe building. The descriptions of the universe are incredibly detailed, with possibly too much technical detail at times and that was sometimes hard to imagine. While this slowed down some of the readers, the sequel might be an easier read since the characters and histories are somewhat familiar.

Indeed, there are many planets, species, and histories described in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet —the universe, known as the Galactic Commons, is wide. As such, the novel is very well-written, and it’s clear that Chambers has a brilliant imagination and knows her stuff, possibly thanks to her parents’ jobs in space science. As succinctly summed up by Claire, “Good on her—she’s created a world, a universe, a solar system.”

Overall, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, being more character- and relationship-driven than action-packed. The novel feels more about the characters’ interactions, including inter-species relationships, speciesism, and prejudice, leading to it being donned “a space opera”. The variety of characters were enough to keep us entertained without a strong plot, and it feels like you really get to know the characters and their relationships. Some of the characters are particularly interesting, especially the ship’s AI Lovey and the adorable Kizzy knitting hats for the ship’s robots.

But if you’re expecting the book to suddenly “happen”, you’ll be disappointed. As such, some of us felt that the action-driven elements felt a little formulaic and could be more dynamic. Rosemary’s secret and story could have unravelled in a more momentous way, instead falling a little flat. And the ending was a tad soppy and sentimental.

However, these points are forgivable since Chambers does a fantastic job of delivering commentary on the human race from an “alien” perspective through the characters. Particularly the descriptions of bloodthirsty humans that the rest of the universe feel are pretty stupid having destroyed their own environment—““No good can come from a species at war with itself”. Some of the observations of humankind are profound, hinting at issues such as politics, racism, and gender, but in a subtle way that still feels like fiction.

What makes The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet even more interesting was that Chambers originally self-published the book and gained a cult following that led to a publisher and further book contracts, not to mention being shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. This is especially poignant considering that Chambers almost gave up on the book, feeling that nobody would want to read it, and eventually finished it thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. What an inspiration to all of us.

I’ll leave you with a few enjoyable quotes from the book:

“All you can do, Rosemary – all any of us can do – is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.”

“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”

“She would never, ever understand the idea that a child, especially an infant, was of more value than an adult who had already gained all the skills needed to benefit the community. But a real tragedy was the loss of an adult with friends and lovers and family. The idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around.”

Score: 7 – well there’s a surprise.

If you’ve read the book, feel free to score it out of 5 with the voting buttons.

Book 53: Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

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Image result for ottessa moshfegh eileen

Location: 1847 – wonderful veggie food, as always.

Theme: Christmas

Chosen by: Ameesha

We always struggle to choose a “Christmas” themed book—it seems like they’ve all been read to death—but Eileen, with its wintry cover, captured our attentions. It wasn’t exactly Christmassy, with its alcoholism and digestive discomfort, and it was as a far a U-turn as we could have made from the previous happy-ever-after Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend. Yet … it made an impression on us. Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel seemingly made a big impression elsewhere too, being shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and garnering much critical acclaim.

As summarised succinctly by the Washington Post, “You have never read anything remotely like Eileen”. 24-year-old Eileen lives in her rundown Boston home with her alcoholic ex-cop father. She works at a men’s prison and fantasises about one of the guards. She wears her dead mother’s clothes. Nothing much happens. Then mysterious redhead Rebecca starts working at the prison and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eileen. That’s all you really need to know.

Despite the misleading and inaccurate marketing of Eileen as a “taut psychological thriller”, the novel is more a character study of a self-loathing, miserable, half-prudish, half-perverted young women stuck in an unhappy family dynamic. Told from the in-depth and unreliable perspective of Eileen, the reader discovers, in minute detail, Eileen’s base desires, perversions, and digestive ailments.

Described as “gratuitous” by some critics, at times the novel borders on disgusting, and the grubby Eileen is often hard to like. Yet at other times, her honest depiction is relatable, as Eileen tries to fade into the background, and Eileen’s unhappy life elicits the reader’s sympathy. The scene-setting creates a cold, dark atmosphere, and the novel feels enjoyably moody. Despite little happening, Eileen is strangely intriguing, almost like a morbid curiosity keeps you reading.

The novel is certainly polarising, with our reviews ranging from “loved it” to “over-laboured”, “tells it like it is”, and “the opposite of fluffy”, scoring between a 4 and a 9. Some of us wanted more of Rebecca (we also couldn’t help but wonder whether she was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca), others wanted to know more about Eileen’s post-Boston life, some were waiting for something to happen, and Theresa just wanted “to give Eileen a good scrub”.

While the character development is strong, it felt that the ending was rushed after such a lengthy build up. Perhaps the unusual style is because Moshfegh first attempted to write the book in 90 days following The 90-day Novel by Alan Watt—primarily because she felt the notion was a joke. But since Moshfegh described herself as “broke” beforehand, she’s probably laughing all the way to the bank now.

If you’re looking for a slick, fast-paced action thriller, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something different, Eileen is a fascinating read. Let us know what you thought of Eileen using the voting buttons.

Book Club 13: The Anniversary of The Unconventional Book Club

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Discussion location: Las Iguanas, The Arcadian – Latin American cuisine.

In contrast to our previous meetings, we decided to celebrate our anniversary by discussing our favourite and least favourite books, and the reasons we love or loathe them.

First for our favourites


Becki: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.  In particular, Book 2, The Subtle Knife as I could re-read it forever.

 


Lorna: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I first read it aged 13 and it is one of the few books I still get pleasure from re-reading, it makes me smile and puts me in a good mood.

 


Fiona: Tommy’s Tale by Alan Cummings as it is filthy and hilarious and makes me laugh, is also a short read!

 


Rachael: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende as I found it in Australia under a bed and as it was so battered I thought it must be good, I was blown away by it and didn’t want to leave the hostel for days just so I could read it.

 

Theresa: Little Women by Louisa Alcott, it made me want to grow my hair long enough to be able to cut it short.

 


Ameesha: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as really identified with it as a teenager, felt I could have written it as it articulated my feeling so well.  Probably worrying considering Plath committed suicide.

 


Susan: The L-shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, had a big impact on me, my English teacher in school saw that I was getting disengaged with literature so lead me to their secret cupboard and gave me this book to read, which I loved and made me see faith in literature again.

Now our least favourites


Becki: Anais Nin’s Spy in the House of Love.  I was recommended it by a friend and it was one of the few books I couldn’t finish, I read 20 pages of clumsy metaphors about opening flowers and gave up.

 


Lorna: Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, I was disappointed that I couldn’t give it O stars on Amazon.

 


Fiona: Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers – it was awful and diabolical.

 


Rachael: Adrian Mole – I hated it, hated the TV adaptation; domestic, depressing and mundane.

 

Theresa: The Lady’s Maid (I’m not sure which one, there seems to be two!) It had a predictable, happy ending that made me think, I could write this!


Ameesha: Room by Emma Donoghue, I hated the child writing style, it felt contrived.

 

 
Susan: A Clockwork Orange,  as it was tedious and I had to keep checking the dictionary.

 

What are your favourites and least favourites?