My holiday reading

As mentioned, over the Christmas holiday and a short winter sub break after New Year, I got some good reading done. In keeping with my resolution to review more books, here’s what I enjoyed most from my holiday reading…

0425261018-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson

If you’re already familiar with Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, then her work will need no introduction. If you’re not, then GO AND READ HER BLOG RIGHT NOW. Seriously, now. I’ll wait.

Ok, so now you’ve seen Jenny’s blog and fallen in love with her mix of irreverent humour, baffling stream-of-consciousness ramblings, frank honesty about her mental health, and mildly alarming (ethical) taxidermy collection, you’ll be delighted to know this book delivers on all these counts.

Although we’re not even a month into the year yet, I’m pretty confident that this could be the funniest book I’ll read in 2016. (Although I suspect Jenny’s second book, Furiously Happy, could also be a strong contender… Fun fact, I actually bought Let’s Pretend… because I wanted to read Furiously Happy, but I couldn’t read her second book without reading the first. Because I am a librarian, and ORDER MATTERS. Ahem.) As a tip, if you’re by a hotel pool and want to keep the sun loungers nearest to you free, I’d recommend buying this book, and choking with laughter as you read aloud the chapter about “Stanley, the magical talking squirrel” to you confused other half. Worked wonders: no one bothered us for the whole holiday! (I felt like pointing out it could have been worse – I could have been reading out the bit about the cow’s vagina.)

fantasy_59_december_2015-220x330Queers Destroy Fantasy! Fantasy Magazine Special Issue

Queers Destroy Fantasy! was a stretch goal of the Kickstarter-backed special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Queers Destroy Science Fiction! (which I also read in 2015, and loved, but never got around to reviewing). It was launched following the phenomenal success of 2014’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue Kickstarter, launched to highlight and celebrate women’s contributions to science fiction (and also fantasy and horror, since they raised so much more money than planned!)

The Queers Destroy… Kickstarter was launched to do much the same for LGBTQ writers, and massively succeeded. The SF, Fantasy and Horror (although I am less of a fan of horror writing generally) issues all featured some hugely impressive writing and exciting stories. In the Fantasy issue I read over the holiday, I particularly enjoyed Catherynne M. Valente’s The Lily and the Horn, set in a medieval world where wars are fought by means of lavish, poisoned banquets, with the winning side decided by who survives the longest, and high-born women are trained from childhood in the arts of poisons and antidotes.

As part of my Kickstarter reward for backing these special issues, I also opted for a 12-month digital subscription to Lightspeed Magazine, which has been great for introducing me to a diverse range of talented SFF writers. I’ve really enjoyed reading these each month, and will definitely be continuing my Lightspeed subscription.

Happily, Lightspeed have just launched a Kickstarter for their latest special issue: People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!  If you love good SFF, and agree that #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I’d urge you to back this campaign. They’re already almost up to $20,000 pledged (four times their initial goal of $5,000!), but it’d be great to see them reach the dizzying heights of the previous two campaigns (QDSF raised $54,000, and WDSF raised $53,000!). Plus, there’s some great stretch goals if they hit their higher targets.

0192729292-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Wreckers, by Julie Hearn

According to LibraryThing, I bought Wreckers at the start of January 2013 (probably in the Kindle sale, but I actually can’t remember as it was so long ago!) That makes three years between buying a book and reading it. This, THIS, is why I need to be restrained from buying books.

As soon as I’d started this book, I wished I hadn’t waited so long to read it. It’s had some mixed reviews, and I can see it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.

Set on the Cornish coast in a post-apocalyptic Britain (the details of the apocalypse are sketchy, and fairly incidental to the plot), and inspired by the myth of Pandora’s Box, this story follows a group of young people who, after daring each other to spend the night in an abandoned mansion, inadvertently release an ancient evil.

Which would be a fairly solid young adult thriller, if as described above. What makes this book stand out though is its mixing of the fantastical, mythological elements of the story, with the very mundane world these bored but ambitious teenagers inhabit, with the sense of a doomed world created by the hints dropped about the apocalypse – which seems to have been a combination of a massive terrorist attack on London, swiftly followed by (unconnected) global environmental catastrophe.

I thought the characterisation was excellent. The narrative switches between four of the teenagers as narrators (the fifth we never hear from directly, which is a shame as I think she could have been an interesting character), and they’re all distinctly voiced and well-drawn.

It’s a quick read – I read most of it on the journey home from holiday – but entertaining and thought-provoking. I now feel I need to go through my Kindle to see what other gems I’ve left languishing, unread for years!

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Books I enjoyed in May and June

Here’s what’s been keeping me out of trouble over the last month or so…

The Crane Wife book coverThe Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

One night, George Duncan – decent man, a good man – is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.

The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George’s shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.

Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.

I’m a huge fan of Patrick Ness, and I’ve wanted to read The Crane Wife since it was first published. I have an unofficial ban on buying new books at the moment (trying to conquer my Mount TBR once again!), and it’s never available in the library, so I was resigned to waiting some time to read this one! Therefore I was delighted to see a copy left on the shelf of the Huddersfield station book swap (a relatively new addition, and one I can see coming in very handy!) as I was waiting for a train a few weeks ago.

I’d only ever read Patrick Ness’ young adult books before, so wasn’t really sure what to expect from this. It’s a fable, beautifully told, but also very much an adult book. I was delighted to discover that Ness is just as accomplished a writer for adults as he is for teens. His prose is absolutely beautiful (a few choice quotes made it into my Tumblr) and I loved the story. I’m not familiar with the original Japanese folk tale that Ness takes as his inspiration (although I understand he’s altered the story a fair amount), but I found the story really moving and simple. One of those books I really didn’t want to end!

The Last West coverThe Last West, by Evan Young, Lou Iovino, and Novo Malgapo

The Last West is an alternate history, noir epic that imagines a world where all progress grinds to a halt in 1945 with the failure of the first test of the atomic bomb. But not just scientific advancement stops—all technological, artistic, and social progress also ceases. The war with Japan continues, unending. And, the one man who knows why this has happened and who has the power to jumpstart the world again must grapple with one of the most important issues of our time: What is the price of progress? And, is he willing to pay it?

I backed this graphic novel on Kickstarter, so have been waiting some time to read it! That’s actually one of the things I like about Kickstarter – sometimes the project lead in time is so long, you almost forget you’ve backed something until you get the reward. I’ve heard some people say that’s exactly what they don’t like about it though, so ymmv I guess.

If you like alternate history, I thoroughly recommend this. It’s a really interesting vision of a future (well, present) where all scientific and cultural progress ground to a halt 70 years ago. I really enjoyed all the background detail in it – I tend to read graphic novels too fast and miss a lot of the artwork (because I’m used to just reading words!) but this, I really took my time with and savoured the detail. It’s a cracking story too – I’m looking forward to Volume 2! There’s still (just!) enough time to back the second instalment on Kickstarter – if you missed the first one, there’s reward options that’ll allow you to catch up too.

Sworn Virgin cover

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones (translated by Clarissa Botsford)

Hana Doda is an ambitious literature student in cosmopolitan Tirana. Mark Doda is a raki-drinking, chain-smoking shepherd, living alone deep in the Albanian mountains. In fact, they are the same person. When Hana’s dying uncle calls her home from the city, he asks her to marry a local boy in order to run the household. Unable to accept the arranged marriage but resolved to remain independent, she must vow in accordance with Albanian tradition to live the rest of her life in chastity as a man – and becomes Mark. There is no way back for a sworn virgin.

Years later Mark receives an invitation to join a cousin in Rockville, Maryland. This is Mark’s chance to escape his vow and to leave Albania for modern America. But what does he know about being a woman?

I’ve been a subscriber to ace indie publisher And Other Stories for about a year and a half now, and they keep delivering absolute gems like this! It’s a fascinating look at the tradition of sworn virgins in Albanian culture, a moving meditation on gender, identity, loyalty and family ties, and a cracking good story – all at the same time! Wonderful stuff.

Women Destroy Science Fiction! Lightspeed Magazine special issue

It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t, or can’t, write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties.

So, to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED’s June 2014 issue is a double-sized special issue: an all-science fiction extravaganza entirely written—and edited!—by women.

Another Kickstarter special! This was a marvellous triumph of crowdfunding – set up as a reaction to some sad individuals claiming that women were destroying science fiction, Lightspeed were initially seeking $5,000 to fund a women-only issue. Ambitious target, yes? Well, with a resounding cry of…

Shut up and take my money!

…science fiction fans from all over the internet coughed up a stunning $53,136 between us. That’s right, more than 10 times the funding goal! Awesome stuff.

I almost thought, after all the excitement of the Kickstarter, the issue itself might feel a bit anticlimactic. What if the stories just weren’t that good?? Delighted to say that fear was completely unfounded – there’s some wonderful writing in this issue. I must admit, I’m a bit out of the loop when it comes to contemporary science fiction, so maybe this kind of stuff is all around but I just don’t see it – but I was really struck by how, well, interesting it all was. I sometimes think, in sci fi, you occasionally have to choose between really interesting ideas and really good writing and storytelling. Not here: the stories in this issue have both in spades. I was hooked from the first story, Each to Each by Seanan McGuire (whose work I will certainly be seeking out!), in which women submariners are genetically modified into mermaids. Other standouts for me included Cuts Both Ways by Heather Clitheroe, about the disastrous effect on mental and physical health of cyborg-created perfect memory recall; and the devastatingly simple and simply devastating flash fiction piece, A Guide to Grief, by Emily Fox.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case.

Strike is a war veteran – wounded both physically and psychologically – and his life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model’s complex world, the darker things get – and the closer he gets to terrible danger . . .

Another one I’ve wanted to read for some time, it was a birthday present from my lovely work friends so it got quickly shuffled to the top of my TBR pile! I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I’ve yet to read any of JK Rowling’s adult fiction (Robert Galbraith being, for those of you who’ve been living under rocks for the past few years, Ms Rowling’s chosen nom de crime [fiction]).

I suppose I had half a (very unfair) thought that anything that wasn’t Harry Potter just wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. I’m happy to be proved wrong. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a tightly-plotted, complex crime novel that kept me guessing until (almost) the end. Rowling’s gift for observation shines through – the characters are all very well observed, and never feel like cliché. I suppose my only complaint is that it would be nice to see something other than the brilliant but troubled male detective/his sparky, intelligent but underpaid female assistant pairing – but it’s only the first in the series, hopefully the main characters of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott will develop further into some more interesting directions. I would particularly love to see Robin have more to do – sadly she seemed relegated to making phone calls and occasionally surprising Cormoran with some initiative or insight for most of the book!

Other than that I loved it, and am looking forward to the second instalment. I think I also need to track down a copy of The Casual Vacancy

Books I have read and rather enjoyed

I know I’ve somewhat neglected this blog lately – only one new post since March! Bad Woodsie! *smacks hand*

This isn’t because I haven’t had anything to blog about – it’s mainly lack of time and energy. I’ve read loads of great books recently that I fully intended to review, I just can’t seem to find the time or work up the effort to write full book reviews. So, I am stealing an idea (and shamelessly, most of a title) from the rather wonderful Jen Campbell’s blog, and am planning to do some semi-regular posts containing one-paragraph reviews of recommendations of books I’ve read lately. So, here’s what I’ve read and enjoyed over the last few months:

The Fictional ManThe Fictional Man – Al Ewing

This was a book club pick that, sadly, I didn’t make it to the actual book club for! I really enjoyed this – I’m not saying it’s the best-written book I’ve ever read, but a it’s very interesting idea, well-executed. The premise of this sci-fi novel is that popular fictional characters are routinely “translated” into living human beings, grown in tubes, for the purposes of appearing in TV and film instead of actors. Then of course, once their film franchise has ended or series has been cancelled, they end up trying to make a living as normal people. The book is part noirish murder-mystery, part satire, and part philosophical examination of what it is to be human. It doesn’t completely succeed at all of those, but it’s very entertaining along the way. It’s strangely structured: starting out light-hearted and often very funny, it takes a much darker turn about half way through and turns into something much more interesting. There’s a great “story-within-a-story” device going on to, which really made the book for me.

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

This was pressed on me insistently by the lovely Niamh of Leeds Book Club, and on finishing it (in a matter of days) I immediately went out and bought a copy for my sister. She read it and immediately bought copies for several of her friends too. It’s that kind of book. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it – despite not generally being a fan of the quirky rom-com genre! The Rosie Project is narrated in first person by Don Tillman, a socially inept genetics professor (it’s strongly implied, though never actually stated, that he is on the Aspergers spectrum) who has decided that he wants to get married. He just hasn’t decided on a wife yet – but believes his academically rigorous questionnaire and screening process is sure to find the perfect candidate for him. When he meets Rosie, a young woman who wants his help finding her biological father, she’s everything he doesn’t want in a wife – she smokes, drinks, is perpetually late and disorganised. But of course, things aren’t that simple… I have to admit, this book sounded like the kind of twee romance i’d usually hate – but it’s just lovely. It’s heartwarming, occasionally very moving, and often very, very funny – I did lots of giggling out loud on the train with this one! The only note of caution I’d sound is that I’m not sure it’s hugely sensitive in discussing mental health generally and Aspergers in particular – something one person has told me put them off reading it. I loved it though, and I’d like to see what Graeme Simsion writes next!

Captain of the SteppeCaptain of the Steppe – Oleg Pavlov

This was one of the books-on-subscription I got from indie publisher And Other Stories this year. It’s translated from Russian, and is a fairly bleak satire based in a Siberian prison camp “where the news arrives in bundles of last year’s papers and rations turn up rotting in their trucks”. It follows Captain Khabarov, the Captain of the title, who has decided to plant some of his potato rations in order to better feed his men. What follows is, as the book’s blurb describes it, a lesson in “the unsettling consequences of thinking for yourself under the Soviet system”. It’s a black comedy, piling ever-more tragic and farcical twists of fate, bureaucratic incompetence and malicious backstabbing onto the hapless Captain, keeping the misfortunes and bitter ironies coming right up to the very last page. It’s not the easiest read – personally, I always find it difficult keeping the names straight in Russian literature, if nothing else – but it’s well worth sticking with.

Emerald CityEmerald City – Chris Nickson

I’m a big fan of Chris Nickson’s historical crime novels set in 18th century Leeds, so was interested to read something so different from him. Emerald City is also crime, but set in the Seattle music scene in 1988. When an up-and-coming local musician dies of a heroin overdose, music journalist Laura Benton thinks there must be more to the story – but soon finds herself caught up in a more dangerous situation than she’d realised. I really enjoyed the scene-setting: Chris Nickson obviously knows Seattle very well, and his background as a music journalist himself has clearly informed his writing. His love of the scene and of the characters he portrays (I suspect many of them are inspired by people he knows, or knew) shines through, and make it a joy to read. I think I do prefer his historical books, but this was a very interesting and enjoyable departure. I know he’s writing a follow-up, so I’ll be interested to see where he takes it as a series.

World War ZWorld War Z – Max Brooks

I know, I’m so incredibly late to the party with this one! I picked this up as it was a Kindle 99p deal a while back, but never got around to reading it. I finally read it on holiday this year, and was gripped within the first couple of pages. It’s fascinating: written as a sociological history of the “zombie war”, really a historical document made up of eye-witness interviews from people who were witness to and involved in various stages of the war: from the early, disbelieved reports of the dead rising, to various countries’ initial efforts to contain the plague, to full-scale retreat and survival, to the beginnings of the fight back and the eventual “clean up” operations. It is truly a world war, too – too often this sort of thing only really focuses on the US, and perhaps a little on other Western countries. While there is a large portion of the book devoted almost entirely to the USA’s “home front” war, the book does go into equal depth on the rest of the world – and even beyond, one chapter focusing on the astronauts who were on the International Space Station when the plague hit. It’s very cleverly written, and scarily real – although I felt it was probably a bit over-optimistic in some areas! I’m told the recent film is nothing at all like the book, but I’d still quite fancy giving it a watch, if only so I can sit and snark my way through it about how the book was sooooooo much better (yes, I am the MOST fun to watch films with!)

Old Man's WarOld Man’s War – John Scalzi

I got this as part of the Humble ebook Bundle well over a year ago, and only recently got around to reading it – and was instantly sorry I’d left it so long! As a frequenter of some of the geekier corners of the internet I had heard of John Scalzi before, but never actually read any of his books. On the strength of this, I will certainly seek out more. The premise is that some years into the future, humanity has colonised the universe – but travel off-Earth is strictly controlled. The only option for most to travel to the colonies is to enlist in the Colonial Defence Force – and they exclusively recruit people aged 70+. The assumption is that the CDF has some kind of technology to reverse the ageing process – but why? And what is really going on out there in Earth’s colonies? This is a proper ripping yarn of a sci fi, filled with fascinating ideas, snappy dialogue, great action scenes and believable characters. It’s the first in a series, so I will definitely read the rest!

Book review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Another from my Mount TBR challenge! I got The Knife of Never Letting Go in the Kindle sale last Christmas. It’s the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. Synopsis:

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I’m almost reluctant to write this review as I don’t want to give too much of the plot away: it’s so carefully constructed, with so many shocking moments that you really need to experience as Todd does to feel the full force of it.

Todd is a fantastic character. I really didn’t like him at the start of the book, he comes across as angry and aggressive, but through the course of the book he really develops as a character. It’s one of those wonderful character arcs that feels so natural you don’t really notice it happening – only by stopping and comparing the Todd at the end fo the book with the Todd at the start did it really hit me what a different character he’d become.

I also absolutely loved Todd’s dog, Manchee, despite starting the book rolling my eyes at the thought of a talking dog as one of the main characters! Manchee won me over pretty quickly though, partly because his dialogue is so, well, dog-like. His Noise does sound exactly the way you’d imagine a dog would sound if you could hear their thoughts. His personality was wonderfully apt too: a bit dim, cheerful, easily distracted but loyal and tenacious when needed – that should all sound fairly familiar to any dog owners!

Writing about the talking dog like that might make this sound like a bit of a silly read. It isn’t. It’s dark, and scary in the way that the best YA books can be, and frequently, shockingly violent. It also ends on a proper cliffhanger – I’m determined to complete my Mount TBR challenge before the end of the year, so I can’t read the next two yet, but I certainly will do as soon as my self-imposed book-buying ban is over!

Without saying too much more about the plot, all I can say is: read this. Read it if you want a tightly-plotted, fast-paced thriller (I read it in a day because I couldn’t put it down!) that also has intelligent things to say about conformity and masculinity, loyalty and betrayal.

Book review: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood

In Other Worlds is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s writings on and around the subject of science fiction, focusing particularly on dystopias. As I am a huge fan of both sci fi and Margaret Atwood, I couldn’t resist this book!

Atwood has of course written a few dystopian sci fi novels herself – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, although she prefers the term “speculative fiction” to describe these. Her apparent rejection of the sci fi label has caused a bit of controversy in the past, as it was construed as literary snobbishness, and she addresses this in the introduction to In Other Worlds. Her explanation of the disparate forms of fiction that are grouped together under the umbrella term of science fiction, and her preference for using more specific terms to describe sub-genres, such as speculative fiction, dispelled (for me, at least) any suggestion that she has any disdain for sci fi as a genre.

What comes across most clearly in this book is her genuine love for the genre, in all its forms. In the first section, Atwood outlines her early experiences with sci fi and fantasy – covering everything from superhero comics and the lurid tales of bug-eyed monsters in sci fi magazines, to the tales of HG Wells and Ray Bradbury, to classics like Pilgrim’s Process and Beowulf. She describes herself as an indiscriminate reader, devouring in her early years everything she could get her hands on, with a healthy disregard for the adult distinctions of high- middle- and low-brow. Her breadth of knowledge is evident: she discusses Batman in the same breath as Shakespeare, and treats all of her subjects with the same level of respect due to any good story.

She goes on to discuss her experiences at university, studying literature with a focus on utopian and dystopian writing. This section is fascinating: Atwood discusses the motivations and psychology behind these types of writing, highlighting some more and less familiar examples of each – it gave me some inspiration for suggestions for Leeds Book Club‘s new dystopia book club! If you’re a fan of Margaret Atwood’s books, this section by itself is worth the price of the book for the insight it gives to the influences and inspiration for her novels.

The middle part of the book is a series of previously published essays on individual sci fi titles, including 1984, Brave New World, Never Let Me Go, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Gulliver’s Travels – some written as reviews, some as introductions to the books, etc. I found these essays equally illuminating for the books I’d actually read as for those I hadn’t – and the latter lead to quite a few additions to my to-read list! My only small criticism of the book come from this section – as these are all previously published, there is some repetition of ideas and themes, including some that had already been discussed in greater detail in the first section. This is to be expected really, but it did mean that it started to feel a bit familiar by the time I got to the end of this section.

The final section contains a series of Atwood’s own examples of sci fi writing – short stories, and extracts from some of her non-sci fi books (e.g. one of the stories told by the male protagonist in The Blind Assassin, “The Peach Women of A’Aa”, is included). Coming at the end of the book, these are fascinating to read as examples of how Atwood has used her extensive knowledge of sci fi to inform her own writing.

In Other Worlds is a thoughtful, intelligent exploration of the science fiction genre, from a writer who has extensive knowledge and a genuine love of her topic. Highly recommended for either fans of Margaret Atwood, science fiction, or both.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Book review: The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed book coverI picked this up as part of the haul I grabbed from my local library on National Libraries Day. I was looking for some good sci-fi, and had heard lots of good things about The Dispossessed, so decided to give it a try. I’d only read one of Ursula Le Guin’s books before (Fisherman of the Inland Sea), but had been meaning to read more – she’s often listed as one of the greats of modern sci-fi, and The Dispossessed is part of the SF Masterworks series, so I figured I couldn’t go far wrong here!

The Dispossessed follows the story of Shevek, a scientist from the anarchist world of Anarres. Frustrated by jealous colleagues and stifled progress on his home world, he travels to Anarres’ sister planet Urras – the capitalist world that the rebellious settlers of Anarres fled 150 years previously. He is the first person to travel from Anarres to Urras for all this time, and is considered a traitor by most of his people for doing so. He travels not only to spread his ideas – his Principle of Simultaneity, which will make possible instantaneous communication throughout the universe – but also to break down the barriers between the people of the two worlds. However, while he first finds freedom on Urras, he quickly discovers that he is being used as a pawn in a political game outside of his comprehension.

This is without a doubt some of the best sci-fi I’ve read in a long time. I was completely gripped from the first page. Le Guin does a masterful job of introducing the societies and political systems of the two worlds gradually, without resorting to heavy-handed exposition. When it comes to sci-fi I’m always more interested in the people and society presented than the technology – I don’t really like tech-heavy sci-fi, as I feel it often overshadows the story.The Dispossessed is a shining example of sci-fi at its best: using an alien society with advanced technology as both a vehicle to explore political and social ideas, and as an absorbing fictional world in its own right.

As a feminist, I also loved the exploration of the two worlds’ attitudes to women. On anarchist Anarres, men and women are treated equally – indeed, Shevek is baffled to find that this isn’t the case on Urras:

“Where are other women?”

“Oh, no difficulty at all there, sir,” Pae said promptly. “Just tell us your preferences, and nothing could be simpler to provide.”

…Shevek had no idea what they were talking about. He scratched his head. “Are all scientists here men then?”

Scientists?” Oiie asked, incredulous.

Pae coughed. “Scientists. Oh, yes, certainly, they’re all men. There are some female teachers in the girls’ schools, of course. But they never get past Certificate level… Cant do the maths; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy.”

…Shevek saw that he had touched an impersonal animosity in these men which went very deep… They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.

The exploration of the social ideals of the two societies, as seen through Shevek’s eyes, was fascinating. The story alternated chapters between Shevek’s history on Anarres leading up to the time of his journey, and his time on Urras. Shevek is equal parts disillusioned with his own society and proud of it; disgusted with the excesses on Urras and jealous of their intellectual freedom. What I liked about the book is that although Anarres, as Shevek’s home world, gets the more sympathetic treatment (and one suspects this is where Le Guin’s sympathies lie), neither world was presented as perfect. For all of Anarres’ idealism and equality, there is an undercurrent of repression and censorship running through it. One passage, in which a friend of Shevek’s tells him of a mutual friend who has effectively been imprisoned for criticising the Anarresti society – something which should be logically impossible in a society which has no laws and no system of prisons or punishment – was a striking way to illustrate how the human tendency to seek and consolidate power can even corrupt a society as high-minded as Anarres:

“Tirin wrote a play and put it on… It was funny-crazy-you know his kind of thing…It could seem anti-Odonian, if you were stupid. A lot of people are stupid. There was a fuss. He got reprimanded. Public reprimand. I never saw one before. Everyone comes to your syndicate meeting and tells you off. It used to be how they cut a bossy gang-foreman or manager down to size. Now they only use it to tell an individual to stop thinking for himself… He wrote me several times, and each time he’d been reposted. Always to physical labour, in little outpost communities… He stopped writing. I traced him through the Abbenay Labour Files, finally. They sent me his card, and the last entry was just ‘Therapy. Segvina Island.’ Therapy! Did Tirin murder somebody? Did he rape somebody? What do you do to get sent to the Asylum for, beside that?”

“You don’t get sent to the Asylum at all. You request posting to it.”

“Don’t feed me that crap,” Bedap said with sudden rage. “He never asked to be sent there! They drove him crazy and then sent him there.”

Equally, although Urras is initially presented as a paradise of free thought, it isn’t long before Shevek sees the inevitable consequences of a property-owning society – despite his hosts’ best efforts to keep him from seeing the poverty outside of their sheltered societies:

Maedda nodded. “A demonstration’s been announced for three days from now. Against the draft, war taxes, the rise in food prices. There’s four hundred unemployed in Nio Esseia, and they jack up taxes and prices… Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? Do you know that when people here want to wish each other luck they say, ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’ – To know that it exists – to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never say again that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream!”

This is one of those rare books that’s kept me thinking, long after I’ve finished reading it. In fact, having got this book out of the library, I am actually going to buy a copy – I can see it’s one I will want to re-read later on. I will also be avidly reading more of Ursula Le Guin’s work!

Verdict: 5/5