The Galaxy game, by Karen Lord

The Galaxy game Book Cover The Galaxy game
Karen Lord
Science fiction
Del Rey
January 6th 2015

Karen Lord's The galaxy game takes place in the same universe as The best of all possible worlds, but will probably work as a stand-alone read. (Having read the previous book certainly didn't help me to make sense of this story any faster - I could recognise some characters, but the story didn't really rely on previous knowledge of them.)

This is an interesting and frustrating book, in many ways.   I like the characters, I like following the teenager Rafi through his little coming-of-age story and journeys between planets,  I like his aunt and uncle and the puzzlingly foreign social structures he learns to navigate.

The carefully built world is appealing, too. There are so many good things here;  A bunch of crafted planets, societies damaged by a (now ended) war,  humans with quite specialized telepathic powers,  bewildering starships, and - again - a lot of focus on social structures, ways in which these future people have come to arrange themselves, what does and does not elevate your status.  Gender, race, family, and association are all mixed into the galactic puzzle.

In a simple list of key words, this all sounds awesome to me.  And sometimes it is.  Unfortunately, the telling of the story doesn't pull me in; I get restless, my mind wanders, I don't feel any momentum.    Thus, a short/medium novel took me an uncomfortably long time to read, with many deviations into other, more alluring books along the way.

It's certainly not because the writing is bad; it is not. Karen Lord's prose is both to-the-point and poetic.  There are a few special touches, like the near-seamless changes in character viewpoints; You have to pay attention to know whose shoulder you're sitting on for the current paragraph. It's just that I keep missing that magic something that would have me reading effortlessly, rather than with the sense of having to push myself on to the next page.  Sometimes a book's voice and a reader just don't match, no matter how perfect it looks to begin with.  I honestly can't explain why I should have become so exhausted with this book, when I can only find good things to say about it.   Something about how the entire prologue was indecipherable and near-meaningless until I returned to it after the epilogue;  Then I could make sense of it - and even enjoy it.  At the start of the book, however, it was just the first of the temple-rubbing "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this"-mutterings.

I hope other readers will have a better time with the book than I did.  Especially those with a certain enthusiasm for social science fiction; Please, have a look, see if you get along with this novel.

Ghost train to New Orleans, by Mur Lafferty

Ghost train to New Orleans Book Cover Ghost train to New Orleans
Shambling guides #2
Mur Lafferty
Urban fantasy, supernatural
Jan 1 2014

This is a sequel to The shambling guide to New York, but probably works as a stand-alone, too. References to previous events are not crucial to understand what's going on, although I think you should read it in any case, because Mur Lafferty's funny, her books are short and sweet, and her urban fantasy is populated by some charming incarnations of zombies, ghosts, gods, sprites, vampires, succubi, and other tropes - as well as a few original natives.   (And, hey, look at the cover. I have a soft spot for the shambling covers. All colorful and cartoony and stuff.)

Zoe is a travel guide writer who has, more or less accidentally, ended up working in a company where most of her colleagues would like to eat her.  It makes for interesting work days. And maybe things are more complicated than that. That's the basic premise of these books,  and, I think, all you need to know in order to decide whether or not this is of interest to you.

If you do need additional clues about Ghost train to New Orleans, here are a few: Ghost train.   New Orleans! Swamp voodoo, vampires, costume parties! Oh, and cats.  How could I forget the cats!

The narration and feel is something adjacent to the Buffy kind of monster affairs, at its most quippy.  Or the comedy-relief episodes of, uh, Supernatural.   There is action and adventure and even character deaths, but it never slows down to dwell or mourn, at least not for longer than it takes for Zoe to have a drink or three. There's good forward movement and the pages fly by.

Mur Lafferty offers this book for free, self-narrated, via her podcast. (The podcast is named I should be writing, and you can find it if you search from whatever thingamabob you use for podcasts.) I listened to the first few chapters, then I decided to buy the book, mostly because yes, she has earned my measly not-even-eight dollars for a kindle copy,  and also because I wanted to read it faster.

Consider a shambling guide for when you want a fun read that doesn't take your brain for a heavy workout. (I mean this positively, of course; light reads are not bad reads.)   Stay away if you can't handle even one more vampire or zombie in your book shelves. (But keep in mind these are pretty cute zombies.)

The Rabbit Back literature society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back literature society Book Cover The Rabbit Back literature society
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Magical realism, literary fiction
Pushkin press
First published 2006

I think I first heard about The Rabbit Back Literature Society in a speculative fiction group on Goodreads. That's a good place for it, although it could just as easily have fit in a discussion of Gabriel García Marquez or Haruki Murakami or other staples of magical realism.  Or, you know, children's books, which often reside somewhere in the same not-quite-reality.

The events take place in Rabbit Back, a small town in Finland,  home to a brilliant and famous children's author, Laura White.  The descriptions of her work inevitably brings Tove Jansson and Moomins to my mind, but I'm not sure if that's intentional or just my only available association with Finnish children's literature.  Both, maybe.

The universe is larger than the story, which can be frustrating to a reader like me, who dislikes leaving unsolved riddles and questions not entirely answered. I felt this novel struck a decent balance, although I still would like to know more about the mysterious, contageous book virus which leads our protagonist, Ella, away from correcting essays as a substitute teacher and into Laura White's strange literature society.  The other members are an eclectic bunch, secretive, and yet with very few secrets remaining between them.  They don't even appear to like each other enough to spend time in the same room. The dream-like atmosphere is quite literal; Ellas dreams are directly described, and other characters offer retellings of their own dreams, and almost equally unreliable memories.

Throughout the story, Ella presents theories about the truth of things.  Her thoughts have a poetic, haunting quality, while they at the same time appear sparse and stark, which it's embarrasingly tempting to call "very Finnish", but might as easily be a genre staple.

I would recommend this to magical realism aficionados, or Moomin obsessives, or, especially, people who are both of these things.   And, of course, if you're someone with a special penchant for books about books.

The book feels almost unnaturally light, as though you've just skipped across the surface of a pond where usually you'd go for a real swim.  It's refreshing, but might also leave you unsatisfied, depending on mood.