Tag: First Impressions

First Impressions: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s been near impossible to ignore Catherynne M. Valente’s meteor-sized Space Opera on its collision course with Earth. Since it’s announcement, excitement for Space Opera has reached fever pitch, and early impressions and reviews from readers and critics have been glowing. Unlike the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, though, Valente’s book is like a glitterball of good feelings that, on impact, will cover the Earth not in ash and darkness, but a dance party so vivid, so wild, so loud, so bright, so deathly important that nuclear fission will pale in comparison.

It’s dark days right now, scary thoughts and anxiety about the future are hard to ignore. From its opening pages, it’s clear that Space Opera is a specific antidote to these fears. It’s impossible to read without also smiling, laughing, and, literally, dancing your ass off. In a modern speculative fiction genre that often rewards nihilism, blood, guts, grittiness, and grim dark visions of the future, Space Opera is a much-needed reminder that science fiction can be positive, uplifting, and forward-thinking.

And, man, wait until you read Valente’s hilarious-yet-savage takedown of 21st century human society in the second or third chapter. You’ll never be so entertained, impressed, and horrified all at once again.

As enjoyable as Valente’s writing and storytelling is, it’s elevated to another level by a boisterous, delightful, and varied narration by Heath Miller. He brings life to all the characters, and does a wonderful job giving unique, living voices to each of them in turn.

Valente’s books are always rich and layered, her prose gorgeous, her characters balancing on the razor’s edge between too-human to be fantastical, and too-fantastical to be human. Space Operais hilarious, biting, generous, and impossible to put down. 

First Impressions: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Despite his suspect opinions about art and entertainment, I’m a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his brand of science-made-easy. Watching Cosmos with my infant daughter sleeping on me has become one of my core memories (if you’ll allow me to steal an Inside Out reference.) I’ve always been interested in science, especially cosmology (not to be confused with cosmetology, an area I have very little experience in beyond plucking stray eyebrow hairs), but don’t always have the time/brain space/IQ to deeply interact with it.

Lately I’ve been reading more science books. Stuff like Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, or, most recently, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon. The commonality that exists between these books is that they bite of a chunk of science and open it up to readers who didn’t pursue the field past high school. Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry fits right in.

It’s a slim volume, but jammed full of information, all of which is delivered in Tyson’s trademark approachable style. Whether It’s learning about the origins of the big bang, dissecting the geeky roots of element names, or understanding how the CMB allows us to understand where we’ve come from and where we’re going, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry makes you feel smart even when you’re not.

First Impressions: Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer

I adored Ilana C. Myer’s debut novel, Last Song Before Night. It took a familiar concept—hodgepodge group of youngsters sets out to change the world—but, by channelling her best Guy Gavriel Kay impression, and adding many of her own twists, including *gorgeous* prose, Last Song Before Night ended up being a unique and welcome take on epic fantasy. To say I was excited for its standalone sequel, Fire Dance, was a major understatement.

At this point, though, I’m sitting here with mixed feelings.

All of the elements that made Last Song Before Night are still there: a familiar world that feels like our own, but not; labyrinthine politicking; layered relationships between the characters; Myer’s beautiful prose. But, for whatever reason, one that could totally be my own, it’s not quite coming together for me the way the first book it.

Myer is careful and considered in her prose, to the point that it’s lyrical and rich, but also sometimes tips over into meandering. This works for me sometimes, when I’m looking to curl up and get lost in a book, but it comes at the expense of the plot unfolding at an almost glacial pace. Half way through the book, I’m only just getting an idea of its overall shape, and its conflicts seem secondary to exposition about the world, and inner monologuing by the characters. This was the case in Last Song Before Night as well, but there the central mysteries (specifically the world’s missing magic) and the various plot lines were more outwardly compelling, making the window dressings more palatable.

Fire Dance is being promoted as a standalone novel, and it *is* for the most part, with only a few characters crossing over from Last Song Before Night, but sometimes while reading, I feel like I’m supposed to already be familiar with the characters and the world—there’s a *lot* of politicking that goes over my head, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m not reading as closely as necessary, or because Myer chooses to drop readers into her world without preamble or set up, and challenges them to keep up. This will work better for some readers than others.

On the flip side, I really hope we start seeing more standalone novels and sequels. I love the idea of dropping back into a fantasy world and exploring new corners and conflicts.

I’ll have a full review on Tor.com when the book releases next week.

First Impressions: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

After I finished reading Bo Bolander’s terrifying, terrific, and heartbreaking novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing (seriously, go read it, now), I collected myself, wrung a tear-soaked beach towel into my bathtub, took a lozenge to sooth a throat that was raw with grief, and took to Twitter to rave about it. That led me to finding out about the Radium Girls, which, well… holy shitThat led to the always awesome Wendy Wagner recommending that I check out Sam Kean’s science book, The Disappearing Spoon, which covers the tragedy of the Radium Girls, among many other things.

So, I did!

I don’t read a lot of science books. Or non-fiction these matters. It’s mostly a matter of not having a lot of room to slot in “fun” books between review obligations. But, I digress. I’m very happy Wendy twisted my arm. The Disappearing Spoon is a great entry-level introduction to chemistry, specifically the Table of Elements and the behaviour of atoms. My knowledge of chemistry and quantum physics caps out at “didn’t pay attention in high school science,” but even so I’m finding the book approachable and gentle in the way it introduces readers to its ideas. Kean has an engaging, easy-to-read prose, and he wraps all the science lesson-type stuff around great human-interest stories. (Seriously, it’s amazing how many scientists know for one achievement are also responsible for many other’s that have improved our daily life.) My only complaint: the book needs more diagrams? Kean talks us through the atomic structure of elements, and does a good job describing the behaviour of protons, neutrons, electrons, et al., but it would be even easier to wrap my head around the whole thing if there were a few illustrations and diagrams.

In any case, I’m creeping up to the creation of the hydrogen bomb now, so I’m sure the book is about to take a candy-coated  turn toward peace, love, and harmony. Right?

Right…?