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Otherland Book Recommendations February: English

Otherland Book Recommendations February: English

Otherland, 03.02.2023

Every month we bring you book recommendations from the Otherland Bookshop Berlin. And this month we have a premiere: recommendations in English. Since the English book market is so much bigger than the German, not every book can be translated. This article is for those of you who although read in English.

The Spare Man| Mary Robinette Kowal

Solaris: €13
Young, attractive, billionaire celebrity Tesla Crane is attempting a honeymoon with her hunky ex-cop husband Shal aboard the ISS Lindgren, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She has hacked enough software that she is anonymous, and is enjoying successfully escaping her many fans. Then a woman is found stabbed to death with a knife and the security detail throws her husband in a cell as their chief suspect.

Armed only with her wits, personality, and a very cute emotional support dog called Gimlet, Tesla sets out to find the real killer so she and Shal can get back to canoodling. And there is a lot of canoodling. As far as I can tell the couple spend about a third of all their interactions running their hands up each other's thighs.

I am a big fan of classic murder mysteries, and Mary Robinette Kowal's latest outing has a number of boxes ticked for me. It has a floorplan at the front of the book (in 3D, as it is a murder on a space station), the science is neat and plays an integral part in the plot, the mystery is a good one, with a large cast of dubious characters, and the protagonist herself has some nifty tech skills (although they are never really explained in detail). It is a little bit of a side-step from The Calculating Stars, but I am sure there will be plenty who will enjoy it.

That said, there were a few things which annoyed me too. I found the protagonist really hard to get on board with. She is privileged with a capital P, contemptuous of most of those of a lower rank than her (which is everyone), and believes the worst thing about the murder is that it is holding up her vacation. Fine. I am also a big fan of rich, entitled heiresses gatecrashing crime scenes (hello, Phryne Fisher). The problem is they normally have something else apart from their money. Tesla has few detective skills which don't derive from the fact that she is ridiculously rich. Even her spunky personality comes from the fact that her family is so wealthy that she has an interplanetary lawyer on speed-dial, feeds her dog steak, and can quite literally afford to buy the entire space liner. A genuine character arc for Tesla is that at one point she complains to a manager politely. If anyone has ever had misgivings about Batman because it glorifies the rich solving problems instead of the state by throwing money at them, Bruce Wayne is practically Miss Marple in comparison to Tesla Crane.

Don't get me wrong: I had fun with this one. It is a great Sci-Fi/Murder-mystery with a good deal of intrigue and some dislikable NPCs, and Mrs Crane does get her tech skills out there in the end, but it's a long ride.

Love & Other Human Errors | Bethany Clift

Hoder & Stoughton: €19,50

Love and Other Human Errors is a stand alone by Film School Graduate Bethany Clift, set in the near future and the topic is ... what else, love. However, the tightrope walk storytelling manages to skirt right past kitsch and gives the reader a roller coaster ride of emotions. The basic plot is that Indiana, an ingenious but socially difficult person, creates an algorithm - TRU - that enables people to find their soulmates.

There seems to be a boom for that idea in the last years, but in this special case the hook is that Indiana does not believe in love at all! I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but concentrate on the fact that the characters are all believable and lovingly described and the novel will make you laugh out loud on one side and cry on the other, that's how much you will grow attached to the characters, dear Reader. Personally, I wouldn't touch romantic comedies (except the ones with Jude Law) but - and this remains between us - for this I make an exception and must say: it's worth it!

The Genesis of Misery | Neon Yang

Tor: €35

Rebecca Roanhorse puts it like this: „This is Joan of Arc meets Gideon the Ninth with a touch of Pacific Rim thrown in as a treat.“

Well, hello?! YES?! We follow Misery Nomaki (she/they) with rare powers on their way down from a mining planet and right into a political conflict. But throw in some mad catholic religion in form of Space Angels (yes!), Saints and Prophecies and welcome in this dazzling space opera of The Genesis of Misery. The New Book by Neon Yang doesn’t just look great, it also has Robots and the prominent role of Gender Identity. Go get that book and stay tuned, because it seems like there is more to come ;)

A Psalm for the Wild-Built - Monk & Robot #1 | Becky Chambers
Tordotcom: €26,50

Becky Chambers has a way of reeling you into her stories with the most fascinating set-ups and making you stay for the beautiful world-building and characters.

Since I am a big fan of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer-series, I was very excited to hear about the utopic story A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Going into this I was expecting a positive tale about A robot and a human learning how to get along. And, honestly, not much else.

The solarpunk novella takes place on the moon Panga, whose society has overcome most social, ecological and ethic struggles that we know of today. Though this is not the book's focus point. In this world centuries ago, robots suddenly gained consciousness and decided to stop their work. The humans offered to live alongside them as equals, the robots rejected that offer to simply choose to walk into the wilderness, making the humans promise they’d be left alone.

The main character is a non-binary human called Dex, who experiences restlessness and dissatisfaction with their life-situation. Which manifests in their longing to fall asleep to the sounds of crickets. They are part of a religious group that seems to be all-present in this world, that doesn’t restrict its followers but guides them. Through this they have the opportunity to become a Tea-Monk and travel through the lands of Panga. Listening to the stories of the people and offering comfort. Though this does fulfill them at first, one day they get the overwhelming urge to restart again and break out of their schedule. They decide to go into the wilderness, to visit an abandoned hermitage. And to find crickets.

On their way there, in uncharted territory, Dex meets Mosscap, a robot that is very excited to make first contact with humans after 200 years. Dex is, understandably so, very overwhelmed by this, which doesn’t get better when Mosscap persuades them to let it accompany them on their way to the hermitage. Thus begins a trip through the half-wild forests. Following an overgrown trail to answer Mosscaps question: “What do humans need?” and to find a bit of meaning in Dex’s life.

I really liked the style in which the book was written. It is fast paced and Becky Chambers makes the scenes and places feel very real. On top of that I also enjoyed the characters a lot, the main character is struggling with something very relatable and the Robot helps put a new perspective to this. Through its disconnection to human struggles, you get some interesting takes on the things Dex struggles with.

At one point, I thought I’d like the book to explore the problems this world faces more. But I realize that this story purposefully focuses on personal and interpersonal struggles. I would love to be able to explore the world itself more. Luckily the second book in this diology, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, has already been released.

In conclusion, this story about finding a purpose in life really catered to my individual taste in books. I can’t say anything negative about it. Becky Chambers always manages to leave me a little melancholic but very hopeful after her stories, which I like, and this one didn’t let me down. I can recommend it to anyone who is looking for a quick, relaxing science fiction read or a novella about the way we choose to live our lives.

Wrath | Shäron Moalem & Daniel Kraus

Union Square & Co.: €22,50

This book, beloved by critics, is about the evolution of a lab rat that is bred to think and communicate like a human. However, she is also aware of how badly humans treat lab animals. Therefore, she escapes to found a massive army of rodents in the fight against humanity. Much of this is told from the point of view of the rat (and its various stages of development). Actually, this story is about cruelty and violence and how this leads to another vortex of cruelty.

Honestly, the reviews are overflowing with positive feedback, comparing it to Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, only better and in a haunting and brutal horror/science fiction version that resonates with the reader for a long time.

The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short  | John Freeman (ed.)

Penguin Books: €17

As a post script for the English Sci-Fi section we have The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story. A weird one to go into the Science Fiction corner, you might think, but hear us out.

Penguin's latest gathering of modern short stories is the very first of their collections to bite the bullet and admit that there are some damn good writers out there that they have been leaving off the "best of" lists for the crime of being fantasy ("gasp!"), science fiction ("good Lord!"), or even horror ("unthinkable!") authors. This collection finally nods its cap to some of America's greatest writers, which means we get to enjoy (or re-enjoy) the likes of Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie", Ted Chiang's "The Great Silence", Steven King's "The Dune", and Ursula K. Le Guin's masterful "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". Yes please.

If you enjoy this one, look into the British version (also from Penguin) which came out in 2019 and features some folk called Neil Gaiman and China Miéville...