The Bailey’s Book Reviews: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

My favourite type of video games are those I can really get stuck into and build a story of my own. In 2014, I finally splurged on all three Mass Effect titles and thoroughly enjoyed following my own female ginger-haired Shepherd through the trials of being a certified badass, throwing jemble upon jemble at the walls in a flick of a hand. But aside from the ever-so-satisfying combat (particularly in the first game where you literally could walk into a room and lift everyone in it straight away), what really got me hooked was the multi-species crew, their back-stories and their future with you.

Especially Liara. Oh Liara.

Love me? Of course I will!

The characters come in shades of grey moral wise, and depending on your choices throughout the adventure will also depend on who you grow closest to. If you haven’t played Mass Effect you should. If you lack a suitable device to play it on, then I recommend watching many of the cut together “Mass Effect movies” on Youtube. So the reason I bring up Mass Effect is that The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is basically a book of Mass Effect character quests.

I realise this comparison will mean absolutely nothing to a lot of you, so I’ll try another.

It’s like watching a multi-species crew pilot Serenity on a long mission in the short-lived show Firefly, instead of everyone speaking Chinese from being part of an integrated society yet being almost totally Caucasian but that’s a gripe for another day. The book has the fun bounciness and quick wit that Joss Whedon gives to all his characters, though very much feel like Chambers’ own creation, rather than an homage to anything specific.

Okay, so comparisons aside, this book is really great. Rosemary Harper joins the Wayfarer as a new administrator, and serves as our narrator that guides us through the lives of the crew. It is a classic space opera, reminiscent of Star Trek (oh alright one more comparison), that is absolutely joyous to read.

The Long Way originally started out life as a successfully funded Kickstarter project, as Chambers’ debut novel, that was then picked up by Hodder Books to be published in the UK and USA.

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Characterisation is the focus -really the story is not about the journey they make to a dangerous bit of space; it’s about who is making the journey and how they work together to complete it. Each voice is heard clearly, and none of the characters feel underwritten (I do think Kizzy could have been fleshed out more, but that is possibly because I felt she was probably an aspie and wanted to know more about her).

In fact, Chambers’ construction of non-human races is dramatically detailed, as well as the history of human expansion into the galaxy. The descriptions of deep-space mining is practically mind boggling, but also thrilling. The care and attention to detail for the galaxy inhabited by the Wayfarer is incredibly impressive and cohesive.

Some of the most touching moments came from Sissix’s storylines. A pilot and only resident Aandrisk, Sissix’s family life and culture is explored through its inclusiveness but also its willingness to exclude those who are different. In a small passage where Sissix comforts a lone Aandrisk, she later tells of how some of her people cannot communicate in the same way, and are often cast out, made to be loners. I basically bawled my eyes out at this (as does Rosemary, so I wasn’t alone). I absolutely love Sissix and hope desperately for more to be written about her.

Another heartwrenching storyline is the crew member who is in love with the ship’s AI; it can’t all end happily, can it?

The underlying moral of the story is ultimately that we may not always understand each other completely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t care for each other. It’s a pretty good message to live by. Alongside that, it’s really fun. It’s silly and funny and ridiculous, and is full of heart.

Why should it win?

The Long Way combines zany space opera fun with thorough character focussed storylines, harmonising to create a fun, memorable adventure through space. Accessible community-focussed sci-fi for all!

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thanks again to Hodder Books for providing me with a review copy, though admittedly I’d already broken and bought a copy by the time it arrived. Grateful colleagues have been devouring it since.

The Bailey’s Book Reviews: At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

I firmly believe that we are currently living in a real boom for nature writing. At work I’ve made displays specifically to show off the plethora of recently published hardbacks celebrating nature, specifically that of Britain. For a small island, we have a lot to talk about, whether it be in form of memoir or purely historical count of the land.

I’ve known of Melissa Harrison through her nature writing, and from repeatedly being at the same talks as each other on the topic – and also from that time myself and a few friends gegged along on her evening chatting with Helen McDonald in a bar under a theatre in Soho (sorry about that Melissa!).

Because of this, I really didn’t know what to expect, having not read her previous offering Clay, but the first thing that became clear to me is how much the genes of nature writing are expressed in her fiction. The prose is suffused with rich descriptions of the countryside around Lodeshill, regularly to a level of detail you don’t usually see in other fiction writers. This isn’t a criticism however, this attention to detail serves to build up a rich real landscape, and a realisation that the setting of the novel is living as much as the characters who reside in it.

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At Hawthorn Time is a quietly paced novel that begins with a (future) bang, and builds up to this throughout the month long story. It predominantly follows four characters – married ex-Londoners Harold and Kitty, both finding themselves stuck and unable to move forward; young Jamie, desperate to finish his beloved Corsa and escape the village; vagrant farmhand Jack, whose jottings on the wildlife act as a header for every chapter.

The gentle melancholy of the characters and the book itself reminds me so much of Stoner by John Williams or even A Whole Life, a recently translated German novel by Robert Seethaler.

Jamie reminds me of many of the people I went to school with and a desire to escape the country I saw in myself – the irony being that now I’d love to live back in the countryside, feeling stifled by hot polluted bustle of the city-lifestyle I’d always coveted. Maybe I’ve become Kitty?

I genuinely enjoyed At Hawthorn Time and it thoroughly deserves its place on the longlist.

Why should it win?

At Hawthorn Time a humble, melancholy novel with a living landscape, populated by complex characters whose stories gripped me. Harrison deftly combines and contrasts a narrative of paused lives with the never-stopping persistence of nature.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to Hannah from Bloomsbury Books for sending me over a copy to read.

The Bailey’s Book Reviews: A Little Life by Hanya Yanighara

This review is likely going to contain mild spoilers, but primarily contains a number of content notes for both the review AND the book.

Content note: abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, self harm. The book also requires CN for suicidal ideation, suicide, child sexual abuse.

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Bags available from selected Waterstones stores with a purchase of A Little Life

When I decided to read the books longlisted for the Bailey’s prize, I decided that I should probably start (having already read two) with the longest. At over 700 pages, A Little Life is nothing but little, and being the overachiever I am, I decided I would read it in a few days, though once I started it I ended up reading the majority in a single day. What I also didn’t quite expect was how much this book would unseat me.

A Little Life follows four friends from their time in college through their adulthoods; JB the artist, Malcolm the stoic architect, Willem the actor and Jude the lawyer. Quite quickly, the novel narrows its focus onto Jude and Willem, the real protagonists of the story. This in itself is a little disappointing as Malcolm becomes a serious yet caring background prop and JB’s peeking-through-the-window style longing serves mostly to remind us how much you should want to be a part of Willem and Jude’s inner pairing. Neither of those are a bad thing, but part of me did wish Malcolm was fleshed out more particularly, because otherwise he was just a little flat.

Ultimately,  A Little Life is a story about the nature of trauma. As a child, Jude’s life is characterised by various forms of abuse received at the monastery, care home and other places he passes through before college. What happened to him appears to the reader in snippets and flashbacks, as well as through retellings to other significant characters such as Willem and Harold.

Traumatic events are so often discussed as just that – events, discrete in nature. That, however, is the exact opposite of the imprint trauma leaves on a life; trauma is continuous, it is insidious and it persists. Jude’s past lives on through his “episodes” – loosely described moments of pain that overcome him – mental and physical scarring, his unwillingness to be touched, his fear of sexual intimacy, and most heartbreakingly, his guilt and thorough belief that he is a harmful, terrible person.

In a key transitional period in his life, a careworker warns him to talk openly about his pain, lest it fester and take root, but after losing her to cancer, he turns inward. Instead of speaking, he turns to self harm, cutting with a razor – this persists throughout the book and is described in quite horrifyingly graphic and specific detail.

A section midway through the book deals specifically with domestic violence, and to echo a friend of mine @ArchedEyebrowBR, it was possibly one of the most difficult to read things ever. By reading about the pain inflicted on Jude by his first boyfriend, we are complicit. We stand by powerless as he is hurt, in the same way his family members and friends do. It is a harrowing experience. When I finished that section, I put the book down next to me and began to breathe again. I had to stop for a few minutes.

Yanighara writes about trauma with alarming accuracy. A survivor of sexual abuse myself, I saw my own emotions and reactions frequently in Jude’s own. His episodes remind me of my dissociative seizures, a condition with a direct link to sexual abuse – approximately 75% of people with dissociative seizures also have been sexually abused. Later that day I did have a seizure, of which I’m not totally willing to discount the book’s involvement in triggering (not that this will happen to everyone of course, but it’s an intense experience). His warped belief that he is dirty and awful is something I’ve sadly heard in many survivors in the throes of working through their abuses. She writes specifically about how sexual abuse effects people, and has clearly done a great deal of research into the lasting somatic changes.

While A Little Life does have a slight flavour of too much bad has happened to save him, it is a very important novel. It tells a lifetime of attempting to live through the pain, and I feel it also has some stiff warnings for those who refuse to investigate their traumas in psychotherapy. There are some arguably fanciful moments amidst the stark reality – the four friends all being the best of their careers is admittedly a bit silly, but quite necessary in such a stark story. Another friend of mine described it as repeated bad things happening to someone, but I see merit in this – the disadvantaged are routinely further beaten down; the vulnerable make easy targets and I think that is really one of the core messages of the novel.

I’ve left it a few days to reflect on whether I think this novel is good rather than just soul destroying and I’ve settled on yes, it is. It’s beautifully told, and the main characters that exist in Jude’s universe (Andy and Harold, as well as the aforementioned three) feel whole people. Their frustrations at being carers are accurate, their pain and desperate need to understand match your own feelings. Yanighara’s story of four friends is about being destroyed and destroying in turn, a dismantling you cannot look away from.

Why should it win?

A Little Life tells an important story of the imprints of trauma with dignity, respect and utter rawness that I have yet to see matched by any author. An epic by length, an epic emotional toll.

Interested? Buy it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to Pan Macmillan’s friendly team for sending a copy over with a strict warning that it was going to destroy me – you weren’t kidding.

80 for 80, No.3: The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue

It may surprise you somewhat, but the idea of doing something out of a perceived order scares me. A palpable, nervous fear rocks my body and my hands flap and I get sweaty, and eventually give in and accept that I can’t go against numerology.

This, my friends, is why a *year* exactly on from beginning my 80 for 80 challenge, I have yet to get past book three. A combination of ill-health, quitting my job, and taking up a new one as a bookseller has meant that this little blog has been neglected in general (and is in dire need of a rebrand), but add that on top of Icelandic sagas and you can see a predicament.

I don’t generally have trouble with more archaic or classical versions of English, but something about the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue was something I picked up so many times, started, and failed to continue. In all likelihoods, this is partly because the times when I’d think HEY I have time to carry on my blog were usually times when I was sick – like that month when I was concussed or my recent bout of hallucinatory fever flu – and an addled brain does not make good friends with sagas of warrior-poets from the 12th century.

However, I have finally found some time, one year on from beginning this endeavour and one year on from being a very stressed person trying to conform to a job that just really didn’t suit her. SO, let’s talk Iceland.

This book is composed of extracts from Sagas of Warrior-Poets, published by Penguin in the early 00’s. We have this book at work and it is a huge thing that I have struggled repeatedly to place somewhere that shows it off. Perhaps my discomfort at reading it translated to displaying it in the shop, where I’d move it between cool gift books to anthologies at the beginning of fiction repeatedly, not really feeling it sat right in either place.

Anyway, we move on. The sagas themselves take place between the 9-11th century in Iceland, though were documented a couple of hundred years later by unknown authors (however, the opening of the book does mention that the priest Ari Thorgilsson the Learned was the teller of this particular story).

I really enjoyed a minor contribution of a Norwegian, who interprets the dreams of Thorstein to foresee Gunnlaug vs Hrafn, and is told he is wicked and unfriendly, with the following closing that section: “He is now out of the saga”.

Gunnlaug is noted as being a “gifted… somewhat abusive” poet, which is possibly my favourite description of someone’s occupation to date. Essentially, the book tells of Gunnlaug who decides he is going to marry beautiful Helga, but first decides to go on a minor quest and visit northern European kings, whereupon he delivers impromptu poetry slams. At one such, he chastises opponent warrior poet Hrafn, who decides the best revenge is to steal his betrothed, which seems to happen without Gunnlaug really doing much about for quite a while. He and Hrafn duel in Norway so that no one can intervene – this time with swords and words, leaving Hrafn de-legged and Gunnlaug with a split head and they both die. Helga meanwhile feels pretty annoyed but has a fancy cloak Gunnlaug gave her so that’s nice.

I genuinely love tales rooted in cultural history – many of my friends having heard my retelling of the Welsh story of the Afanc, a river dwelling beast who is lulled to sleep by singing maidens and dragged up Snowdon by oxen. It’s not often you get to read Icelandic stories of itinerant poets, but I feel the better for having done so. Maybe I’ll pick up that big book from work.

Running Tally

Okay so the problem here is that we can’t be completely assured that the narrator is male, buuuuut given our patriarchal society that prevented women from being educated and still does I’m going to hedge a bet that this is also a male authored book. Feel free to take umbridge with this in the comments.

Authors: Male 3 Female 0

Media type: Short stories 2, Poetry 1