The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Oh no, this isn’t the last in the series, is it?!

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky ChambersI mean, it’s not a bad way to end it, but there’s still so much more to explore of this amazing sci-fi universe. This installment tells us a bit more of the Rosk war, and further explores the cultures of the Quelin and Akarak introduced as antagonists in prior books. In fact, two of the viewpoint characters here are of those species, with Roveg being a Quelin in exile and Speaker being an Akarak linguist, whose paths cross when they’re forced to stay moored to a habidome of the arid planet of Gora after a catastrophic accident litters the skies above them with debris, making it impossible to leave or even communicate with anything outside of atmosphere.

Fortunately, they’re berthed, more or less, at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a modest but thoughtfully equipped habidome rest facility run by Ouloo, a genuinely hospitable Laru, and her adolescent child Tupo. With them as they first resupply then while away the hours until they can get back on the road (or space lane, rather) is Pei, the Aeluon captain introduced in the first book of the series. She’s already feeling pretty ambivalent about the way she’s been hiding her relationship with Ashby, Human captain of the Wayfarer, but her time at the Five-Hop will find her questioning herself even more about her priorities and her obligations to her culture, which frowns on interspecies romance.

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Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

As we sprint towards the deadline for Hugo voting and I, for the second year in a row, concede defeat over being able to read all the books in time, I wanted to make sure that I at least got to cover a book Doug was raving to me about (tho I see he hasn’t yet gathered his thoughts together here for a review, tut tut.)

While I’ve found that he and I can both like and be lukewarm over books for different reasons, when we agree on something being rad, it’s truly spectacular. And that latest something is Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, which for me was like the manga/light novel remix of my dreams! Sweet, soft teenage protagonist who’s gone through more than anyone her age should ever have to but has a wondrous talent and inner light: check. Ambivalently forbidding mentor figure who’s made a demonic pact but is still the protagonist’s biggest champion: check. Household helper to the mentor who is both motherly and adorable: check. Granted, the space alien love interest of the mentor is rather out of the ordinary, tho said love interest’s family going undercover on earth running a donut shop goes back to delightful reverse isekai form.

And in fairness I haven’t read much sci-fi manga, so maybe genre mashups are more common than I expect. But what I can confidently say is that all this mixed together — with our protagonist also being a trans girl, btw — makes for a truly uncommon if not outright rare delight. Ryka Aoki does not care about genre and neither should you, as you enjoy this virtuoso novel of a violin prodigy who finally finds a home with an unusual cast of utterly delightful people.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/08/09/light-from-uncommon-stars-by-ryka-aoki/

Hello Nature Activity Book by Nina Chakrabarti

with the subtitle “Explore, Draw, Color, and Discover the Great Outdoors”.

Okay, can I be real? While this is marketed as a children’s activity book, I am 100% keeping it for meeeeeee. I did, ofc, reluctantly offer it up to my children, but my youngest two are still enthralled by their excellent Gail Gibbons’ workbooks and my eldest is deeply suspicious of anything that looks remotely like schoolwork as summer vacation draws to a close, so I get to keep this wonderful, wondrous book all to myself!

And oh what a joy it is, especially in these pandemicesque times, to have a guided exercise in appreciating the nature around you. While this book skews ever so slightly towards temperate climes, it is very much usable by readers with access to any outdoor spaces with rocks and birds and leaves. It’s also a book that encourages different creative outlets, whether it be the coloring you’d expect from volumes like these, to poems, scrapbooking and paper arts.

In fact, that multi-disciplinary encouragement is one reason I appreciated having both the physical and electronic versions of this volume available to me. While nothing beats having the slightly oversized activity book printed on art paper in my hands, having the pdf also means I can print out extra pages as needed, particularly for the activities that require a little cutting out but still have other exercises printed on the back of the sheet. This way I don’t have to choose between which I’d rather do more, cut out a page to make a tree bark rubbing or draw a bird on the reverse side. Plus, I can now make multiple rubbings using the different techniques suggested by the author!

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/08/05/hello-nature-activity-book-by-nina-chakrabarti/

Giant Island by Jane Yolen & Doug Keith

Yeesh, how was I convinced that this debuted next month and not this one?

But hey, here we are now! And here are Ava and Mason, on what seems to be the incongruously named Giant Island, a small islet that they set out to explore with their dog Cooper while Grandpa goes fishing in the same spot his own grandpa showed him as a child. The cover itself is a spoiler for the mystery inside but also serves to ease the reader into the book’s world, where the children discover the magic of having an honest-to-goodness giant to play with on a pleasant summer’s day.

There’s a lot of magic in the way this gentle tale is conveyed, with easy to read prose and an art style that’s very Green Man, sketched out with the barest shades of menace before turning entirely to the whimsical and delightful. I hadn’t been familiar with Doug Keith before this book, but his illustrations are perfect for this modern fairy tale that riffs on long-standing global myths of large geological formations being the embodiments or remains of larger than life beings.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/08/03/giant-island-by-jane-yolen-doug-keith/

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers writes science fiction stories whose characters don’t necessarily save the world. If they’re fortunate, they save their own part of the world, and maybe make the overall shape of things a little bit better. I both like and respect that approach. I like it because if every story is about saving the whole entire world, then there’s a certain sameness involved; the stakes of the story seem pre-set and externally imposed. I respect it for two reasons. First, because assuming that stories within a setting are worth telling even if they don’t upend the setting shows she values the worlds that she has created, that they have meaning in themselves and not just as playthings for the protagonists. It also shows that she respects her readers enough to expect them to care about characters who are not taking part in world-shaping events. Second, because having created a world (or in Chambers’ case, quite a few worlds) there is a temptation to tell The Most Important Story within that world, and Chambers resists it. I’m glad she does. Not every science fiction story should be like that, but I think the field would be better off if more were.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is apparently also the fourth in her Wayfarers series. I’ve only read one of the other three in the set (Doreen has read and reviewed all three), but I didn’t feel lost at all. I’m sure there were depths that I missed because I didn’t recognize returning characters or the resolution of their conflicts. The good news, though, is that the novel totally works as a standalone.

Three interstellar travelers are stuck at a way station run by the gregarious and solicitous Ouloo and her only slightly scowly adolescent child Tupo. They are stuck because of disruptions in the satellite network above the way station’s world. It is — temporarily, everyone hopes — unsafe to travel from the surface to orbit, and all long-distance communication is disrupted. Each of the travelers is from a different sentient species, although Ouloo has gone to great lengths to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable, and each of them has a reason to want to be on their way as quickly as possible, although the details of those reasons do not become clear until much later in the book.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/08/02/the-galaxy-and-the-ground-within-by-becky-chambers/

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Earth has a problem. But as Project Hail Mary begins, the protagonist and first-person narrator has no idea what the problem is. He knows a lot less than that, in fact. He doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know how he got there, doesn’t even know his own name. Why is the room round? Why are there two dead and desiccated bodies strapped onto things like medical beds next to him? Why is he strapped down, for that matter?

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Andy Weir has taken the opening to The Martian and amped it up by taking away any of the protagonist’s knowledge of where he is or what he is doing there, along with most of the skills he needs to do whatever he is supposed to be doing. Before long, the protagonist has to contend with a not-very-bright AI that controls his immediate environment, and the whole thing reads for a while like a novelization of an Infocom game, where only exactly the right verbal response will get the computer to do what one wants it to do. I guess the approach is supposed to increase dramatic tension, but I found it only aggravating. Memories return to the narrator in large chunks, and that is how Weir gradually reveals the backstory.

Earth’s problem is a neat one, from the perspective of a science fiction story, rather less so for anyone who happens to be living through it. Astronomers discover a funny line going from the sun’s north polar regions to Venus. Simultaneously, they discover that the sun’s luminosity is measurably dropping. The energy is going into the link. At the detected rate of decrease, earth’s ecosystems will be in grave danger in a matter of decades no matter what terrestrial actions are taken. The protagonist — who eventually remembers his name is Ryland Grace, Dr. Ryland Grace, former academic speculator about extraterrestrial metabolisms and current teacher of middle school chemistry — is pretty bummed to remember that.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/07/31/project-hail-mary-by-andy-weir/

Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend by Alys Arden & Jacquelin De Leon

I was so thrilled to pick up a copy of this and have it signed by Alys Arden at the recent American Library Association’s Annual Conference 2022! I’d never read any Zatanna before, despite being both fascinated by the character and curiously reluctant to read any of her solo books. I figured that a modern YA retelling of her origin story might be the best way to ease me into learning more about a character who seems ripe for misogynistic exploitation and, frankly, whose idea of spellcasting always seemed vaguely clever-for-the-early-1900s-but-otherwise-extremely-obvious for me.

Ofc, YA retellings of iconic characters are not without their pitfalls. I have spent far too much of my reading life quietly seething at what well-meaning authors have done to (ruin) the origins of Wonder Woman and Catwoman, so I figured that not knowing anything about Zatanna’s background would actually serve me well here. So while I can’t speak to how closely this book hews to the accepted canon — in deed or even, and perhaps more importantly, in spirit; see the first X-Men movie for an excellent example of capturing the spirit of a story without necessarily keeping to the often tricky and contradictory minutiae of decades of background detail — I can say that it was a very entertaining graphic novel that perfectly introduces a rebellious, stage-shy Zatanna who will eventually grow up to be the confident mystic and magician long-time readers are more familiar with.

Zatanna Starr is looking forward to spending a summer away from the snooty kids at the school her wealthy parents insist she attends. While her snobby classmates talk about traveling to Europe and the Hamptons, Zatanna is more than content to lounge on the beach of her Coney Island home, hanging out with her real friends and, especially, with the boy she’s been inseparable from for almost a decade now, Alexei Volkov. Sure, it’s a little weird that his dad is the Russian mobster in charge of running the casinos in the basement of her own family’s legendary hotel, but their parents are mostly cool with them being together, even if Alexei’s mom is constantly fussing at him to work out with a slew of personal trainers she brings in from all over the world.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/07/29/zatanna-the-jewel-of-gravesend-by-alys-arden-jacquelin-de-leon/

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan

with the loveliest illustrations by Wastana Haikal. Like, I’m not joking, the pictures add so much to an already really terrific story. Bapak Wastana really captures all the different multicultural generations in his line drawings, and I’m wholly in love with them.

The story itself far exceeded my expectations from reading just the blurb. Zara Saleem is the Queen of the Neighborhood: she’s always making up the rules for the games that the kids in her neighborhood play. When a new family moves in on their street, new girl Naomi proves a threat to Zara’s position. Zara decides that the best way to reclaim being the center of attention is to get into the Guinness Book Of World Records. Unsurprisingly, this does not go to plan. Will Zara learn that being Queen is nowhere near as fun as being friends?

So here’s the deal. As a bit of a bossy boots myself, I’m always wary of books that portray being an assertive female negatively. If no one takes charge and shapes the discourse, everyone just stands around being grumpy that no one is taking charge and shaping the discourse. Then there are the passive-aggressive people who expect you to read their minds when trying to come to a group consensus, or say one thing when really meaning another. Leadership is a difficult skill, and female leadership is too often portrayed negatively. Like, when was the last time you read a book about a boy being ostracized for being bossy?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/07/28/zaras-rules-for-record-breaking-fun-by-hena-khan/

A Psalm For The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Ayfkm with this Eat, Pray, Love but make it sci-fi bullshit?!

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersI saved the Becky Chambers novella for last on my Hugo nominations reading slate because I deeply love her full-length novels, even tho I was not a fan of her last novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I found that effort too serious, too earnest, but even that was better than this truly bizarre story about first world problems in space/the future/porque no los dos.

The worldbuilding was admittedly pretty great. On the planet Panga, humans worship six gods, and have evolved to the point where, when their robots achieved sentience, they simply let them go. The robots went into the wilds, asking not to be contacted unless they asked for contact first. Humanity carries on, embracing an enlightened view of existence which eradicates need and enacts a virtuous custodianship of the planet.

So far, so good. Sibling Dex wakes up one day and decides that, tho they enjoy their life at the monastery, they need to get the fuck out. As such, they take on the role of tea monk, eschewing training in favor of hitting the road as expeditiously as possible. Unsurprisingly given their utter lack of experience, they completely suck at their job when they first start out. It takes several months of research and several years of travel before they finally become good at it, even earning a reputation as being the best tea monk on Panga (because ofc they are.)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/07/27/a-psalm-for-the-wild-built-by-becky-chambers-2/

The Loud House Back To School Special by The Loud House Creative Team

The Loud Family is back… and back to school! If you need a fun way to help ease your kids into the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year, then there are certainly worse ways than to hand them this collection of short comics inspired by the Nickelodeon series, revolving around the titular theme.

Which theme has the kids going back to school or, like eldest child Lori, enrolling in Fairway University. My personal favorite vignettes were the ones that followed her as she got familiar with her new campus and its emphasis on golf. I really enjoyed watching her introduce Lincoln and friends to the cafeteria, and empathized with her later panic over getting the perfect gifts for everyone. Gosh, how long has it been since I’ve read another book set in college? Was it Vera Kurian’s Never Saw Me Coming from last September? Regardless, I’m a little taken aback at my own enthusiasm over the very relatable setting.

Kids who haven’t yet been to college will also find plenty to relate to as Lincoln attempts to dodge his hall monitor sister Lynn, and winds up getting involved in several special projects courtesy of both his teachers and his friends. Said teachers also get their time in the spotlight, as do the kids in pre-K, including Lincoln’s littlest sister Lily. Meanwhile, Ronnie Anne and Sid find themselves trying to figure out how to pass gym class’ final and biggest test under the curmudgeonly eye of returning Coach Crawford. There’s also a funny little diversion into the history of clowns with the Morticians Club: I was genuinely surprised to learn something new in their vignette.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/07/26/the-loud-house-back-to-school-special-by-the-loud-house-creative-team/