the bookshelf

This is The Bookshelf, a list of editor's picks related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that feature this issue's theme of Looking Forward, Looking Back in some interesting ways.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu


What an original book! – slightly crazy, with both historical and futuristic themes, and with bleak and funny moments. The story has a detective element; why are scientists in China dying, and what is this computer game that they’re playing, The Three Body Problem? My favourite character in the book was definitely the policeman assigned to the case – Shi Qiang – a no-nonsense, cigar-smoking hardman, he made me laugh with his bluntness. The character I was most intrigued by was Ye Wenjie, the daughter of a physicist killed by his own students during the Cultural Revolution, who ends up working at a top-secret Chinese SETI-like structure and who makes first contact with the Trisolarans, an alien species. I’d recently seen Contact, and the difference between her and Jodie Foster’s characters’ reactions to first contact made me smile a lot. I loved reading a SF book set partly during the Cultural Revolution, and I loved the scenes set in the infernally difficult computer game. ‘Dehydrate! Dehydrate!’ Lucy

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold


This is my favourite novel in my favourite SF series, the Vorkosigan Saga. Set almost entirely on Barrayar instead of away with the Dendarii mercenaries, Miles Vorkosigan is dealing with his body betraying him somewhat, and with the lies he spun to conceal his physical ailments. He must deal with growing up, with not running away from Barrayar and his responsibilities as a Vorkosigan, and with a curious detective case involving his friend, mentor, and commander, Simon Illyan, the head of Barrayar’s secret service, whose infamous memory chip appears to be malfunctioning. There’s a lot of marching around ImpSec headquarters, with idiot cousin Ivan press ganged and in tow to do all the heavy lifting, as Miles focusses on Simon’s problem in order to somewhat avoid his own. With a political romance side plot involving Emperor Gregor and Barrayar’s complicated relationship with Komarr, it’s funny and sad, and a poignant turning point in the series. Lucy


Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall


Space Hostages, the sequel to Sophia McDougall’s excellent Mars Evacuees, carry’s on with the same wonderful level humour and thoughtfulness that first excited me so much about Sophia’s writing. After saving the world, Alice, Josephine, Carl, Noel and Thsaaa are being honoured with a trip to the Morror’s (alien invaders which the ‘Plucky Kids from Mars’ make peace with in book one) new planet. Unfortunately on the way there is an issue with some fearsomely enormous lobster-like aliens kidnapping them and holding them for ransom. The kids are not only tasked with saving themselves, but from freeing a world from occupation, whilst trying to save planet Earth from the same fate. Somehow managing to create an atmosphere of tension and simultaneous humour (whilst throwing them out of airlocks to die gruesomely in space the aliens are constantly declaring their amorous love for one another) Space Hostages is diverse (of the five main characters only one is a white human – and Thsaaa is gender neutral) and explores themes of colonialism and repression. Even though this is a book for children, I would highly recommend it to grown-up children as well. Laurel

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis 


I adored both settings of this book: a fusty futuristic Oxford, populated by time travel researching academics, and fourteenth century England, where medieval scholar Kivrin (one of the few female time travellers in speculative fiction) has travelled to. Events in both locations go horribly awry, with Kivrin’s advisor James Dunworthy battling an influenza outbreak in his present whilst simultaneously trying to work out what went wrong with Kivrin’s trip to the past. Kivrin is a fantastically resourceful and kind heroine – fiercely intelligent, she learns everything necessary for her trip, including Middle English, first aid and horse riding. Upon her arrival in the past though, she is aware that something is not right and must help the local people battle what is coming their way. Gripping, funny and horrifying, this is the start of a fantastic series of books set in the same Oxford universe. Lucy


The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger 


The Time Traveller’s Wife plays with the notion of time as a metaphor for miscommunication and absences in relationships. Henry suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes him to time travel involuntarily, appearing naked and vulnerable in situations of varying degrees of danger and absurdity. The book opens on a meeting between him and his future wife Clare, in which Henry is meeting her for the first time, but because of his genetic quirk, Clare has known him for most of her life. As a young girl, she is visited by Henry, at first making friends and providing him with clothes, then, when she is older, falling in love with him and ardently waiting for the day that their time-lines can sync up. This raises questions on the ethics of the relationship. Does Henry effectively groom Clare? How fair is it on Clare when Henry periodically disappears, with no warning and no knowledge of when he will return? ‘It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays.’ A beautiful look at love, time travel, and being left behind. Laurel


Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Book 2 of Fitz and the Fool


Oh Fitz. You wonderful, mixed up, damaged single father you. Fool’s Assassin, book one in the series, (spoiler – look away if necessary) ended on an epic cliff-hanger in which his daughter Bee is kidnapped. Book two unfolds in wonderful Hobb style; ponderously, slowly, thoughtfully, but in a way that is never boring. As a fantasy book, Hobb draws inspiration from Medieval Europe, a time in which letters arrive by messenger (unless you have a skilled one present, of course), people travel by foot or by horse, and the monarchy still holds actual power. Because of the information lag, it is days before Fitz discovers Bee’s plight, and the trail is cold. Even with the full resources of the Six Duchies at his disposal, will he be able to get his daughter back? There is a moment in this book, quite near the beginning, where I actually happy cried (fans of Hobb that have been with Fitz from the beginning will know exactly what moment I am talking about). Hobb has a talent for writing intricate political intrigue and gruesomely detailed battle scenes, but it’s the emotional connection that she creates to her characters that for me is truly what makes her stand out as a Fantasy great. Fans of Robin Hobb will not be disappointed with the latest instalment to the Fitz saga. Those of you who are new to Hobb, do  not read this book...yet. Get yourself a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice and start from the beginning, safe in the knowledge that you have a whole treasure trove of experience ahead of you. Laurel


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood


The Heart Goes Last is set in a near future dystopia in which there is an enormous worldwide economic crash that brings commerce to its knees and raises unemployment to nearly 100%. After losing their house and jobs, Stan and Charmain are desperate, living in their car so they can drive away from marauding gangs at a moment’s notice. They both know they can’t maintain this meagre existence, so when an opportunity for a free house and steady employment in a safe gated community is offered, it’s just a little bit too hard to resist. And who wouldn’t want clean sheets, a locking door and all the security that offers? The only downside seems to be that you have to spend every other month in prison. And that you can never leave or have any contact with the outside world. Oh, and you no longer have any control over your life. So what’s better? Chaos, danger, and freedom? Or security and comfort behind locked doors? In The Heart Goes Last, Atwood looks at how power breeds greed, poverty breeds desperation, and how freedom should never be given lightly. Laurel

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North


This book has a fascinating premise: what if a small percentage of people were born again, and again, and again – into the same bodies at the same point in time – with their intellectual capabilities intact after the first time? Obviously, they’d set up a secret society, of which Harry August, the story’s protagonist, is a member. Harry explains the mundanities of repeating childhood over and over again, although he soon learns to call upon the society’s help from a young age after the first few lives. He slowly begins to realise that something is afoot that is threatening all of human existence, and the existence of other ‘kalachakras’ like Harry. The book’s fascinating for various reasons – it looks at many different historical eras through the eyes of the kalachakras, it’s also a spy novel with the atmosphere of a Cold War thriller at times, and its use of its plot device is extremely clever as Harry learns more about kalachakras throughout history and the power that they can (and should not) wield. Lucy

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Kindred by Octavia Butler


We have reviewed Kindred before, but as it’s a shining example of a novel (from any genre) dealing with time and history, we are including it in this issue as well. Kindred sees protagonist Dana, a Black American woman living with her white husband in 1970s California, transported suddenly across time and place to the antebellum south. Of course, her life is immediately imperiled by her new circumstances, and she must quickly learn to negotiate the hell of this period of time as a Black woman. Tied to the past by one of her white ancestors, she is pulled back and forth from her present to his. Octavia Butler was a genius, and the book’s complexities challenge the reader on many levels – the use of Dana’s violent time travel abduction to try to examine what slavery would be like for Black people stolen from Africa at the time, the commentary on race relations in 1970s America (her life is better in her present but she and her husband must still deal with racism), and of course Dana herself – a complex, outspoken and intelligent woman who is stuck in a horrific situation. Lucy

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