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See? One month into 2017 and I only managed to get through three books.

I cut down my Goodreads Reading Challenge down to 42 books, and I’m already wondering if maybe that was too ambitious a target. Oh well.

Nigerians in SpaceNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Debut novel from Deji Bryce Olukotun that isn’t quite what it seems at first glance. I found this in the science-fiction section of the bookstore, and the blurb suggests that it’s a fictional story about Nigeria attempting to kick off a space-flight program. In reality, it’s more of an international thriller with a few scientific elements. The narrative hops back and forth between 1993 and present day, following lunar geologist Wale Olufunmi, who steals a moon sample from NASA as a sign of commitment to the planned program, only to find himself stranded when his recruiter fails to show up, after which he discovers that other recruits are being killed. There are also subplots involving a not-so-smart South African abalone smuggler and a Zimbabwe woman with an unusual skin condition who searches for the man who betrayed her father and left her stuck in a Paris orphanage. So it’s not really about space at all –it’s more about the collision between dreams, good-intentioned idealism, and the hard reality of African political power struggles and corruption. The narrative framework that serves as the vehicle for this gets a bit clunky by the end and doesn't provide much resolution, leaving several unanswered questions. But there was still enough going on to keep me interested throughout.

The Annihilation Score (Laundry Files, #6)The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the sixth installment of the excellent Laundry Files (i.e. British agents vs Lovecraftian horrors), and the first to shift the narrative focus from Bob Howard to his wife, Dr Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, another Laundry operative tasked with carrying an evil, possessed violin that serves as a weapon against occult enemies, but at the cost of her sanity and increasingly her marriage to Bob. This book explores another consequence of rising paranormal activity around the world – last time it was vampires, this time it's people discovering they have superpowers and doing ill-advised things with them. And Mo ends up in charge of creating a government superhero team for the Home Office. But it’s not a superhero tale so much as it is about how British govt bureaucracy would go about dealing with an outbreak of superpowers, as well as a story about Mo coping with a crumbling marriage, overwork and a mid-life crisis in general – and all that on top of having to carry a demonic violin that’s trying to take control of her life. Some fans have complained about this one – either because they don’t like superheroes, or the feelings stuff is boring, or because Mo complains a lot and why can’t she be nicer – but overall I liked it, and I like that Stross tried something different here. That said, working a superhero trope into the Laundry universe is a bit of a stretch, though he does pull it off.

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Philip K Dick’s classic alternative history that imagines what life in America would be like if the Axis had won WW2. I read this sometime in the early 90s, but while I remember liking it, I didn't remember much about the story, and with many people taking a sudden interest in it these days – partly because of the TV adaptation, and partly because some people are citing it as a preview of the Trump admin (which I already discussed here, if yr interested) – I thought this was a good time to re-read it. I’m glad I did – this is one of PKD’s most coherent works that also provides a reasonably believable vision of America occupied by both Nazi Germany and Japan, as seen from the viewpoint of various characters. This being a PKD book, there’s also a lot of duplicity (agents, disguised Jews, political backstabbing, etc) and realities within realities, including a popular book that imagines what would have happened if the Allies won (albeit not in the way they did in real life), while there are hints here and there that none of what these people are experiencing is real at all. It's a challenging book at times, especially the ending, but I found it quite rewarding – not just in terms of the alternate history bits, but also how the story stays focused on the characters and their specific situations, and doesn't spend lots of time on the various atrocities and evils of the Nazi regime. He doesn't ignore them, but he doesn't exploit them in the name of melodrama, either.

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