Bite-size Books: it’s all subjective

For our fifth year of the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, we have stacked our judging panel – and consequently our shortlists – with excellent folk. I’ll be reading and reviewing in batches, starting today with two novellas that focus on very different takes on time travel.

& This Is How You Stay Alive – Shingai Njeri Kagunda

Book cover: & This Is How To Stay Alive - Shingai Njeri Kagunda

When Kabi’s beloved brother commits suicide, she is overwhelmed by grief until an aunty opens the gates of time for her, offering a fragile ray of hope. Can Kabi heal the deep cuts of past wounds to keep her brother alive, making a what if into what will be?

& This Is How To Stay Alive is remarkable, a lyrical, deeply-felt novella of love and loss and memory and the often unhelpful ways we try to protect the ones we love (whether they want us to or not). It’s not always an easy read: while Kabi’s love is given freely, their father disapproves of Baraka’s choices and their mother is relentlessly critical. I was caught up in the family’s dysfunction as they confronted one another in the face of Baraka’s death, raging alongside Kabi at her parents’ shortsightedness and prejudices. The result is bitterly recognisable, its harsh truth far too familiar.

I surprised myself by loving Kagunda’s alternation of perspectives from Kabi, Baraka and Time itself (amongst others), layering grief in historical and emotional context as the novella unfolds. I also loved the many call backs to the senses as ways to stay alive – all also, critically, senses that evoke memories. There’s so much going on here, from reflections on colonisation and destruction of culture to the concept of time (and memory as a form of time travel) and the ways in which we express love. I’m not entirely convinced it ought to work, but the result is a searing literary gem.

One Day All This Will Be Yours – Adrian Tchaikovsky

At the end of time is a perfect day, where a man tends his farm with only his unusual pets for company. History has been shattered, and he is determined to ensure that nobody – or their time machines – make it past him to destroy the future. But he didn’t count on the future coming back to destroy his peace…

Book cover: One Day All This Will Be Yours - Adrian Tchaikovsky

The only survivor of the war that destroyed time, our protagonist kills every time traveller he meets and then travels back in time to wipe out the circumstances that led to them discovering time travel in the first place. He can’t put history right – nobody can fix time – but he can stop them repeating past mistakes. He has given himself permission to do the worst things for the greater good, and he smothers his guilt and loneliness in black humour and snark. Probably. Look, I could be projecting here. I’d like to think he feels guilty; and I’m pretty sure he’s lonely, although he’s unlikely to admit it.

And this is where it all went wrong for me. It’s a neat enough concept, it’s well executed, I can see that some people will find it funny… but I read it over-tired and emotionally stressed with the world going to hell in a handbasket. This is a book full of wisecracks about murder, genocide and war, making it very much not for me at the best of time. It picks up when the protagonist meets his match, turning briefly into Mr & Mrs Smith with time machines and dinosaurs, but you still need to be in the mood to find people fighting to the death amusing – and, yes, the people were the Actual Worst history has to offer, but still. It’s a hard no from me. Your mileage may vary.

The other novella nominees for this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards are:

A Manslaughter of Crows – Chris Willrich

A Psalm For The Wild-Built – Becky Chambers

A Spindle Splintered – Alix E Harrow

These Lifeless Things – Premee Mohamed

Fireheart Tiger – Aliette de Bodard

The Future God of Love – Dilman Dila

The Past is Red – Catherynne M Valente

Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters – Aimee Ogden

The Annual Migration of Clouds – Premee Mohamed

Tower of Mud and Straw – Yaroslav Barsukov

I received a free copy of ONE DAY ALL THIS WILL BE YOURS from Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review. I bought & THIS IS HOW TO STAY ALIVE from Neon Hemlock.