‘Home’ – Nnedi Okorafor

So I finally set aside a little time to do some non-uni reading and managed to read Home the second installment in Okorafor’s Binti series (I believe it’s going to be a trilogy but I’m not 100%). On a side note because uni is getting on top of me I’ll only be reviewing SF here on my blog rather than SF and fantasy. If you want to read my thoughts on literally every book I read – though I can’t see why you would – hit me up on my Goodreads and add me as a friend.

homeOkay so back to Binti and why she is quickly becoming an SF character I can’t keep out of my mind. As you know I loved Binti  and devoured it almost entirely. I loved the motif of her hair and her whole struggle with her identity, and those ideas have been artfully expanded by Okorafor in Home. In this novella Binti returns home with her newly acquired Meduse companion and her new tentacle like braids in place of her former (I imagine) beautiful hair. But it is during her return that she realises she is even more at odds with her family and finds a new family in her hidden heritage from a neighbouring tribe who accept her, whilst another neighbouring tribe begins rallying against her new alien bud. That’s basically the whole plot right there, it’s short but that’s what you get out of a novella.

What I really loved about this one was the discovery of Binti’s dual identity. As someone who is mixed race myself it is difficult to find my own struggles with identity reflected in literature, but there it was embracing me and telling me it was all okay. Not that I think the enjoyment of this novel is restricted to those struggling with racial identity, everyone struggles of course, but my struggles don’t get talked about often so I got a little giddy reading it. There is no definite answer to Binti’s struggle of identity throughout the series so far and I really admire that, there is no answer, harbouring dual identities is an ever-lasting life-long tug of war, and it’s presented beautifully here.

Another thing that blew me away about Home was that Binti’s spiritual connection with her mathematical studies and her number-loving induced “treeing” was explained so much better! In Binti it felt like an odd fact just thrown in as an attempt to add some subplot, but in Home the whole concept is really fleshed out and I really felt something. I’m not sure what I felt, but let’s say it was warm and fuzzy enough to keep me reading well into the night.

The final thing I want to address is the pacing of Home. Although it didn’t occur to me when reading Binti upon reflection I realised that the pacing was a little off. We weren’t given enough time to really connect with characters before tragedy befell them, and everything seemed rushed. This might be some biased judgement on my part as I do think it should have been a full novel but there you go. In Home thought Okorafor seemed to really hit her stride with her pacing and even when things did start to move too fast the characters acknowledged with a kind of fear that things were going too fast and that they were disorientated, which really helped deal with the shorter form.

Honestly, as much as I loved Binti, I feel like Home is where the story really comes together and I can’t see why it won no awards when its predecessor got a Hugo AND a Nebula. But what I really want to say is if you were in any way disappointed with the first book because of any reasons I outlined, know that it seems to be a series that really picks up as it goes along.

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‘Manifest Destiny’ – Barry B. Longyear

So I finally started to read the pile of books my father lent me, and I started with Manifest Destiny by Barry B Longyear. I started with this one because my father wanted it back, no other reason. So considering I basically had a deadline to read it and it wasn’t the first of the books I’d have chosen I found it absolutely brilliant to read. It had four main stories and some framing narrative of humanity deciding on where to attack and how to fulfill their manifest destiny throughout the universe. In the sense of humanity being excessively entitled and greedy it was startlingly realistic (I don’t even care that I’m throwing shade at my own species here, we’re horrible basically). I’m going to review each story individually with some short reviews. I usually wouldn’t do this with a collection but there’s only four stories so why not.

SPOILERS AHEAD

 

The Jaren – So in ‘The Jaren’ an alien servant of a human real estate agent tells the story of his youth and how he and five friends with a deep spiritual bond joined the army to fight against the humans. The story culminates with the alien’s friends all dying on the spot of land that the human is trying to sell and the story moves him so much that he doesn’t sell the land.

Though I wasn’t a big fan of the military element of the story I loved the sentimentality of it. I started the collection obviously thinking that it would be humans fucking shit up, but found that it was more about the small individual experiences that undercut the idea of manifest destiny as a concept. In that sense I felt the story set up the rest of the collection very well but other than that I didn’t really feel much about this story either way.

img_2160Enemy Mine – Now this is the real crowning glory of the collection (it was also made into a film of the same name that I have yet to watch). This story follows a human and a drac (bipedal reptilian alien) who after a battle end up stranded together on an uninhabited planet with a hostile environment. They learn each others languages and start to understand each others cultures and work together to survive. The drac becomes pregnant as they reproduce asexually and dies in childbirth leaving the human to raise the child. Of course the human becomes attached, but has promised to return the child to their home planet. Eventually they are rescued and separated and eventually reunited. But both have become so alienated to their own way of life and their species war that – along with some of the child’s family – they return to populate the hostile planet once more.

Now honestly, this blew me away. There are beautiful sections in which the two are clumsily learning how to communicate that shows Longyear as a real artist with a real understanding of how language works. It really is phenomenal. But what really struck me about this was the fact that they return to populate the planet. I do not read a lot of these kind of shipwreck narratives (after having been warned off of Robinson Crusoe so aggressively) but I loved the idea of becoming to distanced from the world that you can’t assimilate yourself. I love the idea of realising your enemy is so like you that you simply cannot return to war with them. It was just a beautiful piece and I can entirely understand why this was the one to be adapted.

Savage Planet – Now this one was a little strange. Humans have colonised a planet inhabited by horse/centaur (I think?) like aliens. All these aliens are born female and the dominant ones become male. They attend the university set up by humans to educate them but the struggle for academic dominance renders them impotent. Their tutor discovers this is essentially humanity’s way of killing the entire species to gain access to the planet’s natural resources. Eventually the “savage” aliens set up their own government so they can legally be seen as civilised and take true ownership of their planet.

Honestly, although ‘Enemy Mine’ struck me in a more emotional sense ‘Savage Planet’ got me for the sheer genius of it. How genius to think up a race that could be killed by education only for them to come up against a race that sees the educated mind as civilised and has a history of “dealing” with the natives in sick ways. How brilliant does a mind have to be to think up something so wonderful and horrific all at once? It has to be as brilliant as Barry B Longyear’s mind, obviously.

img_2159USE Force – Basically a guy enlists in the army, gets captured and put in a POW camp and stages a mutiny (is it mutiny if it’s not at sea?) against his superior officer whilst in the prison. And honestly, I cannot for the life of me remember how it ends.

I won’t lie this was my least favourite of the stories. As I mentioned when reflecting on ‘The Jaren’ I am not a fan of military SF I just don’t enjoy it. Nothing about it appeals to me, and USE Force was military SF in it’s purist form. I did enjoy the characters and their developments and interactions with each other, so I can assume this is probably a pretty good example of its subgenre. But it really wasn’t for me, as evidenced by me forgetting how it ends (I am quite embarrassed).

 

All in all I really loved this book, I honestly haven’t read a lot of books with aliens. I usually credit Octavia E Butler with creating my favourite aliens (in her Xenogenesis series) but Longyear is definitely a close second.

‘The Power’ – Review

I picked up Naomi Alderman’s The Power, having heard a little bit about the concept and thinking it would be an interesting read about gender, but it was so much more than that. The Power shows a world where women have power, a physical power that surpasses any male strength; they can shoot bolts of electricity from their hands. It img_2113sounds ridiculous, and I thought it would be, I thought it would be a fun read, or at least one loaded with feminist theory which is fun for a feminist literature student. It wasn’t ridiculous. It was a fun read to start off with, it was satisfying, even cathartic to see women take back control, and it was steeped in feminist theory just as I had thought. But it doesn’t take long for the tenuous equality in this fictional world to flip on its head. Soon enough we see men forced to have a female guardian with them in public, we see once powerful mobsters raped and brutalised by strange women, we see men abused and taken advantage of, and we see women start to demean, victim blame, and dismiss men. All of this begs the question; is sexism a matter of gender or just pure power? And cruelly Naomi doesn’t answer the question but leaves the reader quaking with a deep fear and questioning the morals of the human race, just as I am as I write this review.

The book follows four characters main characters; Roxy, the daughter of a mobster who works for her father after realising she has the power; Margot, the mayor of a town with a daughter unable to control her power fully (though Margot can); Allie, the girl who escapes her abusive foster home and starts a new faith; and Tunde, the only male main character, a journalist who documents the various uprisings and disruptions around him. Though these characters do eventually come together in one way or another, their stories remain their own and the small intricacies of each story and each character helps create a world that is so undeniably real I found myself guided unknowingly to whatever it was Alderman wanted me to feel.

img_2112As well as wonderful characters and believable plot, the story has other elements of dark reality. Illustrations of cryptic historical findings punctuate the novel, giving an idea of female power stretching back throughout time, giving a sense of inevitability to the novel. This inevitability is only strengthened by the brief, but powerful, framing narrative that I won’t give away too much about.

There are a few strands of the story that worried me at first; there was a prominent men’s rights activist group that featured throughout the novel and I was worried it was going to take a dark turn I wouldn’t be comfortable with (this blog is in no way unbiased, groups like this make me worry for the fate of humanity). But Alderman manages to find a middle ground, teasing her way between two extreme gender ideals and focusing on the humanity of the stories that bind them together to the point where this book isn’t taking a side, merely presenting an idea.

I picked up this book just to see what kind of SF could break the barrier into the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I found myself reading a deeply political, relevant piece that could even rival Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as one of the best feminist SF pieces I’ve read in years.

Seriously, read this book. You will not be disappointed.

‘A Closed and Common Orbit’ – Review

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I absolutely loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and had high hopes for A Closed and Common Orbit. It didn’t exactly meet my expectations, but it was a nice read nonetheless.

img_2087Common Orbit picks up at the end of the previous book, following two minor characters: Pepper a human mechanic/tech genius, and Lovelace the Wayfarer’s AI in an illegal body posing as a person. Whilst Lovelace’s chapters are present day showing her adjusting to her new body and environment, Pepper’s show her past as a cloned child labourer who escapes and is raised by an AI in a scrapyard. The only problem is that that’s it. Small, Angry Planet had a number of different interwoven plots that created a tapestry of space ships, aliens, lesbians, and lesbian aliens (I had a clear favourite plot), but Common Orbit had none of that complexity.

Despite the slowness of the book it was a fun read at least. But that proved to be another problem for me. Chambers promised to explore clone slavery and AI ethics all in one book and somehow managed multiple chapters on tattoos but very little on ethics, and when the ethics were mentioned it wasn’t a subtle affair. I love a good discussion on robot ethics but I don’t enjoy having it wedged in amongst some awkward dialogue and dull plot.

I feel as though I’m complaining a lot about a book I finished and would have been fine if not for its predecessor being so impressive. Common Orbit falls so short of Small, Angry Planet, and knowing that Chambers could do better just made it all the worse.

‘Annihilation’ – Review

I’m a bit late to the party with Annihilation, but it’s still a damn good party. Except by “good party” I mean “terrifying uncanny nightmare”. It has been a long time since a book has scared me this much, mostly because I avoid horror, and I thought SF was a safe space where nothing was strike fear into me. Somehow VanderMeer sullied my safe space and made me enjoy being scared.

SPOILERS AHEAD

img_2068Annihilation follows a team of nameless specialists in various fields as they adventure into Area X, a strange portion of land where questionable things seem to happen and where multiple missions have ended in disaster. Sent off with partial information and mistrust in her team the biologist recounts the events of their expedition as best she can with limited knowledge. A lot of the fear in this book relies on limitations, the limitation of the narrative, the limitation of identity, and the limitation of human understanding.

Thankfully not all the fear relies on limits or we wouldn’t really have enough information to be scared, VanderMeer artfully lets through just enough snippets to make an almost tangible thought before snatching it away again. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I also want to list some things that really messed me up from this book:

  • The most recent expedition returned alive, but not quite themselves (spooky)
  • Something just howls every night, just howling in the dark
  • Creepy lighthouse
  • Spores, spores everywhere, is it even safe to breathe
  • Eyes, I cannot handle eyes
  • Some very disturbing wounds
  • Some unnervingly Freudian spaces (lighthouse included)
  • A deceptively bright and fun cover

If you have any problems with any of these things, I am downplaying it. I have a beloved children’s’ film I can’t watch again just because it has a lighthouse. Noises at night scare me. If my partner doesn’t focus their eyes quickly enough for my liking I become convinced some terrifying stuff is about to happen. This has gone from review to therapy session pretty fast so let’s get back to the book.

The beginning of the book was a little slow as the writing style seemed to put me off at first. The biologist is a scientific narrator, obviously, and though it works well to have a slight emotional disconnection in the story, I found it difficult to lose myself into the story because of it.  Once I got past my own emotional hang ups (and once the story got a bit more emotive I’ll admit) I really started to get into it. I’m excited and a little scared to read the next instalment, which from what I can tell follows another character and is much longer, so hopefully a change in narrative will endear me to it more.

‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ – Review

I first came across Valerian when I was obsessively watching trailers for the Blade Runner sequel.  As Valerian had more colour and a lack of Ryan Gosling, I found myself all the more excited for Valerian, so when the reviews started rolling in with fairly negative headlines I was distraught. Until one review (I can’t recall which) said it was in the same terrible league as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow… which I loved. Undeterred, I went to see Valerian and it was everything I wanted it to be.

thumbnail_25961Valerian probably won’t win any Oscars, but frankly the Oscars are wrong – but that’s another blog post. Valerian follows the title character and his partner Lauraline who find themselves in the deep-end of a military conspiracy that takes them travelling through Alpha, otherwise known as The City of a Thousand Planets. Alpha’s genesis is shown in the opening sequence of the film, which, frankly, is a work of art and should excuse the awkward, forced will-they-won’t-they plot line, and cringe-worthy dialogue that it preceded.

thumbnail_25123Despite the forced romantic plot line and the at times off-kilter dialogue, Valerian was incredibly fun to watch. It was a visual feast (excuse the cliché) but the plethora of alien life and the market in another dimension really allowed for something beautiful to look at. Speaking of beauty, I was almost sure that Rihanna’s cameo would be a brief, fan-service ploy to draw in fans and over-excited teen boys. And I regret thinking that, because Rihanna was really the highlight of the film for me, she had more character development in a few scenes than Valerian and Lauraline had in the whole film and she was incredible. I wasn’t a huge fan of the casting otherwise, but eventually warmed to it.

I won’t lie to you, whoever you may be, I saw this film twice. Anyone who likes SF should watch Valerian, like I said it won’t win any awards, but it was so much fun.

‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ – Review

I finally got over my fear of endings (there was about a ten year gap between me reading The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass I’m not messing around here) and I finally read the final Discworld novel and the final Tiffany Aching novel. You can see why I’m struggling a little here. Things are about to get a little mushy. The first Pratchett I ever read was Wintersmith when I was in primary school and obsessed with witches (I still am) and it meant a lot to me, so obviously when I found out the last Pratchett novel to be published was about Tiffany I ran out and bought it as soon as I could. Then I left it to gather dust for a couple years out of fear. Part of me felt like reading The Shepherd’s Crown would entirely end my childhood, despite the fact that it legally ended before the book came out. So I finally read it on my 21st birthday when I felt it was acceptable to really let go. It sounds neurotic and it probably is a little, but I don’t care, my blog is my place to share my book crazy however I wish.

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Hay-on-Wye photo shoot

To get things out of the way I loved this book, obviously I would I’m a huge fan. But loving a book by default doesn’t make for a great review so I’m going to get down to the good stuff. SPOILERS AHEAD.

First of all this is a book about mourning, those who are still avoiding it (as I was) maybe don’t keep reading basically, it starts with Granny Weatherwax dying and Tiffany having to fill her shoes. If there were ever a book from a genre defining writer saying “carry on without me” to his fans I’ve yet to find a better one than this. The plot, mourning aside, took the Tiffany Aching series full circle revisiting the faeries she fought in the first instalment, which (for me) was a lovely return to childhood and was just too wonderfully cyclical to even really process amongst all my happy tears.

Though I loved this novel, because it was brilliant, but as I was reading it something about the prose style felt a little off to me. And it wasn’t until the afterword written by Rob Wilkins that I realised what was off:

“Once it was shaped, he would keep writing it too, adding to it, fixing bits, constantly polishing and adding linking sequences, tossing in just one more footnote or event. His publishers often had to prise the manuscript away from him, as there was always more he felt he could do […] The Shepherd’s Crown has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died.”

img_2005I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect explanation. The book was perfect, but somewhat lacking in Pratchett’s usual witticisms and personal style. If anything though this made the whole book so much sadder for me. Just the idea that Pratchett didn’t get the chance to brush up this story (even though it was still amazing) to the excellent standards he worked so hard for his whole life.

Basically I’m just here to say I loved The Shepherd’s Crown, I love Terry Pratchett, and I’m still a little upset.

‘Binti’ – Review

The novella Binti by Nnedi Okorafor follows the title character as she leaves her family to attend a prestigious university on another planet. Binti’s people (the Himba) use clay to cover their bodies and hair and never leave Earth, until Binti that is. Binti leaves the planet under cover of darkness and begins a journey that explores her identity, her race, and her place in an inter-species conflict between humans and aliens called the Meduse.

bintiI absolutely loved this novella. Though the writing was a little simplistic there were some beautiful moments. There was one moment in particular when a stranger touched Binti’s hair without permission, something every woman of colour has had to suffer through (including myself) and though the scene was loaded with awkwardness I actually laughed. I’m sure no comedy was intended but it was almost liberating to read about these micro-aggressions people suffer on a daily basis that is always left out of what I read.

The motif of Binti’s hair was actually an interesting one throughout the text. I’ve only ever read two books about hair; Rapunzel, and a story about a girl whose hair was too curly to keep her crown on (my mom bought it for me to deter me straightening my hair), so it was refreshing to read a short piece about hair. I realise this might sound a little strange that I’m going on about hair in this review, but it’s a big part of life, especially for women with longer hair and I struggle to see why it doesn’t come up in literature more. Maybe I’m in the wrong genre for hair.

The hair that I have just so highly praised was braided according to a mathematical formula. And so we come to the one part of the book I couldn’t get along with; the maths. Binti was accepted to higher education because of her affinity with mathematics, something she shares with her people, though she is the first to pursue it at a university level. It’s not mentioned much, but the story has plenty of references and one equation (too much for me) which sent me spiralling into horrific maths A-level memories. Of course if you like maths I guess that’s fine too, or whatever.

Despite my mathematical complaints I loved this book so much. My only other complaint is that it wasn’t longer, though that does defeat the point of a novella. Okorafor does an excellent job of world-building in such a small space, but I selfishly wanted it to be longer. Luckily there’s a sequel that I will be reading and reviewing very soon.

‘A Conjuring of Light’ – Review

As always V.E. Schwab has blown me away. Don’t get me wrong, the Shades of Magic series has not changed my life in any drastic way, I didn’t read each book within twenty four hours of buying them whether or not it made my eyes bleed, and (unlike usual) I’m not throwing myself into a rabid tumblr fandom surrounding the series. Nonetheless, I love these books immensely, they read like old, familiar friends, and Conjuring of Light was no different.

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Anyone who has read the series will know Lila Bard would LOVE this mug

A Conjuring of Light picked up exactly where A Gathering of Shadows left off (with the Antari Kell being lured into the Shadow King’s trap) keeping the pace of the second book and letting it’s momentum fling the story right into the final conflict of the series. Sadly though, the magical shenanigans of the second book were left there and the world is thrown into a dark and realistic seriousness. I loved it.

Thankfully, the magic of the series finally cropped up with some more limitations and it made the whole thing feel a bit more realistic to me. Though I found it easy to read and pleasant to think about before, the idea of Kell and Holland’s Antari magic being almost limitless left me somewhat irked and unimpressed. Thankfully, in the throes of the final challenge magic begins to falter and comes to rely on some artifacts rather than blood which I found quite interesting. Sadly it wasn’t explored much further, but in 666 pages (spooky) Schwab packed so much in that I can forgive her for leaving some stones unturned.

My father has a theory about endings which I intend to bore you with right now. His theory goes that there are British Endings and American Endings. American Endings couple up with the American hero, the dystopian government is overthrown, the hero grows old in a fresh, new world (See The Hunger Games). British Endings are much more nihilistic, every act of rebellion was futile, the fight was lost, the “hero” focuses on their own survival rather than the greater good (See 1984). Conjuring settles somewhere comfortably between the two for me.

My reviews of anything by Schwab are always painfully short because I have serious trouble finding any fault with her books. If anyone has found fault please tell me, I’m obviously blinded by adoration.

‘The Stars are Legion’ – Review

I first heard about The Stars are Legion on the Breaking the Glass Slipper Podcast in an episode where Hurley was interviewed and had some interesting things to say. After looking into Hurley and her social media a little more I found that the book was being marketed with the slogan “Lesbians in Space”. Who wouldn’t take that bait? I ordered the book almost immediately after seeing those three words, though I knew it would be a little while before I got round to reading it. Still, I had high hopes. Hurley seemed like a great person in her interview, the book seemed like it would be my kind of thing, so I waited until I had a moment to breathe where I could really enjoy the book, and set to reading.

img_1889The first few chapters of the book were confusing, which I expected. The premise is that Zan wakes up with no memory in the midst of a war between the worlds of an organic fleet called the Legion, and it’s not the first time she’s woken up like this. It’s also not the first time I’ve read a character with amnesia, so I felt I was prepared. Unfortunately, I felt that the first person narrative was a little off-kilter and it all moved much too fast. So let me break it down for you.

Zan wakes up, with no idea of where she is or why, but of course little things bleed through. She has no idea about this war, or what her part in it is, but suddenly, she’s a seasoned general working off muscle memory and leading troops into battle. A battle that fails, as it apparently has before. Most of the small threads picked up by what little memory she has are abandoned and essentially pointless in the end. As well as this, during the battle scene there was a slight lapse in editing that had me confused for a good half hour before I realised it was just a tiny mistake and I wasn’t a complete fool.

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The vehicle falls out from under her, fair enough
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What? It came back? Huh?? Someone tell me if I missed something! 

Okay that’s it for the strange pacing and a tiny error that stopped me sleeping (silly I know). Onto the infuriating narrative voices. There were two first person narrators, Zan, who remembers nothing, and Jayd who remembers everything. Zan’s narrative would be all well and good if it weren’t identical in voice to Jayd’s, and frankly it doesn’t develop much as she develops her personality from a clean slate. Jayd’s narration, however, was a terrible choice. Hurley tries to withhold information from the reader whilst tracking the internal monologue of someone in the know, which ultimately failed and just made the character’s voice annoying and incomplete. I really think it should have been written in third person to achieve a better effect. I know I harp on about this a lot, but emotions should be shown, not told, and that’s where a lot of first person falls down for me. I don’t like being spoon fed, let me feed myself damn it.

img_1886Finally, as I already said, I picked up this book to read some good solid feminist fiction, and despite the lovely dedication at the start raising my hopes, it didn’t really work out that way. Firstly, there was almost no diversity in character. There was one character that spoke too much, and that was the only deviation from the stock characters I could find which was infuriating. All of the characters seemed to be horrible people with no morals, and it was a bit of a boring read because of that. Even the seemingly innocent, if a bit weird, character tried to poison someone and I wasn’t really that fussed by it. (Also she gets pretty brutally hurt several times and doesn’t die which destroyed some of it’s supposed grittiness for me.) Secondly, and this is a small issue, but still an issue, a lot of the language was significantly male. The leaders of the worlds were referred to as Lords and their deities Gods, and though I understand the argument of them being all-female and not having that binary in their language, the use of male pronouns as default annoys me no end.

Finally, and this bit is a little spoiler-y, they finish their mission, do what needs to be done, but we don’t get to see the ramifications of it. We don’t know if they managed to save the dying legion, if anything’s changed, or even if it was worth doing. It was essentially cut short before the real ending with a very bland, uninspiring message of hope that didn’t feel truthful or satisfying.

I feel quite bad saying all this as I set myself up to really adore this book. Saying that I did get through it quite quickly, but I’ll chalk that up to no internet access and a few long car rides in which there was nothing else to do. All in all I’m quite disappointed, but still not unwilling to give Hurley another shot.