Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.

Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Vigil Harbor — an historic town on the Atlantic Seaboard — is a kind of safe harbor for many of its residents. It feels protected from the ever increasing calamities of the broader world — rising oceans, increased acts of terrorism, epidemics. When a spate of divorces and a couple of strangers arrive —each with a hidden agenda — suddenly the problems of the world seem to hit a little closer to home.

Only ten years into the future, many of the characters are understandably living in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and despair. In the world (too well) portrayed by the author, Survival Studies has become a college major, climate change has diminished songbirds and summer fruit almost to extinction, coastal towns have been triaged into oblivion, various groups are hunkering down in survivalist bunkers, and eco-terrorism is on the rise with frequent and deadly bombings. One character suggests that humankind is busy “unbuilding the ark.” Other characters are stubbornly optimistic or simply moving on with their lives, adapting to a constantly changing reality as we humans have been doing for millennia.

A set of deeply drawn characters — a despairing biologist who believes he works in “marine hospice”; a retired English high school teacher bent on revenge; an optimistic architect who considers himself “an architect for the future, not the apocalypse”; a college drop out back home after a narrow escape; a brilliant landscaper still terrified of possible deportation after 40 years in the country; and others — all wind around each other while living, reflecting, worrying, and hoping. They are having children and consciously considering what it means to parent in a rapidly deteriorating landscape. They are creating art, appreciating beauty, and finding people and places to love. They are finding ways to define and follow their passions to try to make the world a better place (for some definition of better and some definition of place).

Julia Glass is one of my favorite writers — as in the actual use of words to describe, set a mood, bring to life. Her vocabulary is both large and up-to-date (it’s possible that she made up several of the more modern slang words). She creates these amazing turns of phrase — the words literally turning / tumbling around in the phrase — and so many of her sentences are gorgeous little nuggets that I grew tired of underlining. She does a pretty interesting job of describing nature, pieces of art, and different architectures. I say “interesting” because I typically don’t enjoy descriptions — I don’t visualize from words well — but her descriptions touch on more than just the visual, and I find myself reading slowly, rapt. Her depiction of technology evolution and the resulting shifts in human behavior over the next ten years was seamlessly and utterly believably done.

I valued the personal reflections, discussions, and general interactions between characters — each with sometimes wildly different perceptions of reality — what was happening, what was important, what could be done, who to blame. I appreciated the sometimes subtle differences between generations, culminating in a last few pages describing the thought processes of a young (middle school age) boy whose worldview had obviously been molded by the events of his short life.

Overall, a book that made me think, made me understand other people a little better, and gave me a set of characters that I would enjoy knowing better. I did stick to reading during the day because I am easily anxietified (my word) and wanted to be able to sleep.

Some good quotes:
“The slivers of grief in your flesh dissolve or work their way out. One day they’re gone, even if they leave you with tiny, whisper-thin scars.”

“Celestino is not a man who thinks that thorough knowledge of a person’s history, much less his or her emotional “journey,” equates with greater trust or deeper love.”

“The art she made was the obsession reaching for a language.”

“Did all intelligent, creative people need to be tangled up in thickets of neurosis, their psyches riddled with the stigmata of previous heartache?”

“She was living on less than a shoestring; she was living on a filament of fishing line.”

“I am a living redundancy. I realize: the wife not so much replaced as deleted, just as I might take my green pen … and blithely score through a student’s unnecessary adverb when the verb can stand on its philandering own.”

“Time will tell,” said Margo. “As it alway does, the fucker.”

“Is this the beginning of old age, this irrepressible pull of futility? My own father lapsed into a storm cloud of silence once he retired.”

“But that was one of my worst faults: fretting over past choices when they have been chiseled into history.”

“His step father refers to his generation as Generation F: failure, fuckup, fatalist; take your pick.”

This book will be published on May 3, 2022. Many thanks to the author for giving me an early reader copy

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi (SF)

Laugh out loud funny and full of action (which normally bores me to tears but Scalzi always manages to pull it off), this latest standalone novel from one of my favorite SF authors is a breath of fresh air.

Jamie Gray — a recently fired, PhD drop out (her dissertation was going to be on utopian and dystopian literature), is making an unhappy living as a deliverator when a chance customer offers her a job with an animal rights organization. Only as it turns out, the “animals” are more ecosystem than animal, are absolutely humongous (and scary), and don’t exactly live on this particular version of Earth. Armed with her sci-fi mindset and a talent for lifting things (think heavy, not theft), Jamie manages to save the day … quite often. Added bonuses: Godzilla origin story explained and Snow Crash properly revered.

For Scalzi newbies, a few writing extracts:

“It’s more like we have a workable service relationship with a tenuous personal history.”

“It was stupidly perfect how all my problems were suddenly solved with the strategic application of money.”

“I’m officially skeptical about this Godzilla origin story.”

“That thing looks like H.P. Lovecraft’s panic attack.”

“It’s not the trees, you dense argumentative spoon.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

A Mirror Mended by Alex E Harrow (Speculative fiction)

Book two in Harrow’s Fractured Fables series continues the adventures of Zinnia Gray — a self-professed “folklore major with a significant Grimm obsession” — hopping around the multi-verse helping young fairy tale princesses cursing their cruel fates. In the five years she’s been adventuring, she has never managed to escape the Sleeping Beauty narrative, but suddenly a beautiful and cruel face is beckoning to her through a mirror and asking for help. Enter not Snow White, but the Evil Queen, and while she lives up to her Evil reputation (Zinnia calls her “Eva”), things are not at all what they seem.

A good romp through the multiverse with plenty of non-venomous snark, academic folklore overlays, and welcome feminist twists on standard fairy tale princess tropes. Well-written (as always), funny, and great messaging on how to write your own story without succumbing to cultural expectations.

Book one was excellent! Read it while you wait for this book to be published! See review here.

Some great quotes:

“It’s just that they’re so damn happy. I doubt they’ve ever lain awake at night feeling the bounds of their narratives like hot wires pressing into their skin, counting each breath and wondering how many are left, wishing — uselessly, stupidly — they’d been born into a better once upon a time.”

“I’m sure Charm would explain about the psychic weight of repeated motifs and the narrative resonance between worlds if I asked, but I don’t ask…”

“The queen is watching me in a way that reminds me uncomfortably of a lean-boned stray watching a very stupid robin.”

“Am I in some kind of fairy tale mash-up? Is Chris Pine about to pop out and sing Sondheim lyrics in a confused accent?”

“There were plenty of other stories floating around the European countryside at the time — weirder, darker, stranger, sexier stories — but the Grimms weren’t anthropologists. They were nationalists trying to build an orderly, modern house out of the wild bones of folklore.”

“I know how I must sound, what you must think of me, but I only mean power over myself. Power to make my own choices, and arrive at my own ends.”

“Anyway, you’ve created a universe that runs on plot, and a main character who smashes plots like a human wrecking ball. In refusing to complete her narrative arc, she is compromising the integrity of the universe.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 14th, 2022.

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5

This is one book where the marketing blurb is spot on, so I’m going to quote from it rather than trying to describe it myself: It is “an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.” Own Your Unconscious — a technology that enables recording your own unconscious memories, and the attendant Collective Unconscious arising from the blending of millions of such externalized memories is transforming the world — for better or worse. In a set of tangled vignettes connecting characters who are, in their way, each pursuing the answers to their own existential dilemmas, we follow their reactions, reflections, experiences, and goals in this rapidly changing dynamic.

I loved this book — full of the complexity and layering of life where we are all spinning in and out of our each others’ stories. Egan has fantastic insight into so many wildly different characters — full of depth and quirk with none of the shallow explanations for behavior we (too often IMHO) accept in fiction. Each vignette is written in a slightly different style, depending on the “voice” of the main character — I liked them all but my favorites were those told from the perspective of a troubled (and troubling) child, one from an autistic perspective, and one told in a set of text / emails spreading out to include ever more surprisingly (to them) connected characters. I wish I had drawn out a character map from the beginning because I sometimes lost track of current (and past) relationships. If you read Welcome to the Goon Squad, you will recognize several of the characters.

Plenty to think about — lots of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology applied to the social media ++ of shared memories and identities within a well thought out slightly speculative fiction setting. Some interesting multi-generational family dynamics and a particularly thought-provoking examination of the role of fiction in a world which has the actual recording of experience as opposed to those crafted by authors. Egan’s writing — as always — is flawless.

Some good quotes:

“He was known not to curse; his mother, a sixth-grade grammar teacher, had heaped such withering scorn on the repetitive dullness and infantile content of profanity that she’d managed to annul its transgressive power.”

“Gazing up at the lighted windows on one, Bix thought he could practically hear a potency of ideas simmering behind it.”

“I never know what’s going on, and because my attempts to find out lack the tactful goo that typicals smear all over their actions and words to blunt their real purpose, I come across as lurching and off-putting.”

“But whereas in music, a prolonged pause adds power and vividness to the refrain that follows it, pauses in conversation have the opposite effect, of debasing whatever comes next to the point that a perfectly witty riposte will be reduced to the verbal equivalent of a shrunken head, if too long a pause precedes it.”

“… no one escaped the roving, lacerating beam of my judgement. I can access that beam, even now, decades later: a font of outraged impatience with other people’s flaws.”

“In this new world, rascally tricks were no longer enough to produce authentic responses; authenticity required violent unmasking, like worms writhing at the hasty removal of their rock.”

“Social media was dead, everyone agreed; self-representations were inherently narcissistic or propagandic or both, and grossly inauthentic.”

“Here was his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective. He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 5th, 2022.

The Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore (Audio Book — Science Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 World building: 5/5
A wild ride blending linguistics, gaming, technology development, and yes — saving not just the planet or the universe, but reality itself from the “Thunderstorm” which simply unravels reality as it progresses. This reminded me strongly of the feeling I got from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — one of my old favorites — plenty of action and a recognizable world which has developed in unexpected and pretty cool ways through technology. A main difference — this story is propelled by girl power — most of the very strong, very capable, and very imaginative characters in this book are women. Plenty of men, too, and the hero(ine) / evil nemesis extremes are liberally distributed among both sexes so it doesn’t set off my wild stereotype alarm. Warning: There is glitter.

There is plenty of snark which the audio book reader pulled off almost too well. Very interesting and convoluted world building in terms of blending linguistic concepts with symbiotic alien lifeforms, influences on the way we think, and embedding power in language. Lots of blurring between “game” life and real life, supported by the ability to move the action (with real implications) between the two. Although I listened to this — and so was unable to highlight great lines — the writing was very good with an impressive vocabulary and well structured thoughts. Way above the quality of your typical SF fare (I say this as a long time SF fan). Some over the top disdain for rich white guys and distrust of big government (which is beginning to bore me) but honestly very little and not the main point.

Original.

Thank you to RB Media and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on January 11th, 2022.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (historical / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 (well written but I don’t like them) Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate history — what would Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life be like if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton. It certainly had its interesting points, but overall I was not a fan. If you ever had a positive thought about Clinton (Bill) before, you won’t after reading this (remember it’s fictional!) book. In this book, Bill is charismatic, intelligent, but ultimately unprincipled and an egotistical sexual predator full stop. Lots of sex scenes in the first part of the book — I guess to explain why / how Hillary fell in love with him to begin with — but the white powerful all-bad male trope pervaded the pages. While Bill’s womanizing would not be something I would enjoy in a husband, the real Hillary got to make her own decisions, frame her own life and choose to stay with her husband (who very much supported her career throughout his own). The fact that many women (Sittenfeld obviously included) decided she was wrong to do this — what business is it of theirs? This (obviously) irked me.

Lots of political strategy and maneuvering which isn’t my thing (but if it’s your thing you might enjoy this!). The best part for me was a very realistic reminder of what life was like for strong, smart women who were born just fifteen years before I was. I had it so much better, and my daughter lives in what feels like a completely different world. The book also served as a sad (to me) reminder of what the population seems to value in a candidate — charisma, good looks, etc. The high school popularity contest continues unabated…

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

On Alice’s 40th birthday, she finds herself working in the admissions office of the private Upper West Side school she attended as a child, single, and facing the death of her only parent — an unconventional single dad who earned his keep with a best selling science fiction novel about time travel. But here is where things take a sharp 90 degree turn: after a drunken blow out of a birthday, she falls asleep in the shed outside her father’s house and wakes up … as her teenage self on her 16th birthday.

This was an impressive book in that we have all the character depth, insight, and good writing of a literary novel with the fantastic philosophical considerations made possible by the opportunity to potentially impact the future with some targeted behavior shifts on this one, important night. I loved her wry tone and engaging reflections, and I greatly enjoyed her descriptions of New York City from the perspective of a native. As a diehard SF fan, I was also pretty impressed with the breadth of time travel stories Alice ponders as she tries to come to terms with her situation. Some impressive thoughts about the nature of grief as well. I both enjoyed reading this book and feel like I gained some understanding from it as well.

Some fun quotes:

“In the real world, and in her own life, Alice had no power, but in the kingdom of Belvedere, she was a Sith Lord, or a Jedi, depending on whether one’s child got in or not.”

“Her pants were so long that they dragged on the ground, creating a seismograph of filth along the raw bottom edge.”

“It was like there were two of her, the teenage Alice and the grown-up Alice, sharing the same tiny patch of human real estate.”

“Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early, even kids that she’d never really looked at too closely, like Kenji Morris, who was taking the SAT class a whole year early, like he was Doogie Howser or something.”

“Her vision was clear, but it was coming from two different feeds. Alice was herself, only herself, but she was both herself then and herself now. She was forty and she was sixteen.”

“Like many transplants from small towns around the world, Matt seemed to look at New York City as a set to walk through, not thinking too much about what had come before.”

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on May 17th, 2022.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (speculative fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5
Piranesi is a simple being who lives in a massive world called The House, populated by vast quantities of Statues, one friend (The Other) and the bones of 13 others whom Piranesi has named and cares for as one would their dead. Piranesi is a rationalist and has set himself the task of documenting as much as he can about his world — the Statues, the various Halls, the incoming tides, etc, carefully logging everything in his journals with a special cross reference index. Whenever he is troubled, he remembers that he is a Beloved Child of the House. Until one day, something triggers him to look into some of the older journals…

This book is a kind of Robinson Crusoe of the mind, full of philosophy, madness, and surprising resolution. It is a fascinating possible answer to the question “What happens to old ideas as they leave the world?” The start was a bit slow for me but I finally got into the rhythm of the book and finished it in almost a single sitting. (To be fair, it is a relatively short book at 245 pages, and I am home, sick). The ending was thought provoking and a little bittersweet. Definitely worth a read.

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi (YA / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Bitter is a quiet, wary, girl who has found a haven in Eucalyptus — a school for artists that is safe from the violence that pervades the town of Lucille. After a harrowing childhood spent in horrific foster homes, Bitter needs this feeling of safety to be able to function. Many of her friends are part of Assata, a group that is willing to use violent means to finally bring justice to Lucille. She is afraid to join, but also feels guilty that she cannot. After one of her close friends is intentionally maimed during a protest, her anger rises and she intentionally uses her blood to call forth a creature she has painted with the intent of Vengeance.

This is a prequel to her last book, Pet, telling the story of Bitter’s first discovery that she can call forth “Angels” from her paintings to help combat the “Monsters” that live in the town of Lucille. In the last book, it is Bitter’s daughter, Jam, who bring the picture to life. You can see my review of that book here: https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2019/08/19/pet-by-akwaeke-emezi-ya/.

Emezi’s writing is always hypnotic — her characters, surroundings, and passion are completely gripping. This book is more political than her last book, and I have a small problem with some of it. She includes the requisite LGBQT characters and does a good job of blending everyone together into a “no big deal” community; she also has a character in a wheelchair who turns down an offer of healing because he already knows he is “whole.” However, I’m not thrilled at her overly simplistic portrayal of all “rich” people being the “monsters,” and Assata feels like a thinly disguised Antifa to me (I am not a fan). Given that the book is geared towards young people who don’t yet have a lot of experience in the world, I would prefer a more balanced depiction of the world with a set of more specific injustices against which they are fighting.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 15th, 2022.