Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Thanks to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct. 30, 2018.
Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A gripping, and ultimately uplifting, tale highlighting a piece of American immigrant history. The date is 1923 and Mei Ling is an 18-year old girl in Guangdong Province whose family fortune has suffered “the triple devastation of war, famine, and disease.” With little warning, she finds herself a “paper wife” — married to a stranger (and mother to a two-year old named Bo) under the false name of his recently deceased wife in order to enter America. Her true identity is buried under a second layer — her elder sister was the intended bride, but a last minute illness forced the substitution. Mei Ling must keep this quiet as her husband is expecting a timid Rabbit wife and is instead receiving a fierce Dragon.

The story follows Mei Ling through her wedding, the trip in steerage to San Francisco, her new family, including a six-year old orphan named Siew whom she meets on the boat, and immigration through Angel Island. Beautiful and detailed descriptions of San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns, the people she meets, the lives they lead, and the way different people try to succeed in the new country. I love that each of the characters (even the unpleasant ones) has real depth — the author did not resort to stereotypes in this fictionalized account of a Chinese immigrant experience. The story takes some surprising turns as Mei Ling the Dragon takes steps to maintain harmony and protect her family.

As a way of setting the context, the book’s epigraph comprises a single disturbing quote from then President Rutherford B. Hayes: “I am satisfied the present Chinese labor invasion (it is not in any proper sense immigration — women and children do not come) is pernicious and should be discouraged. Our experience in dealing with the weaker races — the negroes and the Indians, for example — is not encouraging.” Ugh.

Shivering World by Kathy Tyers

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Fast paced sci-fi novel about the various people involved in trying to create a new viable planet (Goddard) through terraforming in the year 2134. In this universe, gene manipulation is both illegal and considered a denial of “the perfection of God’s creation” by the Universal Church. However, the Hwuite colonists have long been suspected of maintaining the technology to do just that. Women form the majority of the governing bodies as men have been deemed “too aggressive” to be fit leaders. And the Religious Liberty Act has made it illegal to proselytize any religion without a duly registered inquiry.

Graysha Brady Phillips suffers from a genetic disorder which both limits her lifespan and makes it inadvisable to have children. She goes to Goddard as a soils engineer in the hopes of unearthing illegal gene manipulation techniques that might save her — or at least enable her to have children without passing on the defect. What she discovers, however, is a viper’s nest of clashing agendas and a terraforming effort that appears to be going horribly wrong. Goddard appears to be cooling, rather than heating up.

Each character is the star of their own story, with their own goals and their own approaches toward others who don’t share those goals. No “good guys” vs “bad guys” (though some characters are a lot more irritating than others). I was originally put off by the “Christian / SF fiction” billing but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was mostly SF with a smattering of philosophical and heart felt Christianity. I loved the pioneer spirit embedded in the colonists.

A good read for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Tyers combines science (terraforming, gene manipulation, hostile planet survival) with political and cultural clashes to make for a compelling narrative. Plenty of surprises throughout.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

Richly detailed historical fiction with a convoluted plot pulled from a set of narratives scattered across time but centered on place: Birchwood Manor — a 400 year old house immersed in myth and mystery. Murder, mayhem, stolen heirlooms, and old artifacts form the center of the story, but they exist in a sea of love, loss, and a range of historical settings including Queen Elizabeth and the Catholic persecution of 1586, the (fictional) Magenta Brotherhood artist group of the mid 1800s, the establishment of a school for young women in the late 1800s, London and environs in WWII, and modern day archival work. It’s engrossing but complicated — I found that documenting a timeline as I read was extremely helpful.

The writing is good but a little long winded for my taste. On the other hand, if you love historical dramas you may enjoy the longer opportunity to immerse yourself in the 500 pages of intriguing characters and historically accurate details. Did I mention that one of the narrators is clearly a (compelling) spirit that has been bound to the house for over a century?

 

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

Thank you to Candlewick Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Excellent middle grade level story about racial tensions in Red Hook, Alabama, on the eve of the gubernatorial election of 1970 (hint: George Wallace wins). Lu Olivera is a fabulous character — she is the quiet and unassuming daughter of Argentinian immigrants who finds her own voice and moral compass as racial tensions manifest in her town and her school.
Lu is one of the few kids who “sits in the middle” in the classroom, with the black kids on one side and the white kids on the other. She finds a talent and passion for running and a new best friend — who happens to be black — to go along with it. As events transpire, and things occur which she knows are wrong, she wants to speak up, but running through her head is always her parent’s refrain: “We’re foreigners. We’re not supposed to get involved.” It’s both a history lesson and a lesson on the perils of conformity, being delivered to just the right age audience.
The characters are real and absorbing, and the plot keeps you on your toes and is appropriate for the middle school audience. The characters are portrayed skillfully as kids who would rather focus on family and friends (and in Lu’s case – boys) than politics but who are reluctantly drawn into these issues nonetheless.
Great book!

 

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters:4

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Women’s prize for fiction short list

New words (to me):
– Amphibrach – a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables or (in Greek and Latin) a long syllable between two short syllables.
– Stomatologist – One who practices oral medicine (at the interface between medicine and dentistry).

Simultaneously poetic and cerebral, this is an extended and (perhaps unintentionally) comic coming-of-age story that follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her first year as a Harvard student. Her thoughts and experiences are meticulously analyzed and comically documented as she takes classes, meets new people, tutors locals, and goes to Hungary to teach English in a small village over the summer. The text considers the perspectives of several foreign students — for example, her best friend Svetlana is from Belgrade and Selin has a book-long infatuation with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. While she takes Russian, we are exposed to Russian culture as perceived via primer texts, and part two of the book is a hilarious travelog of her summer experiences in Paris, Turkey, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside. Selin’s take on things is fascinating — her observations are honest and get to the root of the experience.

The novel is full of intellectual quirkiness: a class visit to a display of E.O. Wilson’s “favorite” million ants; a discussion of aesthetic vs ethical principles; lots of comparative linguistics such as the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian (both agglutinative, have vowel harmony, no grammatical gender) and the use of the miş suffix in Turkish (something that states the degree of subjectivity in what was said). That is just the tip of the iceberg — I loved her commentary on what she was learning and how it was taught — a far cry from the party oriented “college fiction” I was expecting!

This book documents Selin’s development through the year. She is excessively self-aware and says of herself, “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted.” While one reviewer called her “young and stupid,” I think he missed the point completely. She is a social innocent for whom interactions are difficult. She tries to use her intellect to make sense of the irrational word of social discourse and the observations and commentary are hysterical.

The writing is wonderful. Although I wouldn’t bill this as a comedy, I kept laughing out loud. Batuman has this ability to swerve the sentence or phrase half way such that the ending is a jolt that makes you laugh in surprise. This pattern was writ large with the ending (which I will not give away) — similarly abrupt and surprising.

Some favorite lines:

“I said I was easy to entertain. Bojana said it was clear I had never spent five weeks in an Eastern European village.”

“The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.”

“Is there any way to escape the triviality dungeon of conversations?”

A great read if you’re in the mood for a long ponder (my usual state).

 

Head On by John Scalzi

Writing: 5 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 4.5

Classic Scalzi — a cool, well-explored, futuristic world with non-stop and non-predictable action and funny banter. This is the second book in his “Lock In” series. It can be read on its own, but “Lock In” was great, too, so why not read it first?

Both books are mysteries in a sci-fi setting. In this world, 1% of the global population has Haden’s syndrome — a condition where the person is “locked in” to his/her own body. A number of technologies have been developed to support this population — implantable neural networks that link their brains directly to the outside world to humanoid personal transport units (called “threeps” after C-3PO) and an online universe called “The Agora.”

In this installment, FBI Agents Chris Shane (himself a Haden) and Leslie Vann (a female version of the crotchety senior detective persona) tackle a difficult case: the physical death of a Hilketa player during a game in which the play is all via threeps and should be no danger whatsoever to the human player. Hilketa is a (very weird to me) game played by decapitating a targeted player and carrying his / her head across the goal line.

I’m happy to say that Scalzi is back in top form. This is only the second book published after he signed a huge multi-million dollar, multi-year, multi-book deal with Tor. The first book published after the contract was Collapsing Empire — the only Scalzi book I have ever disliked (and I’ve read them all) — so I’m quite relieved that he is back on track.

Great writing and pacing, plenty of plot twists, and generally difficult to put down. I started in the morning and finished as I went to bed (only put it down briefly when I was grudgingly dragged outside to help shovel dirt into the new tomato planter). This is accessible to all readers — similar to Andy Weir’s books (The Martian; Artemis) but funnier, more inventive, and offers more exploration of the cultural and political impact of the technologies in addition to the scientific-technical angles.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Thank you to Crown Publishing Hogarth and NetGalley for an early review copy of Small Country by Gaël Faye, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A powerful coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s. Gabriel (Gaby) is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother living in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. He is 10 years old when the country — filled with hope and expectation — holds its first multi-party election in 1993. This is a personal and humanistic version of the ensuing events in both Burundi and nearby Rwanda. Told from a the perspective of a child, it blends observations of surroundings, tensions, and shifts in the interactions between people who used to simply be “part of the neighborhood.”

Told through the memories of an adult Gaby who is visiting Burundi after living in France for 15 years, the novel is imbued with nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the beauty of the home he remembers, while simultaneously mournful at the irreparable damage done. Beautiful descriptions of the landscape, childhood diversions, and familial relationships. The story is necessarily sad, but not depressing or hopeless.

I hadn’t heard of the author before, but apparently he is a well-known French rapper and hip hop star. Originally published as Petit Pays in France in 2016, the book is the winner of five French literary prizes. You may enjoy listening to his song of the same name – I found it absolutely beautiful: