Dai has 18 days to execute his plan and get out of the Walled City forever. His plan needs a runner, though, and so he recruits Jin, a small boy who can outrun anyone.
Little does Dai know that Jin is actually a girl in disguise. Jin came to the Walled City to find her sister, Mei Yee, whom their father sold to a brothel to satisfy his thirst for alcohol.
Meanwhile, Dai also recruits Mei Yee to spy on her boss at the brothel, not knowing the connection between Mei Yee and Jin.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans, let alone ones as risky as Dai’s.
The Walled City was inspired by the Kowloon Walled City—it’s about time more and more books draw inspiration from Asian cities, so this setting is refreshing. We also get a lot of culturally appropriate similes and metaphors (keep in mind all quotes are from an ARC; final versions may differ):
My emotions are like pounds of overcooked rice noodles. Spilling everywhere. Impossible to gather back together again.
* * *
Dai’s yell isn’t very loud, but it sets me on edge. He’s always so calm and even-keeled. Like a paper boat set in a shallow puddle.
* * *
Hail. It tears and claws. Rattles against the rooftop. The nightingales are shrieking now. The potted plants shred instead of wilt. Clothes drop from the lines like autumn leaves.
The prose is absolutely beautiful. The book begins with a sense of urgency:
There are three rules of survival in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.
Right now, my life depends completely on the first.
Run, run, run.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, passages that are beautiful but too introspective start appearing in situations too urgent for such poeticism. The pacing suffers accordingly.
That’s not the only thing affecting the pacing. The characters keep each other in the dark, and the mysteries unravel with time. The problem is, sometimes we know a lot more than the characters do about certain things—such as Jin and Mei Yee’s relationship and Jin’s true gender. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but as others in the story learn of these facts, what should be big reveals instead feel anticlimactic.
The Walled City is told from three perspectives: Jin’s, Dai’s, and Mei Yee’s. Jin’s is the most interesting, followed by Dai. Mei Yee is by far the most frustrating. Though she mostly does what the story requires of her, she is annoyingly passive:
I want to scream, but I can’t find my voice.
When she should keep her mouth shut, she instead blabs stupidly to people she shouldn’t. I understand that not every female character can be feisty, but I’d rather not have to continuously eyeroll at a character’s choices. I found myself wishing for a lot more Jin and Dai.
The Walled City is still worth the read, but the pacing and perspectives could have used some tightening.
I received a digital review copy of the book via Netgalley, courtesy of Little, Brown.
It’s 1986. Park, a cool, half-Korean kid who wears nothing but black and keeps his ears in his Walkman headphones, observes the new girl, Eleanor, on the bus:
Not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like…like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man’s shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.
Eleanor can’t quite make up her mind about Park, either:
Eleanor couldn’t tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them [the devil-kids], or whether he was just really stupid. (But not stupid-stupid—he was in two of Eleanor’s honors classes.)
The two don’t talk at first, but one day Park sees Eleanor reading the comic books he’s reading on the bus. Park begins lending Eleanor his comic books, makes her mixed tapes, and before long, they are in love.
However, Eleanor’s home life threatens not only her relationship with Park, but also her very safety. Eleanor is bullied at school, too, and there’s only so much she and Park can do. With so much standing in their way, can Eleanor and Park’s love prevail?
For some people, exploration of the world we live in will never end, but for teenagers, that’s their entire life. The discovery of a great song, a great movie, a great book—these are highs not easily duplicated in later adulthood. When someone is responsible for introducing those life-changing things, you feel connected to them forever. And don’t you remember how your first impressions of someone can change for the better when you discover you love the same things?
When you’re a teenager, you often feel defined by your favorite music, books, movies, etc., and you tend to be closer to those people who like the same things you do.
So, when Park shares his loves with Eleanor, he opens up a whole new world for her. She returns the favor. Eleanor & Park captures the wonder of falling in love for the first time. Along with the wonder comes the more awkward parts, too: expressing your emotions, feeling inadequate and undeserving of the love showered your way. Then there are the really difficult issues that the book tackles, such as bullying and child abuse.
When each person has to deal with life’s more trying problems, is it possible to still grow together as a couple and to stay together? Both Park and Eleanor have to figure that out for themselves.
Eleanor & Park is heartfelt and heart-wrenching. It will speak not only to today’s youth (and introduce them to some of the best songs and bands of the 1980’s), but also to anyone who has ever been a teenager.
Colin Thatcher is enigmatic and handsome enough to win over Mia Dennett as she sulks at the bar, waiting for a boyfriend who may or may not show up. But when she follows him home, she soon realizes that she’s about to be kidnapped for a huge ransom demand at her father, a prominent Chicago judge.
Instead of handing Mia to his boss, Dalmar, however, Colin has a change of heart and hides with Mia in a secluded cabin in Minnesota instead. Meanwhile, Detective Gabe Hoffman and Mia’s mother, Eve Dennett, are working hard to uncover any clues as to Mia’s whereabouts.
As the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, we find out that Mia is eventually reunited with her family, but not without significant trauma and selective amnesia. Past and present converge as we discover what truly happened to Mia while she was kidnapped.
I first happened upon The Good Girl at the library, and I was drawn to the cover. (The cover is a bit misleading—while Mia has striking blue eyes, she is not nearly as young as the girl on the cover looks.)
Later, I discovered that this book has made it onto the numerous “If you loved Gone Girl, you’ll love…” lists. The Good Girl certainly isn’t a Gone Girl copycat; in fact, the first draft was completed in 2010, well before the publication of Gone Girl in 2012. I understand that Gone Girl was a huge hit and that readers would be interested in similar books, but the very comparison gives away the existence of a twist. (On the other hand, I was so obsessed with finding that twist that I ended up looking in all the wrong places, so maybe this isn’t a bad thing.)
Standing alone, without the spoilers floating around in the world, Gone Girl is the surprise party you never expected, organized and filled with people you’re more or less civil to but actually hate. You’re impressed, however, that these self-centered, smug attendees were able to keep their mouth shut and surprise you so thoroughly. They probably threw the party to disprove a point you made earlier about how they can’t seem to keep a secret, more so than out of love for you. But you still welcome the attention, and it makes you feel dirty.
The Good Girl, on the other hand, is the surprise party thrown by your extended family. They get on your nerves enough that you more often than not ignore what they say, and you missed the clues they were dropping about your party. When you show up, they do surprise you, but you immediately think, “Oh, so that’s why so-and-so was acting this way.” Then you genuinely enjoy the party.
The clues for the twist in The Good Girl are there if you’re perceptive enough, so when it finally reveals itself, you don’t feel jerked around. You feel rewarded, instead.
The Good Girl is a riveting, moving, and unexpected treat.
Clay Jannon is a web designer who loses his job when the bagel start-up he works for becomes a victim of the cruel economy. As he explains:
[I]t turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they’re sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
Out of desperation, Clay applies for a job at the strange, eponymous store of the novel’s title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The “Help Wanted” sign calls for “specific requirements” and thus Clay has the following thought:
I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something.
Turns out, he may not be far off. Patrons come in and out of the store at weird hours of the night, asking not to buy the normal books you’d expect at a bookstore, but rather to borrow a strange collection of coded books from the back shelves. Though Mr. Penumbra forbids Clay from reading this special collection, curiosity wins the day (night), and Clay is determined to decode the books.
Product placements have saturated television and movies: Iron Man craves Burger King burgers, James Bond wears Omega watches. Remember when most sports stadiums had non-corporate monikers? Now, what would happen if a corporation were to commission a novel?
I don’t believe Google had anything to do with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but it may as well have. The book at times alternates between being a huge Google PR campaign and a Google recruitment ad. The book ignores the more controversial aspects of Google, such as omission of the Google Books lawsuit that was eventually dismissed after the book’s publication. Given that Mr. Penumbra explores the evolution of books, from the dusty to the digital, you’d think this would warrant a mention. Instead, Mr. Sloan embraces the simplistic maxim that “Google is utopia!”
I have no insider knowledge regarding the Google workplace, but I’d wager that the fictional company Hooli from HBO’s Silicon Valley would be a more accurate portrayal of Google than Mr. Penumbra’s Google.
Google promotion aside, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was an enjoyable read, as it also embraces books of all form, typography, design, programming, technology, secret societies, the San Francisco Bay Area, and immortality.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is one of my book club reads for this September; the other one, from a different book club, is Ready Player One, reviewed earlier this week. I was surprised at the book’s similarities: Both are dedicated to geek culture, though Mr. Penumbra also celebrates nerd culture. For both books, love for the subject matters will likely translate into love for the books.
Ready Player One is one huge quest set in the virtual reality of the future, but if you were asked to imagine what a contemporary, realistic quest would be like, Mr. Penumbra is as close as it gets, and therein lies the appeal. Make no mistake, it’s still mostly a fantasy, but it contains just the right dose of verisimilitude. (If you’re curious as to what the Gerritszoon font looks like, you’ll have to keep wondering—unlike Google, a real company, Gerritszoon is not a real font.)
Ultimately, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is better at raising questions than answering them, and Kat, Clay’s love interest, is a nerdy, hot girl that seems more akin to a fetish or plot device than a well-developed character. I dream that one day, we’ll have a geek or nerd novel that gets the women right—both in personality and percentage of population. With the number of women writers, this is bound to happen soon, right? (If you’re aware of any, please enlighten me in the comments.)
Out on an isolated British island, something is killing Jake Whyte’s sheep, one by one. Could it be another animal? A human being? Something else entirely?
So when a stranger named Lloyd wanders by, Jake lets him into her home, perhaps thinking two against the world is better than one. But Jake has a past, one that prevents her from trust others so easily.
I added All the Birds, Singing to my to-read list when I read the wonderful review on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog. I agree that Ms. Wyld’s prose is “exceptional,” “atmospheric,” and “muscular without being lush or overly descriptive”:
There were times I felt how unnatural I was in the place, the way my skin still stung at the cold, the way the insides of my nostrils and the back of my throat prickled. The smell of wet wool and rain-dampened sheep shit were aliens to the dust-dry smell of the carpet sheep in their wide red spaces back home. The way the land seemed to be watching me, feeling my foreignness in it, holding its breath until I passed by.
Other than her writing, however, almost nothing ultimately works for me. I hungrily read most of the book, thinking I’d get more insight into Jake by the ending. I did, but it was not enough.
All the Birds, Singing unfolds in chapters alternating in time: Jake’s current life, and the one she thought she ran away from. We learn about her current life in a linear fashion, whereas her past is revealed in reverse-chronological order.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that setup. But when a writer hints and foreshadows certain past life events to come, a reader such as myself feels cheated when those same events, or relationships, are glossed over. (Note, though, the one moment in Jake’s life that changes everything is revealed.) I’m not a reader that needs every moment revealed and exposited, but these holes in Jake’s life are unsatisfying. It’s almost as if the “past life” timeline needed to be sped up and events removed so that there would be equal chapters of both past and present—because very little actually happens in the present to justify more chapters. So, as a result, the present versus past setup feels uneven and asymmetrical on pacing alone.
In addition, the two timelines are tonally and stylistically different enough to feel like two separate tales. Jake’s present life is more atmospheric and psychological, whereas Jake’s past life is a more visceral and plot-driven. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that, although if one timeline is significantly more plot-driven than the other, I have to find a really good payoff at the other end of the rainbow. There’s payoff here, but one that seems contrived, one that misses the mark.
I’ve read other nonlinear books that employ their storytelling devices to much better effect. In Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the protagonist’s present and past are both fairly plot-driven, and the ultimate convergence of storylines feels satisfying. In The Secret Place, Tana French almost does tell two separate, stylistically-different tales, but the takeaways converge and diverge artfully. In Kaaron Warren’s Slights, we get a wholly nonlinear series of anecdotal puzzle-pieces that, by the end, formed a chilling character portrait.
I am also reminded of Gaspar Noé’s brutal movie, Irreversible, which was told entirely in reverse. And there’s certainly a reason to tell a story backwards; for one, it highlights what would otherwise be the beginning of a tale, before innocence is lost. All the Birds, Singing does do that, but did we have to go through this entire exercise just to show this one point?
Not to say that the book was a waste a time; far from it. It just promises more than it delivers.
Arthur Leander, a famous actor, falls dead from a heart attack as he plays the title character of King Lear. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress who plays a young version of one of the king’s daughters as part of a hallucination scene, stands by and watches in horror as Arthur dies.
That very night, a mysterious and deadly flu starts spreading like wildfire, and ninety percent of the world’s population is dead within weeks.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is part of the Traveling Symphony, a small troupe that travels from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare (they’ve tried different playwrights, but Shakespeare seems universally preferred). The roads are dangerous, but the troupe does what it does because it believes in its own motto, an appropriate line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” Of course, the actors also love what they do:
The audience rose for a standing ovation. Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.
When the troupe reaches St. Deborah by the Water, hoping to meet up with former members who had to settle down because of a newborn, they are greeted with unwelcome news: no one will reveal the whereabouts of the former members. A dangerous, self-proclaimed “prophet” has also taken over the town, forcing young girls to marry him, and killing anyone who leaves the town without permission.
Station Eleven is not as hopeless as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the “prophet” doesn’t quite reach the outrageous levels of villainy of The Walking Dead’s Governor (though admittedly that’s a high bar to reach). It’s not the aim of the book to be insular, nor to become a survival thriller or horror, though the horror does lurk about.
Instead, Station Eleven is an appreciation of human connections, an elegy for those who are no longer with us, but who live on in memories or through their life’s work.
Hell is the absence of the people you long for.
Even the survivors’ attachments to objects or things are about the objects’ significance in the past, a yearning for past connections. For us to fully understand those connections here, as many alternating chapters are set in the past as they are in the post-apocalyptic future.
I am a huge fan of e-books; e-books help hide my hoarding habit. I usually get the e-book version of a book first, but I’ve also been collecting physical copies of books I like. It’s a guard against a powerless apocalypse: even if the grid goes down, I’ll still have my favorite books to cherish forever (this won’t necessarily hold true in the case of a fiery apocalypse, in which case the books may just add more fuel to the fire). So the usual drill is to get the e-book, and also buy a hard copy if I really like the book.
Station Eleven was an outlier, a book that led me to break my routine. I had the e-book and had not yet read it. I was at the local bookstore to attend my monthly science fiction/fantasy book club meeting. We had gotten to the point where we were just casually chatting. At some point, our organizer, for one reason or another, fetched this book for someone else to look at. Then it just sat on the table, abandoned, beckoning me to touch it. I opened the book, saw that it was autographed, and I bought the copy on impulse.
If the apocalypse comes, I’ll still have my Station Eleven. Because survival is insufficient.
When the nation’s leading physicists commit suicide within a few months, the Chinese military and police forces recruit Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher, to assist them in infiltrating the Frontiers of Science.
When Wang discovers that a contact from Frontiers of Science has been playing an immersive video game titled “Three Body,” he decides to play for himself. What he discovers is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Here’s how much I love this book: If you only read one book in your lifetime, please let it be The Three-Body Problem. “One book” may be too restrictive, however. According to translator Ken Liu (whose own novel, The Grace of Kings, will be released next year in April 2015), Death’s End, the third book in the Three Body series, is “the best one.” That blows my mind—how does one best The Three-Body Problem? I guess I’ll find out in 2016—or earlier if I can will myself to read the Chinese version. (It may actually take longer; my Chinese reading skills are that rusty.)
The Three-Body Problem is hard science fiction, but it didn’t become a phenomenon in China for lack of accessibility. In explaining the “farmer” hypothesis involving the fundamental nature of the laws of the universe, we learn (keep in mind all quotes are from an ARC; the final versions may differ):
Every morning on a turkey farm, the farmer comes to feed the turkeys. A scientist turkey, having observed this pattern to hold without change for almost a year, makes the following discovery: “Every morning at eleven, food arrives.” On the morning of Thanksgiving, the scientist announces this law to the other turkeys. But that morning at eleven, food doesn’t arrive; instead, the farmer comes and kills the entire flock.
One can only advance in the “Three Body” game if one first identifies the problem and then solves it. Each time Wang advanced in levels, the revelations brought chills. Speaking of chills, I quaked hardest during first contact (given the official book descriptions, this isn’t a spoiler).
In our real world, advances in solutions for the three-body problem were made in 2013. I have no science background, so I am unsure of whether the science in this book, originally published in Chinese in 2006, is still up-to-date. Regardless, The Three-Body Problem is everything hard science fiction should be, and its themes are important enough to transcend genres and labels.
Though science and its consequences are in the foreground, there’s also prose to appreciate:
This period condensed in her memory into a series of classical paintings—not Chinese brush paintings but European oil paintings. Chinese brush paintings are full of blank spaces, but life in Qijiatun had no blank spaces. Like classical oil paintings, it was filled with thick, rich, solid colors.
And so I should also give props for the translation. Ken Liu noted in the Translator’s Postscript:
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
I have not read the Chinese version of this book, but Ken Liu did a great job of capturing the feel of reading the Chinese language.
It’s strange to end a review with thank-you notes, but this book is life-changing. I have to thank not only the author, Cixin Liu, for writing such an amazing book, but also Tor, Ken Liu, and Joel Martinsen for making it accessible for English-language readers. I don’t keep track of international literature, so I wouldn’t have even known this book existed if not for this translation.
Preorder The Three-Body Problem today. You will be missing out if you don’t read it. If you’re one of my friends, be forewarned that I will hound you until you do.
I received a digital review copy of the book via Netgalley, courtesy of Tor.
Three years ago, Leon’s girlfriend Anna moved to England with her parents. Leon’s ambition for life left that same day, and he’s been a slacker ever since, despite his potential. Leon works at a crappy ice cream parlor (one where he’s convinced his boss is using the store only as a front for illegal activities) and has no concrete plans to achieve anything after high school graduation.
But Leon’s best friend, Stan, claims to be Satan. After Leon asks Stan for advice, Stan gives Leon some random tips and tasks that may turn Stan’s life around after all: date popular girl, Paige; listen to the Moby-Dick audiobook while finding the white grape-flavored slushee; join the yearbook committee.
Fulfilled with a new sense of purpose—even if unsure where the path is supposed to lead—Leon starts turning his life around and rediscovering his potential.
Though Stan may or may not be Satan, there are no paranormal or supernatural elements in Play Me Backwards; instead, it’s an honest, modern coming-of-age tale. There are, however, references to Satanism. Satanism, an atheist movement, is often confused with Satan worship—this mistake is one that Leon makes as well, as he opines:
Most of the metal bands who sang about worshipping Satan in the 1980s weren’t really Satanists any more than Michael Jackson was really a zombie, but some of the bands in Norway actually went around burning churches, killing each other, and eating bits of each others’ brains in stews, like they didn’t realize they were just supposed to pretend they did shit like that to sell records.
But, as the book progresses, Leon addresses his own Satanic sins that are indeed associated with Satanism. For example, he addresses his past pretentiousness with Anna (i.e., being who he thought Anna wanted him to be) and tries to discover his own identity. His past obsession with Anna also led him to lose all perspective, which he slowly gains back as he completes the tasks Stan (or Satan?) assigns him.
Play Me Backwards captures both the confusion and (sometimes) misguided certainty of being a teenager. Although I picked up this book hoping there would be supernatural elements, I was pleasantly surprised at its honesty, sincerity, and humor.
The only world Jack knows is Room. He was born in it, and he has spent every day of his life in it.
But when Jack turns five, Ma thinks it’s time to tell him some harder-to-swallow-than-vegetable truths: That Ma hates Room. That Ma was abducted by Old Nick seven years ago against her will, and the time for escape is now. But Jack is in no rush to change the world he knows:
I still don’t understand why Old Nick being a robot means we have to do the cunning plan tonight. “Let’s do it another night.”
“OK,” says Ma, she flops down in her chair.
“Yeah.” She rubs her forehead. “I’m sorry, Jack, I know I’m rushing you. I’ve had a long time to think this through, but it’s all new to you.”
I nod and nod.
“I guess another couple of days can’t make much difference. So long as I don’t let him pick another fight.” She smiles at me. “Maybe in a couple of days?”
“Maybe when I’m six.”
Ma’s staring at me.
“Yeah, I’ll be ready to trick him and go in Outside when I’m six.”
She puts her face down on her arms.
When their escape plan works—albeit a little differently than they planned, it becomes clear that neither Jack nor Ma were prepared to face the world outside Room. (Note: This is not a spoiler considering the official book description.)
Besides reading books that fall inside my favorite genres, sometimes I’m drawn to books because of their unique perspectives. That’s how I came to read Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson (told from the point of view of an obese elderly woman who is being forced into a home), The Girls by Lori Lansens (told from the points of view of conjoined twins), and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (told from the point of view of an autistic teenager). Likewise, I was drawn to Room because of Jack, a young boy who has no idea he’s a prisoner.
Telling the story from Jack’s perspective is especially refreshing—his use of language reflects not only his age, but his world view. Ma tries to correct Jack’s grammar and usage when she can, but some concepts are just completely foreign to him. For example, since Jack only ever talks to Ma (Ma prevents any interactions between Old Nick and Jack), Ma is “you.” So when he finally talks to another person, he has to struggle not to use the pronoun “you” to refer to his Ma.
No matter how horrifying the abduction/prisoner situation is, the achievement in Room is that the book depicts just how unforgiving and complicated the world is outside the Room. Of course, returning is not an option, but the world holds no easy answers.
Room manages to juggle being scary, hopeful, and confusing for its characters. Though some suspension of disbelief is required for the middle portion, Room is an observant novel that not only opened the eyes of its characters, it will open its readers’ eyes.