May 9, 2018

March/April Reading Recap

Once again, my reading of books has gotten ahead of my writing about books. I finally stopped to catch up on the past two months of recommendations:

SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer is the second half of the story begun in TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING, a book that astounded me with its ambition and ingenious execution. I'm happy to report the second volume delighted me as much as the first, so I'm issuing an enthusiastic recommendation to anyone who loves intricate worldbuilding, complicated plots with many characters, and stories that explore big ideas. You'll need to read both books to reach a satisfying conclusion, and that ending still leaves the characters on the precipice of more story, which will continue into two further books, one published, one not expected until 2019.

Plotwise, these books are about politics more than anything else, and in SEVEN SURRENDERS, the world of 2454 is rocked by major revelations about world leaders that the reader gradually learned of in TLTL. Throughout this installment, Palmer introduces and peels back more layers of the fascinating characters we're following. We get new tantalizing details of twenty-fifth century life, as well as additional information about what happened between our age and Palmer's future. I was captivated by all of it.

Gender plays a significant and complex role in the worldbuilding and narration of this series. In hearing people discuss the books at this year's FOGcon, I discovered how polarizing the response has been to what Palmer is attempting. While I'm enjoying how the story wrestles with gender, I appreciate why not all readers have that reaction. Palmer wrote a series of posts for Queership that are worth reading if you're interested in the author's intent, whether you've tried the books or want more context before you do.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee: Miranda has always felt protective of her younger sister Lucia, and when Lucia gets married soon after their mother dies, it takes time for Miranda to decide whether she approves of her new brother-in-law. One day he calls her, alarmed, and Miranda realizes Lucia's mental illness has resurfaced and she hasn't told her husband anything about this part of her past. Dealing with Lucia's illness dominates the sisters' story for many years to come, affecting their connection to each other and every important relationship in both their lives.

The writing in this novel is fantastic, and Lee develops the characters through nuanced and unexpected details. I felt great affection for the sisters and the families they join and form, and the often heartbreaking events were deeply affecting. The story unfolds in a way that feels organic and lifelike, more driven by characters than plot, but it remains compelling throughout. This is a powerful look at family, mental illness, and cultures coming together.

HOW TO BE SAFE by Tom McAllister: On the day of a mass shooting at the high school where she teaches, Anna is at home, suspended following an angry outburst in the classroom. A news channel uncovers this and suggests she might be a co-conspirator with the student shooter, and Anna is taken into police custody. Though she's soon cleared by authorities, suspicion lingers as the town struggles to move forward in the aftermath. Anna's life wasn't great before this event, and she finds it increasingly difficult to keep a grip on the reality of a world where these things keep happening.

The prologue of the novel, from the point of view of the shooter, was published as a story in Sundog Lit back in 2014. While the rest of the novel is told through Anna's perspective, the story provides a good sense of the book's tone and style. McAllister gets deep into characters' heads, carefully dissects human and societal foibles, and wields a very dark sense of humor. The book is full of sentences and passages that are depressingly insightful. There's not a ton of plot after the first rush of events, and I wasn't sure what to make of Anna's more surreal ramblings, but there's plenty in this novel to like in the most uncomfortable way.

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee: In 1932, Sunja helps her widowed mother run a boardinghouse in Japanese-occupied Korea. She becomes swept up in a romance with a wealthy businessman who splits his time between Korea and Japan, but their love story doesn't get a happy ending. While Sunja ends up moving to Japan, it's under very different circumstances than she imagined. Life there is hard for Koreans, who face restrictive laws and harsh discrimination. As the decades pass, Sunja and the subsequent generations of her family are knocked around by history, sometimes attaining joy and success, more often experiencing great tragedy.

Every character in this novel comes to life, even the ones who only show up briefly, and those who remain develop realistically over the years. The story spans most of the twentieth century, and Lee strikes a good balance between moving concisely through history and lingering in scenes that reveal the characters and their present circumstances. Toward the end, however, I found the plot progressing too quickly, which reduced the emotional impact of events. The later part of the book didn't engage me as much in general, and I grew frustrated by some implausibly didactic sections of dialogue and repetition of facts the reader already knew. Still, I enjoyed my time with this family and appreciated the view inside a community I knew nothing about.

A RUIN OF SHADOWS by L.D. Lewis: General Daynja Édo is renowned for her decades of ruthless service to the Boorhian Empire. She's a clever military strategist, a dedicated mentor to her team of assassins, and a figure of legend and mystery. And she's tired of it all. When she receives an order she can't accept, Daynja is ready to rebel, even if it means destroying her entire life.

This is a novella, which for me was the main flaw of the book, because I didn't get enough story to feel satisfied. Daynja is a fascinating, complicated character who I hope will get a novel soon. Lewis writes wonderfully, pulling off sentences jam-packed with worldbuilding, voice, and humor: "They put in at a transit station about a mile from Citadela's gates, and in an exchange that was never not bizarre, traded the driftcar for ceremonial black rhinos." She also accomplishes the difficult task of writing action scenes that can be clearly pictured. I'll be looking out for more of her work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, John Tuttle surveys The Literature of Mars: "It was really not until the '90s when quality literature about Mars and Martians became popular again [after the 1950s and '60s]. This is because it was in the 1990s that high-tech probes like Mars Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, and Sojourner landed on the planet, giving us new, more detailed imagery of the Martian surface. The Mars Society was also founded in the late 1990s. In this decade, astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan said, 'Because of the historic romance of the general public with Mars (consider even today the associations of the word "martian"), the exploration of Mars has a public resonance and support that probably no other goal of the space program can claim.'" See also the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry on Mars that Nell Zink points to in the comments.

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