Books: A Closed and Common Orbit

2qir5w7A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published October 20, 2016
star-4-half
Looking for a much-needed escape from the dystopian genre that’s so prevalent in fiction today, or from the real world political landscape? Becky Chambers’ Hugo-nominated follow-up to 2014’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is the remedy.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the rare sequel that manages to improve on its predecessor. As much as I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I thought the book’s lack of overarching plot and the absence of any tension made it feel more like a series of vignettes than a narrative with any purpose. Chambers’ talent for creating characters who are uniquely likable and the diversity of species and cultural norms that she injects into her writing meant that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet still worked exceptionally well, but I appreciated the more directed plot this time around. I also enjoyed the parallels between the present and past timelines, both of which are coming-of-age stories about identity, friendship, and carving a place for yourself in the world.

Told through alternating chapters, A Closed and Common Orbit consists of two parallel stories. The primary narrative, which picks up 28 minutes after the events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (and therefore involves heavy spoilers for the end of the first Wayfarers book), belongs to the ship’s AI formerly known as Lovelace. New to existence itself, she also has to come to terms with the unexpected manner of her existence, living in an artificial body (she calls it “the kit”) that was never meant for her, and passing for a human being. Despite support from Pepper, a tech and maternal figure who gives her a job and a place to stay, and Pepper’s partner Blue, Sidra struggles to identify with her physical body and to see the body as a reflection of who she is on the inside. I suspect this will resonate with some readers, as will Sidra’s fear that someone will discover who she really is.

The other story is set twenty years in the past and follows a young Pepper, known in these chapters as Jane 23. Created as part of a slave class by a rogue society of genetic engineers, ten-year-old Jane labors in a factory, drinks her meals, and has never seen the sky. But when an industrial accident gives her a chance to escape, she hides away in a nearby junkyard and spends her teenage years building a way off of the planet.

There’s something empowering in reading about these two young women who are shaped by tragic pasts, but who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities. Pepper uses her gift for fixing things to make a life for herself and a living in her shop. Although Sidra is uncomfortable in her own artificial skin, she uses her ability to acquire knowledge by downloading files through the Linkings to find solutions to her problems, including flaws in her programming, and demonstrates a love of learning. Both characters quite literally name themselves and become more than they were engineered, or programmed, originally to be.

As in her first novel, Chambers’ demonstrates great imagination and diversity in her creation of original alien species. For example, the Aeluons are a four-gendered society who communicate through colour-flashing cheek patches. Differences are respected and welcomed, and although the Firefly-esque found family crew of the Wayfarer is nowhere to be found in this book, the idea that friendship and the families you choose are every bit as, if not more, important than romantic or sexual love, sends a positive message. Through Sidra and the plight of other AIs, as well as the genetically engineered slave class children like Jane 23, Chambers argues that marginalized groups are human too and worthy of respect, support, and equality.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a genuinely moving tale of likable characters, who you will root for, finding themselves and finding strength in each other. It’s empowering and it is affirming, saying that it’s okay to be different, to feel anxious, to need help and to receive it. Although there is an unfortunate rushed feeling to the ending, as if an awards show has started playing the music and Chambers knows she needs to wrap up ASAP, it’s a minor complaint about a wonderful book, and I for one can’t wait to read whatever she has in store for readers next!

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Stage: HMS Pinafore

Pinafore

Surprisingly the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of HMS Pinafore marks my introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan (although I have a DVD of Anthony Warlow in Penzance sitting on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to watch for years). Anxiously the friend I went with, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan from a young age, wondered how I would enjoy it, but I have to admit that I was never in much doubt. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which draws obvious inspiration from Victorian operetta, is one of my favourite musicals, and I adore Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which offers a similarly comic look at English social class structure and even has a plot twist involving a mix-up with a baby. Sure enough, I enjoyed Stratford’s vivid and witty production of HMS Pinafore, which features an excellent cast and a rather stunning set.

The visual appeal of this production is undeniable. The set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, includes two swinging doors for entrances and exits, two levels, and an entire deck of a ship. It’s an impressive design with appropriate grandeur, that is complimented by vivid period costumes worn by Buttercup (Lisa Horner) and Josephine (Jennifer Ryder-Shaw).

The plot involves Captain Corcoran (Brad Ruby at this performance, the role is usually played by Steve Ross) intending to wed his daughter Josephine to the high-ranking, and much the elder, Sir Joseph Porter (Laurie Murdoch). Although the match would be an advantageous one for Josephine, she is already in love with lowly seaman Ralph Rackshaw (Mark Uhre).

The greatest strength of this production is its universally strong cast. Laurie Murdoch steals the show as Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, his performance including a popping of the cheeks tic, which is funnier than described, and an admirable ability to keep a straight face through the hijinks going on around him.

Other standouts are Jennifer Rider-Shaw, playing a winning Josephine with charm and a beautiful soprano, and Mark Uhre (recently of Les Miserables Broadway) as Ralph Rackshaw, who shows off comedic chops I didn’t know he had. His comic timing is excellent and he has a surprising gift for physical comedy, as well as a strong baritone that’s well suited to the score.

The performance I saw had a few understudies. Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone could dislike Marcus Nance, his Dick Deadeye was believably morose. It’s always nice to see Nance in a larger role, but I suspect this came at the expense of hearing his rich bass anchor “He is an Englishman” in his normal role as Bill Bobstay; the Boatswain’s Mate, and this loss was keenly felt.

Most of the issues I had with this show came from direction. The framing device of setting HMS Pinafore as a production being performed in a British estate hospital on New Year’s Eve during the First World War, was completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the show, particularly since it is never referred to during the production and comes back only briefly at the end. The constant movement of the piece does lend itself nicely to physical comedy and takes full advantage of the set, but at times the production feels busy and over-choreographed, as though no character is allowed to sit or stand still for more than a few seconds. At least for me, a Gilbert and Sullivan newcomer, it made it difficult to know who and what to look at and which actions and plot points were significant.

Still Pinafore, much like The Importance of Being Earnest, stands the test of time. More than a century later, it retains its wit to still amuse and enchant audiences with its gentle satire of social classes. It’s not a show that will make you think, but HMS Pinafore is a fun diversion well executed by a talented cast, and if you don’t walk out humming “He is an Englishman” you’re either remarkably immune to earworms, or you haven’t watched that particular episode of The West Wing nearly as much as I have. I look forward to seeing more Gilbert and Sullivan productions in the future.

HMS Pinafore plays until October 21, 2017 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Avon Theatre.

Photo of Laurie Murdoch, Mark Uhre, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, and company by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Books: If We Were Villains

30319086If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Published April 11, 2017
star-4-half
As a former English major who developed an appreciation for the Bard not through high school courses but because of an excellent Shakespeare undergraduate course taught by an enthusiastic professor, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of If We Were Villains. Although it’s not without its flaws, I wholeheartedly loved the book and it has definitely made me want to dive back into a collected edition of Shakespeare (or as I liked to refer to the Norton Shakespeare in university due to its immense size, the murder book) and read my heart out. M. L. Rio’s stunning debut is a love letter to Shakespeare that can be enjoyed by both devotees of the bard and newcomers to his works.

Told from Oliver Marks’ POV ten years later, If We Were Villains is the story of seven fourth year drama students at the exclusive Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where actors perform only works by Shakespeare. Each student in the close knit group plays the same roles offstage and onstage. Bold, larger than life Richard plays leaders, kings, and tyrants, handsome studious James takes on heroes and lovers, delicate Wren is the ingenue, while beautiful and seductive Meredith plays confident temptresses, and Alexander the villains. Oliver and Filippa fill in the gaps, playing the leftover roles. But when the instructors decide to mix up the casting, the balance of power begins to shift and cracks appear in the group dynamic until, a few months later, one of them is dead. Oliver Marks is convicted of the crime and serves ten years in prison, but after he’s released he is persuaded to tell his story to the police detective who arrested him, so long as his conditions are met.

Oliver is one of the most oblivious fictional characters I have ever encountered, which makes him a fascinating choice of narrator. I always find unreliable narrators intriguing and Oliver is no exception. In this case, although Oliver claims to be telling the whole story to Colborne, the police officer who arrested him ten years earlier, and even sets out conditions before he begins to relate the tale, I had to wonder how accurate his version of events is. After all, Oliver is a former drama student who trained to lie for a living, and proves over the course of the narrative just how far he’s willing to go to protect those he cares about. But even if Oliver believes he’s telling the truth, he’s such a naive character that he routinely seems to miss what’s going on around him, even amongst his closest friends, so I wondered if he was unwittingly not providing the whole story.

Rio’s prose, peppered liberally with Shakespeare quotes, can be pretentious and takes some getting used to at first but, as the author herself says in the afterward, she was assured that it’s absolutely how some drama students talk and I completely buy it, particularly in the secluded environment of Dellecher.

I found all of the characters really interesting, but I do have some gripes. I wish we had spent more time exploring Wren, who is so thinly written at times that I assumed she was a red herring and there would be more from her later in the book. Similarly, although there’s more of Meredith in the story and she does have layers, it would have been nice to see more of her vulnerability. In general, the female characters are really interesting… I just wanted more of them!

I also got the impression that some of what the author wants to convey doesn’t quite come across in the text. Reading Rio’s explanations on her tumblr account for things such as the abrupt change in one character’s behaviour and turn towards violence, as well as the seemingly dismissive treatment of Oliver’s sister’s eating disorder, everything made sense, but I missed some of this meaning in the book itself. Since both of these cases could also be seen as plot devices to move the action forward in particular ways, it’s a shame that more motivation for these events wasn’t offered within the book itself.

Despite these flaws, I LOVED this book. The Shakespeare productions described sound so complex and interesting that I wish I was able to watch them come to life (especially the masque), and unlike The Secret History, which If We Were Villains is frequently compared to, most of the characters were very likable. My favourites were definitely Filippa, who is unruffled and enigmatic even in the face of tragedy, but also protective of her fellow actors, who she sees as her family, and James, the kind of person you’d probably want to hate because he’s wealthy, handsome, and talented, but you can’t because he’s also such a good friend and works so hard for his success.

I really didn’t expect to be as moved by this book as I was. I guessed some of the plot twists before our oblivious narrator, but the novel is still so well-crafted, the prose so perfectly fitting, that it brought me to tears anyway. The ending may not appeal to everyone, but without spoilers I have to say that I absolutely adored it  and thought it was a very fitting end for a book about Shakespeare. If We Were Villains is an original, highly intelligent, and well-written read that should appeal to just about anyone, whether you’re a casual Shakespeare fan, an enthusiast, or only have a passing familiarity with his work. Certainly the enthusiast will get more out of this book, but as a casual fan, I greatly enjoyed it, even if some of the references likely went over my head. Highly recommended for all readers.

Books: The Love Interest

31145148The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich
Published May 16, 2017
star-2-half
I really wanted to love this book. For starters, the concept is fabulous – a subversion of the traditional YA triangle that sees the two love interests (the nice boy-next-door type and the bad boy) falling in love with each other instead of with the girl. The cover art is gorgeous too and there are some great lines spoofing the trope and genre that made me laugh out loud, but ultimately The Love Interest fails to deliver on its potential, making for a fairly disappointing read.

I suspect the fault lies with author Cale Dietrich, who doesn’t seem to know what he wants the book to be. At times The Love Interest seems to be going for a straightforward satire of the YA romance genre, but at other times it builds its own dystopian world and story, a rather dark imagining where boys are groomed from childhood to be “love interests” for potentially important people and two boys somewhat inexplicably (there’s a quick hand wave explanation about the chosen girl being more likely to make a decision when two men are competing for her affection) are selected to compete. The winner gets the girl, and spends the rest of his life spying and reporting any secrets and important information she has. The loser, well, dies.

Dietrich tries to accomplish both a satire and an original dystopian story, but the result of trying to do both is a novel that doesn’t do either well enough to be considered a success. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely fun (I’d give it 3 stars for pure enjoyment and 2.5 for execution) and worth checking out, especially since the book can be finished in a couple of hours, just don’t expect logic or deep thoughts from this novel.

For me, the main issue was that some of the in-story takes on YA tropes don’t make sense within the context of the world. Take for example the simplistic Nice vs. Bad formula where each boy is trained and groomed to fit into one of these rigid types and one Nice and one Bad are sent after each chosen girl. Straight out of the CW playbook to be sure, and it works as a send-up of the trope, but there’s never any explanation offered within the world for why these types have to be adhered to.

I found myself asking why a lot while reading this book and not getting much in the way of satisfying answers.

We’re told this is the world’s most powerful spy organization, with enough power to put its spies at the right hand of just about every powerful person in history, including multiple Love Interest first ladies (does that make Jackie O a Nice and Marilyn Monroe a Bad?). But if the organization has these resources, enough to have rooms full of boys who may or may not be chosen, and enough to seemingly kill off those who aren’t chosen by the girl, why wouldn’t they devote some of their wealth to creating parent spies, etc. instead of sticking the Love Interests with reject parents? Surely some of the important ‘Chosen’ girls would judge a guy based on his parents/connection with his family. Even if Caden’s parental stand-ins are as bad as it gets, when the Love Interest is supposed to spend the rest of his life with the Chosen, won’t the parents/in-laws have a role in any normal couple’s relationship? Why not create better adult spies?

And while I certainly get retaining tight control of these Love Interests, isn’t it risky to give them absolutely no experience, even controlled environment experience elsewhere in the world, but to throw them in directly out of the compound? What if their reactions to things give them away?

I was also unsatisfied with the lack of information provided about the coaches, who act as relationship counselors, providing advice, scripts, and an in ear voice to the Love Interests. How do they fit in? Are they fully-fledged spies? Are they devoid of emotion? How else would you deal with the sort of job that means you have a 50-50 chance of losing the person you’re coaching?

This review sounds negative, but there really are a lot of things I enjoyed about the book. When it does hit the satire, it does so really really well. We are introduced to the (male) protagonist describing their physical appearance and flaws in a clear reversal of female YA protagonists, and the fact that the character quite literally has no name and no identity except as a love interest is fitting.

Caden’s internal response to Juliet’s casual remark that every girl falls in love with a gay guy at least once, it’s a rite of passage, is also perfect:

“I don’t exist to teach her a lesson, and it irks me that she thinks labeling me is okay now. Like, by liking guys I automatically take on that role in her life. That I’m suddenly a supporting character in her story rather than the hero of my own.”

Also, there are gems like this:

“There is one thing that’s always bugged me,” I say. “I’d like to know why the LIC is so focused on pairing us in high school. Like, wouldn’t it be better to send us in when we’re a bit older? No one finds the love of their life while they’re a teenager.”
“You haven’t read any YA novels recently, have you?”

There are sparks of brilliance here in these lines and a few others that made me laugh out loud or that I found especially moving, but the effort is inconsistent and the worldbuilding lacks some logic and depth. The worldbuilding is the kind of thing I could excuse in a straight (pardon the word choice) satire, but in a novel that’s trying to be its own story, it just didn’t work for me.

I generally liked the characters, but felt that they weren’t explored enough or given enough depth. The Chosen girl, Juliet, is a gifted scientist (a nice change to see a girl be important because of her talent for science), and she has a good group of friends who are also interesting, but I didn’t find Caden interesting enough to carry the narrative on his back. The Bad Love Interest, Dylan, is more layered, particularly given his insecurities hidden behind friendly confidence, but we don’t see enough of him to make up for Caden and, without spoiling anything, there’s an unnecessary plot reveal here that really rubbed me the wrong way before it’s resolved at the end.

Ultimately it’s an enjoyable enough light summer read, but there’s a lot of unrealized potential here, and it’s disappointing that the novel couldn’t do justice to the terrific concept.

Liebster Award

Over the last month or so I’ve been tagged in a bunch of different book tags by you lovely people that I haven’t gotten to, so I just wanted to say how much I appreciate it, and that I will definitely do them, it just might take me a few weeks to catch-up!

In May Darque Dreamer Reads nominated me for the Liebster Award. She has a wonderful blog with insightful reviews and really gorgeous bookish photos, so definitely go check out her blog! Thank you so much for this award!

liebster-award

The rules for this award are:
1. Thank the person who nominated you.
2. Answer 11 questions about yourself.
3. Give 11 interesting facts about yourself.
4. Nominate 11 other bloggers.

11 Interesting Facts About Me:
* Despite being a Canadian English major and having a Master of Library and Information Science degree, I have never read any of Margaret Atwood’s works! (I’m hoping to get to a few this year though.)

* I can’t play a musical instrument to save my life.

* I don’t own a smartphone. My phone is kind of archaic and can manage e-mail and, on a good day, Facebook (but it sucks the battery like crazy). At times I think it would be really handy to have a smartphone, but it’s also kind of nice to disconnect a little from social media, at least while I’m at work.

* I have a deep and abiding hatred of peppers – red, green, yellow, hot, not, I don’t like the taste of peppers and get irrationally frustrated when they’re in a food where I don’t expect them (why would you put peppers in a tuna wrap!?!).

* My ideal weather is probably partly cloudy, with limited wind, and a temperature in the low-mid-twenties Celsius (That’s about 68 to 77 Fahrenheit for my American friends). Extreme heat and humidity and frigid windchill winters are not my favourite times of year.

* The only sport I watch and follow is baseball (go Blue Jays!).

* I also don’t have an eReader, although I’m waffling on that. eReader users, are there any brands you’ve liked, didn’t like, things I should look for if I get one? Problems you’ve had with them? My only must is that it has to be compatible with the Toronto Public Library system.

* I love cool colours, so green and blue are my favourite colours, closely followed by purple.

* I have no sense of direction at all. If I have a map and there are only two directions to turn in, I will probably turn the wrong way.

* My favourite genres to read are Sci-fi & Fantasy, YA, and historical fiction.

* I LOVE reading outside. When the weather is nice you can probably find me on my balcony, on a park bench, or by the pool with a book or two nearby!

Questions from Darque Dreamer:
Why did you start your blog?

There are a few reasons actually. Rachel and I had been chatting about potentially starting to book blog, so we got into this together. Blogging for me is a way to commit to and keep track of what I’ve been reading and what shows I’ve seen. I use goodreads avidly, but I don’t tend to write reviews, so it’s been valuable for me to get down my thoughts on a book while they’re fresh! Blogging is also a creative outlet. I like my job, but it doesn’t involve a lot of writing or creativity, so I wanted to exercise those abilities. Finally, of course, I’ve really enjoyed connecting with other readers and seeing what books they’re loving.

How do you spread the word about your blog?
I try to participate in either a Top Ten Tuesday or a T5W each week and share my post on the threads. Otherwise, I read and comment on what other people are blogging about, and hopefully they’ll check my blog out too. I’m still pretty new to book blogging though and this is definitely something I could improve on.

Who is your inspiration?
In life? My mom. We’re really close and she’s a wonderful person, who has always supported me and given me the freedom and the support to do anything I want to do.

Do you have a particular talent?
This sounds awful to say on here, but generally writing is a talent of mine. It’s always been something I’m able to do and enjoy doing.

What is your favorite food?
I have a sweet tooth, so probably a dessert, like a nanaimo bar. Or, more generally, CHOCOLATE!

Do you have a career outside of blogging?
Yes, I work as a corporate librarian for a financial institution, so generally I do research, using paid-for databases and publicly available sources, that supports internal clients.

Are you an animal lover?
I am. I have a pet cockatiel, Poe, who I adore, and I like most animals (except spiders).

What kind of music do you like?
Mostly musical theatre cast recordings. Obviously I love Hamilton, but also The Last Five Years, Parade, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Les Miserables, The Colour Purple, Bonnie and Clyde, etc. Besides musical theatre I like rock I guess, but I don’t listen to that much contemporary music.

What is your favorite book?
Singular book – Les Miserables. It’s a bit of a “project book”, meaning I set a number of pages a day to read and that helped me through some of the slower parts in this 1460 page novel, but it’s well-worth reading. Some beautiful turns of phrase, characters I loved so deeply, and very moving.

Series – The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. They sucked me in and have never let go. The itch to re-read is always there. In the 1960s, having finished reading the types of books she loved, like Alexander Dumas’ works, Ms. Dunnett was persuaded by her husband to write the type of book she loved. The result is the dense, impeccably researched six-book Lymond Chronicles. She tends to throw the reader in headfirst with untranslated latin and french quotes appearing in the novel, but at other times the prose is so gorgeous that I had to stop and marvel “how do you words?!” My adoration for these books is never ending.

What is your favorite movie?
I’m not actually a big movie person (much more of a TV watcher) but a few I love are Pixar’s Ratatouille, my happy place movie, Inside Out (which I recommend for anyone who has ever suffered from depression, but bring tissues it made me bawl like a baby), Brokeback Mountain, Gattaca, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?
London, England. I always feel like I’ve left part of my heart there I adore London so much. the combination of architecture, history, culture, and the West End theatres is ideal for me. I don’t think I could ever get bored in London.

Do you play video games?
I don’t. With each gaming system my family got, I used it less and less, so although I did pretty well at the N64 (Donkey Kong, Banjo Kazooie, and Mario Kart were favs), and the Game Boy Colour, I was so-so at the GameCube, and barely used the Wii. I’ve never used a PlayStation.

My Questions: 
(re-using a couple here since they were really great questions)
1. Why did you start your blog?
2. How do you spread the word about your blog?
3. Which author (living or dead) would you most like to/like to have met?
4. What’s your favourite beverage?
5. What’s one of your biggest pet peeves?
6. What is the best book you had to read for school?
7. How do you organize your books on goodreads?
8. What kind of music do you not like, and why?
9. If you won an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
10. What’s your favourite holiday?
11. Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I nominate:
Ella @ A Book Without End
Steph @ Lost Purple Quill
Elise @ The Bookish Actress
Dani @ Perspective of a Writer
Bentley @ Book Bastion

As always, feel free to ignore if you’ve already been tagged or aren’t interested in doing this!

Thanks for reading this (very long) post!

 

 

Books: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

25150798The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Published March 21, 2017
star-4
Lisa See is an author who has been on my TBR for a long time, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. When a stranger arrives seeking a rare tea, Li-yan, as the most educated girl in her village, is tasked with translating for the stranger, whose arrival marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha. Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence, and when she gives birth to a daughter while unwed, she brings her child to an orphanage in a neighbouring city and abandons her, rather than submit to the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed. While Li-yan’s intelligence and education enables her to move into the modern world, she never forgets about the daughter she gave up. Meanwhile in California, her daughter Haley is raised by loving American parents in a privileged home, but wonders about her origins.

See’s grasp on the setting and the rich historical and cultural detail she provides is deeply immersive and I learned a great deal about the Akha, an ethnic group I knew absolutely nothing about, as well as about the process of farming, brewing, and selling tea. In fact, I was so fascinated by the description of the rise in value of Pu’er and its potential health benefits, that when I was in a tea shop this weekend I bought a sample of Pu’er tea to try!

Admittedly at times the immersive quality of the setting and culture was difficult for me to encounter because it clashed so wholly with my western sensibilities. It helps that even Li-yan, raised within this culture, is upset by the killing of healthy twin babies, in one of the novel’s most shocking scenes. As Li-yan’s midwife mother explains,  “only animals, demons, and spirits give birth to litters. If a sow gives birth to one piglet, then both must be killed at once. If a dog gives birth to one puppy, then they too must be killed immediately.” This explanation may help to understand why the Akha believe what they do, but it is still difficult to accept. Other examples are less drastic, but the idea of whether or not two people are a good match for a relationship being decided by their day of birth, is still hard to accept.

See writes beautifully, with prose that makes you feel like you were there. She provides enough detail to paint a picture and is informative without the writing and historical context ever feeling dull. Although I can see why other readers might not enjoy her choice to include awkward terms, like “doing the intercourse”, which I assume is a close translation of words the Akha’s language would actually use, this decision didn’t affect my reading experience and it’s infrequent enough that I enjoyed the terms as a marker of authenticity.

Undoubtedly my favourite things about this book was Li-yan. She is one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. Compassionate towards others, even when they wrong her, strong in her ability to get through hardship, and intelligent. Li-yan sees education as her way forward and as a means to escape the life that has been planned for her, to follow in the footsteps of her midwife mother. She is a character I cared about deeply. Her successes in business and in life brought me joy, and more than anything I wanted her to be happy. On the other hand, I felt the stab of betrayal from her former friend and, later in the book, the hole in her otherwise idyllic life left by her abandoned daughter.

I wish See had spent more time on Li-yan’s daughter Haley and her story, because I found it really interesting to read about her experience in the group therapy she undergoes for Chinese adoptees. Haley describes herself as ‘grateful but angry’, grateful to be adopted into a privileged home with parents who love her, but angry at being abandoned by her birth parents. I loved both the unique methods of presenting Haley’s experiences, through letters, essays, and even a transcript of a therapy session, See uses and the sentiments that are expressed by Haley and other Chinese adoptees of not fitting in, of being subject to stereotypes, and of the conflict they each have with their origins.

I raced through this book, not wanting to put it down. Usually I enjoy a good bittersweet ending, or even a sad ending, but with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I was desperately afraid that after all the trials of Li-yan’s early life she would not get her happy ending. This feeling intensified when she seemed to be in a happy relationship mid-way through the book and I feared there was too much of the book left for the author to not introduce additional drama. I also worried that the reunion with Haley might not occur. Ultimately though, he story is brought to a gratifying end.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a very moving tale of love, sacrifice, and hard work, that features a protagonist you will root for and interesting glimpses at a little known ethnic minority and the process of making and selling tea.  I would highly recommend it and I look forward to reading more of Lisa See’s work in the future.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Series I’ve Been Meaning to Start

As every reader knows, there are far too many books to read in this lifetime and the tbr list is always growing. How appropriate then that this week’s topic is the Top Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning to Start but Haven’t. Some of the series that made my list have been on it for years, while others are more recent additions. Whether new or old, these are all books that I hope to get to soon and that I look forward to reading…one day!

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish.

AssasinsApprentice1. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
A good friend, who previously recommended a series that is now one of my all-time favourites, gave me her copies of The Farseer Trilogy before she moved to New Zealand, so I have no excuse for not starting this one! The books follow the life of Fitz, the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, who becomes a trained assassin and may be the key to the survival of the kingdom. I’ve only heard good things about this series, particularly from some of the other lovely book bloggers I follow, who have started reading Hobb’s books and loved them. The Farseer Trilogy is definitely near the top of my tbr list!

1274552. The Gentlemen’s Bastards series by Scott Lynch
I’m cheating a tiny bit here because I actually picked up The Lies of Locke Lamora several years ago, read not even fifty pages, and put it back down. I can’t remember why it didn’t grab me at the time, although I vaguely remember the prose putting me off a little, but I suspect it was more a case of coming across the right book at the wrong time. These days I’m more willing to give a book a chance and to persevere when it doesn’t grab me immediately, and I know this is a series that several people I respect have enjoyed, so I’m looking forward to starting it again. From the description it seems to involve heisting, and a band of confidence men, so what’s not to like?!

DaughteroftheForest3. The Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier
A historical fantasy loosely based on the legend of the Children of Lir and “The Six Swans”, this series wasn’t even on my radar until earlier this year when a friend with similar taste gave the first book a rave review on goodreads. When I looked it up, it turned out several friends had also given the series five star ratings! I tend to enjoy books that feature mythology and/or folklore, and I’ve heard the first book in the series mentioned as a good choice for fans of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, one of my favourite reads so far this year, so I’m definitely looking forward to trying out this series!

684284. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
I’m a long-time fantasy fan who devoured George R.R. Martin’s ASoIaF series (to date) along with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles among other doorstopper epic fantasy novels, so I feel a little like an English major who hasn’t read the great classics when I say that I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson. I keep meaning to but, quite frankly, the size of his books and his back catalogue are a little intimidating. I’m not even sure if Mistborn is the ideal place to start, but at some point I would really like to read his work. I’d definitely appreciate suggestions about where to start with Sanderson though!

553995. The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson
Going hand-in-hand with Brandon Sanderson is another epic fantasy great, Steven Erikson. I’ve owned a copy of the first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, for at least a few years now, but it’s still sitting unread on my shelf. Once again I have heard such positive things about this series from friends and it’s definitely a series I want to tackle, but a case where the size of the book has been intimidating.

233956806. The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Before I started this blog I hadn’t even heard of the Illuminae Files, but the positive reviews from book blogs I follow and from friends on goodreads have pushed this one well up the tbr list. I’ve been reading a lot of science-fiction, both adult and YA, this year but these books definitely look interesting!

189523417. The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu
I have to admit that the reviews I’ve heard of this series are mixed and that the main issue readers seem to have is the lack of female characters, so I’m a little on the fence about starting it, but I love the fact that it’s an Asian-influenced historical high fantasy story and I’m certainly interested enough to give it a try. I gather Liu’s short stories have been more universally acclaimed, so I may start with a collection of those before tackling a full-size novel.

213268. Fables by Bill Willingham
At least when it comes to comic books I can pinpoint exactly why I haven’t gotten to a certain series. The main factor is reading time. I tend to read on my commute, but depending on how busy work is I may also read on my lunch hour, or even after work in a park. With a comic book I’d worry about running out of material. Also, comics tend to be expensive to buy and few grab me enough that I would want to re-read them, so I often borrow them from the library and sometimes libraries don’t have all volumes of a book. All of this is a tangential way of saying that Fables is one of those comic books/graphic novels, like Saga or Sandman, that I’ve heard a lot about and have never quite gotten to. Luckily a laid-back friend (I say laid-back because she has been REALLY cool about it taking months for me to get through the issues of Saga I borrowed from her) has agreed to lend them to me whenever I’m ready, so I’ll try to get through this series soon.

187128869. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
The Queen of the Tearling is another series that makes it onto my list, but that I have some trepidation about reading. Most of my goodreads friends have given it four or five stars, but one friend who I often share opinions with said that she hated it so much she couldn’t even be bothered wasting her words on an eloquent review explaining why it was terrible. Yikes. Still, the synopsis, about an untested young princess who must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness, sounds interesting.

2031246210. Jackaby by William Ritter
I have to admit that this is a rare case (for me) of judging a book by its cover…and liking what I saw! I don’t know much about this Victorian England-set novel about a detective of the paranormal, but it sounds interesting enough to give a try and again, how gorgeous are those covers?!

Have you read any of the series I’m on the fence about starting? What did you think, worth my time or should I pass? Any series I should move to the very top of my tbr? Please let me know in the comments!

Books: The Dark Forest

23168817The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen
Published August 11, 2015
star-2
In the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Hugo-nominated Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a secret military project sent signals into space to make contact with aliens. The signal was captured by an alien race on the brink of destruction, who formulate a plan to travel to Earth, a trip that will take four centuries, and stage an invasion. The Dark Forest continues this story. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted sophons, subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. Only the human mind remains a secret.

As a result, the Wallfacer Project is formed, a plan that grants four selected individuals almost unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies, which are to be hidden from both Earth and Trisolaris through misdirection and deceit. Most of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but Luo Ji is a wildcard. A Chinese astronomer and sociologist of seemingly little consequence, he is baffled by his new status, and yet he is the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris fears.

Is there some pay-off at the end of the book? Yes. Is it enough to justify slogging through 500 pages of this? Not even close.

I was acutely aware that the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, was not my kind of book (see my review here), and yet I was capable of admiring its merits and understanding why it had been so acclaimed. Not so with The Dark Forest. The book suffers from a bad case of Second Book Syndrome and manages to not only be dull and devoid of interesting characters, but also uncomfortably misogynistic throughout.

It is clear that characters are not a strength of Cixin Liu’s. Most of his characters have so few distinguishing characteristics that they all blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. His women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. This may be a realistic stance. Given the state of the world today I suspect men would be chosen, based on the assumption that they have a stronger background in both scientific accomplishments and strategic warfare, and yet I can’t help thinking how much more interesting the story would have been (in the hands of another writer that is) if a female perspective and plan had been included.

I could have put aside the lack of main female characters if the minor characters had been three-dimensionally written, but there are problems here too. Multiple women (again, from a small cast of female characters to begin with) betray their husbands, enough to make me wonder if the author has some unresolved issues. Additionally, The Dark Forest opens with its womanizing main character’s latest fling being killed in an attack on them both and the main character initially can’t even remember her name. When he does, the author never reveals it.

But the most offensive portrayal of women comes from the main character, Luo Ji, falling in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created. Far from being told this is abnormal, the doctor tells him he doesn’t have a sickness, he just has natural literary talent in creating a character so real the writer is unable to control them. “There’s nothing excessive about imagination. Especially where love is concerned,” says the doctor. It’s a scene made particularly ironic by the fact that Cixin Liu’s characters are so one-dimensional it’s hard to imagine any of them having a mind of their own.

Luo Ji is so infatuated with this non-existent women that it destroys his one close relationship with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal in order to save the planet, he uses them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing the woman to his bodyguard and asking him to find her and bring her to him. The imaginary woman is described as:

“She… how should I put it? She came into this world like a lily growing out of a rubbish heap, so… so pure and delicate, and nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! Your first reaction when you see her is to protect her. No, to care for her, to let her know that you are willing to pay any price to shield her from the harm of a crude and savage reality.”

“She likes to wear-how would you put it?-simple, elegant clothing, a little plainer than other women her age.” Luo Ji nodded dumbly, over and over, but there’s always something white, like a shirt or a collar, that contrasts sharply with the dark colors of the rest of her outfit… Finally, she’s not tall, one hundred and sixty centimeters or so, and her body is…well I guess you could say slender, as if a gust of wind could blow her away.”

In a particularly unbelievable turn of events, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji, and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together. The impending alien invasion is easier to believe than this ridiculous plot twist. After they’ve been together for a few years, long enough for her to produce a child, the woman (Yan Yan) is quite literally fridged! She’s put into refrigerated hibernation along with her daughter, effectively held as hostages to ensure that Luo Ji does his duty as a Wallfacer by producing a strategy! If this wasn’t disturbing enough, Yan Yan herself is infantilised, described repeatedly as innocent, trusting, and childlike (all of the following quotes come from just five pages):

“Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here.”

“She flashed him that innocent smile that dashed his heart to pieces.”

“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naive expression was one he had seen on her countless times before.”

“The look in her eyes was one of slight curiosity mixed with goodwill and innocence.”

“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”

Putting aside the poorly written characters and sexism, there are things that keep The Dark Forest from being a complete dud. The book has less of a focus on physics and hard science-fiction, which makes it easier to understand for those of us without a science background. The translation, by Joel Martinsen instead of Ken Liu, also seems better and less clumsy this time around, although there is some purple prose that I’m not sure if I should attribute to Liu or to Martinsen.

The concept is interesting, and I particularly enjoyed the parts of the novel set in the more distant future and the glimpses at technology in this world. Leaf houses, screens on every flat surface, personalized ads (including an ad for a bandage shortly after a character is in an accident) are all imaginatively rendered and created a detailed picture in my head. There are also scattered moments of humour, such as when a character is repeatedly targeted for assassination, but is informed that he will receive compensation for each failed attempt on his life. Each Wallfacer’s plan is also interesting to read about.

The Dark Forest paints a rather grim, but realistic I think, portrait of humanity and how we would react to a crisis like this. When humanity is aware that the Trisolaran fleet will be coming for them and strategies for survival are looking uncertain at best, some try to escape but Escapism is banned, as humanity can’t decide on who should be allowed to survive. Of course the most interesting part of the novel is the reason for its title. I’ve whited this out and warned for spoilers below, so scroll past if you’re considering reading this.

*SPOILERS for the end of the book/central concept*

In sharp contrast to the optimism of Star Trek with its United Federation of Planets, the author presents a dark answer to the Fermi paradox, proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, which asks why humans haven’t seen evidence of intelligent aliens when the probability of their existence is high. The novel takes its name from the analogy used to describe the state of the universe. Liu posits that the universe is a “dark forest”, which is populated by predatory species who will wipe out lesser beings. Most intelligent life forms therefore know well enough to keep quiet in order to preserve their existence, but “there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ In sending a signal to the universe, humanity has made itself vulnerable. 

*End of SPOILERS*

I’m a keen supporter of diverse voices in books and particularly in Science-Fiction, a genre which is still predominantly being written by white men, but that diversity shouldn’t come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. I wavered stubbornly over whether I should try to finish the series in the name of reading all of the Hugo award nominees for best novel this year, but reviews for Death’s End, the final volume in the series, have convinced me that this would be a waste of my time. With no one to root for and the book often demonstrating the worst of human civilization, it’s difficult to care about whether humanity survives or not. It’s a shame that the potential of The Three-Body Problem was squandered in such a way.