“I’m a gallery of broken hearts”

Yaa Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, was a sprawling family saga about a family whose point of origin was Ghana. Though the family in Transcendent Kingdom also hails from there, this book is nothing like its predecessor. Rather than than span though generations, this book’s main focus is on one person as she deals with the pain and loss her family deals with after coming to America in search of a better life.

Gifty is a neuroscience candidate at Stanford studying reward seeking behavior in mice. Potentially the research could isolate the neurochemical cause of addiction and depression. As we move back and forth from the present day to Gifty’s childhood in Alabama we see how she came to her research. Her father was dissatisfied with life in the US and went on a visit to Ghana never to return. Her brother became addicted to opioids after a sports injury and eventually died of an overdose and her mother struggled with depression afterwards. As the book opens, her mother’s depressive behaviors seem to be returning and she comes to live in California with Gifty. She tries to make since of what happened to her once happy family via her research but also struggles with the question of faith. Her mother’s mostly white Evangalical church in Alabama never gave her the answers she needed, especially in the wake of her brother’s death and she has since wrestled with the question of belief and whether or not it’s a good thing.

Like Homegoing, Transcendent Kingdom is beautifully written. I listened to the audiobook version and the narrator is excellent. Gifty’s past and present merge as she struggles with her own issues, not just of faith but with her inability to open herself up with other people and ask for help when she is struggling. This book is getting lots of buzz recently and it’s well deserved.

“She’s my Small Wonder. I’m her Voltron”

This is a book that I wish had been made into a series. The world of The Windup Girl is strange and serpentine and by the time I was fully immersed in it and was truly in the flow of the story things were heading toward the conclusion. There are other stories in the “windup universe” but no other full length novels. Nonetheless this biopunk environmental cautionary tale contains dynamic characters, political intrigue and lots of fascinating moving parts that lead the reader to a deeply satisfying conclusion.

The story is set in 23rd century Thailand. Globally, fossil fuels have been depleted, ocean levels have risen and gene hacked seeds have led to mutant pests and viruses that have leveled many nations. Thailand maintains a secret seed bank and keeps its borders tightly monitored and is in better shape than most of the world. Anderson Lake is a “calorie man” who is in Thailand hoping to gain access to the country’s non-modified seed supply for the AgriGen company. Anderson meets Emiko, a Japanese windup, genetically engineered to be servile and bound in a cruel servitude in a Thai sex club. She reveals that she knows information that could lead him to the seed bank and the two form an unlikely bond and become caught in the middle of a national power struggle between the Trade Ministry and the Environment Ministry. There are many other players in this story whose fates become intertwined as the book progresses.

The Windup Girl is a truly unique work of modern science fiction and deserves much of the praise it gets. I should add a brief trigger warning. Emiko’s life in the sex club contains several instances of rape and sexual humiliation. It’s absolutely a part of her character arc but it can be difficult to read on the page. You can skim through those parts or maybe avoid this book if that’s really not for you. But if you’re growing a little weary of space battles in your sci fi, pick this one up for a change of pace.

“Don’t you hear the bugle call?”

Maisie Dobbs was part of my early effort to read lighter fare in order to forget the pandemic (I read this back at the end of March) and it was more or less successful. Over all I liked the book and the main character and I’ll definitely read the next in the series. Though I admit the pacing of this first book is a bit off which happens frequently when you’re dealing with the initial book in the series. Setting the stage and giving the character’s backstory don’t always blend well with the store and that’s the case here unfortunately.

When we begin the story we meet Maisie Dobbs in London 1929. It is the first day of her new business as a private detective after studying under a famed Scotland Yard investigator. Maisie’s first case seems like a simple case of marital infidelity but, as things tend to go, turns out to be something completely different. We also learn about Maisie’s humble beginnings as the daughter of a widowed vegetable peddler who goes to work in service to a wealthy family. The lady of the house soon sees Maisie’s natural intelligence and curiosity and agrees to sponsor her education. She enlists as a nurse in the Great War upon graduating college and it’s the traumatic memories of this that are brought back up by Maisie’s first case. Naturally she solves not just the alleged infidelity but also the greater and more sinister mystery related to it and even manages to make a bit of peace with her troubled past.

This book sits on the border between cozy and dark and brooding. Maisie is smart, determined and plucky but she, like the rest of the country are also still reckoning with the ghosts of a horrific war. Anyone who’s taken a deep dive into World War I can assure you the bits of it covered in the first installment of Maisie Dobbs don’t even begin to scratch the surface. But the book never lets itself get too bogged down in the suffering. Here’s hoping book two doesn’t suffer from the same pacing issues as book one.

“On a little street in Singapore We’d meet beside a lotus-covered door”

frangipani tree

 

This book is what I call a “cozy-ish mystery.” It’s not an examination of the darkest parts of humanity, nor does it take place entirely in a knitting shop in a cozy New England hamlet. It’s just about the perfect thing for me when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the world or my previous read or both. The murder still feels important to the story without getting you bogged down in misery. This is the first in the Crown Colony series and I’ve added the other three to my TBR list. The action takes place in Singapore in 1936 and follows Su Lin, a bright young student at the Ladies Mission School who finds herself hired as a nanny in the colonial governor’s house after the previous nanny dies mysteriously. She uses her intelligence and observational skills to aid the British Chief Inspector Lefroy to bring the killer to justice.

Colonial Singapore is its own character in this book. Su Lin moves from local shops to the mansion of her traditional Chinese grandmother to the Colonial Governors house and gives us an in depth view of her world. She’s aware of the prejudices and shortcomings of the the British but also seems to have sympathy for them and use those same prejudices to her benefit when necessary. She’s a bright resourceful heroine who knows how to get herself out of the very real dangers she encounters while investigating a murder.

A good historical fiction can make you feel transported to a certain place and time and The Frangipani Tree Mystery absolutely does that. You can jump right into the story and feel like you’re a part of it almost immediately. I highly recommend it for fans of “cozy-ish” mysteries like me.

Good book. Crap timing

year of wonders

 

Reading this book in early/mid-March 2020 was a huge error in judgement on my part.  I guess I thought immersing myself in a plague story would lessen my anxieties about the real world. It…didn’t work.  Having said this, Year of Wonders was truly a captivating read with a dynamic heroine who faces the horrors of the plague on and comes out on the other side deeply changed.

Anna Frith is a young widow in a small English village who is making ends meet my working as a servant and taking in a boarder.  When the Bubonic Plague arrives, the villagers decide to completely isolate themselves completely until it subsides.  As sickness and death ravish the citizens, they begin to turn on one another.  First the “outsiders” are targeted but soon families are turning against each other.   We see this all through Anna’s eyes as she works with the wife of the charismatic minister to treat the sick and dying.  The loss and horrors of the plague cause changes in Anna as seismic as those it caused in Europe at the time.

Someday Covid-19 will be a distant memory.  I suggest picking this one up when we are through this current pandemic and you are back in a space when you can read about sickness, loss and people acting like they’ve lost their damn minds.

“For without contrasts, how does one appreciate the different forms that joy can take?”

black future month

This seemed like a perfect selection for a Black History Month read (yes, I am VERY behind on writing reviews). N.K. Jemison is probably best known for her fantastic Broken Earth Trilogy which you should absolutely read if you haven’t. This book is a collection of short speculative fiction stories which are set in places ranging from the Jim Crow South, to the net, to a dystopian earth colony. One returns to the world of the Broken Earth Trilogy and one introduces her new book The City We Became. All have Ms. Jemison’s unique and enthralling voice.

The stories in this book are able to immerse you into a complex story in just a few pages and none seem overly long. Possibly my two favorites are “The Trojan Girl” told from the perspective of an AI. I think the story that immediately follows it is a sequel but it’s not entirely clear and it can stand on its own regardless. There is also “The Effluence Engine” which is a fun work of steampunk queer lesbian fiction. Finding a way to make a book of speculative fiction where each story is unique and fresh is no easy task but she does it.

A lot of folks have been buying up non-fiction author’s and that’s definitely positive (as long as they’re actually reading them) but black fiction should absolutely not be overlooked. N.K. Jemison is one of the preeminent voice of Sci Fi/Fantasy right now and this would be a great starting point if you’ve never read her stuff. If you’ve read all her stuff and you need more pick it. Hell, just pick it up.

“And how many times have I prayed the angels would speed me away”

deathless divide

 

Deathless Divide is the much anticipated follow up to Justina Ireland’s 2018 YA novel Dread Nation.  In this alternate history of Civil War era America, the dead rise up during the Battle of Gettysburg and the North and South are forced into a hasty truce.  Our main characters, Jane McKeene and Katherine Devereaux are sent to combat schools to learn to be attendants which is sort of a combination of a lady’s maid and a bodyguard. The events of Deathless Divide pick up right where the previous book left off so, spoilers ahoy!
We find Katherine and Jane fleeing Summerland with a small band of escapees and an undead hoard hot on their heels. They are headed to the town of Nicodemus which is said to be safer and more tolerant than Summerland, though both women are rightfully skeptical.  Naturally, nothing goes as it should and the group suffers some serious setbacks, both emotional and physical. Difficult choices are made leading to a conclusion that is satisfying but could also lead to a series, if Ms. Ireland is so inclined.
I’m very picky about alternate histories as most of them tend to be ideations of the South winning the Civil War or the Nazis winning World War II.  What is clear in the Dread Nation duology is that although there are no clear winners between the Union and the Confederacy, it is black and brown folks that come out on the bottom.  This is sadly the most common theme in American history, real or imagined.

“Live fast. Die young. Bad girls do it well”

gideon the ninth

 

I’m at a loss as to how to describe this book. It’s part science fiction, part fantasy, part locked-room mystery and that really only scratches the surface. Gideon the Ninth has gotten a LOT of hype in the book community and it absolutely lives up to it in my opinion.  I’ve already preordered the sequel, Harrow the Ninth (number 2 of a trilogy) from my book store.
Gideon is an extremely reluctant servant of the Ninth House. At the beginning of the book we find her attempting to leave the planet with her broadsword and her supply of dirty magazines.  Her plan is quickly foiled by her nemesis; Harrow, Reverend Daughter and Necromancer of the Ninth House. Harrow makes a deal with Gideon; travel to the imperial planet of the First House and act as Harrow’s bodyguard in a competition and she can have her freedom. Gideon agrees and the two head off.  In the midst of this competition between each house’s best and brightest, people start dying in very nasty ways. Since there’s no way on or off the planet, it’s a safe assumption that one of the guests is responsible.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. It’s very high concept but never gets lost up its own ass as many high concept books are wont to do. Obviously Gideon and Harrow are the main characters but the other competitors are fully realized.  You genuinely regret seeing them get bumped off (some more than others).  Finally, despite its irreverence it never veers into “zaniness” which I have no patience for. Tamsyn Muir is a really exciting new voice in the sci fi/fantasy genre and I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

“We need no introduction, for mass annihilation”

leviathan wakes

 

This series of books already has a well loved television adaptation that, I believe is still in production. I gave it a try when the series premiered and I had trouble getting into it.  Still, people raved about the source material and it doesn’t take much to sell me on a SciFi series especially when you throw in the words “space opera” so I picked up the first two on sale.  The first installment absolutely lives up to the hype.  It’s an engaging combination of lovable characters, intergalactic political maneuvering and nail-biting space battles with some sinister alien life thrown in for good measure.

The story shifts perspective between Jim Holden, XO of the water hauler “Canterbury” and Detective Joe Miller, a semi washed up detective on the now inhabited asteroid of Ceres.  Both are fairly ordinary men who find themselves thrust into a situation that pits the major factions of the galaxy against one another and threatens to destroy the human race.  The factions in question being superpowers Earth and Mars and the underdog Belters (those that inhabit the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter).  Holden, like all good space protagonists has a strong moral code and a scrappy, resourceful crew that become like a found family as the book progresses.  Miller has spent the bulk of his career dealing in shades of gray and is an obvious contrast to Holden.
It’s hard to know where the series will go next. Honestly the first one could have been a standalone book though it certainly leaves plenty of openings for future novels.  I’d like to see some different perspectives moving forward.  Specifically the character of Naomi Agata, one of Holden’s crew members. Of course who knows what new voices will show up in book two. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you soon.

“Should we wake and find it gone. Remember this our favorite town”

night circus

 

This is another selection for which I’m extremely late to the party since it’s been getting good press since its 2011 publication.  I finally got The Night Circus from the library when the buzz for Erin Morgenstern’s most recent book “The Starless Sea” reached a fever pitch.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect because none of the book podcasts I listen to knew quite how to describe it.  It’s not quite fantasy, not quite magical realism and not quite romance.  It seems to borrow from all the best parts of these genres.
Le Cirque de Reves (The Circus of Dreams) appears in town without warning and it’s tents are silent and still until it opens at dusk.  What you see once you enter is a feast for the senses and the imagination.  Everything inside will feel elevated from your average circus. Though none but a select few know it, two young lovers, Marco and Celia, supply the magic that keeps the show alive.  They have been locked in a competition set up by their wards when they were just small children and have fallen in love in spite of this. Before the book’s end, everyone who gets close to Le Cirque de Reve will be pulled in to their orbit and affected for good or ill.

What was so engrossing for me about this book was not just the beauty and wonder of the Le Cirque de Reves but the pervasive feeling that everyone who came in contact with it was a part of something magical.  Which, technically they were but that feeling was transferred to me as a reader as well.  The descriptions are so rich that you are transported and begin to feel like another circus-goer. There is an argument to be made that some of the character development suffers as a result of all this book’s lush surroundings. However, as a reader, the feeling of being a part of something special and magical when you open a book is one of the best feelings you can get.