Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Cloud-Atlas-esque novels seem to be all the rage in 2022…

“This place is precarious, that’s the only word for it. It’s the lightest sketch of civilizations, caught between the forest and the sea. He doesn’t belong here”

This is my third novel by Mandel and once again I have rather conflicting thoughts and feelings about her work. On the one hand, I recognize how talented a writer she is. Her prose has this cool yet delicate quality to it that brought to mind authors such as Hanya Yanagihara and Ann Patchett . I always found myself appreciating her subtle storytelling and her ability to make her characters retain a certain unknowability. I also find her use of imagery to be highly effective in that these motifs add a certain nostalgic atmosphere to her settings. So much so that I often read of her characters and or the landscapes which she writes of with a strong sense of Deja Vu. Maybe because Mandel often returns to the same issues or even goes so far as to refer to the same characters in seemingly unconnected/stand-alone books (a la mandel-multiverse). Here this sense of familiarity with her characters and their struggles is very fitting indeed given the story’s ‘crucial’ theme.

“[T]hese moments that had arisen one after another after another, worlds fading out so gradually that their loss was apparent only in retrospect.”

The book opens in 1912. Edwin St. Andrew is but a young English lad who after angering his father for the last time has been banished to the ‘new world’. His attempts at making a go of things in Canada don’t quite go as smoothly as he’d hoped. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscapes here and there was something about Edwin that appealed to me. There was almost an otherworldly feel to this section, partly due to the remoteness and vastness of Edwin’s new ‘home’ (i am not at all familiar with that type of environment hence my finding it surreal). This section comes to a close with Edwin witnessing something quite Other.
We then are reunited with a side character from The Glass Hotel. It’s corona-time and Mirella (Vincent’s ‘friend’) has yet to fully recover from the death of her partner and the whole Ponzi fallout. She has a girlfriend but we learn virtually nothing about her or their relationship as this section is more of an ode to Vincent. FYI, I hated Vincent in The Glass Hotel. She was the reason why I didn’t really love that book, and, understandably then, I was not particularly enthusiastic when I realized that she would play a role here as well. Even if she is not on the ‘page’, her presence saturates much of Mirella’s narrative, to the point where it struck me as a bit unfair to Mirella herself. She’s an interesting character in her own right and yet we don’t really get to focus on her. Paul, Vincent’s brother, makes an appearance but his character here didn’t strike me as particularly nuanced. It turns out that Vincent too is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and once again the narrative makes much of her ‘art’ (coughbanal-as-it-is). That the narrative includes Mirella unfavourably comparing her gf to Vincent was kind of a joke. It really cemented why I did not like Vincent, to begin with. I am sick of Not Like Other People type of characters.
The following section is set in the 2200s. Here we learn that some people now live on colonies on the moon, one of them is this famous author named Olive Llewellyn. She’s now on a book tour on Earth where she discusses her hit book which is, surprise surprise, about a pandemic. During her tour however Olive becomes preoccupied with the news about an actual pandemic…Olive struck me as a self-insert. There were so many lines that just came across as if they were coming from Mandel herself. Particularly the questions about what it feels like to have written a pandemic novel when there is an actual pandemic etc…I find this sort of stuff cringe and there was something slightly self-congratulatory and ‘special about Olive that just made it really hard for me to even believe in her (she was a bit of Vincent 2.0). Additionally, this section is set in the 2200s and I did not buy into it. Moon colonies aside the future envisioned here was not particularly thought out. Many inconsistencies have to do with the tech available (people still have devices?) and the way the characters spoke was just too contemporary, almost old-fashioned even (i could all too easily imagine someone saying ‘old chap’). This worked for the sections before but here it was just prevented me from fully immersing myself in the events being narrated. The discussions about pandemics, epidemics, and writing about these things, were rather contrived, which again, pulled me out of the story. It turns out that Olive also is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and Vincent.

The final section is set in the 2400s and once again the world described here did not feel particularly ‘futuristic’. While the author does include one or two details that remind us that the people from this century write and speak differently to say now, these were not enough to establish a believable setting. Anyhow, here we follow Gaspery-Jacques Roberts who is a fairly bland character. The most interesting about him is of course his name. His sister is yet another Not Like Other People type of character (there is something about Mandel’s female characters that really annoys me…). She works for this ‘mysterious’ institution and eventually, Gaspery finds himself joining her ranks. He is assigned a mission: to find out more about the anomaly connecting Edwin, Vincent, and Olive. I was hoping that we would return to the previous perspectives, such as Edwin and Mirella, but the narrative from this point onward favours Gaspery. There was a very funny lil scene about his cat, but for the most part, his story struck me as vaguely predictable. The man was bland and the moral dilemma he faces was handled in a rather simplistic and hurried way.

It would have been nice for the timelines set in the 2200s and the 2400s to be less heteronormative and gender-normative. We get a queer character and a sapphic side character but that’s kind of it (if memory serves). There were some interesting themes at play in the book such as human connection and loneliness, empathy and choice. I appreciated the motifs that were interspersed throughout these interconnected narratives, as they consolidated the connection between these seemingly unconnected people. The conversations around pandemics were rather been-there-done-that kind of thing. I actually believe that they would have suited to an article more than this type of piece of fiction. I did find the execution to be ultimately disappointing. While the truth behind this anomaly wasn’t ‘shocking’ I did like the way it was played out. I do wish however that we could have spent more time with the characters we were introduced to early on in the book (rather than sticking to mr. boring and the cringy self-insert).
As you can probably tell by my somewhat incoherent review I feel rather conflicted about this book. Mandel’s prose is chief’s kiss. Her characters and her story however were a bit of a flop. I would have liked for the ‘anomaly’ to retain a certain mystery rather than it being explained away. I think I preferred the subtle magical realism of The Glass Hotel than the more sci-fi elements that were at play here, which were 1) not really convincing and 2) a bit sci-fi 101.

I would definitely recommend it to Mandel fans (my mother among them). If you are, like me, not entirely ‘sold’ on her work well, it seems unlikely that this will be the one to win you over (then again, i might be wrong here).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Lacklustre and monotonous, not only did How High We Go in the Dark fail to grip my attention but it also failed to elicit an emotional response on my part. It was a bland and repetitive affair, which is a pity given the hype around it. It didn’t help that a few weeks ago I read another ‘Cloud Atlas-esque’ novel. And while I didn’t fall head over heels in love with To Paradise, I cannot deny that Yanagihara’s prose is superb. Here instead…Sequoia Nagamatsu’s prose brings to mind the word turgid (examples: “Moles and freckles dance around your belly button like a Jackson Pollock painting, and I fight the urge to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what, if anything, I really meant to you.” and “your ass the shade of a stray plum spoiling behind a produce stand”).
Additionally, to compare this to the work of Emily St. John Mandel seems misleading, as How High We Go in the Dark lacks the atmosphere and subtlety that characterizes her books (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a devoted fan of hers). Anyway, even if I were to consider How High We Go in the Dark on its own merits, well, the verdict isn’t good. While this is by no means the worst novel I’ve read, it has been a while since I’ve been confronted with a novel that is so consistently and thoroughly mediocre. I will likely forget about ever having read this in a few days. Already I struggle to remember most of its stories (let alone its characters).
Even if I was tempted early on to DNF this, I kept on reading hoping that the next story/chapter would deliver something more substantial than its predecessor but no such thing happened. I guess I could say that it was ambitious? I mean, it doesn’t pull off what it’d set out to do but at least it had aimed high? Of course, as we know, if you aim too high you end up crashing down (a la Icarus).
Ugh, I’m really trying to think of some positives to say about How High We Go in the Dark but it seems that I have nothing good to say about it other than it has an ambitious premise (whether it actually delivers on its premise is up to debate…). I guess, I like the book cover…not sure if that counts as a ‘positive’…

So, to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect: How High We Go in the Dark takes place during and after 2030. A lot of the population is decimated by the Arctic plague which is unleashed onto the world after some scientists ‘stumble’ upon the thirty-thousand-year-old remains of a girl. Additionally to the plague climate/environmental disasters are causing further chaos. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story. While some characters, we learn, are connected, or even related, to each other, these stories ultimately fail to come truly together. By the end, what we have isn’t a tapestry but a series of samey fragments that don’t really succeed in bringing to life the characters or relationships they are supposedly focused on. Out of 14 stories only 4 are centred on female characters. If the characters we are reading of are shown to be in romantic and or sexual relationships, these will be painfully heteronormative ones. It seems that Nagamatsu’s vision of the future has no place for the gays, let alone for those who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth. That we get so few female voices also pissed me off. Like, come on, 4 out of 14?

Anyhow, the first two stories actually held some promise. In the first one, we follow a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, died while ‘unearthing’ of the thirty-thousand-year-old human remains. This father goes to Siberia to resume his daughter’s work. Here we hear the first echoes of the plague: after these remains are found the facility goes under quarantine. Like the majority of the stories in this novel, this first one is all about parents & their children. There is the dynamic between the narrator and his now-dead daughter as well as reflections on his daughter’s (non)parenting of his granddaughter.
The following one, ‘City of Laughter’, almost succeeds in being memorable but ends up falling similarly short. The central character is once again a bland and inoffensive man, just an average Joe who is only slightly interesting because of his job. This guy works at a euthanasia park. The plague initially affects children and those with vulnerable immune systems (i think? we never gain an entire picture of this plague so what do i know) so some governor proposes the construction of “an amusement park that could gently end children’s pain—roller coasters capable of lulling their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts”. The main guy falls in love with a woman who is there with her son. The juxtaposition between the amusement park setting and the true purpose of this ‘park’ does give this story an air of tragicomedy (at one point a distraught and grief-stricken parent hugs our protagonist who is wearing a furry animal costume).
The following stories are harder to set apart from each other. There is one with a scientist/lab-person who has lost his son to the plague. He ends up forming a father-son bond with a talking pig whose organs will be used to save/help those with the plague (once again, i don’t entirely remember because it wasn’t made very clear). You would think that the talking pig storyline would be far from boring but you’d be wrong. That this ‘son-figure’ is a pig is a mere gimmick. The pig could have been a monkey or a doll or a robot. I would have preferred for the pig to be more of a pig. This story has even the gall THE Pig movie (with the scientist telling the pig: ‘that’ll do’). Anyway, once again the author explores this, by now, rather tired parent-child dynamic: what does it mean to be a good parent? Do you protect your child from the harsh realities of their world? Maybe if he would have allowed for more subtlety in his storytelling and character interactions, maybe then I could have felt more connected to the parents and their children. But that wasn’t the case. The conflict is made so obvious, that there is little room for interpretation or even nuance.

We have a couple of stories where boring men fall for boring women and vice-versa (here the writing veers into the overwrought). Some do so online, but the author doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the VR experience. I mean, if anything, these VR-focused ones read like subpar Black Mirror episodes. Social media goes largely unmentioned…
We then have quite a few that go on about new funerary traditions because apparently so many people have died of the plague and cemeteries cannot contain so many bodies. Here Nagamatsu tries to be inventive but I found the idea of funeral hotels and funerary towers rather, eeh, underwhelming? Even that one chapter that follows a spaceship on its way to make a new Earth failed to be interesting. There are two chapters that try to subvert things: one is intentionally disorientating in that the narrator and some other people are someplace else, another one tries to tie things back to the 1st chapter, to give this novel an overarching story, but t it just came across as jarring.

I don’t understand why the author chose 2030 as his starting point. The future he envisions feels generic and wishy-washy. There are self-driving vehicles (i think?) planet earth is dying, and this plague is decimating the human race. How refreshing. Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction but the sci-fi & dystopian elements of How High We Go in the Dark felt tame, vanilla even. Been there, done that kind of thing. While Nagamatsu strives to achieve that quiet realism that characterizes the dystopian novels of authors such as Mandel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ling Ma, he misses the mark. Tone-wise too these stories seem lacking, especially if I were to compare them with the unsettling work of John Wyndham. In addition, the future he envisions pales in comparison to the ones you can find in the stories penned by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout my reading experience of How High We Go in the Dark I just kept being reminded of better speculative books & films.

Almost all of the narrators sounded exactly like the same dude. Which was odd given that these characters are meant to be at different stages of their lives. Additionally, it seemed sus that all of the characters used the same vocabulary, articulated themselves in identical ways, and they all shared a love for ‘vintage’ music (we have the Beatles, Patti Smith, The Strokes, Smashing Pumpkin, Siouxsie and the Banshees). The story is set in 2030. The characters are in their 20s, 30s, possibly early 40s. Yet, they all came across as belonging to the same generation. While I know that the whole idea of there being different generations is somewhat reductive, you can admit that people who are born in the same time ‘periods’ and in the same countries (the majority of the characters are Japanese American and live in America) share certain experiences/similarities. Here, none of the characters came across as believable older millennials or gen-zers. The popular media that is mentioned too was ‘old’. Why not then set your Artic Plague during the 90s or early 2000s something? It would have been made for a far more convincing setting. At least then the characters (from their worldview to their vernacular) would have not felt so out-of-place (come on, these guys do not sound like they are born in the 2000s).

The parent-child conflict that was at the heart of so many of these stories was cheesy af. We have a parent trying to connect to their child. The child is like, NERD. Okay, I’m joking but still, you get the gist. The children are grieving and confused, the parents are grieving and confused. Yet, what could have been a touching book about human connection reads like a parody, starring difficult children who wear headphones 24/7 and answer back because of teenage angst, and emotionally repressed parents who happen to be scientists and because of this, they are cold and clinical. On that note, there is one character who is not a scientist and is in fact ‘an artist’ and her art was beyond ridiculous (it gave me the impression that the person who had created said character had only a vague and clichéd idea of the kind of person that goes on to become a painter).
This book is full of grieving people, which should elicit some sort of reaction from me but nada. Nothing. My uncle and grandfather died respectively in November and December. I was unable to attend one of the funerals due to travel restrictions. The other died soon after testing positive for covid. Surely a book about losing your loved ones to a pandemic should hit close to home….except that it didn’t. I felt at a remove from the characters who were often defined by their job and or whether they had children.

The world-building, as mentioned above, was full of lacunae. Some of the gaps in the world-building seemed intentional as if to provide us with too much information on the plague and the state of the world during and after it would take away from the ‘human’ relationships and the existential quandaries experienced by the characters….but still, I could not envision this future nor could I bring myself to believe in it. One of the stories seems to suggest a lack of resources but later on, this doesn’t seem the case. I also found it hard to believe that the relatives of those who could easily be seen as culpable of this whole plague (the wife and granddaughter of that first scientist) would be allowed to go off to Earth 2.0 (as far as i can recall of course, maybe the narrative does address this…).

Choppy and repetitive, How High We Go in the Dark is a rather subpar novel. I would have almost preferred it if had just been your bog-standard speculative fiction book but no, this one aims higher and it shows (not in a good way). The dystopian elements are gimmicky and given our current pandemic…derivative (apparently the author wrote this before covid but i am reading it now so..).
The writing vacillated from decent to unintentionally hilarious to plain bad (“Aki still avoided speaking to me when he could avoid it.”…this book had an editor? really?!). We get a few clumsy attempts at the 2nd person which were…the less said about them the better actually. Nagamatsu’s prose was not my cup of tea.

This was not the genre-bending novel I was hoping for. The supposedly interwoven storylines did not feel particularly ‘interwoven’. There are characters who are mentioned in more than one chapter, or we read of someone who is close to a character we previously encountered but that’s about it. These chapters and characters failed to come together in any meaningful way.

Anyway, just because I thought this was an exceedingly bland affair does not mean in any way that you will feel the same way. If you loved this, I am happy for you. At least one of us was able to enjoy this book.
If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.



View all my reviews

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Earlier this year I read and loved Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control, which is a truly wonderful novella. Because of this, I was looking forward to Noor as I’m a fan of Okorafor’s take on Africanfuturism and of the way she seamlessly fuses folkloresque fantasy elements with sci-fi ones. While Noor certainly delivers on the Africanfuturism front, pairing this with a commentary on biotechnology, on humanity, and on the realities of being ‘other’, its plot and characters, to my disappointment, struck me as extremely derivative. A bare-bones version of Noor would go like this: we have a dystopian setting where the evil capitalist government is after the heroine who is not like other people and has special powers & her man who is also persona non grata and they eventually join a group of rebels where she comes across ex-lover before final ‘battle’ with the baddies. Anwuli Okwudili, who goes by AO, initials that stand for Artificial Organism, lives in a dystopian Nigeria. She was born with various physical disabilities which were later aggravated by a car accident. To her parents and her society’s disapproval, she goes on to have many body augmentations which enable her to be mobile and pain-free for the first time in her life. The opening sequence is rather clumsily executed as we are given vague descriptions about AO’s world (just how far in the future is it?). After splitting up with her partner who is openly repulsed by her ‘machine’ parts (why were they even together in the first place? she already had augmentations by the time they met, and all of a sudden he’s disgusted by her?) she goes to her local market where she’s attacked. AO is forced to flee and comes across DNA, a Fulani herdsman who is at first quite hostile to her (i’m pretty sure he threatens her…how romantic). The two have to survive the desert together and come across very few other characters, and if they do, it just so happens that those characters are just there to play the role of plot devices to further their story. The narrative allegedly takes place over a week but to be entirely honest the passage of time is rather unclear. It seemed to me that the events that transpire within these pages could have all happened in 1 or 2 days. AO and DNA’s bond felt forced and eye-rolling. They just have to fall in love because she’s a woman and he’s a man and they are both on the run from the evil government. While the first half of the novel is rather vague in terms of worldbuilding we, later on, get a ton of exposition that leaves very little room for interpretation (this is something i would expect from a ya novel, not an adult one). Noor has the trappings of a generic dystopian novel. What ‘saves’ this from being an entirely forgettable and uninspired read are the setting and the overall aesthetic which blends together folklore and technology. Okorafor also adopts the story-within-a-story device which works in her novel’s favour. I just found AO to be hard-to-like and at one point there is a scene about choosing your name which just didn’t go down that well with me (that this novel lacks lgbtq+ characters made it even worse tbh). AO’s ideologies were kind of murky and incongruent so that I found it hard to relate to her. The final section introduces a few more characters who are given very little room to shine as they are sidelined in favour of AO and DNA.
All in all, Noor was disappointing, especially considering how much I loved Remote Control. Ao is no Sankofa and in spite of the longer format, well, here the extra pages do more harm than good (they don’t expand the world or flesh out the characters but end up being about a weird romance and a final act that gave me major martyr vibes ).

my rating: ★★½

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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I’ve read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, ‘concubines’, often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good’, an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine’ Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow’ she’s paired with Li Shimin, ‘Iron Demon’, a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy’ feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis’ axiom’s end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA’ tone to them that didn’t really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian’s inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what’s happening? how did i get here? who am i?” “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?” ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters’ surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on…we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me…the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as…I don’t know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian…I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be ‘physically strong’ but they are certainly intelligent)…but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting…also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend).

There are a few other things that I didn’t like but I won’t go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I’m sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you give it a shot regardless of my review because I’ve been known to have shitty opinions (some people on this wonderful site have called me a ‘hater’, ‘dumb’, and ‘illiterate’, so do read my reviews with a pinch of salt).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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The Rock Eaters: Stories by Brenda Peynado

The Rock Eaters: Stories will probably appeal to fans of macabre tales, such as the ones authored by Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and possibly even Yōko Ogawa. This collection of speculative short stories is a highly metaphorical one. Brenda Peynado uses magical realism, aliens, dystopian and fantastic scenarios, to discuss immigration, xenophobia, and class disparity. While I appreciated the issues Peynado tackles within her narratives these stories seemed often allegorical to the point of distraction. Much of the imagery was repetitive and the grotesque elements embedded within these narratives came across as unnecessarily garish and sensationalistic.

Peynado’s fabulist tales are certainly more successful than those stories that venture into the sci-fi/dystopian realm; they either read like knock-off Black Mirror episodes or as incredibly derivative of other works. There is one story, in particular, that seemed to rip off Memory Police, and another one—starring aliens being persecuted and oppressed—seemed a bit too reminiscent of films such as District 9.
While the author certainly plays around with different genres the tone and style of these stories weren’t all that varied. They are incredibly depressing and negative. The characters blur together, seeming to share the same kind of generic personality. The author often uses a choral perspective, ‘we/us’, and this struck me as the classic stylistic device used in creative writing classes (‘experiment’ with ‘perspective’ and all that). It just didn’t work for me. I also found that these stories didn’t have much to say about anything other than underlining how crap everything is. There seems to be not one ray of hope within these tales. The lack of lgbtq+ characters also seemed a bit annoying (one story has a same-sex relationship). I also did not care for the way in which these tales handle mental health and diseases (that one where people fall asleep for years, or the one with the wife in a come).
I can think of many other books that discuss similar topics with much more depth (The Undocumented Americans, works by Patricia Engel and Edwidge Danticat). In this collection, the author seems to sacrifice character and story development to style. This may indeed work for other readers but it did zilch for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

This was me during the majority of this novel:



Packed with science and humor Project Hail Mary makes for a thoroughly entertaining high-stakes interstellar adventure. I’ve never read anything by this author nor have I watched the film adaptation of The Martian…the reason why is because I thought I would find them boring (yeah yeah, boohoo away). So imagine my surprise when I found myself immediately captivated by Project Hail Mary. One of the novel’s strengths lies in fact in its narrator and protagonist, Ryland Grace. He wakes up on an empty spaceship, with two dead bodies and no memory of who he is and how he got there. As he pieces together the puzzle of his identity he recalls the purpose of his mission: to save humanity (easy peasy right?).
Interspersed throughout the narrative are flashbacks that provide a backstory to Grace and the various stages preceding ‘project hail mary’.
In space, Grace faces a seemingly never-ending series of life-or-death hurdles. But, lucky for him, he may not have to do so alone. What follows is a clever and heart-warming storyline about survival (what one is willing to do for the ‘greater good’) and friendship. Speaking of, my favourite aspect of this story was the friendship between Grace and Rocky.
The narrative is chock-full of science & maths & other stuff that went way way way over my head. To be honest, after the ‘what’s 2+2’ question that occurs in the first few pages, well, I was lost (i am not joking). Still, through Grace’s narration, Andy Weir manages to make all these complicated facts, theories, and scientific terms far from boring. Grace’s enthusiasm for science is catching so I found myself just rolling with whatever he was saying or whatever was happing. Something that I could follow more easily was the language aspect of the story, which I found very ingenious.
I usually would give more details about the story but here one of the narrative’s biggest appeals is that we don’t really know what is going on so I advice prospective readers not to read too much about its plot.
Overall this was a highly enjoyable read. The humor, the ideas, the bond between Grace and Rocky, well, they make Project Hail Mary a book worth reading.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki

Perhaps I should be more lenient towards these stories as they were written in the 1970s but alas I did find them rather dated.
Most of these stories are set in near-futures. The first portrays an all-female society in which men are seen as less than human. Other stories present readers with different shades of bleak realities in which characters struggle or refuse to assimilate with their less than perfect ‘utopias’. These stories have a surreal quality to them, one that did bring to mind Kafka, but more often than not they were a tad on the nose. They were very counterculture, almost predictably so. While there was the odd moment of humor here and there (such as a talking chair or a character proclaiming that they are done with gender) these stories tried too hard to be grungy.
Everyone seems to be alienated or in the midst of an existential crisis and their observations and reflections struck me as mere navel-gazing (things on the lines of ‘what is the point in life?’).

Lastly, here feel free to call me ‘woke’ or whatnot, I did not care for the way masculine women were described. While I appreciate that many of the women in these stories expressed a certain dissatisfaction towards rigid gender binaries and heteronormativity, I was not a fan of how women who exhibit behavioural and physical traits that are traditionally associated with men are described as disgusting and or as abject. In the first story, the protagonist critiques the fact that her all-female queer utopia draws on male/female patriarchal dynamics (so that within f/f couples one woman takes on a traditionally ‘male’ role, while the other one takes ‘female’ roles) which I did at first sort of appreciate but then she goes on to slag off women who appear more masculine (she is repulsed by the sight of a woman with facial hair or by the idea of a woman taking male hormones to be more masculine).

Maybe these stories will appeal more to those who feel some sort of nostalgia for the 1970s counterculture but I for one found them too dusty for my liking. The author’s storytelling is dry, the dialogues are repetitive, and the ideas/scenarios explored by each narrative came across as samey and unimaginative.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

 

 

 

The cover for this book is goals…its contents not so much. I found this novel to be an odd melange of confusing and simple. The characters came across as flat (little more than names on a page), the world-building, although at first promising, ultimately struck me as patchy, and the storyline and twists were just not up my street. Still, I know that quite a lot of people are looking forward to this novel so I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive reviews, as this may as well be one of those ‘it’s not it’s me’ cases.

The novel follows two sisters, the older one, Cee, has been stranded on an island for the past three years, while the younger one, Kasey, lives in one of the few existing eco-cities and is trying to make sense of Cee’s disappearance. Climate and environmental disasters have made eco-cities refuges for humanity. Of course, not everyone is allowed entrance in eco-cities, and in spite of their utopian promises, eco-cities’ such as Kasey’s are incredibly classists (people are ‘ranked, the cities themselves have stratified structure and those who live in the lower stratums lead less privileged lifestyles than those on ‘top’). Although much of Kasey and Cee’s world remains largely unexplored we do get some details about life in their eco-city. For example, we learn that ‘holoing’ is a green alternative which allows the citizens of the eco-city to conduct ‘nonessential activities’ in the holographic mode. There is also Intraface which allows its users to capture their memories as well as apps which can ‘adjust’ a person’s serotonin levels. Kasey, who is a very logical person and who makes sense of the world around her through a scientific lens, finds herself, somewhat uncharacteristically one could say, trying to find what happened to her sister, even if she’s convinced that Cee is dead.
Meanwhile, Cee has been trying to leave the island she woke up on. She desperately wants to be reunited with Kasey, and is prepared to risk her life in her attempt to build a raft/boat that will allow her to set forth into the ocean. Cee recollects very little about her former life and seems to have entirely forgotten about the existence of the eco-city or the rest of the world. All she knows is that she has to find her sister.

Here are the problems that I had with this novel (minor-spoilers below):

→the writing itself. Cee’s sections are narrated in the 1st person, Kasey’s in the 3rd. Something switching between perspectives can enhance a story (as with Red at the Bone, Everything Here is Beautiful, The Travelers, or anything by N. K. Jemisin), but, more often than not, is unnecessary. Kasey remains remote, which is perhaps intentional, after all, the author goes above and beyond in order to emphasise how ‘cold’ and ‘detached’ and ‘Not Like Other People’ she is (it seemed weird that the possibility of her being neurodivergent was never raised or discussed considering how technologically advanced these eco-cities are—for example, if someone feels upset they can locate the source of that feeling, be it a memory or whatnot). Yet, on the other hand, being in Cee’s head didn’t do all that much for her character either. She doesn’t know a lot, her inner monologue consists mostly of what she observes (the island, the ocean, the rocks, the sand, her shack, her robot helper). When the boy arrives her mind is mostly occupied with thoughts of him. Cee’s sections also included some really purply phrases (her thoughts ‘jellify’, she feels the ‘muchness’ and ‘littleness’). Although the writing was for the most part okay, there were a few too many clichéd phrases (“Sometimes [she] felt like a stranger in her own skin”, “[she] did not belong–here or anywhere”) and even the dialogues were full of platitudes and done to death lines such as “What could we achieve, if we worked together?”
→the world-building left too much unexplored. There was so much that did not make sense or did not convince me and yet, I was supposed to just buy into it? The few half-delivered explanations we get did little in terms of answering my questions or making sense.
→the characters….Cee and Kasey are the classic YA sisters. One is attractive, charming, everyone loves her. The other is quiet, logical, not driven by her feelings but by FACTS, and she just does not ‘fit in’. I felt nothing for them, which sounds harsh, but it is the truth. They were painfully one-dimensional, and, the longer I read, the less I believed in them. Not only is this kind of dynamic old but I just did not feel that Kasey and Cee’s relationship was particularly nuanced. They also seemed to have no thoughts about their childhood, their parents (the dad is meant to be this powerful big guy but because he is 99% of the time off-page…well, he was pretty superfluous).
→insta-love, of the worst kind. The whole love storyline did not work for me. There are some dodgy scenes that would have definitely not been included if we were to reverse the characters’ genders (and I was not a fan of those scenes).
→plot…it has its twists, I will give it that. But I just could not bring myself to believe in Kasey’s arc (that they would just let her do what she wanted).
→the themes had potential but He sacrifices potentially interesting conversations/scenes that touch upon ethics & morality in favour of drama.

Sadly, the novel had very little to offer me. By the end of the novel (around the 80% mark) I was so bored and irritated by what I was reading that I ended up skim-reading the rest. There were too many lacunae (in both the world-building and storyline) and I never felt engaged by the characters or the author’s style. I was hoping for something more compelling, and yes, the comparison to Ghibli definitely feels misleading.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

 

“Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource. Loyalty might be. For longer.”

With A Desolation Called Peace Arkady has achieved something quite rare in a sequel. In fact, I liked A Desolation Called Peace so much so that, when I looked back to my review for A Memory Called Empire, I found much of my criticism unfair. In my review, I describe AMCE as a case of ‘great concept, poor execution’ but now I wonder whether I just read it at the wrong time. All of this to say that for those worried that A Desolation Called Peace may suffer from ‘second book syndrome, I say, fear no more. A Desolation Called Peace was an exhilarating and wonderfully inventive read. Arkady’s world-building is phenomenal, the stakes are even higher than in AMCE, and we follow multiple characters, most of whom are plotting against one another. Political scheming abounds within these pages, each character has their agenda, no one is trustworthy or necessarily ‘likeable’. But I liked how bold Arkady is when it came to characterisation. She does not resort to easy ‘evil/good’ dichotomies and repeatedly challenges her characters’ ideas and views.
While much of AMCE was dedicated to introducing us to this world and learning of the Teixcalaanli Empire through Mahit’s Stationer eyes, A Desolation Called Peace provides a ‘first contact’ scenario. Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is fighting against a terrifying and unknown enemy, and requests the assistance of someone from the Information Ministry and it is Three Seagrass who takes on the job. Before making her way to the fleet Three Seagrass is reunited with Mahit who is not only struggling to reconcile herself with her imagos (of a young and old Yskandr) and who has more than one enemy at Lsel Station. Mahit’s linguistic skills make her an asset in this ‘first-contact’ situation so she finds herself tagging along with Three Seagrass. The narrative follows Three Seagrass and Mahit, and their feelings for each other, which are complicated by the fact that Three Seagrass views Stationers as ‘barbarians’, Nine Hibiscus, who not only has is engaged in a war against an unknown enemy but is aware that someone is conspiring against her, and 11-year-old Eight Antidote, who is a clone of His Brilliance the Emperor Six Direction and heir-apparent to the Sun-Spear Throne of Teixcalaan. Eleven years old, and is being pulled in different directions at court. I found each storyline to be deeply engaging and, to my surprise, I probably found Twenty Cicadas to be the most in The tension between the characters, who always seem to be assessing each other’s words and actions in an attempt to gauge their motivations and intentions, gives the narrative a fantastic edge.
Another central aspect of this novel is, of course, language. Arkady demonstrates incredible knowledge and originality when it comes to linguistics. The words her characters use have such nuance and meaning that it enhances any exchange they have (so we can just how much words matter in every discussion or conversation they have). Arkady incorporates many other interesting themes in her storylines: the fraught relationship between coloniser and colonised (which complicates any relationship Three Seagrass and Mahit may wish to have with one another), xenophobia (and, in some cases, its opposite), identity (especially with Mahit and Eight Antitode), memory, and ethics.
This novel certainly made me think, and re-think. Arkady has created a stunning world and her prose is as sharp as a knife (or dare I say, even badass?). As I wrote above, I liked this novel so much that it made me re-value my less than warm feelings towards its predecessor (something that happens…very rarely indeed). Perhaps this is because I started learning more about languages or maybe this time around I was able to connect with her story and characters because I read it at the ‘right’ time, but, in any case, I would definitely recommend this to fans of AMCE. The only thing I had trouble with is Teixcalaanli names (part is due to the fact that numbers come to me in my mother tongue and not in English). I read an arc that sadly did not come with a glossary and I had a hard time keeping their names straight. Ideally, I would also have liked to have re-read AMCE before sinking my teeth in A Desolation Called Peace. But, overall, this novel elevated my feelings towards this series and I actually look forward to re-reading it (and I hope that Arkady will write more!).

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Klara and the Sun presents its readers with a quiet yet touching meditation on life. In a similar fashion as Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into the speculative realm is deeply grounded in the mundane. Yet, in spite of its ordinary trappings, Klara and the Sun is a work that is brimming with ambiguities. Ishiguro excels at this type of narrative, ones in which ordinary scenes and interactions are interrupted by moments of unquiet. The near future of Klara and the Sun comes to us slowly, and even in the end, much of it remains unknown to us.
Our narrator Klara, an Artificial Friend, an android whose primary function is that of providing companionship to children. From the confines of her store, Klara has but a limited view of the outside world. Through the store window, she watches passersby, taking notice of their behaviors, appearances, the emotions they seem to manifest. Klara reveres the Sun, which every day provides her with ‘nourishment’.

Klara is purchased as an AF for Josie, a girl afflicted by an unnamed illness. In her new home, Klara learns more about people and their incongruities. Klara’s purpose is to be there for Josie, but, even she cannot seem to be of any help when it comes to Josie’s illness. Josie, who lives with her mother (who Klara refers to as ‘the mother’) and their somewhat brusque housekeeper (‘Melania housekeeper’). As time goes by, through Klara, we learn more about this near future. There are communities of post-employed, there are lifted and unlifted children, and both Josie and ‘the mother’ seem to have mysterious ‘plans’ up their sleeves.

Klara’s child-like narration belies her unsettling reality. From the way children treat their companions, to the lengths parents will go to provide their children with the best chance at succeeding in life, the world Klara witnesses is far from reassuring.
In spite of its domestic setting, which takes us from the kitchen to the living room, and with the occasional foray into the outside, Ishiguro explores questions of love, freedom, and memory. And, of course, humanity. What makes us human? What makes me, me?

Ishiguro provides no easy answers or solutions, depicting instead the different ways Klara and those around react to the same worries and fears. Klara is often a witness to crucial exchanges. Yet, her passive role does not mean that she is unable to understand a certain situation/conversation or the motivations and emotions of those involved.
The simplicity, one could even say purity, of her voice might annoy some readers, especially those who are looking for more complex or ambivalent narrators. Still, I grew quite fond of her, and there were many instances in which she struck me as more human than the actual humans.
One thing that I am unsure of is why Klara—who usually does not describe the physical appearance of others—noticed, in two different instances, that one of the people in her vicinity was Black. As far as I can remember, she does not comment on anyone else’s race or ethnicity (we learn that Melania is European through her accented English and another mother making a comment about European housekeepers). Klara guesses Josie’s friend’s accent but only after talking to him. So why would an android who usually does not describe those around her as white or would notice that someone is Black? Was this Ishiguro pointing to this:
<a is="" href="https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/08/rise-of-the-racist-robots-how-ai-is-learning-all-our-worst-impulses
? Or that Klara was designed after a white person or to have a white person’s perspective? Otherwise it just seems odd.

There were also certain plot points that felt a bit too neat, especially towards the end. And while I am always appreciative of Ishiguro’s prose, of his ability to capture ephemeral emotions and thoughts, of the ambiguous nature of his stories, I found myself wishing for more. Josie, alongside her mother and neighbors, never earned their way into my heart. That is to say, I felt at a distance from them. The tension between them was certainly palpable and well rendered but, ultimately, I found them somewhat dull.
Although I wasn’t blown away by this novel I did overall enjoy it. Klara is the novel’s star, and I found her to be a deeply compelling protagonist who challenged my notions of ‘human’.
Readers who prefer faster-paced narratives may want to give this one a large berth but if you were a fan of Never Let Me Go you might find this to be just as gripping (I, for one, finished in less than 24 hours).

re-read: ishiguro’s surreal realism is lulling indeed. some of the dialogues may sound slightly off but, given the dystopianesque setting, i didn’t particularly mind. josie was annoying as fck, and i get that she’s sick however that doesn’t entirely exonerate her from her shtty behaviour. melania teetered on being rather stereotypical, and i am a bit tired of british/american authors (or authors who write in english) who throw into their story mix a character, often in the form of a brusque older woman, from an unspecified ‘eastern european’ country as a source of humor because their english is (supposedly) ‘funny’ and their un-english ways are (supposedly) just as ‘funny’.
this aside, i still found this to be a thought-provoking read that gives way to questions about human nature, freedom, and altruism. ishiguro also incorporates many discussions and scenarios about the difficulties of parenting and of being parented (with the children having often no choice in decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, or being kept in the dark about matters that directly concern them).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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