Thursday, January 25, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface is another literary blockbuster success written by R.F. Kuang, the author of the Hugo award-winning speculative fiction masterpiece Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (See my review) and The Poppy War trilogy. Yellowface won the Goodreads Choice award for Best Fiction in 2023, demonstrating Kuang’s widening appeal and increasing acclaim to the general public even before she has completed graduate school(!)

Yellowface is a story about writing, writers, and the never ending struggle between art and commerce. Kuang is especially skilled at selecting topics for her books that are likely to resonate with a significant segment of the book-reading (and book-buying) public. Babel is focused on the importance and nuance of words; etymological knowledge becomes a source of technological power through the application of fantastical magic. Unsurprisingly, the premise that the meaning and backgrounds of words themselves could be the central aspect of a plot was irresistible to many reader and literary critics alike.

In Yellowface, Kuang goes even further by centering the story around literary ambition itself, another thing that both readers and critics have in common. Many readers, and most (if not all?) critics have harbored secret thoughts of literary success. Another key ingredient of Yellowface is its self-conception as an expose, an insider’s view of the book industry itself. This is, of course, another subject that both readers and critics would find irresistible to consume. Yellowface is about two friends/colleagues/rivals who have a lot of similarities, but whose level of success and career trajectories (when we meet them at the beginning of the book) are very dissimilar. Juniper (June) Song is the primary protagonist  whose first-person perspective we get throughout the novel while Athena Liu is her frenemy (friend/enemy) who seems to effortlessly outshine June in every way that matters. Athena and June are both young authors who have written and published their first books, to wildly different responses from the public. Athena and June attended the same prestigious college, and ran in similar circles since they had similar interests and ambitions (literary success). However, Athena published her first novel while still in college, obtaining a prestigious literary agent and book deal. June also finished her first book in college and got an agent (and far less lucrative) book deal. 

Yellowface’s most important moment happens quite early in the book. While Athena and June are socializing (in Athena’s fabulous apartment in Washington, DC), celebrating Athena’s completion of her latest novel when Athena chokes and dies in a freak accident. (The incident is told from June’s perspective and makes it somewhat ambiguous whether June could have been more active in trying to save her “friend.” What happens next is not in doubt, however. June takes the only existing copy of Athena’s completed manuscript home with her. After a few days she takes it out and starts to edit it and check and augment the historical details included in the book. Athena’s novel was a surprising departure from her previous work; it’s a historical novel, about a little-known incident from World War I involving Chinese laborers. There’s also an interracial love story. Eventually, June decides to submit the work to her usually unenthusiastic agent, passing it off as her own. Of course, everyone loves the book, even though they are somewhat surprised that June could (and would) write something like this. June is white, and Athena is Asian-American, so questions of authenticity become raised almost immediately, internally within June’s literary agency and externally from fellow writers who knew both Athena and June, some who are still reeling over the sudden tragic death of Athena, and are extremely suspicious of June’s bona fides to publish a book about this topic.

However, what happens next is something of a slow-moving horror story. As the book becomes more and more successful, scrutiny about the provenance of the work is also heightened. Kuang skillfully shows how social media and word-of-mouth (i.e. gossip) operate within literary circles, especially in her depictions of the sometimes cozy and somewhat incestuous relationship between authors, critics, publishers, promoters and bookstores.

The ending of Yellowface is somewhat anticlimactic. Unsurprisingly, as the tension of the plot ratchets up higher and higher eventually something breaks, but in a way that is not as compelling as the setup of the story. Overall my impression of the book are generally positive but I definitely would not have voted for it as the best fiction book of 2023. Regardless, it’s clear that Kuang is an author on the rise, and I look forward to reading her future work.

Title: Yellowface.
Author: R.F. Kuang.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher: William Morrow.
Date Published: May 25, 2023.
Date Read: November 9, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/B (3.16/4.0).


Sunday, December 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Holly by Stephen King

Holly is another entry by Stephen King into the universe in which the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) was set, although this time Holly Gibney is the primary character. Gibney is also featured  in The Outsider  and one of the four novellas that make up the 2020 collection If It Bleeds.  Even though I am not a fan of the horror genre or supernatural stories in general, I now consider myself a fan of King’s. In the last few years I have read and reviewed Fairy Tale (2023), Billy Summers (2022) and The Institute (2020) I appreciate what an amazing storyteller he is. Even so, I generally restrict myself to his non-supernatural fare, which I enjoy tremendously, and Holly is no exception.

The Bill Hodges trilogy were some of the first books by King that I read, primarily because they are in the mystery/detective/thriller genre. They feature Bill Hodges as a former cop who opens his own private detective agency (called Finders Keepers) and features Holly as his shy but capable assistant who becomes his partner as well as Jerome Robinson, a computer savvy Black teenager who does odd jobs for Bill.  Although Bill was the main character of the series, my favorites were always Jerome and Holly and I hoped that King would return to them in future work, which he has done with the publication of Holly.

Holly is the main character in Holly, which is set in July 2021 smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump era. Holly is mourning the death of her mom (due to COVID after refusing to get vaccinated) when she gets a call at the detective agency from a mother panicked about the disappearance of her adult daughter, Bonnie Dahl, who worked at the library of the local small college in town. Holly, who King himself has described as “obsessive compulsive with a huge inferiority complex,” is very careful about getting COVID and a fair amount of her internal monologue is about masking and her interactions with folks around her and their thoughts about COVID and Trump. This makes Holly a “political book” in the sense that  King (through Holly as his avatar) makes his thoughts about his views on these topics very clear. (Since I share these views I didn't find this aspect distracting or problematic.)

Some reviewers of  Holly question King’s choice to begin a detective mystery novel by revealing that the culprits are a pair of murderous, cannibalistic, septuagenarian professors, Rodney and Ellen Harris, who select their victims from the itinerant human flotsam available to them in the wake of a small town dominated by a prestigious college. But the detective story where the reader knows who did it from the beginning and the suspense is sourced in how and when (not really whether) the protagonist will figure it out (and stop the criminal before they crime again) is a tried and true trope of the genre. (Val McDermid is a Master at this form.) Here, I think this story structure works quite well, and especially when the reader gets first-person perspective from more than one character who is caught in the devilish flytrap of the Professors Harris.

An interesting feature of Holly is that it features not one but two subplots about young writers who are both experiencing their first successful encounters with the publishing industry. King often writes about writers in his books and his enthusiasm for this aspect of the story was palpable.

A surprising feature of Holly is that it features absolutely no supernatural phenomena. The Harrises have a reason for why they are periodically enticing, trapping, and culling people and it is because they believe that eating the human flesh of people significantly younger than they are will improve their health. For a significant fraction of the book King makes it appear as if they may be right, since they do appear to be experiencing  some relief, perhaps supernatural in nature, from their multiple health ailments not unfamiliar to people as old as the Harrises (mind-numbingly painful sciatica for her, and the numbing of the mind of dementia for him). But in the end King (again via his avatar Holly) points out that the bad guys’ evil, false beliefs are trumped [sic] by science: they were experiencing the placebo effect, completely dismantling any imagined rationale they could have posited to justify their murderous actions of killing and eating their neighbors. To me it is clear that King is trying to demonstrate that fact-based reality can be used to explain that people who do awful things (like deny the reality of COVID and the effectiveness of vaccines or vote for Trump or kill and eat fellow humans) are really doing it because they are awful people, despite what they tell themselves the reasons for doing these things are.

Title: Holly
Author: Stephen King.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 464 pages.
Publisher: Scribner.
Date Published: September 5, 2023.
Date Read: December 10, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Sunday, November 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Babel, Or The Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang

Babel is the bestselling fantasy novel by R.F. Kuang, the author of The Poppy War trilogy. Babel won the 2023 Nebula award for Best Novel and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It is set in alternate version of 1828 Great Britain where the country is the greatest Colonial power in the world (similar to our timeline) but the difference in Babel is the reason that Britain leads the world is the ability to manipulate silver using magic to produce technological wonders.

In the Babel timeline silver is the most important commodity in the world, and the knowledge of how to exploit silver to produce useful devices and effects is the most important technology in the world. This “technology” involves exploiting the differences in interpretation between meanings of words in two different languages. Kuang has crafted one of the most astonishing and creative magic systems ever deployed in epic fantasy, while also cleverly designing something that would appeal to book lovers and word enthusiasts everywhere. The Tower of Babel, located on the campus of Oxford, houses the Institute of Translation where academics with linguistic knowledge can try to find word pairs in different languages that produce magical, beneficial effects in the real world. Because Babel is in England, the United Kingdom is able to leverage their monopoly over this knowledge to dominate the globe economically, militarily, and culturally.

The story of Babel is told through and by following the fortunes of four teenage students who have been accepted to and attend Oxford’s Institute of Translation. In this way, the story becomes a familiar tale of students navigating their way through a complicated and unfamiliar/familiar academic system (e.g., the Harry Potter series, Ender’s Game, the author’s own The Poppy War, etc) and young people maturing and experiencing different aspects of life for the first time (many, many coming of age novels, like The Wise Man’s Fear).

In an interesting twist, the four protagonists of the novel are all members of groups that are marginalized in the time Babel is set in. They are Robin, an orphaned Chinese boy who is brought to England from Shanghai by an Oxford professor, Ramy, a Muslim boy from Calcutta; Victoire, a Creole-Haitian girl and Letty, a British girl who applies to Oxford after her older brother is killed in a freak horse and buggy accident in his second year at the University. Kuang expertly uses the identities of the four main characters to reveal, highlight, and dramatize the various ways oppression and power can interact with race, gender, class, and national origin. This is an extremely important and effective aspect of the book; it is thrilling to see these topics depicted (especially so well and in such a nuanced fashion) in an award-winning, best-selling novel of speculative fiction.

For example, the girls in the group, Victoire and Letty, are forced to live nearly two miles away from Oxford because there are no student residences that are “suitable” for unmarried women. Of course, it is considered completely impossible for female and male students to live in the same building, even if they each had their own quarters with locked doors. Even in the lodging that they were able to find the girls are subject to suspicion about their “propriety” and are expected to do some fraction of the cooking and cleaning, even though they are paying rent. Additionally, female students are so rare at Oxford that some of the professors refuse to interact with them, pretending not to hear them or see their raised hands in class. When in the Oxford library, the girls need to be accompanied by one of their male student colleagues at all times in order to use the study areas and access the reading materials found there.

However, while Robin and Ramy have male privilege that affords them the ability to be viewed as “proper” Oxford students in most academic settings that matter, their class, religious, and racial identities cause them to suffer a whole host of indignities on and off campus. Ramy, being a dark-skinned South Asian man, is regularly rejected admission to cafes and eateries when he attempts to enter on his own; he is only grudgingly allowed to socialize with his peers when accompanied by Robin or Letty who are ostensibly white. This is a curious situation, because Robin is Chinese, and really only appears white from a distance, so it is merely the unfocused blurry image of an all-white space that the proprietors are trying to maintain. In fact, Robin is the character the reader spends the most time with  and we get to see the many ways his foreignness and assumed inability to assimilate as an Asian man of Chinese descent leads to multiple awkward social interactions with Oxford students, faculty and townspeople.

The central dramatic tension in the novel is the question of how our quartet of outsiders will handle the contradictions of being members of marginalized groups who have been granted access to the most elite halls of power and sources of knowledge that the Oxford Institution of Translation represents. They are expected to use this power and knowledge to assist Britain in maintaining hegemonic control over their countries of origin, or at the very least, over other people who belong to the marginalized groups they belong to (Chinese nationals, Indian nationals, American nationals). It’s quite interesting the way that the important international conflicts are represented by the individual members of the central quartet of main characters.

Of course, the book is called Babel and the story's plot is centered around the act of translation between myriad languages, in a place that is literally an ivory tower. Kuang's riff on the story of the Tower of Babel is thrilling, but even though we know how the story must end, the path that Babel takes to get there is well worth the time invested.

Title: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.
R.F. Kuang .
Format: Kindle.
Length: 560 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyage.
Date Published: August 23, 2022.
Date Read: July 29, 2023.

★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (4.0/4.0).



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