Thursday, July 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Silent Wife (Will Trent, #10) by Karin Slaughter

The Silent Wife by Karin Slaughter is the tenth book in the Will Trent/Sara Linton series. These are best-selling crime thrillers set in the Atlanta metro area. Will Trent is a GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) agent and Sara Linton is a medical doctor who often works as a coroner/medical examiner consultant for the GBI. This is the sixteenth of Slaughter’s books that Sara has appeared in but for some reason neither of the Slaughter-written series have her name on them. Prior to the Will Trent series, Sara was one of the three main characters in the Grant County series which is set in a rural Georgia county that Sara is from and where her parents still live. That series revolved around a love/hate triangle of Sara, Lena Adams and Jeffrey Tolliver. Tolliver and Adams were police officers and Sara was the pediatrician in town who sometimes moonlighted as the Grant County medical examiner.

Slaughter is a master at suspense and her books are packed with gory, violent crimes (almost always against women) and include complicated situations that lead to moral dilemmas and heightened emotional tensions. She also does an excellent job of incorporating just enough romantic intrigue that even a gay skeptic like me is very interested and invested in the Will-Sara bond despite a profound disinterest in romance books generally.

In addition to Sara and Will, who by the 10th book in the series are in a serious (but often complicated) romantic relationship, the books feature Faith Mitchell, Will’s GBI partner (and one of Sara’s closest friends) and Amanda Wagner, GBI Deputy Director who is Faith and Will’s boss. Another important character in the series is Angie Polaski, Will’s manipulative ex-wife. Both Angie and Will were sexually, physically and emotionally abused as children and thus grew up in state-run group homes and foster care. It’s the resonant back stories of many of the supporting (and primary) characters that increases the salience of the books as the series gets longer and readers become more accustomed to the style and format.

The Silent Wife is an unusual read because it is told in two time frames, one of which is set in the Grant County series and the other is in the Will Trent series. It is the first time Slaughter has done this and for anyone who has read both series it is devastatingly effective. The ostensible reason for the parallel storytelling is that there’s a guy attacking, drugging, immobilizing, and sexually assaulting women in both time lines and it appears that must mean the person who was identified as the perpetrator (by Lena and Jeffrey) in the earlier time frame can’t be doing the later crimes (since that guy is still in prison). But really, it is clear that Slaughter still loves writing the Grant County characters and this was an opportunity to do so, especially in a way that makes life and love more complicated for Sara and Will. So, does this mean that the Grant County folks got the wrong guy back then and some rapist/murderer has been free to stalk and damage women this entire time? (Sadly, the answer is yes.)

As I’ve said before, almost all the time I read mysteries I never figure out who the perpetrator is. However, this time I had an early suspicion that turned out to be correct. But it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of The Silent Wife in any way. All it did is let me see how Slaughter leaves clues for the reader and it seemed to me that knowing whodunnit early in the book makes one even more invested in the crime fighters solving the case.

Overall, The Silent Wife was another strong entry in the Will Trent series. (There’s a reason Slaughter is a best-selling author: all of the books of hers that I have read have been of extremely high quality.) Happily, the author promises that she will be writing more books featuring Will and Sara, and I will look forward to reading them!

Title: The Silent Wife (Will Trent, #10).
Karin Slaughter.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 498 pages.
Publisher: William Morrow.
Date Published: September 10, 2021.
Date Read: July 17, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, July 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate, #3) by Megan O'Keefe

Catalyst Gate by Megan O’Keefe is the third book in The Protectorate trilogy, following Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector. The entire trilogy is an amazing, action-packed, space opera story featuring a diverse set of multifaceted characters that populate a complicated, engaging story that provokes thoughts about the nature of intelligent life, the possible future trajectories of human civilization and the emotional stakes of personal attachments.

The central characters in the Protectorate series are Biran Greeve and Sanda Greeve, brother and sister, who are both citizens of Prime, a galaxy-spanning human civilization. Sanda is in the military and is also the captain of one of the most amazing spaceships known to mankind, inhabited by an artificial intelligence named The Light of Berossus (more commonly known as Bero). Biran is a Keeper of Prime, which means that he contains a chip in his head which contains access to Prime’s greatest secret: the technology to the Gates which facilitate interstellar travel between various Prime star systems.

By the time we get to the third book in the series, Catalyst Gate, the plot has developed to a point where Sanda and Biran are in two very different places, both literally and figuratively. Biran has been named Speaker of Prime and is a member of the High Protectorate, a body akin to an Executive Committee of Keepers who run the government of Prime. In that capacity Biran is dealing with the aftermath of the discovery that Prime’s Casimir gates were not invented by the revered founder of Prime Inventive, Alexandra Halston, a few centuries before, but were basically reverse engineered from alien technology. Because of a flaw Halston made when she initially engineered the Casimir gates on their initial startup use the gates have been releasing deadly radiation into the star systems they facilitate human travel to, basically sterilizing them of all multi-cellular organisms, which explains why in hundreds of years humans have never encountered any other intelligent alien life. What’s a little weird (and frankly a little unbelievable) is that humans have not been finding any Earth-like planets either in the star systems that they have colonized to date. All of Prime’s citizens live below huge pressurized domes, generally on large asteroids or rocky, geologically stable planets which for some reason work best with the Gates. The entire subject of how the gates work and any science or technology associated with space travel in any way is highly classified and only Keepers are allowed to have any access to it. O’Keefe does an excellent job of depicting this and other cultural aspects of Prime society in convincing fashion. Her worldbuilding is on par with the very best in SFF.

Sanda, who is a Commander in the Prime military and due to the events in Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector has control of the most advanced ship in the known Universe. She and her crew, which consists of a motley but capable group of folks that are trying to locate Rainier Lavaux, the person responsible for a heinous and deadly biowarfare attack on Prime citizens who has openly stated her genocidal intentions towards humanity. Sanda’s crew includes Tomas Cepko, the double (or triple?) agent who loves her; Arden Wyke, the non-binary computer super-hacker; and Nox, an ex-soldier cum mercenary who used to date one of Sanda’s dads; Min Liao, a scientist/medical doctor who inadvertently helped Lavaux accomplish her attack; and two other people who help maintain the ship. If this seems like a large cast, it is. But O’Keefe skillfully deploys them and I never felt confused or overwhelmed.

O’Keefe’s writing has numerous strengths: she describes action well, and she also uses it to forward the plot effectively. Additionally, she does an exceptional job of incorporating diverse characteristics and identities into her characters which makes them interesting and relatable without being precious. The Protectorate trilogy is an excellent example of how she’s able to do all this while maintaining within the genre conventions of military space opera, which is quite an impressive feat. Although this series is complete and I am sad to not spend any more time with Sanda and Biran Greeve I am very curious and interested to read what O’Keefe will write in the future.

Title: Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate, #3).
Megan O'Keefe.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 544 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: June 22, 2021.
Date Read: July 1, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Thursday, July 08, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Poems that Solve Puzzles by Chris Bleakley

Poems that Solve Puzzles: The History and Science of Algorithms by Chris Bleakley is a book that is built around a stunning insight: that an algorithm, “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer,” (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2010) when written down as a step-by-step list of instructions can also be viewed as a poem. This interesting device is used multiple times as the author converts problem-solving into poetry for various scenarios. Bleakley says his book is intended for people who don’t “know what algorithms are, how they work, or where they come from” but this is a book that can (and should) also be enjoyed by people who regularly use algorithms. Additionally, if you believe that anyone who teaches and learns mathematics (or any subject, really) should be exposed to the historical context of the subject they are teaching and learning, then it is clear that anyone who teaches, learns. or uses algorithms will benefit from knowing more about the history of algorithms as presented in Poems that Solve Puzzles.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, there’s a fair amount of overlap between the history of algorithms and the history of mathematics. For example, the source of the word we know now in English as “algorithm” comes from the name Al-Khwārizmī which was later latinized as “algoritmi.”  People familiar with the history of mathematics may recognize ''Al-Khwārizmī'' since he is known as the author of the booal-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar  Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-uqābalah (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing), one of the most famous ancient mathematics texts written in Arabic from which the term “algebra” comes from.
Similar to the self-evident truth that the history of mathematics is too large and wide-ranging a subject to be encompassed comprehensively in one book, the history of algorithms is also a very extensive topic. In Poems that Solve PuzzlesBleakley addresses this problem by selecting for inclusion in the book just some of the most famous algorithms that the general public are most likely to have heard of or involve topics or buzzwords present in the zeitgeist of 2020. This is a reasonable choice to make in order to reduce the scope of a book on the history and science of algorithms to be more easily digestible, and a good one since it makes the book quite effective and affecting because the algorithms included in are thus more likely to be interesting to the casual reader.
This is not to say that everything in the book will be familiar to most readers. Even someone like myself who has taught multiple courses in the history of mathematics and conducts research in numerical analysis learned many fascinating nuggets of information about certain algorithms. In particular, I now have a much better understanding of the up-and-down (or up-and-down-and-up-and-down-and-up!) nature of the academic reputation of artificial intelligence after reading Chapter 11 (“Mimicking the Brain”), the longest chapter in this compact but engrossing volume.
Of course, considering the increasing prominence of networks and networking play in modern society, Poems that Solve Puzzles devotes considerable time to discussing the Internet, search engines and social media by recounting the history of how each of these phenomena developed along with describing the underlying algorithms involved at a level non-experts can understand.  Although there are no equations in the book which may have made the text more salient to more informed readers I view the efficacy of the book despite their absence an impressive feat of clear exposition by the author.
Overall, Poems that Solve Puzzles: The History and Science of Algorithms is an informative and entertaining book. It is appropriate for a wide swath of readers, from people who are interested in learning about what “blockchain” is without having to do any math to students and instructors in the mathematical sciences who need more examples of how these academic topics make important contributions to the technologically complex world we live in.

(This review was also published at MAA Reviews.)

Title: Poems that Solve Puzzles: The History and Science of Algorithms.
Chris Bleakley.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 320 pages.
Publisher: Oxford University Press.
Date Published: October 31, 2020.
Date Read: June 13, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Thursday, July 01, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Only The Innocent (DCI Tom Douglas, #1) by Rachel Abbott

Only The Innocent is my first book by Rachel Abbott and it’s a doozy of a psychological thriller. The main character is DCI Tom Douglas but the meat of the story is sourced in the sadomasochistic relationship between Laura Fletcher and Lord Hugo Fletcher. Lord Fletcher is murdered in the very first chapter and the rest of the book is about finding out whodunnit as well as why and how. The answers are riveting, repulsive and really surprising.

Only The Innocent is the first book in the "DCI Tom Douglas Thriller series" which would seem to indicate that it is a police procedural. And to some extent it is, with the main plot fueled by following DCI Tom Douglas as he tries to solve the case of who killed Lord Fletcher. But there's also no question that a significant fraction of the content of the book is centered around the internal thoughts of Laura Fletcher, in the form of letter she wrote to her best friend Imogen Dubois who was previously married to Laura's brother.

Lord Hugo Fletcher was a celebrity well-known for running a non-profit that combated sex trafficking of young women. Through Laura's letters we discover that the benevolent, patrician face Hugo shows to the world is very different from the face Laura saw when they were alone.

We slowly learn what a controlling person Hugo was (he took care of every single detail of their wedding, kept the location of their honeymoon a complete secret, claiming that he was doing this all for Laura's benefit). We also learn that he has some truly bizarre views about sexuality, although we don't get a full sense of the full extent of his depravity until near the end of the book.

For most of Only The Innocent, one reads the book with one's mouth agape in horror as the depths of Hugo's perfidy are slowly exposed through Laura's letters. In fact, this is where the book goes a bit off the rails because it's hard to believe that any sane person wouldn't figure out a way to flee the situation that Laura was in at the time. Instead she ends up being institutionalized (twice!) in the years before Hugo is eventually killed.

Another main theme of Only The Innocent is the inclusion of family drama. In addition to the marital strife between Hugo and Laura, we also find out more about Hugo's relationship with his previous wife (and mother of his young daughter, Alexa, who Laura dotes on). There are multiple years-long estrangements that are revealed as the story unspools: Imogen and Laura's brother Will, Imogen and Laura, and Hugo and his sister Beatrice.

Overall I enjoyed Only The Innocent and I was actually surprised by the identity of the perpetrator (although in hindsight it was really quite obvious who it had to be). We get good insight into how DCI Tom Douglas operates and I am definitely interested in spending more time with him and loo forward to reading the next book in the series The Back Road.

Title: Only The Innocent.
Rachel Abbott.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 459 pages.
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer.
Date Published: February 5, 2013.
Date Read: June 22, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ½☆ (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).


Thursday, June 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Heaven's River (Bobiverse, #4) by Dennis E. Taylor

Heaven's River is the fourth book in the Bobiverse series by Dennis E. Taylor. Bob is a self-aware machine intelligence formed from the downloaded mental state of Bob Johansson, a self-describe nerd who had the foresight to have his brain downloaded onto silicon before his very untimely death (literally while walking across the street) at the beginning of the first book, We Are Legion (We Are Bob). As the story has progressed in subsequent books, Bob has figured out to make multiple copies of himself. The rub is that there are slight differences in each copy which causes the new copies to have their own personalities. Eventually there are so many copies of Bob floating around that they inhabit a cyberspace they call the Bobiverse. Each "Bob" has their own name and personality and are essentially individual "siblings" of the original.

However, just because the Bobs are virtual doesn't mean that they can't impact "meatspace." The original Bob was an expert programmer and tinkerer and the Bobs have figured out how to control many computer systems and technologies. Bobs can operate drones and avatars in order to have physical experiences and sensations via sensors that simulate what Bob can see, smell, touch, feel, and taste.

The original Bob became the artificial intelligence of a probe sent in to far outer space to explore a signal that could signify an extraterrestrial intelligence. Many of the Bobs have exploration and munificence towards other intelligences as some of their core values and in the hundreds of years since the Bobs have been exploring they have found a few intelligent aliens, typically further behind in technological development than they are. The Bobs have generally helped the aliens as much as they can. 

One of the central features of the Bobiverse books are the references to "nerd" culture. There are many, many homages to Star Trek, especially due to the Bobiverse ethos of peaceful exploration of space and "doing no harm" to sentient species they discover in their journeys. It's not just Star Trek that the Bobiverse pokes fun at, however. There are often references to role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and more. It's a fun way of connecting with the reader.

The Bobiverse is close to the 24th generation of Bobs at the time of the events in Heaven's River so there are literally thousands of Bobs, and some of them are exhibiting unusual behavior. One of the central tensions of the book is how do you resolve irreconcilable differences, especially with someone who you assumed you were 90-percent-plus in agreement with due to shared DNA (or software). Some of the Bobs (called Star Fleet are promoting a version of the Prime Directive where they want all Bobs to stop interacting with alien species. It turns out they are willing to go farther than other Bobs would have expected to impose their will on other Bobs and this causes much consternation in the Bobiverse as a whole.

In Heaven's River one of the Bobs (named Denver--get it?) has gone missing and some of his fellow Bobs go looking for him. When they explore the volume of space he was last known to be in they discover a huge megastructure called a topopolis, which is basically an artificial world for an intelligent alien species called Quinlans. The topopolis is gigantic, a billion miles long along the central axis, producing several billion square miles of living surface. The aliens are sorta like large otters and the topopolis has six central tributaries of a central rover flowing in it, which is why they have named the structure Heaven's River. Bill and some other Bobfriends of his use remote control-operated virtual reality called a "manny" which allows the Bobs to interact with the Quinlans and experience everything in real time during their expedition.

Basically the story in Heaven's River is split between the developing rift among the Bobs and the search for Bender disguised as Quinlans on Heaven's River. We learn a lot about the engineering of the structure and Quinlan society. One big mystery is that the Quinlans clearly do not have advanced technology, but someone built (and maintains!) the topopolis, so who is that? The other source of narrative tension is whether Bill will find Bender before they are discovered by whomever (or whatever?) is running Heaven's River discovers that an alien intelligence has infiltrated this world it created for the Quinlans.

Although quite different from the first three Bobiverse books (and significantly longer, apparently it was originally written as two books that were combined into one) it is quite effective. Another interesting feature of the Bobiverse books has been the grappling with existential questions. Are artificial intelligences really "people"? Effectively, the Bobs are immortal, as long as they have power and raw materials to build with. (In the setting of the books 3-d printers have been invented which can replicate themselves and basically any other product one has designs for, so the limiting factor is literally heavy metals and minerals found on planets.) So, facing immortality, what should the Bobs do? What would you do if you woke up and found yourself "alive" (or at least sentient and self-aware as an artificial intelligence) a hundred years in the future, with the capacity to remain in that state forever? Overall, I would say that the Bobiverse books in general, and Heaven's River specifically combine humor, adventure and philosophy in ways that are quite compelling.

Title: Heaven's River.
Dennis E. Taylor.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 632 pages.
Publisher: Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency.
Date Published: September 24, 2020.
Date Read: June 6, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, June 17, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Network Effect (Murderbot Diaries, #5) by Martha Wells

Network Effect is the fifth entry and the first full-length novel in the wildly popular Murderbot series written by Martha Wells. It was nominated for multiple prestigious awards: Locus, Hugo, and Nebula. It recently won the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2020. In fact, it was this win that convinced me to read it. I read the first four novellas and although I thought they were mostly fun, I didn’t really understand what the ecstatic enthusiasm was about. Murderbot is a cyborg called a SecUnit who has powerful weapons and excessively violent capabilities combined with an extremely introverted (and borderline antisocial) personality. She has organic components (brain, I think) but is physically much stronger than a human or even an augmented human.

All SecUnits have a governor unit that is used to control them; it can be set to self-destruct at any time and thus SecUnits are generally compelled to do whatever their owner tells them to do. However, early in the first book Murderbot figures out how to hack its governor and becomes autonomous for the first time. The next few stories are centered around Murderbot’s search for meaning in a world where they can do what they want now, but where everyone else still thinks they are a violent, dangerous tool that can be used for nefarious means. Of course, it turns out that in the setting of the Murderbot storied there’s a large number of unscrupulous folks in a universe where capitalism has run amok and corporations have even more power and influence than they do today, while their operating principles have grown even more immoral.

My biggest problem with Murderbot in the earlier stories was that eventually it became clear that Murderbot itself didn’t care whether it lived or died as it was getting itself into incredibly dangerous situations. This was portrayed as an aspect of its dysfunctional mental and emotional state, but to me as a reader I wondered why I should care about Murderbot’s fate if it didn’t care about it either?

However by the time we get to the fifth entry in the series, Murderbot has begun to demonstrate that there are certain people and entities it cares about very much and the feelings are mutual. This made me care more about what happens to it (and the people and entities it cares about) in Network Effect.

The plot in Network Effect like in the other books, is insanely complicated. However you can really just follow along for the ride and not worry about whether the story makes sense. The more important and memorable aspects of any Murderbot story is really the vibe and emotional cadence of the book, as we experience the plot through Murderbot’s jaundiced and misanthropic “eyes.”

To me, there’s still something gimmicky about the entire Murderbot oeuvre but I do agree that’s there’s something compellingly readable about the Murderbot stories. It definitely takes substantial skill by the author to take a somewhat flimsy premise and produce stories that have become so popular and effective.

Title: Network Effect.
Martha Wells.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: May 5, 2020.
Date Read: June 14, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, June 03, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to the celebrated debut novelA Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. The first book was nominated for multiple prestigious awards: Locus, Hugo, Nebula ,Clarke and Goodreads. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2020.

Because of the acclaimed nature of the first book, the sequel was very much anticipated by many science fiction fans. Although I was less enamored of the first book than others, I also looked forward to reading the sequel and I was not disappointed.

The main character in the books is Mahit Dzmare, a diplomat for Lesl Station, which is a small space station located near a jump gate. The setting of the books is the Tleixcalaani Empire, which controls a vast number of planetary systems. Tleixcalaan is a galactic superpower with military, cultural, and financial hegemony. Mahit has been fascinated by all-things Tleixcalaan all her life, so her appointment as the Lesl Ambassador to Tleixcalaan is her dream job. In the first book, A Memory Called Empire, Mahit arrives on Tleixcalaan and immediately discovers that her predecessor had been murdered and finds herself in a complicated diplomatic and political maelstrom. She is helped in navigating the dangerous waters by a minor diplomatic functionary assigned to her named Three Seagrass and Three Seagrass’s friend Twelve Azalea. During the book Mahit interacts with people at the highest echelons of Tleixcalaan society, including the Emperor himself (Six Direction) and Nineteen Adze (one of a limited number of Imperial advisors who represent the Emperor and implement his wishes). Mahit uses her smarts and the efforts of her Tleixcalaan hosts to figure her way out of a complicated situation that maintains the sovereignty of Lesl Station and her own body integrity.

In the beginning of A Desolation Called Peace Mahit is back on Lesl Station and Three Seagrass is back on Tleixcalaan when news of incursions into imperial space by alien ships and a massacre of Tleixcalaan citizens on a remote industrial planet begins to roll in. Mahit is still recovering from brash decisions that she made while on Tleixcalaan and trying to re-acclimate herself to being “home” on Lesl when she is asked by Three Seagrass to go to a Tleixcalaan military vessel that is patrolling the sector of space where the aliens are active and may have received a signal from them that needs to be interpreted in order to make first contact. It’s basically an irresistible invitation to participate in a historic diplomatic first and of course Mahit says yes, although it is complicated to the unresolved status of her relationship with Three Seagrass.

The other main characters in A Desolation Called Peace are the commander of the Tleixcalaan fleet that has encountered the alien ships, Nine Hibiscus, and the 12-year-old “90%-clone” of the former Emperor, Eight Antidote.

In my opinion, one of the key failings of the first book was its focus on language (in particular poetry) and the depiction of the central political conflict as a process of sussing out the motives of the characters struggling for supremacy by parsing what they said (and left unsaid). That’s not to say that there wasn’t action in A Memory Called Empire, but the real meat of the story was often in the thoughts about the action. This “chatty” problem is mainly rectified in the sequel. I think there’s more action in A Desolation Called Peace and although there is still a fair amount of space devoted to characters thinking and talking about the action, the amount of time the book spends in character’s heads seems less prominent in the sequel.

The key themes in both books are culture, communication and compatibility. In A Desolation Called Peace the question is central to the plot because Nine Hibiscus (and Mahit and Three Seagrass) are trying to determine if it is possible to communicate with alien beings, and once they show that they can do so, how compatible they are.

Tleixcalaan culture is geared towards domination, never accommodation, but it is clear these aliens are at least as technologically sophisticated, so the question of compatibility becomes central to the plot. In the first book Mahit was the outsider treated like a barbarian by Tleixcalaan citizens while in the second book because the power differentials are undefined who will play which role in the interaction with the aliens is unclear.

In A Desolation Called Peace the reader spends a fair amount of time with Eight Antidote, who literally is the heir apparent to the Tleixcalaan Empire. Because of his age (and position) he becomes the vehicle the author uses to show the reader different aspects of Tleixcalaan culture and how contingent communication (and interpretation) are.

Mahit is still central to the resolution of the plot and is definitely still should be considered the main character in A Desolation Called Peace but I think it is a clear improvement over A Memory Called Empire that there are multiple other characters to carry the narrative thrust of the plot. I enjoyed this book more than the first. Right now it is not clear if the Tleixcalaan books are a duology or a trilogy, but I would definitely love to read a third book featuring Mahit having further adventures in Tleixcalaan space!

Title: A Desolation Called Peace (Tleixcalaan, #2).
Arkady Martine.
Format: Electronic (CloudLibrary).
Length: 496 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: March 2, 2021.
Date Read: May 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, May 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu is the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The book is a short, clever exposition on stereotypical media portrayals of Asian-Americans. It uses the narrative conceit of appearing to be a screenplay of a television show that features Willis Wu as a “Generic Asian Man” who is trying to be cast as the ultimate character for an Asian male: “Kung Fu Guy.” But generally Willis only gets roles like “Background Oriental Male" and “Delivery Guy.“ Willis lives in a SRO tenement with a number of other Asian-Americans which has a Chinese restaurant on the first floor named Golden Palace Restaurant.

One of the central bits of Interior Chinatown is the depiction of a television show called Black and White. This is a stereotypical cop show featuring a Black man (named Miles Turner) and a white woman (named Sarah Green) who are police partners who solve crimes. Miles is very muscular, handsome, but curiously bigoted towards Asians and is the “bad cop” while Green is also very attractive, statuesque and is the “good cop.” Yu uses the trope of the buddy cop show to highlight other familiar stereotypes (about cop shows, Black people, women cops and many more). Willis eventually gets a role on the show where he has to speak in a broken-English accent and do a bunch of kung fu before he gets shot and killed in the main dining room of the Golden Palace Restaurant. This then makes Willis subject to the rule that he can’t appear on TV for another 45 days.

Without the ability to appear on TV, Willis’ story switches focus to his private life. Here Interior Chinatown begins to lose its way by sticking to the screenplay format even though now we are following the "real" story of the actor Willis Wu who had appeared on the fiction show Black and White. The “show” the book/script is now following becomes a family drama as Willis dates a pretty biracial actress named Karen Lee whom he met on the set of Black and White (in the episode in which his character died). Karen and Willis get married and have a little girl named Phoebe. But they do not live happily ever after because Willis is obsessed with being cast as Kung Fu Guy and even when Karen gets the opportunity to be the lead of her own show instead of being happy for her, Willis is resentful. So then he finds himself playing the role of Part-time Dad to his daughter.

Eventually Willis does become Kung Fu Guy but he realizes it’s a role that he’s not suited for and storms off the set. Bizarrely, Turner and Green show up and arrest him for being responsible for his own disappearance. He’s put on trial and his lawyer is Older Brother, who makes an impassioned argument that Willis has an inferiority complex because of all the examples of anti-Asian policies and practices in American law and culture which have oppressed people who look like him. 

One of the central ideas of the book is that there are multiple levels of “fictionality” occurring in the story simultaneously. The story Interior Chinatown is telling is always in the form of a screenplay, even when the focus switches from the fictional cop show, to the "real" family drama of the actor Willis Wu to the courtroom drama of his disappearance. It is very clever writing and allows the author to communicate multiple messages simultaneously but instead of working on more than one level, for me the book ceases to be an enjoyable one. That being said, like a screenplay, it is a very quick read. There’s a lot of white space and it’s well under 250 pages. Despite being short, Interior Chinatown is definitely not a lightweight book, even though its format would tend to send that message. Although ultimately the book didn’t “work” for me, I am glad that I read it and I do agree that the topic of anti-Asian sentiment and stereotypical portrayal of racial and ethnic minorities in the media is an important topic that the book dramatized in effective fashion. I just think Yu tried to do to much at once, and thus blunted his own overall impact.

Title: Interior Chinatown.
Charles Yu.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 273 pages.
Publisher: Pantheon Books.
Date Published: January 28, 2020.
Date Read: April 23, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★☆☆  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B  (3.0/4.0).


Thursday, May 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Fires of Vengeance (Burning, #2) by Evan Winters

The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter is the sequel to the author’s debut novel The Rage of Dragons. These books are firmly in the category of epic fantasy: they are both chockfull of dragons, swords, metaphysical powers, gods and warfare. The books are set in something resembling a Bronze Era civilization, with a strict caste-based society that appears to modeled on an ancient African culture. Winter is one of the very few African-American writers working in this genre and he makes it very clear that the characters in his books are primarily what we could call “people of color” with skin tones of various hues from very light brown (tea with lots and lots of milk) to the darkest black (fire-scorched wood).

The main character in the series is Tau Solarin, who in The Rage of Dragons had a fairly familiar plot of the lowly outsider underdog who eventually becomes a celebrated champion after overcoming multiple trials and tribulations. In The Fires of Vengeance, Tau’s developing relationship with his Queen, Tsiora Omehia, becomes one of the primary threads of the complicated plot. In addition to this romantic intrigue plot line, the story in the second book also includes political intrigue between Tsiora and her sister Esi who has claimed she is the rightful claimant to the throne and the intercultural intrigue of the ongoing disintegration of the Omehi caste system. However, all of these other threads are overshadowed by the imminent battle between the Omehi people and the more populous indigenous inhabitants of the Xidda continent. And in addition to the struggles between different factions of the Omehi and the future struggle between the Omehi and Xiddans , there’s a non-negligible threat from the Cull, the near-omniscient murderous beings who drove the Omehi from their ancestral land of Osonte, decimating them in the process. It was that fabled escape from Osonte, dozens of generations before the events told in The Burning books that caused the Omehi to arrive to Xiddan and displace the indigenous folks on the peninsula, who unsurprisingly view them as colonizing marauders who should be exterminated.The Omehi feel like the Xiddan pensinsula is overrun by godless, murderous heathens who don't deserve to occupy the land their forefathers fought and died for so the stage is set for genocidal war.  Because its been so long, many Omehi don’t even think The Cull are real (which is a dead giveaway that at some point these Big Baddies are gonna show up at some point!)

A key feature of the books is the existence and prominence of Isihogo, the Underworld, where time runs faster than the real world and where the power of gods and demons manifest themselves. Generally, only priestesses with a rare ability and years of training are able to enter Isohogo but Tau has been using it as a means to hone his fighting skills to the point where he is the best fighter the Omehi have seen in generations, perhaps ever. (When you get killed by Demons in the spirit world it doesn’t physically harm you and you wake up back in the real world with the memory of what happened; many people can become susceptible to emotional and mental damage from the experience. Because Tau is fueled by a volcanic level of rage and vengeance he thinks that the costs, such as the hallucinations he regularly suffers, are worth the enhanced fighting prowess and imperviousness to pain he gains.)

As I mentioned, Omehi society is strictly caste-based, with two primary groups, Nobles and Lessers. The author is somewhat vague about whether the castes are actually biologically distinct, or whether, like race, the caste divisions in Omehi society are socially constructed identities reified by cultural norms and historical tradition. Nobles are generally larger, faster and stronger than Lessers, but a key point we learn in the first book is that the two groups can procreate with each other (although of course this is strongly discouraged). There are various strata in both of the two primary castes, with the absolute lowest being “Drudges” who are basically outcasts from Lesser society and the highest are the Royal Nobles, which includes Tsiora. In both books, one of the central fights Tau has to take on is the assumption that as a Lesser he has no chance of besting a Noble (of any level) in combat. This of course turns out to be spectacularly untrue and is the primary plot device of The Rage of Dragons. However, we do learn in The Fires of Vengeance that Nobles have stronger connections Isihogo which may account for their advantages (and also would tend to lend credence to the idea that the caste divisions are “real”). However, like race, just because one group of people who are racialized into a particular group tend to have more or less of a particular trait or tendency does not mean that race is not a fiction. The clever and conspicuous depiction and deployment of race is one of the most attractive features of the series for me, especially since any depiction of difference from a white heteronormative ideal is so rare in most fantasy and science fiction.

Although the two books share numerous similarities (depiction of multiple battles and one-on-one skirmishes, political and romantic intrigues, cultural/ethnic stereotyping and demons, dragons and disasters, oh my!) The Fires of Vengeance improves on The Rage of Dragons by de-centering Tau slightly and making it clear that two of the most important characters from the first book are both gay (and a couple!). Of course, Tau in his single-minded focus on getting revenge for the deprivations he suffered in the first book is one of the last to figure out the situation but he takes it completely in stride. As a gay reader of the books, the complete absence of homosexuality in the all-male military settings of the first book was a curious and problematic defect that I’m very happy was corrected in the second book.

I suppose one of the (slight) quibbles one could have with The Fires of Vengeance is that it doesn’t resolve most of the larger tensions in the plot and ends with the inclusion of a huge, paradigm-shifting twist. That said, there’s a lot that does happen in the second book of The Burning, with multiple significant characters dying and/or having life-altering consequences due to the action. Winter is not one to provide his characters with plot armor, which is a refreshing change.  Apparently the series may become a quartet instead of the expected trilogy, which is fine by me, because The Burning is fast becoming one of my favorite epic fantasy series. For people who like the work of Brent Weeks (Lightbringer series, Night Angel trilogy) and Peter Brett (Demon Cycle) I’m confident you will also enjoy these action-packed, engaging books by Evan Winter!

Title: The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning, #2).
Evan Winter.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 528 pages.
Publisher: Orbit Books.
Date Published: November 10, 2020.
Date Read: May 2, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, May 06, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a famous book that has received substantial acclaim and recognition, especially for the beauty and emotional resonance of its prose. The book is written primarily in the first person as a letter to the author's mother, from an openly gay man who has been nicknamed Little Dog. The two have a complicated relationship, and the book documents the difficult life the two spent together as well as the how the war-torn country of Vietnam has impacted the author's mother as well as her mother (Little Dog's grandmother). 

I finally read this book because it was under consideration to be selected as a community read. Very early in the book it becomes clear that the themes of the book are very adult and that it includes scenes and depictions of events that might be triggering to some readers who have experienced various kinds of trauma. For example, the son describes multiple times that he is physically assaulted by his mother, and punished in multiple ways that seem disproportionate for the infraction he may have committed. Little Dog also describes racist incidents that happen to him and his family members in Hartford, Connecticut where they live when he was young. It becomes clear that the traumas that his mother (Rose) and grandmother (Lan) have had a deleterious effect on their mental health.

One key plot thread of the book involves Little Dog's relationship with a local white kid named Trevor. When Little Dog is 15 and Trevor is 17 they meet working on a tobacco farm in rural Connecticut. They are the two youngest employees and thus they start hanging out together. Eventually they both realize that there's an attraction to each other, and though Trevor never articulates being gay, but the two boys have intimate sexual contact multiple times for the next several years. This section of the book was one of the highlights for me, but this is primarily because it depicts a realistic and rarely-viewed slice of gay life. Soon after they meet it becomes clear that Trevor is a fan of using various drugs, from alcohol, pot, cocaine and eventually heroin. Drug use was not a stranger to Little Dog, as several of his neighbors in his rough Hartford neighborhood had died of overdoses. So after Little Dog leaves Hartford and goes to New York for college it's sad but not surprising that we learn that Trevor has died as well.

Overall, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an engaging, troubling and memorable book. It's true that the writing is incredibly evocative (this is Vuong's first  book of fiction after becoming celebrated as a poet). The intersection(s) between the identities of Little Dog and of Ocean Vuong make it seem like the book is thinly-veiled biography, and this gives the work an extra frisson as well. In the end, though, I can't say I particularly enjoyed the book, although I am glad that I did read it.

Title: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.
Ocean Vuong.
Format: Kindle.
Format: 256 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Press.
Date Published: June 4, 2019.
Date Read: April 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Saturday, May 01, 2021

2021 OSCARS: The Winners

Here are the winners of the 2021 Oscars (93rd annual Academy Awards). I correctly predicted 5 of the Top 8 categories. Like everyone else, I was completely blindsided by Frances McDormand's Best Actress win. I actually thought that Anthony Hopkins should win for Best Actor but like everyone else, expected Chadwick Boseman to do so. Similarly, I thought The Father should win for Adapted Screenplay but expected Nomadland to do so. It was great to see a woman win Best Director (for only the second time ever!) and now two Asians have won this award in consecutive years.

Best Picture

Best Actor
Anthony Hopkins, The Father

Best Actress
Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Best Director
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best Supporting Actress
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

Best International Feature
Another Round

Best Animated Feature 

Best Documentary Feature
My Octopus Teacher

Best Original Score

Best Original Song
“Fight for You,” Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Original Screenplay
Promising Young Woman

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Father

Best Cinematography

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Costume Design
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Film Editing
Sound of Metal

Best Sound
Sound of Metal

Best Live-Action Short
Two Distant Strangers

Best Animated Short
If Anything Happens I Love You

Best Documentary Short

Best Visual Effects

Best Production Design


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