Saturday, September 29, 2012

Kraken-China Miéville

Kraken-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages 481
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2010
Novel

"In the Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum, Billy Harrow, a cephalopod specialist, is conducting a tour whose climax is meant to be the Centre’s prize specimen of a rare Architeuthis duxbetter known as the Giant Squid. But Billy’s tour takes an unexpected turn when the squid suddenly and impossibly vanishes into thin air."

This time Miéville takes on Lovecraft vibes to describe an amazing labyrinth of London all focused on Armageddons and apocalypses. Warring religious factions fight to be the end of the world and the cast list is longer than I am tall. It's Miéville's art that that doesn't bother the reader.

Two characters that stick in my mind. The memory angels just broke my heart-the dead one of the decommissioned museum and the angel following Harrow, breaking and diminishing. These museum guardians are the protectors of the ideas and memories held in our public institutions. To have them 'dead' really yanks at those heartstrings of this former museum employee. Then there's Marge's ipod guardian who gets 'fed' music and sings along and in return protects Marge. Adorable!

Anyhow, the plot is way too complicated for me to go through-the kraken is stolen and numerous factions get involved thinking everyone else has it and people go insane, and people attack each other, and a special faction of the police is involved...Listen, it makes much more sense if you actually read the novel and have Miéville's attention to detail wash over you and you meet all the people involved. There's dark humor to really grab you, urban grit to horrify you, and fascinating takes on dogma to keep you thinking. The mix of the realistic and impossible, the gruesome and awesome, the heart wrenching and the funny is just unbeatable.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Member of the Wedding-Carson McCullers

Member of the Wedding-Carson McCullers

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 191
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1947
Novel

"Here is the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother’s wedding."

Well, you can see why it's a classic. It's a pitch perfect voice of the fickleness, the confusion and wanderlust of a girl coming of age. The manias, the feeling of stultification, of becoming were all there with a thread of discovering sex to spur a coming of age.

The story is, above all, lonely. Trapped in the warm kitchen and unaware of the world outside her own, Frankie is attempting to connect with others, to join with other people while rejecting Berenice and John Henry her actual companions. Her internal dissonance is discussed with clarity and allusion filled language with symbols galore including a piano tuner causing her great distress.

I could relate in that Frankie was having all this emotional turmoil for which she had no name and no idea how to resolve but otherwise I just couldn't love this book. Frankie was annoying, the whole atmosphere was so stifling, and the pace was so slow and purposeless. There are no surprises whatsoever and therefore no real conflict except for Frankie's which is treated with such agonizing slowness and allusion that I failed to feel like it was a conflict. I know this is a book beloved by many but if it weren't so short I would not have bothered to finish it despite the beautiful language.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Embassytown-China Miéville

Embassytown-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 405
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2011
Novel

"In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak."

After the semi-ambivalence I had about King Rat, Mieville's first novel, I tried not to get my hopes up about Embassytown. I sometimes get worried, when I love and adore an author's style, that they'll let me down and my opinion will forever be trampled a little. Really, I didn't need to worry one bit because Embassytown is fantastic.

So okay we're in outer space so far into the future the kids AND adults are talking language we 21st centuryers can't begin to understand and then there's the aliens, the Ariekei, who cannot even conceive of our noises being a language. The Ariekei use two mouths to speak and thus only altered humans, the Ambassadors, can speak to them. And it's important to keep in contact because Embassytown is the last outpost before the mysterious lighthouses that were put up to warn travelers of the immer of dangerous space as well as the source of incredible half living technology. Then the whole delicate diplomatic balance fails.

So this is a book about language. There's a lot of complicated linguistics going on in true Miéville fashion so there's the usual over-your-head technical jargon that I just adore. And that slang along with a different sense of time makes for a difficult first chapter but then the story about language really just sucks you in. There's a key question of what language actually is  and how it is possible to conceive of concepts you've no words for. The Ariekei manually build up their language and due to that, despite their complex and advanced technology, they are culturally a bit limited since they literally cannot lie. When they discover this, their world undergoes a crazy, mad revolution that no one was prepared for and their world has to burn down around them before they can build it up again. 

The politics, the characters, and the cultural changes are just brilliant. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Girl Who Fell From the Sky-Simon Mawer

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky-Simon Mawer
Trapeze in the US

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 302
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

"Marian Sutro is an outsider: the daughter of a diplomat, brought up on the shores of Lake Geneva and in England, half French, half British, naive yet too clever for her own good. But when she is recruited from her desk job by SOE to go undercover in wartime France, it seems her hybrid status - and fluent French - will be of service to a greater, more dangerous cause."

I loved the character of Marian. Strong heroine with flaws and strengths like the rest of us except that she is a British spy in France. She is relatable, brave, and struggling to make sense of the many layers of intrigue and danger she is in as a Special Operative. She makes good decisions, she makes bad decisions and she worries about love and the past. As a fellow multinational I empathized with her struggles to understand who she is within an international conflict and at the end of the book I cared, a lot, about who was going to end up with and how her career was going to pan out. It's her coming of age story and it's a good dramatic one embedded with most of the elements of a good spy novel.

The book is well-researched and to my non-specialist framepoint accurate but something about the settings didn't ring true for me. It was like Mawer was always saying how dangerous Paris was but not actually showing it. It's like when my relatives tell me I really need to not go to 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia and I know it was a dangerous area in the 1970s but I don't really see the danger (this is perhaps a bad example because it's really not a dangerous part of Philly anymore thanks to UPENN police but I hope you sort of see my point). When I read Half Blood Blues, the danger of occupied Paris was so acute but when I read Mawer's prose, I didn't feel it.
Nevertheless, the heroine. She's great!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Half Blood Blues-Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues-Esi Edugyan

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 348
gender: F
nationality: Canada (of color)
year: 2011
Novel

"The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymus Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, is arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. A German citizen. And he is black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don't tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong ..."

I'm sure there must be a word for when a book is well written and you know it has all the elements of a good book but there's just something...lacking? So, told through this unreliable(?) narrator, this is an anxious war time book full of the languid prose of the jazz the band makes. The occupied city of Paris, the very danger of the occupation, oozes through every word. The novel is dark feeling like the windowless rooms they hide out in and everything seems potentially malevolent. The patois and the banter scream boy's club in the best way.

But then you have the modern voice of old men rehashing old stories and worries and the juxtaposition undermines each other. You really want to know what happened to Hiero and the details about the levels of the Nazi attitude to blackness (and the resulting stigma of course) have you thinking about the worst but allow enough wiggle room for the best but the book ends up feeling like a slog through towards the answer. It was like reading an academic article and just wishing the conclusion had occurred 18 dense pages ago. It kept me reading though so that's definitely something.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Night Dancer-Chika Unigwe

Night Dancer- Chika Unigwe


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 262
gender: F
nationality: Nigeria/Belgium
year: 2012
Novel

"Mma has just buried her mother, and now she is alone. She has been left everything. But she's also inherited her mother's bad name. A bold, brash woman, the only thing her mother refused to discuss was her past. Why did she flee her family and bring her daughter to a new town when she was a baby? What was she escaping from? Abandoned now, Mma has no knowledge of her father or her family - but she is desperate to find out."

A lovely feminist novel coming out of Nigeria,Night Dancer is a complex novel about the relationships between mother and daughter, tradition and modernity, and conformity and non conformity. The author claims the novel comes from a contrast between tradition and modern day life in present day Nigeria and that shines through every word. Mma is torn-because of her mother, she never had the traditional way of life, the traditional family and community she sees everywhere else. When she is alone, she discovers her mother and learns to respect her mother in ways she would not have imagined. This is where the novel shines-the complex relationship between the bitterness and rebellion of the daughter who learns exactly what she is rebelling against and ends up identifying with it. It's brilliant really even if sometimes I couldn't understand exactly why Mma seemed to hate her mother so much.

I also really liked how throughout the novel you never know what exactly happened to Mma's mother but you end up guessing one thing or the other. It's a kind of thriller like touch that heightens the emotion of the novel.