Jul 23, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng

This is a difficult book to get through, partly due to subject matter and partly due to the writing. To deal with the latter first: I don't mean to imply that the writing is bad. In fact, it's very good. But it's also incredibly dense, rich, loamy. There is little dialogue and it's written in the first person, which means we spend the entirety inside another person's head. For a rather slim volume, it took a while for me to get through it, and there were a couple times when I wondered whether I should give it up. I tend towards more plot-driven books, as might be obvious from many of my other reviews, so for a more cerebral reader it probably wouldn't be as challenging. That being said, the writing really is spectacular, driving and forceful and poetic.

Now as for the subject matter: Mayumi is a 41-year-old librarian living on an island off the East Coast of the U.S. with her 4-year-old daughter and her husband, with whom she does not share a bed, any interests, conversation, or essentially a life. One day a young man comes into the library and she quickly becomes enamored of and infatuated with him. Against all odds, they begin a torrid affair that lasts until the young man, who is 17, leaves to help clean up the Russian River in Northern California. The young man is never named. I noticed this about a third of the way through, and as soon as I did it became obvious that we would never learn his name. He is fleeting, an object of obsession that is more a possession than a person, though Mayumi loves him dearly. There is little graphic sex, though euphemism is used frequently. And Mayumi, being a librarian, thinks always in terms of books and stories, making this a sort of meta, self-referential novel aimed at other librarians/booksellers or very avid book-lovers.

Many will shy away from "Mayumi" because of its forbidden subject matter, and I won't blame them for it. It's hard not to feel as if some of Mayumi's illicit sexuality is rubbing off on you as you read. It's a beautifully written book, but not very accessible and certainly not for everyone.

Jul 20, 2015

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin

The third book in Le Guin's famous Earthsea quartet, "The Farthest Shore" is another hero's journey, but with an added element. The path is walked by two: our old friend Sparrowhawk, now Archmage, and Aren, a young prince of Enlad who comes to the Isle of Roke with ill tidings. Along the edges of the islands that make up Earthsea, magic seems to be disappearing. Those who practiced it so easily before can no longer remember the words or hand symbols to work their magic. Towns are falling into anarchy, ruled by only those with the strength to rule, and once happy and productive people now sit idle in their villages, scornful of everything but unable to make anything new themselves. Sparrowhawk and Aren sail around Earthsea, trying to pinpoint the source of this deadly imbalance. I enjoyed this volume, though not as much as the previous one. The metaphors run deep, and I especially liked Le Guin's description of the grey land of death. These are powerful books, and I look forward to seeing how the cycle ends.

Jul 12, 2015

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

"Nimona" grew out of an award-winning web comic, and it's a little gem of a graphic novel for teens. Funny, irreverent, and satirical, "Nimona" touches on the deeper themes of acceptance, both of oneself and of others, forgiveness, and governments secretly endangering their citizenry in the name of national security. Okay, so that last one is maybe deeper than most teens will go, but the more important themes for "Nimona's" audience are easily understood and charmingly presented.

The title character shows up at archvillain Lord Ballister Blackheart's lair, a young girl who desperately wants to be his sidekick. Oh, and she's a shapeshifter. What exactly she's capable of becomes more apparent as the book goes on and her true nature reveals itself. Alongside this is the story of Blackheart and his nemesis, the hero Lord Ambrosius Goldenloin (yes, that is his name). Once fast friends, Goldenloin betrayed Blackheart and sealed their fate as enemies. When the Institute, a supposed force for good and the law, is found out to be experimenting with a dangerous substance that could taint the country's food supply, Blackheart tries to expose and stop them.

It's good fun, very clever and touching in parts, and the art is great. Nimona's various personalities shine through the page. For only my third ever graphic novel, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Jul 11, 2015

If You Feel Too Much, by Jamie Tworkowski

Tworkowski, author of the viral story "To Write Love on Her Arms" and founder of a suicide prevention non-profit of the same name, here presents a curated collection of blog posts, letters, and meditations arranged chronologically. I found it surprising, mainly because I thought the writing of an anti-depression advocate wouldn't depress me so much. The message is good: people need other people, and sometimes people need help, and it's okay to ask for help because needing and getting help doesn't make you less loved as a person. So why did Tworkowski's writing make me so depressed? Perhaps it's a quirk of my own psychology, but accepting my need of other people and growing to love myself had to be founded internally. Sometimes love can be a burden...sometimes someone telling you how much they need you can add to your sense of guilt in not loving yourself and your inability to love them the way they love you.

On top of that, I couldn't help but think the whole time I was reading that there are so many other tangible needs in the world. Of course we're all entitled to our feelings, good and bad, and of course depression and suicide are awful things. But with millions around the world starving, or lacking clean drinking water, or affected by preventable infectious disease, or living in abject poverty, should so many people's efforts really be spent on First World citizens who feel kind of sad? It's a cruel calculus, and likely many people disagree with me. Maybe it's easy to feel this way because I don't currently suffer from depression. I just worry that we here in the U.S. and other western countries lack perspective, and that if we worked as hard on loving the starving, homeless orphan halfway across the globe as we do on loving ourselves, the whole world would be a little bit better.

I'm glad people find Tworkowski's message hopeful and helpful, and he certainly does have a gift for writing, but I would have a very hard time recommending this book.

Jul 7, 2015

The Bees, by Laline Paull

I'd been wanting to read this book for over a year, and it seriously did not disappoint. The premise is an epic undertaking, and I'm simply astonished at how well Paull pulled it off. "The Bees" encourages comparison to George Orwell's "Animal Farm," due to the farm-animal-as-allegory angle. But it is really so much more than that; it makes you feel from the very bottom of your soul as you are born and live and die with Flora 717. Born a lowly sanitation worker but physically aberrant (read: larger and able to perform tasks her kin-sisters cannot), Flora would have been summarily executed for her "deformity" but is instead taken by Sister Sage to the Nursery, where they discover she can, amazingly, produce royal jelly for the feeding of newborns. Flora's exceptional abilities continue to push her into greater and greater roles in her Hive, until one day they threaten to destroy it all.

"The Bees" is a masterpiece of world building. I only know a little about bees, but it seems that Paull did a huge amount of research about them and their behavior, and then fleshed that all out into a fully functioning religion and worldview. It's an astonishing piece of literary and imaginative work. Then on top of that, she added wonderful writing. We are with Flora through every moment of her life, and we feel what she feels, see what she sees. The fact that she is utterly inhuman but still so easy to empathize with is a mark of a masterful writer. "The Bees" is a brilliant, genre-bending work of fiction that well deserves the praise it has received.

Jul 3, 2015

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin

I enjoyed this second Earthsea book more than the first. It's less of a classical hero's journey than "Wizard;" it feels more unique and original to me, which makes it more interesting. And the world it describes is so very strange that one cannot help but be enthralled by it. Ged's quest through the islands of Earthsea didn't grab me nearly as much as does the Place on Atuan, with the Undertomb and the Labyrinth and the Hall of the Throne. A big part of why I love science fiction and fantasy is being thrown into a world I know nothing about and learning it as the story goes on. "Wizard" just wasn't strange enough for me, but Atuan is. Plus the writing seems less stilted and formal, perhaps because I got used to it reading the first book, or because Le Guin loosened up her writing a bit for the second. I'm looking forward to seeing how Earthsea will evolve in the third installment.

Jun 28, 2015

The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, by Ian Thornton

This wonderful novel didn't quite make the cut for our Debut Authors panel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit David Mitchell-esque, "The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms" follows our eponymous hero from his birth to his death in a small village in Yugoslavia, with much wandering in between. It takes until about halfway through the book to hit the crux of the novel: Johan Thoms is the driver of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand fell victim to the shot heard round the world, thus launching World War I. Wracked by guilt which only increases as the horrors of WWI and then WWII grow, and convinced that he will be found and (rightfully, in his mind) blamed for causing millions upon millions of deaths, including that of his best friend, Thoms runs continually west, leaving behind his beloved Lorelei, who assiduously writes him a letter a day for decades.

The writing is fantastic, rich and nuanced and complex, hence the David Mitchell reference. The characters surrounding Thoms are delectable, with even the people who last only a few pages or less richly drawn without being overly described. This is a first novel, which Thornton says took seven years to write, and it shows in the extremely careful word selection. My only complaint is pacing. The first half mostly consists of a few months before the assassination, whereas the second half gallops through 1914 to the present day. I understand the decision, as it echoes Thoms' idyllic, slow-paced life before the unhappy day and then the madness into which he rather gleefully descends afterwards, but it's a little difficult for the reader to wrap her head around. Other than that, this is a truly fantastic first novel, and I very much look forward to Thornton's future work.