The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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The Martian by Andy Weir

Read: 10 March, 2015

During a terrible storm that forced the rest of his team to evacuate from the planet, Mark Watney – botanist and mechanical engineer – is left completely alone and under-supplied on Mars.

This book is Robinson Crusoe in space, complete with the lists, the problems, and the lengthy descriptions of the solutions. And it was fascinating. I wasn’t following a lot of the math and science, but I never felt like that was a problem as the narrator led me through it, and I’ve learned quite a few new terms/concepts.

At the beginning, I felt like the characterization was suffering. Much of the narration is written in a “comm chatter” style, where characters relate facts rather than feelings or personality. So early on in the book, I felt like the characters who were being introduced were unmemorable and interchangeable. Even Mark himself was just a guy doing things on Mars – the things happening to him and the things he was doing were all interesting, but he was not. However, as the book progressed, I felt like I got to know him better. I came to see how he would respond to stressful situations, I got to see how he was coping with the loneliness and the stress. Even the side characters started to seem familiar, and I was surprised by how recognizable they became even though they received so little narrative time.

The pacing of the narrative is incredible. This was the first time in a very long time – at least since I became a parent – that I just put everything else aside and read a book for eight hours straight. I was on the edge of my seat. I even started to get a stomach ache at one point because I was so tense. It was riveting.

There were a few minor issues. The biggest, and the only one really worth mentioning, is that the narrative style was a little inconsistent. There were two main styles: The first were Mark’s first person logs, chronicling his activities on Mars. The second were the third person narratives of all the other characters, both on earth and the other team members still on the Hermes ship. That was fine, and a good decision, I thought. However, toward the end, I counted two third person narrative sections following Mark. In both situations, I could understand why the choice was made (the descriptions were of things that Mark wouldn’t have described in his own logs). However, I did find it jarring, since it was a break in the established patterned. I think those two sections could/should have been integrated somehow into Mark’s log.

When I finish a book, I like to go online and see what other people have said about it before I write my own review. By far the most confusing/amusing review I found gave the book 2/5 stars based on the complaint that “the main character just comes across like a complete nerd.” Okay, yes. He’s a nerd. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and an astronaut. He’s going to talk about math and science a lot, and he’s going to crack nerdy jokes. If you hate nerds, this probably isn’t the right book for you.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Read: 3 January, 2014

In 19th century China, two girls sign a contract, vowing to be friends forever. One is a low born girl on her way up in social standing, while the other girl moves in the opposite direction.

The story is brutal. From the very beginning, with its graphic and squirm-inducing descriptions of foot-binding, the narrative winds through a woman’s life as she tries to negotiate the competing needs of her friendship and her duty.

Some reviewers on GoodReads complained that the story is very “small.” And it’s true, it’s a story that is firmly fixed in the women’s sphere. It tells of a friendship between two women, of learning to deal with their mothers-in-law, of having children, of losing children. It’s certainly no epic. But at the same time, it was good to read a story with a female protagonist who struggles to make her way in her female sphere without longing to be a man.

Never does Lily desire to leave her little women’s room, never does she take an interest in politics, never does she care about what goes on beyond her room’s lattice windows. The “adventure” of the story is entirely wrapped in Lily’s place as a woman.

I found it to be well-written, thought-provoking, interesting, and entirely heartbreaking. I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty sniffly for the last 40 pages or so.

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Empress by Shan Sa

Read: 20 July, 2010

Empress Wu tells the reader about her childhood in one of China’s impoverished but still noble clans, growing up a concubine of the emperor, and finally of becoming empress herself. This is the story of a bird locked in a golden cage, of lavish surroundings that fail to mask captivity, of the boredom and murderous competition of a small city of women all fighting to win the gaze of a single man.

The novel’s protagonist, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight), is a fairly complex character who is not always particularly likeable. She is in survival mode; even when she rules as empress, she must contend with assassination attempts and the ever present threat of failing health. This is a novel about a woman whose entire being is tied to the approval of men, and the suddenness with which fortunes can change through factors entirely out of her control.

Sa did an excellent job of painting the picture of a world that is at once rich and beautiful, yet brutal and cruel. I found it to be an interesting and well-written novel. It’s an easy read, although not always a pleasant one. This is a great novel to read if you happen to come across it, though I wouldn’t bother going too far out of your way to get it.

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Lady of Ch’iao Kuo by Laurence Yep

Read: 12 December, 2008

This book is part of Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series. I picked this book up at a second-hand sale my University was hosting. Having never heard of the author or the series, I was sold entirely by the cover art (which is absolutely beautiful and quite possibly the best part of the book – maybe I can just frame it?).

Overall, I found it to be an interesting read. The concepts of being forced to grow up and being responsible for many people despite having no experience kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, they weren’t really fleshed out. I also noticed a few continuity errors – for example, Redbird’s father decides that she will act as the translator when they talk to the Chinese, but then he goes to the Chinese without taking her along. This seems to happen for no reason other than to be able to kill off the father without having to hurt Redbird (or have her experience battle before the climax).

There were also some descriptions that may have been anachronistic, such as referring to the army as a “machine.” I’m sure they had machines of some sort or another back then, but would she have seen them? More importantly, would she have had enough exposure to machines to think of such a description? It’s a small detail, one that I might easily have passed over without noticing. It’s just that the book is so full with these little things that it bogs the story down.

Finally, I just felt that the author wasn’t very good at writing in the diary style. We’re never told why she starts writing the diary (something that modern little girls living in an age where paper and ink are both cheap and plentiful might not need a reason for). And then there’s the way she describes things… The narrative just feels very objective and detail-oriented, while perhaps missing some of the details that would have been important to her. It didn’t feel like a diary, but rather a third person narrative crammed into a first person diary format.

All that being said, I still finished it and I did still enjoy reading it. I just feel disappointed because the story deserved a much better treatment than it received.

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