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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Kon Kon Kokon, vol.1 by Koge-Donbo

Read: 20 May, 2015

A friend was moving some time ago (an embarrassingly long time ago) and offloaded a bunch of books – including a rather large collection of manga. Of course, this all sat in a closet until my recent major purge effort. I’ve gotten rid of several dozens of books in the last few days, but there are some that I wanted to read quickly before giving them away. The manga, which only takes 20 minutes or so per book, seemed like something I could at least skim through before the collection passed on to its next owners.

I should probably preface this review by saying that I don’t generally read manga. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read manga before. So I’m sure that a lot of the conventions went right over my head, or maybe I just didn’t get it, I don’t know.

The description on the back of the book tells us that this is a story of a young man, Ren, who very desperately wants to be the Cool Guy in school. He is met by a fox-girl, Kokon, who claims that he saved her many years previously and she has now come to repay him.

So that’s the synopsis, and it’s perfectly fine. It has the potential to be interesting (which is why I picked the book out of the box to begin with). The problem is that these two plot points – Ren’s desire to be cool and Kokon’s desire to repay him – are mentioned over and over again on almost every page. With every new thing that happens, Ren freaks out that this will make him uncool, Kokon repeats her desire to repay him, things work out, Ren is gratified to learn that the awkward situation actually made him look cooler. Over and over again.

The story telling is far too hyperactive for my tastes. Every emotion is presented as extreme. Meeting someone new leads to an inner monologue of questions: “Who is she?? Where does she come from?? Will she find out that I’m secretly a total nerd?? Will meeting her make me look uncool??”

I can accept that some of this might be due to poor translation, but I suspect that it’s just bad storytelling.

The artwork is fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it isn’t terrible, either. The main problem I had was keeping the characters straight, since they all rather look alike.

I was intrigued by the concept of mythological creatures coming into a “real world” setting, but Kon Kon Kokon just fell flat for me.

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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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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

Read: 6 June, 2014

Genghis Khan is frequently portrayed as a savage barbarian, the enemy of culture. Yet according to Weatherford, he gave power to his wives and daughters, and he installed a system of laws that were often quite progressive. In Weatherford’s narrative, it was the great Khan’s sons who initiated the Mongolian version of the “War on Women,” excising the mentions of their sisters’ deeds from the historical record, removing them from power, and collapsing the empire Genghis Khan had built. That is, until Manduhai saved it some 2-3 hundred years later.

I had already heard of Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess, but not have Manduhai, nor of the other ruling princesses and queens Weatherford mentions. I found their history extremely interesting, and I was glad to read a more nuanced account of Genghis Khan, as well. That being said, the Princesses Good / Princes Evil motif tried my patience.

I have also heard from someone who read Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that the princesses and queens who are so important and central to the history of the Mongol empire, are barely mentioned at all. I can’t confirm as I haven’t read it, but it just makes me angry that he would perpetuate the distinction between History and History With Women In It, even when those women take on masculine roles.

Same for his dismissive attitude toward those women who don’t cut quite an impressive figure as the hugely pregnant Manduhai riding into battle. For example, he describes the women of one period as “operat[ing] behind the scenes, making alliances, promoting heirs, fighting with co-wives and mothers-in-law, and pursuing the life of court ladies, who seemed so important to the political life of the moment but had minimal lasting significance on the rise and fall of empires” (p.126). As if putting someone on the throne could be dismissed as having “minimal lasting significance.”

The sense I got was that women were central and important when they ruled directly and rode into battle. Essentially, the influence of women matters only insomuch as it takes place within spheres that are so often considered masculine. This casual dismissal of “women’s work” irked me.

Still, it was an enjoyable and very readable book, and it was refreshing to see women discussed in relation to the Mongolian Empire (other than Borte). I wish that it could have been presented as more of a history with less opinion injection, but I haven’t seen another book that covers the same ground. I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.

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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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Kwaidan by Lefcadio Hearn

Read: 27 October, 2008

This is a small, thin book with seventeen short stories (some barely more than a page or two, others a little longer) and three “insect studies.” Most of the stories are old supernatural tales, but the author writes from his own experiences sometimes (one short story and two of the insect studies, if memory serves).

It’s a short read and an interesting one. Far from an in-depth look at the Japanese supernatural, these are rather short vignettes that provide a beginner’s taste. Overall, I found them interesting and thought-provoking.

The insect studies are very different. The Butterfly chapter does still discuss Japanese (and Chinese) mythology, but these are mostly put aside for the chapters on Ants and Mosquitoes. For this reason, these studies may be disappointing for readers who are interested solely in mythology and don’t have a taste for idle musings. For my own part, I found them just as interesting as the stories of strange things found in most of the book.

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Sano Ichiro #4: The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

Read: 18 January, 2008

Emperor Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s concubine has died while carving a tattoo onto her body. The emperor’s lead investigator, Sano Ichiro, must solve the mystery of her death while navigating the delicate balance of the court, the conflicted allegiances of his right-hand-man, and his new wife’s feminist ideals.

The Concubine’s Tattoois genre-fiction; there’s no mistaking it. It makes the unfortunate poor writing choices that most detective mysteries seem to make. If characters are developed at all, it is only in “character blurbs” that are given on introduction and that are supposed to explain all future actions of that character. For example, a few paragraphs are devoted to Lady Uechi Reiko’s (Sano’s wife) upbringing and how, as an only child, she was raised as a male and that’s why she’s such a feminist. Unfortunately for what could have been a very good story, Rowland has never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.”

This is a recurrent issue in the novel, and not only when characters are first introduced. Whenever a character feels anything, we are told explicitly what it is they feel, regardless of which side of the investigation they are on. In a mystery, this does a great deal to ruin the story because it takes a lot of the guess-work out of the equation. And, of course, since the reader knows what the protagonists can’t know, it forces Rowland to give the detectives “sudden insight” that defies logic.

The novel also offended my sensibilities in many ways. Nearly every “bad” character is either gay or a sexual pervert. It wouldn’t bother me so much if only one antagonist were gay or if some of the good characters were too, but the one-sidedness suggests to me that Rowland equates being gay with a deficiency of character (whether it be outright evil like Lord Yanagisawa or plain effeminate impotence like the emperor). And while I certainly agree with some of the narrator’s ideas about the caste system and the role of women, seeing the author break through into the writing to get on her soapbox and lecture about these topics becomes wearisome after a while.

For my last negative comment of the day, I found the mystery itself to be lacking. There were red-herrings and femme-fatales and all the other staples of the genre, but the total lack of originality, interesting characters, and a compelling plot made the whole novel drag. The big twist ending might have been all right if the characters didn’t go on at length about how unexpected a twist it was. Rowland doesn’t seem to understand that her readers can identify surprising conclusions without being told to be surprised (and then lectured at about how anti-feminist we all are for not anticipating it).

That being said, I loved the setting. Rowland does a great job of exposing the world of her mystery – it’s just a shame that such an interesting world is populated by such cardboard people.

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Stupeur et Tremblement [Fear and Trembling] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 6 November, 2007

The story is fairly simple. A Belgian woman was born in Japan and returns in her early twenties to work in a large shipping company. Once there, she discovers a rigid code of conduct that demands she suppress her individuality and intelligence for the company. The autobiographical story is a fairly short and simple read. It is alternately thought-provoking and comical.

The story’s greatest strength lies in its characterisations. The narrator and her boss, Mori Fubuki, receive the most attention in this respect, but the pictures Nothomb paints of the other characters are equally enchanting and, at times, frightening.

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