There were effective passages at the beginning of this book, especially the depiction of the single father’s traumatized relationship with his son. There were lots and lots of pages devoted to making out and to detailed sex. This is fine if that’s what you want in a romance novel, and a lot of people do. But you can only read variations of “they kissed” so often before it becomes grating. And everything else was so easy. Everybody wants Luke and Landon to get together, there’s practically a town meeting about it. Their sons draw pictures of them together. Their sons are both football heroes of a Texas State championship team. Neither of them has a girlfriend, in fact the idea of such a thing never comes up. I don’t even remember there being any cheerleaders. I can see the appeal but kept being irritated by the book rather than immersed by it.
This book kept harkening back to the feelings I had when I first read A Wrinkle in Time; it’s the oddest mix of elements held together by a magical set of characters. The story begins with a transgender girl fleeing her home with her violin, which is a pretty strong hook; the violin acts as a promise that what you’re reading is not what you might expect. This is quickly followed by the revelation that you are in the world of a superstar violin teacher who has sold her soul to the devil; and she quickly becomes involved not only with Katrina, the young girl, but also with a family of aliens who run a local doughnut shop. If this doesn’t pique your interest then I don’t know what to think. The book is lighthearted and full of whimsy but veers into dark moments and dangerous paths, especially when Katrina endures sexual violence, and when she films herself for paying customers on the internet in order to get money to keep herself alive. So this is not a simple book to categorize. Not every moment in the book quite works for me but the missteps are slight and stem mostly from the daring of the fantasy and the pace of the story. The writing is very strong. Katrina is depicted in a way that feels more like the book is aimed at young adults, with a simplicity of soul that is quite appealing, though this portrait is not easy to reconcile with the book’s harder moments. Nevertheless the book is strong and readable and rather glorious in its invention. Just when the soul-selling part of the plot comes to the head, the other storyline comes to the rescue, and the ending is lovely and unexpected. And there are doughnuts. Every part of the book breathes and moves. A special experience.
After reading the sequel to this book, Children of the Sky, which felt tepid to me, I reread this novel to see if it was really as good as I remembered. And it is. This was my introduction to Vernor Vinge decades ago and the second reading was a stronger experience than the first. This novel introduces the notion of the Unthinking Depths, the Slow Zone, the Beyond, and the Transcend, which are the Zones of Thought that give the series its title. The idea is one of the best in science fiction, that the laws of physics are zoned in a hierarchical way, not necessarily by nature but due to action of one or more of the transcendent races at the tip-top of the galactic food chain. A human colony at the Top of the Beyond has crossed over into the Low Transcend to do work on an archive that turns out to contain something quite nasty, and this sets in motion a story that arcs through thousands of light years when the human scientists flee the archive and their remnants end up on a world inhabited by packs of doglike creatures who achieve sentience in groups. The ideas are amazing and entertaining and they expand and expand in Vinge’s careful story. The medieval dog-world (Tine’s World) contrasts with the high powered cultures of the Beyond in a marriage that grounds the high-flown ideas about Powers and Transcendence and each side of the story balances the other. I loved this book the first time but I don’t think I absorbed nearly as much of it as I did after a second reading. It is one of the best examples of the new space operas that started to appear late in the last century, and the world building – well, one might as well call it galaxy-building – is superlative. If you are a science fiction reader you probably already know about this book but if you don’t, you really should crack it and take it all in.
Many years ago I read the first two installments in this series, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Both of those are excellent and even enthralling reading experiences, especially if you love 90s space opera. Vinge is a masterful writer. So I remembered the books and looked up the third installment of the series, which takes place on Tine’s World ten years after the defeat of the Blight. This will be gobbledygook to anyone who hasn’t read the books but that’s how it goes in SF. This book finishes the tale of the godbuilding screwups from Straumli Realm who flee something they made that goes wrong, crash-landing on a world of intelligent dog-packs. The dogs are self-aware only when there are enough of them, from four to eight, and they bond into a self. There are mechanics to this process that make it fascinating and fluid. What this idea did for the earlier book was to delineate one of the most fascinating schemes for an alien species ever devised. What this idea does for the current book is to stand still and be exactly the same. This is not entirely true but it’s true enough that the book feels the flaw all the way through. It’s a book set on one world where two species are building some kind of synergetic civilization, and details a lot of politics among the rivals spurred by actions in the earlier book. Absent is the element of the Zones of Thought except as as threat to be explained over and over. The earlier book had a cosmological sweep. This book is narrow and relies too heavily on the novelty of the Tines. It’s not that they can’t carry a story, but it’s the case that I expect something else of Vinge. The book is weighed down by a back story that is barely relevant. This is not enough of an evolution for a sequel and not enough of a departure for a good novel. It was a slog to read though after about a third of it had passed I became more absorbed by it.
This book relies on the love of family and of revelations and transformations to do its work. The story has so much going for it along those lines that it jerks the inevitable tears, mostly in an earned way, and it has as its distinction that at the heart of the story lies a gay couple, two men who were married to women and who have children from the marriages. This has always been a problematic issue for me, gay men who used unknowing wives as the doors to their closet, but it is a fact of the world and the book treats the issue with passion. The families of the two men are artfully if clunkily brought into collision in a very small beach house in Maine, with the aging parents of one of the couple as near neighbors. The compression of the house drives the story thereafter. There is much to admire here but also much to question. The plot is loaded like a Lifetime movie; we have a drinking problem, an eating disorder, a rape victim, a narcissist, a neurodiverse child, a middle-aged woman in a midlife crisis, a woman roaming the neighborhood with dementia, a father with dementia, an unforgiving mother; this is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it gives the idea. The book is loaded for melodrama and delivers. There’s nothing wrong with any of that except that it’s a bit too much. The sentences themselves are well done, but the construction of the book is a problem for me. The writer chooses to focus on nearly all the family members in terms of point of view, not in an orderly way but head-hopping in most of the scenes. The writing is constantly explaining. The daughter who feels abandoned by her gay father plays this out in every scene as if we might have forgotten her trope since the last time we were in her head. Most characters display their particular bit of drama over and over again in the same way. It becomes a slog to read. Then, at the end, nearly all the characters reach a point of change at the same time, even some of the ones who have been offstage for most of the book. Nevertheless the book is affecting and worth reading and I’m glad to have spent time in it. This is actually pretty remarkable given the fact that the book does so many things I don’t like.
This lovely book makes its mark through gentle comedy, pristine writing, and the rich oddity of its people, especially Monkey and Samir, the central figures of the journey along the Silk Road. The comic touches within the writing are many, as the author is enamored of word play and of puns, which, while not my favorite practice, is handled here so deftly that it brings a good deal of amusement to the flow of the writing. The remarkable first sentence of the novel introduces a scene that is nearly the high point of the book, the stoning of the twelve-year-old orphan whom we come to know as Monkey and his rescue by the wizened caravan trader Samir, who is a seller of dreams, which is a nice term for a bullshit artist. Samir’s dream-telling operates at a very high level, however, and becomes as entertaining to the reader as it is to his audience. The story that follows is quick, heartfelt, and rich. Many people have been swindled by Samir and have hired killers to enact their revenge. The attempts on Samir’s life are the spine of the plot, and the trick of the writing is that each of these murder attempts takes on a different spin from our expectations. All the while Monkey is coming to understand what love and family really mean, an important lesson for him, since he is an orphan who has experienced almost no affection in his short life. The book reminds me of Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey, especially in its reliance on the voice of the writer, though Nayeri’s book is slighter in some ways, or perhaps more clearly aimed at including younger readers in its audience. It’s a very fine performance.
This novel is an odyssey of a kind, focused on the women of a Jewish family in Eastern Europe – a bit of Russia that transformed into a bit of Poland by means of bloody conflict – who make their way in ones and twos across the ocean to America. Pearl, who incarnates this story, is forced to choose to travel with her sister Frieda to Havana when their trip, already underway, has to be aborted or transformed due to changes in immigration law in the United States. Much of the novel takes place in a kind of Yiddish Cuba, in which Pearl survives in a community of other immigrants. Cuba here has become a halfway house to America, full of anxious exiles desperate to make their way into Florida. The real story is Pearl’s transformation from a frightened girl to a woman made of bedrock, one who fears little and faces change after change while setting her sights on a future in which she is free. She is no more certain what that means than we are today, but she is sure that she will recognize her freedom when she finds it. The writer’s prose is as good as anything I’ve read, and the story is a quiet, steady, transformational delight. The book evokes Cuba in the twenties, prohibition New York, and young Detroit with equal ease and detail, and the historical aspect of the fiction is sure-handed and convincing. Best of all is the nuance of Pearl, the loving portrait of the author’s grandmother, pulled from family stories and written with wonderful authority. This is one of those reading experiences I can treasure for a while before moving on to the next.
I read this book because of the connection to China; I’ve never read a book by a gay man from China and was interested in the premise. I missed the fact that this is a self-published novel, but that likely would not have stopped me from reading the book, though it might have helped me understand the quality of the writing, which is quite poor. The grammar is uncertain in the finer points and usage is all over the place. Words are swapped or used in awkward contexts. The writing is that of someone who has learned English well but not with the intimacy required of a fiction writer. The story itself has some compelling moments, especially in the sections written about Hanmei’s childhood, growing up as the son of a gay father who nevertheless accepts a traditional Chinese marriage. Hanmei views his father as a monster due to his treatment of Rulan, Hanmei’s mother. These sections alerted me to the fact that the writer has something important to say but probably not all the tools needed to say it. So I relaxed and read the book for its information rather than its beauty. When Hanmei moves to Los Angeles and embraces his sexuality the book feels less important, though the story is still, at times, engaging. He becomes a gay clone in West Hollywood, haunting clubs, taking off his shirt with all the other hot dudes, living the life. This is my editorial comment on him, not what he says about himself. The book is genuinely interesting but full of assumptions about men and manliness. Sex is a contest of strength and aggression. Hanmei’s desperation is to fit in and belong, meanwhile trying to negotiate his place in a Chinese family that still expected certain behaviors from him, like obedience to his mother and father and his eventual marriage. The relationship with Jay, a young black man, was tender but also with some queasy references, as when the writer describes him as thuggish. On the whole this felt like a book from a world that its author saw only partly and incompletely.
This is a young adult novel, very tenderly written, in which Tycho and Oliver encounter one another on the way to an international camp in Tennessee. They are immediately overtaken by each other and fall into a relationship that is quickly and quietly physical. To Tycho, whom we inhabit during the reading, this feels like the most wonderful change ever to take place in the world, an event that makes everything else perfect and new and bright. Then the problems set in. People cannot quite take the knowledge that these two boys are together, and the boys are not able to accept a need to be quiet or to hide, not quite. At least not while they are on foreign soil. Tycho is Dutch and Oliver is Norwegian, so the American landscape figures into their discovery that their love for each other does not work in the daylight, not for most people. The story follows them to Oliver’s house and then further, through Oliver’s struggle with how to deal with Tycho at home, among his friends and teammates. The story is delicately told. The early part of the novel felt so simple it was almost childlike, but that feeling quickly fades when the idyllic part of the romance comes to an end. The choice whether to keep hold of one another or to let the world separate them comes so quickly into play that it feels tragic. The novel rises to the challenge of this conflict but always in that simple, quiet tone, with one plain fact leading to another. The book depicts the flood tide of new love in Tycho with clarity and quickness. The whole novel is over in a breath. This book was published first in 1998; I am very grateful to have found it now, in this lovely translation.
A comet is about to strike Earth and a family chosen to board a colonization starship hurries to their ark of survival. This is a similar plot to any number of science fiction novels, with some variations, but in Higuera’s book we are centered on Petra, a girl who comes from the indigenous Mexican culture and who was trained to be a storyteller, a cuentista, by her grandmother. This reinvents the current story into something new and rather wonderful while doing full service to the science fiction elements of the book. The colonists are betrayed by a Collective of humans who want to eradicate their own humanity and who take over the ship and destroy most of the colonists either immediately or over time. Petra wakens out of her stasis-sleep to find her family gone, her future betrayed, and the few surviving original, unaltered children in the position of guinea pigs and expendable explorers in service of the Collective. The summary of the story does not do justice to the book, which is reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time both in mood and power and in some story elements as well. The rescue of the other children from the monotone culture of the Collective hinges on Petra’s stories, which have the power (as stories do) of reaching through propaganda and ideology to the core of human memory. Like L’Engle’s book, this is young adult writing that anyone can love, and I certainly loved the experience of reading this novel.