Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review: "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

This Sci-Fi  masterpiece has been on my to-read list for a while, but for some reason I kept passing it by in favor of other reads. Maybe it's because the blurb doesn't accurately convey the gripping, imaginative intricacy of the plot or the delicate balance of scientific advancement and Eastern religion that Bacigalupi weaves with his words. Maybe it's because the book's already earned so many awards, it doesn't need my stamp of approval. It was pure coincidence that this was the next book to fall into my hands, but I'm so glad that it finally did. It's landed squarely among my all-time favorite SpecFic books.

Years in the future, genetically modified foods have reduced natural plants and animals almost to nothing. The entire world population now depends on artificially designed plants and animals for sustenance, produced and owned by global "calorie companies." They combine and recombine the genes in these already modified food sources to stay one step ahead of rapidly evolving plagues like blister rust and genehack weevil, plagues that they created to force the rest of the world to buy their resistant food, but without genetic diversity at their disposal the battle is a losing one.

But something amazing is starting to happen in Thailand, which is not yet under the control of the calorie companies. In the past year, nightshades like tomatoes and tobacco, long thought extinct, have made a reappearance in Thai markets, resistant to the calorie plagues. And now another new fruit, some variant on the rambutan, has been reintroduced. All this genehacking brilliance has attracted the attention of Anderson Lake, who works to uncover the source of these new genehacks for a calorie company while under the guise of running a factory.

Hock Seng, Anderson's factory manager, is a Chinese refugee in Thailand. Little better than dirt, dependent on Thailand's Child Queen, he was once a trade mogul with resources and a large family. But after a bloody regime change, Hock Seng is left penniless and hunted. But he has a plan to reestablish himself by subverting Anderson Lake's work at the factory and using his position there to make his own deals to bring himself out of the gutter once again.

Both Anderson's and Hock Seng's plans are being thwarted by the White Shirts of Thailand's Environmental Ministry, who are charged with the protection of their kingdom's genetic independence and the protection of their people from both calorie plagues and calorie companies. They are largely corrupt, taking bribes and kickbacks in exchange for leniency, but Captain Jaidee remains the incorruptible Tiger of Bangkok. He, his dour lieutenant Kanya, and their men  fight tirelessly to confiscate and destroy harmful generipped produce and calorie company seeds from being smuggled into the country. But as the Environmental and Trade ministries clash more and more often over Jaidee's dedication to his work he, Kanya, and the rest of the White Shirts are caught in the middle of increasing political upheaval.

Emiko, a genetically altered human being, was created to be the perfect assistant and companion to her Japanese patron. Dumped in Thailand when he returned to Japan, the high-class and impeccably trained New Person, as they are called, finds herself a playing for anyone who can play the owner at the club where she works. Bred to serve and entirely unsuited to the hot, sticky climate of Bangkok, Emiko is unable to see an escape from the life that is slowly killing her. But there's a slight possibility that she could overcome her training, her very genetic imperatives, to save herself.

These four characters are on a collision course as the calorie companies close in on Thailand, and the Environmental and Trade ministries spiral toward open war with each other. Meanwhile opportunists like Hock Seng puzzle over how to ride the upheaval to greatness. Through their different perspectives in the chapters we see the dramatic rebirth of a kingdom in a harshly beautiful future world that isn't necessarily too far off.

While none of the key players are ever aware of all the important details controlling the convergence of their fates, each is very perceptive in their own way. The details to which they pay the most attention are informed by their unique pasts, how they arrived at where they are in life and where, if anywhere, they desire to go next. Anderson's single-mindedness in pursuing the new genehacks blinds him to other issues that creep up on him; Hock Seng is crippled by his paranoia and memories of past losses; Kanya is torn between deals she has made in the past and her desires for the future; and Emiko is just struggling to continue, unaware that she will be the key to the unraveling and the rebirth of Bangkok. Each has their own strengths and flaws that pull the threads of the story together tighter and tighter together. Nobody is entirely good or evil, and they influence each other's lives and actions without even knowing it, bound together in a series of building events that eventually ignites the entire capitol city.

I haven't encountered many Sci-Fi books that blend technology and religion as well as in The Windup Girl. Buddhism and reincarnation, full of saints and karma, coexist perfectly with the technological advancement of the times. Biodiversity saints have arisen, and the New People pray to their own benefactor that if they serve well, they may be reincarnated as humans and added to the cycle of rebirth. A polytheistic culture puts the characters in a great setup to both foster and inspire the people to keep fighting for their future and the preservation of their struggling culture, even in the face of enormous odds.

The end of the story isn't so much a closure as it is the setup for a new chapter in humanity's progress that this novel doesn't happen to cover. The repeating pattern of Hock Seng's life, Anderson's fate, Emiko's struggle for survival and Kanya's redemption all open onto a new horizon with new implications and old struggles. Calorie plagues are still blowing across the world, and companies are searching for the next big genetic payload. Thailand's seed bank will never truly be safe, but it remains preserved for the time being. We don't know all the details of where things are when they settle again, after the storm as it were, but rather than being desperate for details I was content to consider the possibilities for all the characters.

If you're looking for lyrical writing, intricate plot, perceptive characters who remain human and flawed, and a truly innovative story line that makes you think and consider, pick up a copy of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It's a completely alien world that pulls you in and makes it home to you as the pages fly by, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, for good reason, and you can pick up a copy any time at your local favorite local, independent bookstore.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading on the Go

New digital reading devices have made accessing a book easier than ever, no matter where you happen to be. They also allow you to store more reading material in one place, instead of having to cart around a dozen paperbacks. You can even read on your iphone! The increasing amount of access to digital books, magazines and even newspapers shows us that while technology keeps changing, reading itself isn't going out of style. Even so, I hear people comment sometimes that it's too much trouble to bring a reading device with them somewhere, much less a book.

I'm lucky to love my work enough that I want to take parts of it with me even when I go on vacation. Of course, "work" is synonymous with "books." Reading is a physical experience for me as much as a mental one, turning the pages and smelling the ink, so I don't own an e-reader yet even though I love that they're available and constantly improving. That being the case, I decided to try and prove a point when I packed a few books for my recent vacation: reading is still doable in a lot of obscure places even without a digital device like an ipad or a Kobo. So whenever I went on a hike or excursion on Kaua'i, a book came with me. It only ever took a few seconds to tuck a book into a day pack, and even on crazy, muddy, uphill hikes the weight didn't make much of a difference.

I know that my perspective on books, their relevance, and whether they're worth having around is biased. But I did have fun with my little experiment, and got some pretty great photos out of it too. So enjoy this glimpse into my personal vacation reading, and the next time you're packing a bag somewhere, be sure to add a book!

^ Trail near Kapa'a

^ Waimea Canyon Overlook

^ Alakai Highland Swamp

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On Vacation!

I'm taking a week with family to explore the beautiful island of Kaua'i, so I hope you'll forgive me for putting the blog posts on hold. Check back a week from now for more book reviews and awesome book-related points of interest.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: "Plus One" by Elizabeth Fama

What happens when a pandemic causes people to split into Night and Day populations in an attempt to stem the contagion? According to Elizabeth Fama, who also wrote Monstrous Beauty, Men Who Wish to Drown and Overboard, you get improved productivity and better workers. But it turns out that you also get underground rebellions and a perfect setup for a revolution, which is the story she tells in her latest book, Plus One.

Sol Le Coeur is remarkable for nothing, except perhaps her utter mediocrity. But it isn't because she's not smart; it's because her life is slowly grinding her down into dust. She works sealing blister packs after school every night, her beloved grandfather Poppu is dying, and two years ago her older brother Ciel was forcibly transferred from Night to Day. Her parents have been dead since she was an infant. Sol has no reason to be anything but a hollow drudge.

Sol, Poppu and the rest of the Smudges are restricted by law to life in the dark. For twelve hours of sunlight, they are restricted to their homes while the Day  population goes about its business. Ciel and the other Rays, the privileged half of society, conduct their lives during the day on a reverse schedule. Sol and Poppu haven't seen Ciel since he was arrested and transferred to Day, haven't received any word other than generic, government-scrubbed birthday texts even though Ciel is a hacking genius. It's why he was arrested in the first place. Convinced that her brother abandoned them, embraced his new life in the sun and moved on, Sol wouldn't care if she never saw Ciel again except for Poppu. When she hears that Ciel has become a father, Sol decides that Night/Day divide be damned, she's going to make sure that her grandfather has a chance to hold his great-granddaughter before he dies.

What starts out as a half-baked kidnapping attempt snowballs into the discovery of a government conspiracy regarding the Night/Day divide, the truth about the rebel tribes known as Noma, and what really killed Sol's parents all those years ago. But Sol's not alone in her wild ride through deals and double-crosses as her situation quickly spirals out of control; she has D'Arcy with her, the Medical Assistant who patched her up when her original kidnapping plan was still in play. Sol's annoyance gradually turns to gratitude when she finds him a valuable ally, with his Day assignment and medical pass for "Plus One," which keeps her out of jail long enough to discover the truth about what's going on around them.

Although I wasn't really hooked until after about the first hundred pages, I found this both a creative and fun read. I was impressed by how the pieces of the puzzle (the Night and Day ministries, the hospital, Ciel, Poppu's illness, and the Noma) came together in an explosion of different motives that all converged with clarity. Even the romance portion of the story (which didn't overpower the other aspects, despite what the book's cover may imply) was carried out in a creative fashion. Although I felt that the revelation was easy to guess at pretty early on, I still enjoyed watching it unfold. Different kinds of chapter headings also helped to indicate where events were set in time: past communications with Sol's desk partner and memories of her family are in chapters with creative titles that somehow refer to the content. Chapters set in the ever-uncertain present of Sol and D'Arcy's life on the run are headed with dates and times, underscoring the fact that they're living in a divided culture, and that the hour of the day dictates certain behaviors or approaches.

I do wish that the history of the Night/Day divide was given a little earlier on in the story, for the sake of curiosity as well as to better understand the culture itself. And while some French, which does appear consistently throughout the book, was easy to understand for a non-speaker like me I do wish that every phrase had been translated in essence if not word for word.

If Fama does a sequel to Plus One, for which there is certainly potential, I'll be curious to see how a few things play out. At the conclusion, the government's hold over the Night/Day divide is just on the cusp of being questioned by the populations at large. Sol's incarceration, Ciel's situation, and how the Night Minister handles the ultimatum that is made her are all potential launching points for the next part of the story. But I also feel like the story could end right here, and still be satisfactory. There isn't the same sense of urgency for more with this book that I've experienced with something like Shadow and Bone or that some people felt while reading The Hunger Games. But that doesn't detract from the fact that I had a pretty enjoyable time making my way through the story with Sol.

Plus One by Elizabeth Fama will be released on April 8th, and can be pre-ordered now at your favorite local, independent bookstore. There's also a prequel short story, from the perspective of a Noma character, being released on March 25th by Enjoy!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Real Restaurants Inspired by Books

Three Broomsticks

I truly hope that we've all had the experience of reading a book where we've found ourselves truly wishing to visit that other place depicted on the pages. Sometimes the sentiment applies to the entire world that the author has created, and sometimes it's a particular house, church or school. Very occasionally, the place that I've ached to share with the characters in a book has been a moment in time, rather than a physical place.

Thanks to modern imagination and what I assume were some pretty outrageous budgets, you can now visit some of your favorite literary restaurants here outside the pages of a novel. I don't know quite how I'd feel about having a giant rat mascot running around while I ate, but I wouldn't mind visiting the Three Broomsticks just for that awesome ceiling!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: "Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling" by Lucy Frank

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling

From what I've seen (and read), novels written as free verse poetry are difficult to write well. I find that as a reader, I think they're most effective when used in cases where there's nothing to say in a given situation: no words, just feelings. Effective free verse novels seem to start with the immediate aftermath of a trauma, and end when the protagonist is able to establish a vocabulary to talk about what took place, starting the healing process.

Lucy Frank follows this effective formula while adding her own unique details and twists to the story of teenage struggle depicted in Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling. This isn't my usual brand of fiction, but I'm reviewing it here because it deals with a sensitive, painful, and incredibly important issue that is still taboo for many young people: teenage chronic illness.

Chess has a charmed life. She's beautiful, she has two amazing best friends, and is leaving soon to start her college search. Plus there's the cute, smart, funny guy who works at Sugar Snap Farm and who seems to return her romantic interest. But Chess is holding something back, a deep personal secret, hidden even from herself. And the magical night when another part of her life is supposed to begin, her secret is revealed instead. Unable to ignore it any more, Chess finds herself on her back in a hospital bed, paralyzed by the fear of putting a name to her condition and how it will impact her life from now on.

Chess tackles her issues, sometimes unwillingly, largely with the unorthodox support of her hospital roommate, Shannon. Shannon's background is the complete opposite of Chess's seemingly perfect life, but they have both had their plans changed by the same medical condition. Shannon's quirky, irreverent, vulgar personality is tempered by Chess's fear and compassion, and the two of them prove to be perfect foils for one another as they work to stay strong and get their lives back on track.

In addition to being written in prose, Frank's book employs a physical page format that represents the hospital environment: a line down the center of the page represents the curtain between Chess's and Shannon's beds. The location of the words on the page indicates where something is happening and who is speaking. When the curtain is open or when Chess leaves the room, the line disappears. The author has even included a little guide at the beginning of the book on how to interpret this format, which is not only awfully considerate but allows the reader to start appreciating and enjoying the intended reading experience from the very beginning instead of puzzling through a "frustration period" of figuring out the format.

Chess's swirling thoughts of fear, embarrassment, and incredulity at her own situation are very poignantly expressed by deliberate language and strong imagery in the prose. The scared, overwhelming periods from Chess in particular, the parts that haunt her or that she tries to block out, are described in terms of "the night beetles," referring to a childhood memory of hers. The dread of unwanted thoughts is perfectly compared to the click and rattle of beetles, the clawing feeling of tiny legs coming over her in a wave. Several descriptions like that actually gave me goosebumps as I was reading.

And yet despite the visceral, awful issues through which both Chess and Shannon are struggling, the book ends on a hopeful note. It's not an 'I'll get through this no matter what!' kind of ending, where the trauma is over and everything is perfect again, but rather a more realistic 'I'll get through this because I don't have any other option' conclusion. Don't get me wrong, it's still very sweet and endearing. I even wish the little glimpse into the characters down the road had been longer than twelve lines, but Frank really does make every one of those words count.

The teenage years are normally full of terrifying, incredible, and dramatic changes on so many levels. In the struggle to just be normal amid all that, something like the diagnosis of a chronic disease can seem like the end of the world. It's a cruel time in life to be saddled with what's often perceived as another weakness. But this touching novel can help all of us to better understand both sides of the issue: the person diagnosed and the people around them. Everybody has something abnormal about them after all, and Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank helps to start breaking down stereotypes and discussion barriers about chronic illness and teens. It will be available in August of this year at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Without a doubt Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the best-known names in Science Fiction, right up there with Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. She's written a multitude of books, including the Earthsea novels and the Catwings books, which were some of my favorites in elementary school. But I keep coming back to The Left Hand of Darkness whenever I revisit SciFi books that have really changed my perspective on my life and culture, the future of humanity.

The Left Hand of Darkness was first published in 1969, and has been reprinted more times than I can easily keep track of. It relates the story of Genly Ai, the first alien envoy from a collective of cooperative planets to the planet Gethen, also called Winter. Ai is an ethnologist representing the Ekumen of Known Worlds, which aims to unite the worlds of men for the greater good of all mankind, sharing knowledge and technology across the light-years. But suddenly confronted by the realization that they're not alone in the world, the Gethenians fall back on fear and suspicion to protect themselves from the unknown.

Lost and uncertain, Ai travels the harsh landscape visiting different countries and factions, looking for some part of the planet that might be ready for the more enlightened, mutually supportive opportunities that he represents. But he goes from Envoy to curiosity to political threat to prisoner to escapee, all without fulfilling his mission to bring Gethen into the Ekumenical fold. His only ally appears to be Estraven, a former prime minister labeled a traitor and an outcast while trying to help Ai with his cause. He alone seems to grasp the significance of what Ai represents, of what he could mean for the world of Gethen, and so united by their common hope they struggle together to convince Gethen that the Ekumen is the doorway to a brighter future.

The world that Le Guin builds in this novel is unlike anything else I've ever read. There are enough similarities to our world, like electricity and basic vehicles, that it's easily recognizable as a structured, evolving society. But their entire way of life is centered around the weather on Gethen: cold. The planet stays frozen throughout most of the year, with a brief and rainy respite in the middle of summer, which means that food and shelter are the main concerns for the Gethenian people. Le Guin keeps this in mind in everything that she describes on the planet, from the architecture of their cities to their forest management to the types of food that are eaten and what animals available for use by the Gethenians. The result is something completely alien, but entirely understandable and imaginable. It helps that Ai is a complete stranger to the planet, and his struggles to understand reflect the reader's sense of curiosity and confusion.

One of the key points of difference between Ai and the Gethenians is the fact that on Winter, there is no gender. Each Gethenian becomes either male or female at the peak of their fertility cycle, and then returns to an androgynous state after the cycle is completed. Those that become pregnant bear a child, lactate as a female, and then return to their genderless norm after the child is weaned. The Gethenian way of life is impacted just as strongly by fertility cycles as it is by the harsh winter climate, and Ai is seen as something of a pervert since he remains permanently male. The depiction of this culture without gender is at once complex and beautifully simple in its execution, and yet Ai struggles to leave his binary thinking behind as he becomes more and more immersed in Gethenian ways of life. Often he describes a Gethenian in terms of being either masculine or feminine, handsome or matronly. At the same time though, he consciously acknowledges that he is viewing these other beings through the eyes of a man who has never questioned the fluidity of gender and to me that made his observations more of a journey of personal discovery for him as opposed to an attempt at classification.

This is not a story of laser guns and space battles. There are no alien invasions or crash landings or chase scenes in fusion-powered ships. Instead what unfolds is the slower, more intellectually challenging concept of not just international but interspecies politics between groups of people that didn't even know there was anything else out there among the stars, with Ai and Estraven the only ones on Gethen capable of looking beyond the implications for a single country or political faction. This is a story of the hard, heartbreaking work of bringing an idea to a group of people who are not yet ready for the bigger picture of an event, of a possibility, and it is at once both tragic and hopeful.

If you're looking to be immersed in another world that is at once drastically different from and incredibly similar to our own, want characters that you will care for and a story that will both drag you down and drive you on, pick up this classic SciFi masterpiece. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is available down the street at your local independent bookstore.