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[personal profile] yatima
Believe the hype. This is the best book of poetry I have read in years, dense with precisely described emotion. It reminded me of the first time I read Plath's Ariel:

a piano—but a mare
draped in a black sheet. White mouth
sticking out like a fist. I kneel
at my beast. The sheet sunken
at her ribs.

A side-note: in my Honours English class back in nineteen ninety-mumble, our great professor Bruce Gardiner wasted most of a tutorial trying to get me and the rest of my virginal cohort to understand Yeats "The Song of the Wandering Aengus" as the poet going outside at night for a wank. One of Vuong's poems here is helpfully titled "Ode to Masturbation," which should save many graduate student hours.
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[personal profile] yatima
Four fiercely brilliant stories, in order of increasing brilliance. The first deals with toxic masculinity in an unbelievably prescient way, given our current predicament:

This was the other side of their bravado. She looked at him with such infinite care and respect, for she hadn’t known before how much more terrifying it was to be a man than to be a woman.

The second is a laugh-out-loud grimdark Black Mirror episode set in space. The third is a (maybe?) love story so weird it reminded me of Flatland.

But the fourth story! That one, a picaresque journey through space with a hauntingly familiar subtext, brought to mind my Dad's exquisite first edition of The Ship that Sailed to Mars, and all of Borges, and George Takei's Twitterstream. And if that combination doesn't pique your interest, I don't even know what to tell you.
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[personal profile] coffeeandink
X-posted from my journal.

Although this novella makes an interesting attempt to engage with the social constraints of the time in a more realistic manner than many Victorian-set romances, it founders on inconsistent characterization and on a gender subtext greatly at odds with its surface. Despite some genuinely moving aspects -- particularly the heroine's delayed emotional reaction to traumatic events in her past and the hero's painful relationship with his frail and increasingly senile father -- the story fails for me due to disquieting elements in the central romance.

Cut for length and spoilers; trigger warning for statutory rape )
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
48. The Secret Life of Quanta by M.Y. Han

Wow, this is a singularly unique pop science book, to my eyes. Most science writers these days write under the banner of this Brian Greene op-ed, believing that the right approach to accessible science writing is to steer clear of the math and focus on the "Wow moments", especially those provoked by the unintuitive results of cosmology and quantum mechanics. Popular science writing is too often written as if the goal is to make pot-smokers have things to discuss when they're high.

Han takes an utterly different approach. He focuses on applications and he's not afraid to dip into a little bit of simple math if it's the best way to explain why something works. The book's focus is on getting the reader to have a deep enough understanding of quantum mechanics to understand why a laser works, why an integrated circuit works, and why we think a high temperature superconductor works. I found it totally refreshing.

I found the math elementary (I'm an engineer. I've had most of this stuff several times at a much higher level), but I liked that his explanations were clear and focused on putting it in language that someone without any mathematical background could understand. He repeatedly came up with tremendously insightful metaphors and showed good restraint in not overextending his metaphors.

49. Hyperspace by Michio Kaku

I've heard so much good about Kaku that I was disappointed by this book. It comes across as an over-the-top parody of the kind of science writing I mentioned in my first paragraph.

Admittedly, it's a book on superstring theory, which poses two problems. First, the math itself is really, really hard. You can't do n-dimensional topology with a high school math education. Second, there is no experimental verification for any component of the theory, no exciting experiments to explain. So Kaku's in a difficult position as far as science writing goes. Here's this theory that has dominated the scientific establishment for two decades, and the established mechanisms for discussing a scientific paradigm with the public are not practical.

But Kaku, out of desperation or misguided enthusiasm or something, goes too far the other way. The text reads theological a lot of the time, which is not uncommon in contemporary physics writing, but which is deeply unfortunate. Some of his passages are messianic, as when he promises that knowledge of the higher dimensions may offer humanity an escape hatch for the entropic heat death of the universe. (Note that the key word is 'may'. There is equal probability that nothing of the sort will happen.) When I want theology, I um... go to religion.

He spends a lot of time developing a metaphor to Abbott's Flatland, but leaves the actual connective tissue of the metaphor missing. All of his metaphors lack a key phrase Han avails himself of again and again: "This is just a metaphor." Many of his metaphors have obvious objections that collapse them easily into meaninglessness, but he doesn't even bother to qualify them or delimit them. I'm not sure if it's laziness, carelessness, or something more conscious and guided, but it's not good science writing.

And then there's the catastrophic description of the Standard Model of particle physics. "The details of the Standard Model are boring and not very important," Kaku writes, and my jaw dropped. That is a sentence that should never appear in a serious work of science writing. It made me rage with fury one night while a friend looked at me and said, "Wow, you never get this angry."

The book's conclusion, a place I hoped for some sort of synthesis of the scattered ideas the book covers, instead is filled with unconnected musings on the intersection of science and philosophy. It's not immediately clear to me what the connection is, except that sadly I think I know what it is: Kaku's paean to string theory is about the merger of philosophy and scientific reasoning rather than the triumph of empiricist dogma he rotely salutes at various points. He is interested in string theory not because it works (at present it doesn't), but because it is beautiful in and of itself. He suggests a few pages from the end that even if it proves undescriptive, mathematicians may find value in the work done by superstring theorists. And that backwards reasoning I find shocking and depressing.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
14. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

A sort-of fantasy novel about Tilo, a 'Mistress of Spices'- immortal, mystical women, trained in magic and secret knowledge, sent out into the world to help people. Tilo is sent to Oakland, California, where she slowly becomes personally involved in the lives of the people around her, and begins to reveal her own backstory.

This novel is very hard to describe, because it doesn't have much of a plot for most of its length. Instead, it's full of beautiful, poetic descriptions of spices and food, magic, Oakland and imaginary places like the Island where Mistresses are trained. Some parts are very realistic; others involve rampaging pirate queens or singing sea serpents. It took me a while to get into this book, because the beginning is very slow, but by the end I was in love. The language is incredibly evocative, and the resolution felt just right. I really grew to like the characters, particularly Tilo, who shows herself to be much more of a flawed human than any mystical fairy.

Highly recommended.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
13. Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East

I love travel books, and this is a fantastic one. Iyer visits several Asian countries (including India, China, Tibet, Burma, the Philippines, Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong, and probably a few more I'm forgetting) with the goal of seeing how they've been affected by Western pop culture and tourism. Iyer is quite good at describing places, and seems to have really made the effort to get to know local people and include their viewpoints.

This book is a bit out-of-date now (it was written in the early 80s), but to me that just added to the appeal. This is a China and Tibet newly opened to Westerners, a Hong Kong which is still a colony, Burma before it was Myanmar. So many of the places he visits no longer exist- at least, not as they did at the time- that it makes for an intriguing historical snapshot.

Iyer uses the 'Modern, Masculine West meets Traditional, Feminine East! However Will They Understand One Another?' trope a bit too much for my tastes, but you could easily skim those parts and focus on the descriptions of places and people, which are quite well-written. Recommended, and I'd love recs for other travel books, if you have a favorite!
chomiji: An artists' palette with paints of many human skin colors. Caption: Create a world without racism (IBARW - palette)
[personal profile] chomiji

It's highly unlikely that Maxine Kiss would ever fall for a sparkly vampire.

Maxine is the latest scion of a millennia-old family of demon hunters who are always female. She is also a living embodiment of the trope "Good Is Not Nice." Aided by a quintet of specialized demons who have assisted the Hunters throughout their history, Maxine ruthlessly annihilates evil wherever she finds it, and then she and her Boys go looking for more. Their usual prey are zombies, which in this scenario are humans possessed by relatively weak demons, but greater demons are in just as much danger whenever Maxine detects them.

This is not to say that Maxine is cold-hearted. In fact, she is fiercely loving. But her vulnerabilities are those of many badass male characters: her friends, her loved ones, her sense of honor. It makes me ferociously happy that her femininity is not used as a weakness.

During the course of these three volumes, Maxine discovers that she might, in fact, be not only the latest of the Hunters, but the last. She uncovers secrets about her family and her ancestry, learns about some of the other major players in the fate of the world (and finds that some of them are much closer to her than she would ever have guessed), and kicks a lot of ass. This is an Earth in which demonic chaos is constantly lurking behind the scenes, but most people are going about their ordinary lives with no knowledge of it. There are lots of pop culture references and in-jokes, and sometimes I think that Liu is working some of her shticks a little too hard, but generally the storyline races along with vivid language and terrific momentum.

I've seen these billed as paranormal romance, but although there is a small amount of romance during the course of the series, these are probably better classified as urban fantasy. There's considerable violence, too.

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[identity profile] kyuuketsukirui.livejournal.com
Damn it, I keep forgetting to crosspost my reviews.

Title: Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo 4: Onibijima Satsujin Jiken
Author: Amagi Seimaru
Number of Pages: 318 pages
My Rating: 5/5

Jacket Summary: A murderer witnessed through a keyhole who disappears without a trace when the door is opened. An approaching tornado. And snow in the middle of summer... The stage for this tragedy is a cursed island that people call Onibijima...Will-o'-Wisp Island.

Review: I think my love for Kindaichi mysteries is pretty well established, and I don't really have much of anything new or different to say here. I love Kindaichi so I loved this book. :p It's not just that they're good mysteries (though they are), but I really love how the killer always has this heart-wrenching tale of why they had to kill all these people. No one kills for greed or just because they're a psychotic killer. They're always motivated by revenge against the people who wronged them or their friends/family and there's always this big heart-felt apology at the end. idk, I like the ~drama~. (Sadly, these novels and even most of the manga are only available in Japanese, though some of the manga was released in English and I highly recommend those as well.)

Title: The Icarus Girl
Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Number of Pages: 338 pages
My Rating: 4/5

Jacket Summary: Jessamy "Jess" Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly's visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn't actually know who her friend is at all.

Review: I really enjoyed this a lot. I took it with me the other day to my doctor's appointment and ended up reading two-thirds of it on the bus and while waiting. It was definitely a good choice for being stuck out for a long time with no other options. It sucked me in right away and I found it hard to put down.

Apparently the author wrote this while still at school, and it does show, but it's still overall really well-written. The biggest annoyance to me was POV slippage here and there and stuff like how the entire book is from Jess's POV except for one random paragraph from her friend's POV, and then the last two chapters are her parents' POV (that choice at least has a good reason; the paragraph in the friend's POV was unnecessary and tell-y).

I have another of her books on my wishlist and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Title: Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science
Author: Carol Kaesuk Yoon
Number of Pages: 344 pages
My Rating: 4/5

Jacket Summary: In Naming Nature, Yoon takes us on a guided tour of science's brilliant, if sometimes misguided, attempts to order and name the overwhelming diversity of earth's living things. We follow a trail of scattered clues that reveals taxonomy's real origins in humanity's distant past. Yoon's journey brings us from New Guinea tribesmen who call a giant bird a mammal to the trials and tribulations of patients with a curious form of brain damage that causes them to be unable to distinguish among living things. Finally, Yoon shows us how the reclaiming of taxonomy will rekindle humanity's dwindling connection with wild nature.

Review: I did not previously have any interest in taxonomy before picking this up, or really much interest in nature at all. But I happened to see it on the shelf at the library and it sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a go. I'm glad I did, because it really is interesting and written in a very engaging way. One thing that bugged me, though, was that she went on and on and on about how wonderful Carl Linneaus was and I would have liked for her to at least touch on the fact that not only did he order plants and animals, but also humans (with whites at the top, natch).
[identity profile] livii.livejournal.com
This is a mostly terrific book: it's a story about families, immigrants, fathers and sons, regret, identity, and, oh, time travel. And meeting Luke Skywalker's son, Linus. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe takes a unique approach to the above themes and also to the concept of time travel itself. It's a twisty, strange ride, full of sadness and humour, and a definite postmodern touch (such as the fact the protagonist is named Charles Yu). Yu's perspective on immigrant life and the effects it can have on families and identity is very insightful in particular. The novel does meander a bit, and the sentences become a bit ridiculously long and convoluted for no good reason as it goes on, sometimes putting me in a daze, but overall it's a striking and successful story. (I recommend against reading the Kindle version on a phone, however - there are charts and diagrams and other supplemental asides, which are very cool, but were mainly unreadable on that device...)
vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)
[personal profile] vass
I've gotten a lot behind with this challenge. I took on another big reading challenge, and I just haven't been reading a lot of books apart from that. Nevertheless, here are the books by authors of colour I've read so far this year:

34. Marjorie M Liu, The Red Heart of Jade
35. Marjorie M Liu, Eye of Heaven
36. Marjorie M Liu, Soul Song
37. Marjorie M Liu, The Last Twilight

They're Marjorie Liu. You will either like them all or dislike them all. I like them, although I have to admit, they were more fun when I didn't know as much about the overarching backstory. Best read in order.

38. Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
This book is, or should be, a classic. It is also depressing and distressing. Some of the details are autobiographical: like both the protagonist and antagonist, Tayeb Salih was born in Sudan and studied in England. I just looked up Wikipedia and discovered that he died last year, aged 80.

This book is about the allegedly corrupting influence of African men on English women, and the actually corrosive effect of colonisation on African men. It is also about the choices of African women (the effects of colonisation on African women in the novel are left for the reader to draw her own conclusions.) It is about the gulf between London society and life in rural Sudan. It is about Othello.

My favourite character is Bint Majzoub, a seventy-year-old woman who swears like the men and has a hearty appreciation of sex. She is one of two female characters in the novel; the other is Hosna Bint Mahmoud. Bint Majzoub is in a complicated position where by accepting the strictures of her society, she has survived to a stage where to some extent she can rise above them. Hosna, by contrast, is in an impossible situation and sees only one way out. It is very clear that the freedom open to the protagonist, to seize control of his own life, is not open to Hosna; she has only one way to take control.

The gender politics of Season of Migration to the North are complex. There are many female characters, white and black, but they never talk to each other, and a conspicuous absence is the narrator's wife, mentioned but never described or heard of.

39. Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig

Our Nig was the first book by an African American author to be published on the American continent (the first known book to be published by an African American author was first known novel by an African American was William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter.)

Our Nig is about indentured servitude in the northern United States. It was first published in 1859. There is a free online copy here.

This very short novel brought home to me once and for all the difference between a book about and a book by a person of colour. Frado, the main character, is oppressed constantly. She herself hates God for making her Black. But her agency is never absent. In no part of the book is she a passive victim. Whether mental or physical, her resistance never flags.

tags: author: liu marjorie m, author: salih tayeb, author: wilson harriet, african-american, african, asian-american
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
6. Paula Yoo, Good Enough

Patti is a Korean-American high school student who plays classical violin but has a secret obsession with boy band Jet Pack. Her parents expect her to study hard, go to her church youth group, and not date, but she's interested in new student Ben Wheeler, who teaches her about groups like the Clash and encourages her to apply to Julliard instead of HarvardYalePrinceton. I really enjoyed both Patti's problems and their resolution; it felt very true to me. Just as a personal note, I always love it when I find a well-written intelligent character, and Patti very much is. Many books will tell the reader that a character is smart, but it's rare for me to find one that can actually show it.

This isn't a deep book, but it's fun and engaging. It had some very funny parts, particularly the silly chapter titles (like "How to Make Your Korean Parents Happy") and spam recipes (which, uh, actually sounded really tasty, and I hate spam). A great read for when you want something light but enjoyable.
[identity profile] puritybrown.livejournal.com
23: Sleepwalk and other stories by Adrian Tomine

I'm a big fan of Adrian Tomine's comics -- I adored Shortcomings, loved Summer Blonde and was intrigued and impressed by 32 Stories. Sleepwalk collects (as far as I can tell) all the short stories from his magazine Optic Nerve that weren't collected in Summer Blonde and 32 Stories, and although Tomine's drawing craft is as impeccable as ever, and his ability to observe and capture small, awkward moments is on view here as much as ever, these stories feel like... well... offcuts. Offcuts from a superior carcass, but offcuts nonetheless. They're not bad -- they're pretty good, actually -- but they suffer in comparison to the rest of Tomine's work. The art is not quite as crisp, and the stories are not quite as strong. Some of them are excellent -- "Lunch Break" packs a considerable punch, and "Supermarket" has a nicely done conclusion that isn't exactly a "twist" (that would imply that it had a plot, which it doesn't, in the conventional sense of the word) but is still unexpected. But more of them just feel a bit lopsided, a bit pointless, a bit too word-heavy -- more like illustrated short stories than comics, and not particularly brilliant short stories at that. Sketches or exercises rather than complete stories.

I moderately enjoyed this, but I would recommend it only to people who already like Tomine's work and are somewhat completist; if you don't like Tomine, this collection is not going to change your mind.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
47. Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

A book of science fiction short stories, but in focusing on more actual science (math, physics, linguistics) and less space ships and laser guns. In a lot of Chiang's stories, a scientific principle or observation becomes a metaphor for something about life: the possibility (or impossibility) of dividing by zero is about a relationship; the angle at which light hits water is about free will and motherhood; lesions in the brain are about the concept of beauty. My favorite two stories are 'The Tower of Babylon' (BRONZE AGE SCIENCE FICTION OMG), which takes the concept of the tower of Babel and looks at what it would be like it people could actually build a tower to heaven, and 'Understand', which is a bit like 'Flowers for Algernon' with a twist: a regular guy becomes incredibly smart due to medical intervention. It's extremely rare to find well-written smart characters, but Chiang does it beautifully. There are several stories where Chiang takes seriously past scientific paradigms, like in 'The Tower of Babylon', which assumes that there actually are a celestial spheres, or another story about Victorian theories of evolution and reproduction.

I really enjoyed these stories. I'm not a big fan of science-fiction in general, but Chiang's style is just awesome.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
44. Jeniffer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

A pop non-fiction book covering pretty much every possible topic related to Chinese food in America. There are chapters on the origins of American-Chinese dishes (fortune cookies, chop suey, General Tso's chicken), a history of Chinese immigration to America, the risks taken by deliverymen (including a horrifying story of a deliveryman who got trapped in an elevator for several days, which I took the opportunity to retell when I was briefly stuck in an elevator myself last week, possibly terrifying the people stuck with me), the story of a family who buys a Chinese restaurant, people who have won the lottery using numbers from fortune cookies, and others. I think my favorite chapter was the one where Lee sets out to find the best Chinese restaurant in the world, outside of China itself.

Overall, this is a light, fun read. I have no idea how the book actually originated, but it reads a lot like Lee (who is a journalist) found some vaguely-related articles and reworked them into a book. Which is not necessarily a flaw; it makes for a very breezy book, which is sometimes what I'm in the mood for.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
38. Malinda Lo, Ash

A YA novel retelling the Cinderella story, but with a twist: Cinderella falls in love with a woman instead of Prince Charming. I've been excited for this book ever since I first heard about it: retelling of a fairy tale! Chinese-American author! YA lesbians! I love all these things. Also, the book has an absolutely gorgeous cover.

I'd somehow gotten the impression that this was the Chinese version of Cinderella, and so was a bit disappointed to find that instead the setting is a fairly generic Medieval-ish Europe. However, Lo does do some very interesting things with the setting, particularly in changing the Fairy Godmother to an elf (and not a nice elf, the Tam Lin and changelings and Childe Rowland kind of elf). Ash's relationship with the elves and magic- constantly drawn in but never quite able to entirely leave our world- was well-written and fascinating. I also really liked the repeated use of telling fairy tales as a way for characters to communicate.

I do wish that there had been more about Ash's relationship with Kaisa, but for what little there was, it was extremely well-written, subtle but vivid. There's not much detail given of people's reactions to the relationship, but it appears to be set in one of those worlds were being gay or lesbian is unremarkable. Certainly, there's no mention of a backlash to them, and Ash doesn't go through any sort of sexual identity crisis. I also wish the book had been longer! There was a lot more about these characters and world that I would have liked to know. But overall, very recommended.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
34. Cindy Pon, Silver Phoenix

A YA fantasy novel set in a world based on Chinese legends and history, the plot concerns Ai Ling's search for her father, teaming up with some people she meets on her travels, and finding out about her special destiny. I really enjoyed the vast, vast number of monsters and other supernatural creatures Ai Ling has encounters with; there was always another legend or story popping up, and that felt very fun to me. I also agree with many other reviewers who have said that all the eating scenes in this book are fantastic, and make you hungry. Totally true! Although it made me realize that most fantasies a) don't show the characters eating very often, and b) when they are, it's usually "stew". Or occasionally "bread and cheese". A little description goes a long way, authors!

On the other hand, I felt like the writing was a little flat, and that really prevented me from getting into the story as much as I might have otherwise. Still, a very fun read overall, and I'm looking forward to more books by the author.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
32. Geling Yan, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, translated by Cathy Silber

This novel is about a real historical figure, Fusang, a Chinese woman who was a prostitute in San Fransisco in the late 1800s. Although the narration focuses on Fusang and her relationship with others, particularly Chris- a young white boy from a German merchant family in love with Fusang- and Da Yong- a Chinese gangster who is influential in Fusang's life- Fusang herself ultimately remains a blank. She's never given motivations, inner dialogue, or even much emotion. And this is deliberate. The narrator- who, as a Chinese writer living in America in the modern day, may or may not be the voice of the author herself- often breaks into the story, explaining the impossibility of truly knowing another person, especially when that other person is a historical figure with only brief mentions in texts. At other times, the narrator speaks directly to Fusang, asking her to move a certain way or to reply to a question. I found this distancing effect to be really intriguing, but in other reviews people seem to have been annoyed by it, so your mileage may vary.

The language is beautiful and vivid; the plot is compelling. The novel explores racism, sexism, and violence, often explicitly linking events of the historical period depicted to the modern day. Highly recommended.


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