China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan

China Rich GirlfriendI read Crazy Rich Asians last year with my book club and it was a complete surprise “holy crap this is great” book. I had no idea I would love a book like that so much, but I did. Then the television show Jane the Virgin happened and I was like, no, no, I won’t like a show like that but of course I did because it’s the same level of crazy (and crazy rich) soap opera drama that permeates Kwan’s work. When Jane ended a few weeks ago I didn’t know what I’d do with myself — until China Rich Girlfriend showed up. Crazy adventures and misunderstandings for everyone!

Seriously, it’s so great, guys. China Rich Girlfriend picks up a while after Crazy Rich Asians left off, so there has been plenty of time for insanity of that book to percolate into even insaner insanity. Nick and Rachel, the engaged and then estranged couple from the first book, are back together and better than ever now that Nick’s not talking to his mom at all. Because that’s healthy. And going to go well. Let’s just say that Eleanor literally crashes her son’s wedding, but for a good reason — she’s found Rachel’s dad and she totally approves of him. But Rachel’s new family may not feel quite the same way about her.

Meanwhile Nick’s cousin Astrid, who had some serious marriage troubles due to her extreme wealth and her husband’s lack of it, is now dealing with a husband wealthy in his own right who suddenly doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t make him look and feel richer than God. And former porn star Kitty Pong, who played a small role in the first book, shows up to flaunt her own ridiculous riches and make several enemies in the process, but with the help of a sort of personal life coach she’s hoping to turn her image around so that she can continue her flaunting in even better company.

So, yeah. AMAZING. Many of the characters from the first book make appearances of varying importance in this second book, but it doesn’t really matter who’s there because the main stories are all completely engrossing in their own right. Like, seriously, I was making excuses to invent time to read this book. It’s kind of absurd how Kwan can take a plot like “Will Rachel’s newfound family accept her?” or “Can Astrid make peace with her husband’s new life goals?” or, most ridiculously, “What the heck is up with Kitty’s husband?” (spoiler: omg the greatest thing ever) and make the answers something I must know immediately right now but okay, sure, you can go ahead and talk about drag racing and fashion, I can totally wait. I probably don’t even know what half the words in this book mean, between the fashion, interior design, and various Asian exclamations (okay, I know what those mean because there are footnotes [!!]), but I do not care.

If you haven’t read Crazy Rich Asians but you like or think you might like wacky rich-person soap operas, you should go read it, then read a bunch of other books, and then when you’re in need of absurdism come back to this one. You could maybe read China Rich Girlfriend first, but the beginning won’t make a lot of sense and also you would be missing out on all the wonder of the original novel. Regardless, whenever you get around to reading this novel, let me warn you that the ending will leave you dying for a third installment in this series, so have plenty of other books on hand to distract you from the fact that there isn’t one (yet???).

Recommendation: Why are you even still reading this blog, go obtain these books immediately!

Rating: 10/10

The Just City, by Jo Walton

The Just CitySo, let’s be real. I barely skimmed the description of this book before reading it because a) Jo Walton and b) Greek gods. Sold. I knew there was something about Plato going on, but other than that I was Jon Snow.

You may want to know a bit more before going in.

So, okay, if you’re like me and you’ve only read My Real Children, the first thing is that this book is almost nothing like that one except for the wonderfulness of Walton’s writing. But oh, how wonderful it is.

The conceit of the book is that the goddess Athena has heard enough prayers across time wishing for a chance to live in the Just City of Plato’s Republic that she’s like, you know what, let’s do it. She collects those who prayed, recruits the willing, commandeers Atlantis, and starts building a city. She and the “masters” of the city then collect a bunch of ten-year-old (or “ten-year-old”, as these things go) slaves to educate in the style of the Just City. The story of the city is told from three points of view: that of Maia, a master of the city; of Simmea, one of the children of the city; and of Apollo/Pytheas, who has made himself mortal to experience the city as one of the slave children as well, for a reason I will talk about more in two paragraphs.

It is very interesting to see how these three narrators interact with the city; they all love the city for different reasons but recognize its faults, and because they’re all wildly overeducated they talk about it a lot. And then they talk about it even more when Socrates shows up. My god, that man asks a lot of questions. Really, once he shows up the whole book is just a giant Socratic dialogue about the role of the Just City and what Plato might have thought about this literal embodiment of it. It is fascinating to the point where I want to want to read The Republic but I know that’s never going to happen. At least I know this much about it!

I like that part of the story, the pretty much whole part of the story, but there’s another thread running through the book that you may want to be aware of, which is practically a discourse on rape. Right at the beginning, we learn that Apollo has no idea why Daphne would rather turn into a tree than have sex with him, and his lady god siblings are like, you are so stupid. He literally does not understand that women have, like, minds and bodies of their own, and so he takes on this life in the Just City to learn to comprehend this basic fact of existence. (The gods not knowing everything is another thread in this story.) Later in the book there is a rape scene between two regular humans with much the same thought process, and then even later there is more or less sanctioned rape as the children are paired off by the masters at procreation festivals. There is a lot of sex going on, and it is all quite problematic, and because this is a book with Socrates in it there is a lot of discussion of problematic sex, is what I’m saying.

So, to sum up: this is a super thinky book with lots of thinky things to think about. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I will be reading its sequel as soon as it comes out, and then like everything else Jo Walton has ever written because if she can make me like Socratic dialogue she can do anything.

Recommendation: For wildly overeducated people, lovers of Plato, and people who just like to think a lot.

Rating: 9/10

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in RuinsI loved Life After Life with a fiery burning passion, and when I heard there was a second novel in that universe coming out, I may have done a happy dance. I couldn’t wait to spend more time in Ursula’s strange time-altering world.

So when I realized early on that this book, which is about Ursula’s brother Teddy, that the whole reincarnation-ish aspect of Life After Life was going to be pretty much ignored, I was hugely disappointed. I had thought it would be fascinating to see how Ursula’s lives affected Teddy, but instead there’s just a brief mention near the beginning about how sometimes Teddy felt like he could see his whole life ahead of him and then a straightforward novel. Well, I mean, straightforward compared to Life After Life.

What Atkinson does here instead is jump all around in Teddy’s one life, writing briefly of his childhood and then his war years and then his married years and then his widower years and then back to the war years and then forward to the grandpa years and then some chapters from the point of view of his kid and grandkids and wife thrown in for good measure.

Many of the vignettes of the novel are told more than once from different perspectives (present, past, other characters), and it is fascinating to see how the same event can look completely different. Atkinson does this great thing, too, where she relates the story as if for the very first time, so that the variations in the story don’t get any sort of prominence and you almost have to work to remember that that one character thought something completely different had happened. I almost want to go back and read the book again, to experience the first half or so the right way (I waited a long time for the weird to happen) and to catch all the little bits I know I must have missed.

Setting aside the narrative style, the narrative itself is also a pretty good one. Where Life After Life covered World War II and the London Blitz and the horror of the war in England, this book is more about Teddy as a survivor of that war. There is plenty about his role in the war itself, bombing the heck out of Germany and presuming every flight in his plane would be the last, but there’s even more about how that part of his life is almost completely erased after it’s over. He’s expected to move on, and so he does, sort of, but the war is always in the back of his mind and on the pages of this book. And then there’s this whole other storyline about family and parenthood and what it means to love someone who doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) love you back and what love even is, really, and the whole thing is heartbreaking in a million different ways.

It’s so good, guys. I wanted it to be a different book, but it stubbornly refused to listen to me, and I’m so glad it didn’t. I may never get around to Atkinson’s mysteries (which I do very much want to read), but I will read the heck out of whatever giant historical novel she writes next, and y’all know that’s saying something.

Recommendation: For lovers of Life After Life, but especially for those who wanted to love Life After Life but couldn’t get past the reincarnation. This is your book!

Rating: 9/10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis is kind of a difficult book to talk about, as I and my fellow book clubbers quickly found out when we sat down to talk about it. But it’s the good kind of tough to talk about, where all the stuff you want to talk about is, like, “Look what the author did here! Isn’t that cool?”

Cool thing number one: The core part of the narrative takes place over a five-day span in 2004, telling the story of a young Chechen girl whose dad is disappeared by Russian soldiers and whose neighbor takes it upon himself to find her a safe place to stay before the soldiers come back for her. Havaa, the girl, and Akhmed, the neighbor, make their way to the place Akhmed thinks is most safe — a hospital run by a doctor whose name Akhmed once came across. That doesn’t sound terribly safe to me, but we soon find out that this situation is the least of everyone’s worries.

Cool thing number two: In between pieces of the main narrative, the author jumps back to various points between 1994 and 2004 to talk about the history of the characters, of Chechnya in general, and of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia. He puts in just enough information that you understand why things like the Landfill exist and are so awful, but not so much that it feels like a history lesson. There were a couple of times I found myself reaching to Google to, say, remember where Chechnya is in the first place, but that was more because I was curious and had Google at hand than because of any confusion.

Cool thing number three: The author leaves the narrative at points to remark on things that the characters don’t yet or can’t possibly know, like what their parents felt about certain things or what will happen to them in the future. Sometimes these bits help put events in perspective, and sometimes they help to show how this limited narrative fits into the larger world. Either way, they prevent a terrible horrible epilogue and I am indebted to the author for that.

Other cool things: The characters are all “real” in that none of them are entirely good or entirely bad, even the ones who are really really super bad. Almost all of the characters interact at some point during the novel, but none of these interactions ever seem forced. There is, in my copy at least, a little Q&A with the author that is one of the few actually interesting Q&A’s I’ve seen.

I said when I got to book club that I thought the novel was really good, really well written, but that I wasn’t sure if I could say that I liked it, exactly, what with all the bleakness and desolation. That may still be the case; I’m not ready to go out and buy a copy to foist on anyone. But I do think it’s fantastically written, and I will be talking it up to other book nerds.

Recommendation: For book nerds of the sort who like a well plotted, tightly woven novel. Also people who want some sneak attack history.

Rating: 9/10

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful ThingsI ignored the Cheryl Strayed hype for a long time because ugh, memoirs, and also eh, advice columns. But I heard enough people falling over themselves loving on Tiny Beautiful Things that I figured I should at least check it out. And seriously, this thing is so good that you’ll probably be hearing about her memoir in this space some day, which is just crazy talk.

Anyway, this book is a collection of advice column questions and answers from “Dear Sugar”, Sugar being a formerly anonymous and always honest advice-giver. I’m not terribly much for advice columns, but I knew this one, and this book, was going to be perfect for me when I got to page 15 and found the following sentence: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” Yes. This. A thousand times this.

Most of the questions Sugar gets, or at least publishes, are secretly about that one thing. Sure, on the surface they’re about a lot of things, from romantic relationships gone awry or not-yet-existent to family relationships of dubious quality to crises of faith and identity, but Sugar’s answers tend to boil down to one thing. Will this make you happy? Do it. Will it make you sad? Don’t do it. Will it make other people happy or sad? That’s not really your problem.

You might think that would get boring over 353 pages and 56 questions, but the fact that it doesn’t is a testament to Strayed’s writing. She could just say, “It’s not making you happy. Stop. The end,” but instead she says things like, “You mustn’t live with people who wish to annihilate you. Even if you love them.” She could even stop there, with simple and direct answers, but instead she throws in stories from her own life, which has been difficult in many ways and wonderful in just as many, to show the question-askers that yes, life sucks, but not all the time. Things may seem bleak now but they will be less bleak later. But only if you focus on making yourself the most awesome self.

It’s a powerful book. I am one of the lucky few who, in Sugar’s words, “have almost never had to get over anything,” and I know that I am lucky for it. But I also know that my time will come, and I am glad to be prepared in advance. And it’s lovely to see letters from people who share my low-grade neuroses, to know that I’m not the only one and that if I can see clearly the answer for the letter-writer, I may just possibly have an answer for myself.

Recommendation: For you. For everyone.

Rating: 10/10

The Lost Boys Symphony, by Mark Andrew Ferguson

The Lost Boys SymphonyIt’s apparently the time of year for me to read weird books. Sex strikes, cocaine as a narrator, odd people hanging out in hotels…. But where those books were weird in a “What the heck is going on?” way, this book is weird in a “My brain is broken and I don’t have enough duct tape to fix it right now” sort of way, largely because time travel.

And it’s the most brain-breaking-est kind of time travel, too, where people change history and then remember new memories but also old memories and are still hanging out wherever they were when they changed history regardless of the fact that they CHANGED HISTORY and shouldn’t be there anymore! It’s not Looper levels of ridiculous with severed limbs or anything, but it comes pretty close.

Okay, so, the story. There’s this dude, Henry (the best time traveller name?), and he’s a super percussionist, awesome boyfriend to Val, and best of best friends to Gabe. However, he’s got some mental issues, and at the beginning of the story he is escaping his mother’s house and the imaginary cacophony that surrounds him there to hike across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan and get back together with Val, who recently left him for a new life. Halfway across the bridge, he is overcome by the bridge’s music (again, imaginary) and collapses, waking up some time later in a strange place with two strange but eerily familiar people watching over him.

Turns out those dudes are the Henrys 80 and 41 (as they call themselves), and they have figured out how to use the crazy bridge music to time travel (as you do) and they have come to talk to 19 and see if he can’t fix their lives that have not gone quite the way they want them to. Henry 19 is really unclear about how and why they’ve come to him and what he can do to help, and as the story goes along he comes to find that maybe 80 and 41 aren’t any more clear than he is on that score.

When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be a more or less straightforward (for a time travel book, anyway) guy-gets-girl book, with Henry chasing the elusive Val across time and space so that they can be together forever in all timelines or whatever. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Staying true to the time-bending conceit, the chapters go back and forth between times and characters, chronicling the three friends mostly in the time of 19 but also going back to high school and forward to 41’s time. We find out how the time travel got started and we see how it is way less useful than anyone ever thinks it is as things go wrong and are corrected and then go wrong again. And then meanwhile to the whole Henrys thing, we see Gabe and Val taking in 19’s disappearance and changing their relationship in a way that threatens to be pretty disastrous to all Henrys involved.

I love the way that Ferguson played with time and narrative, doling out important bits slowly across all timelines until they finally made sense. I also love that Val, who could easily have gone Manic Pixie Dream Girl, got to be a real live human with thoughts and problems of her own. The ending of the book left a little bit to be desired, resolution-wise, which if I’m saying that means it’s seriously a thing, and the very end is just too simple for my tastes, but on the plus side I’ll be thinking about what happened (and what might have happened) for days. This is an amazing first book and I will definitely be looking for more from Ferguson.

Recommendation: For people whose brains are extra-strong and those who love a good time travel yarn.

Rating: 9/10

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsEverything I heard about this book in the last few months indicated that it was a sort of spiritual (haaa) successor to The Sparrow, which I think we’ve established is my favorite book and is super awesome and therefore I was like, well, gotta read The Book of Strange New Things, then.

But what’s really fascinating about this book is how completely unlike The Sparrow it is. It has the same basic premise — dude goes to space on a mission trip to hang out with aliens — but that’s basically the only thing it has in common. So come at this book without all those preconceived notions, or you’ll find yourself fighting the story the whole time.

So in this story, a fella called Peter is chosen after rigorous interviewing to become a Christian missionary to a place called Oasis. He doesn’t know much about the private company, USIC, sponsoring his trip; he doesn’t know much about the aliens he’s going to meet; all he really knows is that he’s leaving his wife behind on Earth for a few months in exchange for an amazing missionary opportunity and lots and lots of dollars.

On Oasis, Peter finds his job both easier and weirder than he expected. The aliens already know about Jesus and are in fact clamoring to hear more stories from what they call the Book of Strange New Things. But Peter can’t figure out why his new congregation is so super into Jesus or how to tell these fetus-faced (his words!) aliens apart or whether said aliens have any emotions that he can work with in his ministry. And when he goes back to the USIC base, things are strange there, too. The place has almost no locks on any door and the technology is primitive and the workers communicate solely face-to-face and the magazines have any useful information about Earth ripped out and it’s just weird.

Meanwhile, Peter is getting messages from his wife, Bea, that indicate that life on Earth is not going well at all, with natural disasters and supermarket shortages and public services becoming completely ignored. And speaking of ignored, Bea is getting more and more irritated that her long and descriptive messages about her life are being met with simple responses or, more often, no response at all. Peter knows that he should care more about Earth and Bea, but he is just so far removed from everything except his aliens that anything else seems unreal.

And that’s the whole story, really. With all the mysteries and oddness in the space part of the book, I kept waiting for the Big Reveal — that USIC was actually some nefarious corporation, that Oasis was something more akin to Area X, that Bea’s notes to Peter were totally faked, something. But this particular story is just about a guy who goes on a dangerous mission and finds out that not going might have been the more dangerous option. Which is pretty cool, actually.

Also cool is just the way that Faber writes. He gives his aliens an accent by replacing some English letters with unpronounceable symbols, his descriptions really make you feel the difference between the sweltering but open outdoor living of the Oasans and the climate- and everything-controlled living of the humans, he writes the letters between Bea and Peter in such a way that you know exactly what is going to be misconstrued and how, and it is all so lovely. I will definitely be checking out his other book, The Crimson Petal and the White, as soon as there’s an opening in my reading schedule (a totally not metaphorical thing that I have).

Recommendation: For people who want to think some thinky thoughts about life and love.

Rating: 9/10