Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

In my quest to read interesting books off other people's best-of lists regardless of genre, I recently listened to One Day in December. I don't know what section it would be in at Barnes and Noble, and that's probably for the best. It's a story about a woman who sees a man at a bus stop, falls in love, then a few months later her best friend brings him home as her new boyfriend. This could definitely go either way, and it definitely does. Some scenes verge on plot contrivance and romance-novel purple prose. However, those scenes are few and far between, and there's more originality and strong writing here than I expected. One of the strengths of the book is Silver writes (mostly) convincingly from the man's perspective too, and flips between the two perspectives expertly to hide things and create tension as well as to reveal. Most of the central plot points are driven by character and logical progressions rather than coincidence. I especially like how the conflicts between characters are set up with that inevitability that you see coming but hope won't happen nonetheless. It's hard to write a story in which a relationship is developed for more than a decade, revealing, advancing, putting up barriers, people changing, etc. That's something only a book can do convincingly, and I think this book does that. Silver is also aware of ALL the movies and tropes (Love Actually is referenced in the first few pages), and while I would prefer it challenges more of them, I think it at least captures the zeitgeist so that someone could analyze and challenge the tropes from the outside (don't get me started on the Girardian rivalry of the best friend duo). So, yes, I can see why this was on someone's best-of list. Though it's not in the center of my own Venn diagram, it had its moments and told its story well.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Book Review: The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin

No spoilers here, but it's nice to be blown away again. I found the second book in this trilogy underwhelming, but the third one is outstanding but in a different way from the first. If the first book plunges you into three converging stories about a post-apocalyptic world with an allusively thermodynamic kind of magic, then the third book finally shows you the pre-apocalyptic world with an allusively magical kind of science. (Note that you could actually shift the labels "magic" and "science" and get almost the same sentence I just wrote.)

This third book is apocalyptic in the real, deep sense of the world, that of pulling back the veil to show you that an apparently wonderful world is built on exploitation and cruelty. There's a real question of whether this world is even worth saving. The harrowing bloody foundations of the world cut deep and linger long after the story is done. In this dark context, the simple acts of love do stand out (though I wish there was more of it, but I wish that in real life too).

Halfway through, Jemisin writes "If you love someone you don’t get to choose how they love you back." If the book had reflected or expanded more on this astounding quote, if it had been set in a world in which that truth was baked into the bones of its universe, as I believe it is in OUR universe, this book might have climbed up to one of my all-time favorites. As it is, it follows the strands in its own sort of fallen, silent universe and adds everything up well.

Even now I ask, is this a sci-fi or fantasy novel? I continue to think of it as sci-fi, but in practice it ends up working like fantasy. And the stubborn insistence of my brain to call this sci-fi may account for my misgivings about the world. I'm frustrated by the ways in which this world is impossible, because it's so realistic in so many other ways, and its revolutionary message is diluted by the fact that it's ultimately a dualistic, even Gnostic world, and it is definitely not our world. Because I don't think creation really works that way deep down, I can't completely enter into the world or its characters. Because the way the world works is a fantasy, I think I must classify this as fantasy deep down. (Though there are some interesting parallels in the ways in which Jemisin and James S.A. Corey both embrace a sort of panpsychic universe when explaining consciousness. I don't think that works in the end but I absolutely allow that it's the second-best philosophical option over simple materialism.)

This gives enough detail and history that I think some day I'd like to sit down and compare this series, The Expanse (by Corey), and our actual universe, to show just how I think our universe is truly "very good" relative to the other options and philosophies ... but that will have to wait for another day. For today, I will affirm that this book is very much worth the hype, even if I don't know exactly which shelf to put it on.