No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, August 30, 2015

2015/16: Dash and Lily's Book of Dares -- David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

I was attempting to write the story of my life. It wasn’t so much about plot. It was much more about character. [loc. 2579]
Dash and Lily are teenagers in New York City. Their 'Book of Dares' is a red Moleskine notebook which Dash finds on a bookshop shelf next to his favourite author's books. The notebook sets out some puzzles, which Dash solves: then they begin a correspondence -- and courtship -- via the notebook, and an increasingly apt set of challenges.

This is very much 'Odd Couple' territory. Dash is an introvert, Lily an extravert. Dash loathes Christmas ('This was the miracle of the season, the way it put the fuck off so loud in our hearts' [loc. 387]), Lily adores it. Both are spending Christmas more or less alone, but in Dash's case it's intentional (he's told each of his divorced parents that he's staying with the other) while in Lily's it's very much not (her parents are away on a belated honeymoon, her brother has locked himself in his room with his new boyfriend).

They bring out the best in one another. Writing in the notebook helps Dash realise that he's lonely: Lily discovers, meanwhile, that she has a wilder side.

This was a light read but a very entertaining one. I felt a fondness for both characters (though much more sympathy with Dash than Lily), and I enjoyed the vignettes of Christmastime New York. The supporting cast (elderly relatives, school friends, members of the NYPD) are suitably clear-eyed when it comes to the protagonists, and Dash and Lily's backgrounds are sketched out in brief, anecdotal asides instead of being used to explain or excuse. A small, sweet delight.

Friday, August 28, 2015

2015/15: The Three-Body Problem -- Cixin Liu

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. … It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. [loc. 348]

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and immensely popular in China: this novel was recommended to me as 'good hard SF with believable characters', and I'd second that.

As a student during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie saw her father beaten to death for refusing to recant his belief in science. Struggling to reconcile physics and morality, she accepts a post at a top-secret research base.

Wang Miao is a nanotech researcher in present-day China, who's asked to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, the Frontiers of Science group: there's been a spate of suicides in the scientific community and the police are at a loss. After some inexplicable occurences (a timestamped countdown on photos; a flicker of the universe to confirm a threat) Wang Miao is introduced to an online game, Three Body, populated by characters from history. In the game, flying stars herald Stable Eras (when civilisation can flourish) and Chaotic Eras (in which the laws of nature become unpredictable). The goal of the game is to predict the pattern of the sun, and perhaps thus the onset of Chaotic Eras. With sufficient warning, the world's inhabitants can dehydrate and be stored during a Chaotic Era, to be resurrected when stability is restored. Thus far, nobody has solved the riddle. Wang Miao has some ideas, though ...

Enter Ye Wenjie, whose account of her work at Red Coast Base shows the Three Body game in a very different, and much less innocent, light. Meanwhile, modern physics is being called a 'lie'; weird results are popping up in experiments all over the world; and popular opinion is turning against the scientific community.

The scientific ideas in The Three-Body Problem were explained clearly enough for this non-scientist to feel that she understood them -- though that obviously does require a certain degree of infodump. Equally interesting was the depiction of Chinese society, both in the Cultural Revolution and in the present day.

The first of a trilogy: I understand that the second and third are each different in ambience to this, but I'm intrigued to see how things work out.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2015/14: White Cat -- Holly Black

We are, largely, who we remember ourselves to be. That’s why habits are so hard to break. If we know ourselves to be liars, we expect not to tell the truth. If we think of ourselves as honest, we try harder. [loc. 3621]

Cassel Sharp is seventeen, and it's three years since he killed the girl he loved.

He's the outsider in his family, the rest of whom are curse-workers: his older brother Barron manipulates luck, while the middle brother Philip can turn someone's body against them, and their mother -- currently in jail for fraud -- performs emotional workings. Cassel's grandfather has a more fearsome gift: he's a death-worker, murdering people with magic. Every working has a price: a worker, or magic user, who works someone to amend their memories will lose a memory of their own, and Cassel's grandfather has blackened stubs where some of his fingers used to be.

White Cat, the first in a trilogy, opens with Cassel waking up mid-nightmare to find himself teetering on the roof of his college dorm. Was he sleepwalking, or has he been 'worked'? The school, quite sensibly, want him to be someone else's problem, so they pack him off to his grandfather.

Cassel is not wholly without resources. He deputises his roommate Sam to take over the betting pool he runs (his fellow students will bet on anything and everything, including the eventual fate of a mouse in the common room) and fakes a psychologist's letter for the school. Mundanities taken care of, he can turn his attention to the real issue: why he's sleepwalking, losing his memories and dreaming of a white cat.

I'd expected -- not sure why -- something considerably less gritty than the novel I actually read, and I was very happy to have my preconceptions proved wrong. Cassel is not always a likeable protagonist but he has wit and courage, and is surprisingly vulnerable behind his tough-guy facade. That facade is a survival mechanism, not just teen machismo. The world in which he lives is one where magic is a criminal activity (at least in the US): hence, it's run by crime families, which makes it a dangerous game and a treacherous career. Some of Cassel's friends -- who aren't workers -- are campaigning for worker rights and better legislation. But that's probably not going to help Cassel, who finds himself caught up in the harsh realities of illegal magic.

White Cat is first in a trilogy: I ordered the other two as soon as I'd finished the first.