Favorite books of January, part 2, three more books I loved

Review:

Speak - Louisa Hall Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind - Anne Charnock Between Mountain and Sea: Paradisi Chronicles (Caelestis Series Book 1) - M. Louisa Locke

1) Powerful, poignant, and deep, Speak has an unusual structure, weaving together six narrative voices that together illuminate a link between the creation of artificial intelligence and the fundamental human yearning for connection. When I started the book its nonlinear format put me off, but it took just a few chapters for me to become totally hooked. The narrators include a Pilgrim or Puritan girl as she leaves her former life behind to journey to America, AI pioneer and WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, and a now illegal, slowly “dying” babybot–a doll of the future so lifelike and compelling that children who had one couldn’t bond with people–as it slowly loses power and memory. 

I don’t normally pay much attention to epigraphs, but I love Speak‘s. One is from Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky, while the other comes from what I think is Disney’s Snow White: 

“Slave in the magic mirror, come from farthest outer space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak!”

 

2) Beautifully written and haunting in the sense that it leaves you with things to think about, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind completely captured me. Blending science fiction, art, and history, its three connected storylines span time–with one in the past, one in the present, and one in the future–but all revolve around the fifteenth century painter Paolo Uccello and his artistically talented daughter Antonia, two real life historical figures. A lot of research went into this novel, and I actually learned something about painting composition, art history and the possibilities of future technology.

 

3) I loved Between Mountain and Sea, and really didn’t want to leave the characters behind. Fortunately it’s the first of a sci-fi series that’s part of the Paradisi Chronicles, an intriguing multi-author project about 10 extended families who exit our devastated home world to set up colonies in New Eden, an Earth-like planet that already has native hominids. These original people are an interesting human variation, and several of them play important roles in the novel.

M. Louisa Locke, author of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series that starts with Maids of Misfortune, is here telling the story of the Yu family, who have their roots in China. Mabel Yu was one of the original settlers and traveled from Earth as a young teenager. About 150 years later Mei Lin Yu, Mabel’s descendant, discovers Mabel’s diary, a fascinating document that tells the real history of the colony, not what Mei Lin has been taught at school. These new insights help Mei Lin question the path that’s been laid out for her, one that doesn’t suit her at all. Though Mei Lin is YA age, romance plays almost no role in the action–it’s more a coming of age book. As indicated by the title, the setting is vivid and wild, and while parts of the plot were a little predictable, I was so caught up in the world and the lives of the characters that I didn’t care.

 

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Favorite books of January, part 1

Review:

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Intense, memorable, and deeply captivating, Planetfall manages to be character-driven and idea-filled without sacrificing action and suspense. The story involves space travel, an off-Earth colony 20-some years after its establishment in the shadows of a (mostly) abandoned alien structure, the biology-linked religious beliefs that inspired the colony’s creation, a first person narrator coping with and trying to hide her anxious obsessions, and life enhanced (or maybe diminished) by advanced technology that includes 3D printers, which create everything the colony needs from homes to cups, and implanted chips, which connect every person to the web and each other–making it difficult for the main character to keep her psychological challenges off the grid and out of sight. Being inside the head of a character struggling with compulsive behaviors was unsettling and fascinating, and felt uncomfortably close to some of my own mental processes. The ending is unlike anything I’ve read, savage, visceral, cosmic and sublime.

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Witty novel on 1930’s Britain

Review:

The Demon in the House - Angela Thirkell

The Demon in the House is the third book of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a story centered on a force of nature like the cheerfully self-involved, hyper-talkative, 12 or 13 year-old Tony Morland–the “demon” of the title–but for the most part I loved it. Many of the characters from High Risings, the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, are back and it was a pleasure to catch up with old friends.

Several sections of the story evoke with breath-taking clarity the mostly unruly but sometimes sublime passions of childhood–especially chapter 5, which is titled Paradise Pool because Tony discovers a particularly lovely view of the lake where a group of grown-ups and children have gathered to picnic and swim. The youngsters are full of high spirits, playing, squabbling loudly, and running off with each other’s toys, but then Tony and his mostly silent friend Donk climb down to muck around in a stream that’s below the level of the main body of water, and from that lower angle the lake looms like a magic pool suspended in midair, a vision that awes and moves them both and temporarily silences the almost pathologically loquacious Tony–it’s a lovely piece of writing.

Thirkell apparently didn’t think much of her own books. Like Tony’s mother she wrote because she needed to earn a living and didn’t expect or want her well educated friends to read her novels, but but for “fluff” her stories are witty and socially aware. Because they were written during the time when they’re set, in this case the 1930’s, the stories also offer interesting and often unexpected (to me) insights about the daily life and attitudes of the era, including a few eyebrow-raising off-hand comments by characters that are offensive today.

Virago is re-releasing many of Thirkell’s novels, but so far not not this one, which means that most or all of the available copies are the Moyer Bell editions which do have some editing errors.

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