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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Utopias in nineteenth century America

Review:

Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism - Chris Jennings

Deeply held convictions about religion, science, and the industrial revolution converged in mid-nineteenth century America and created a flurry of experimental utopian communities whose enthusiastic members hoped they were building model societies that would change the world. This fascinating, hard to put down, sometimes heartbreaking history profiles five of the hard working, ideal rich groups–the Shakers, New Harmony, the Fourierist phalanxes, Icaria and Oneida. While the utopians held many core ideas in common, some of their beliefs varied widely, from multi-partner free love to celibacy, but unity predominated so the groups supported each other, exchanged members, and saw themselves as fellow travelers.

Their results were mixed, with a few of the communities being more viable than the others, but none of them prospered in ways that made them catalysts for a global reorganization of civilization. In spite of that, many of the progressive views the utopians all agreed on were eventually embraced by the population at large, including the right of women to be treated equally, the benefits of strong public education for democracy, the advantages of a diverse society, the need for a social safety net, and the dangers of unchecked markets.

Though setting up these prototype paradises involved a lot of arduous labor, the morale and happiness of  participants was boosted by their idealistic mission, common purpose and close community, making it heartbreaking for the utopians when their groups fell apart. At a time when most Americans lived much more isolated lives under social strictures that limited contact between men and women and people of different classes, members of the utopias lived, ate, and worked together during the day, and held dances, lectures, singalongs, assemblies, and/or classes in the evenings–high-times that sound like great fun even to this privacy loving introvert.

Because of social changes they helped inspire, utopian communities ultimately did have some impact on the way culture has advanced since the nineteenth century, which is why the author suggests that while we are now obsessed with dystopias and picturing how things could go very wrong, there would be value in following the lead of utopians by imagining what we think an ideal world would look like.

Paradise Now is full of poignant, lively, and engagingly written insights into the mid-nineteenth century zeitgeist–mainly the time before the Civil War. It’s detailed without being ponderous, and reflective without being opinionated. I found it utterly riveting.

I read an advanced review copy of this book provided by the publisher at minimal cost to me. Review opinions are mine.

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Interesting setting makes this mystery stand out

Review:

His Right Hand (A Linda Wallheim Mystery) - Mette Ivie Harrison

I found this second mystery by Mette Ivie Harrison almost as enthralling as the first, in spite of the fact that I guessed the solution before the end. What sets this series apart is its setting in a modern mainstream Mormon community, a group I don’t know a lot about, and the open, intimate tone of the story. This time the characters are struggling with ripped from the headlines issues of sexual identity and acceptance of difference.

 

Main character Linda Wallheim, the wife of a bishop, is a devout believer but has some troubling questions about her church’s policies and power structure. Her marriage is generally good, but not without challenges, and she’s at loose ends because her youngest son has all but moved out of the house.  When her husband’s rigidly traditional colleague is murdered Linda becomes deeply involved in helping the victim’s distraught, almost unhinged widow and two teenage children. This puts her in a position to notice disturbing patterns which could help solve the crime, drawing Linda further into dangerous circumstances, but church higher-ups insist that some aspects of the situation be kept from the public, hampering the police investigation.

 

The author is a Mormon herself and I greatly enjoyed having a glimpse into that community. It’s a moving, family-focused story and the non-murder themes have some basis in reality–Harrison explains in the afterword that the idea for the book came from an incident she witnessed firsthand.

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