Capsule Book Review Roundup — January-July 2023
Kept you waiting, huh.
While I've rounded up my reviews before, I'm going to be doing so more often so I wanted to explain why some books get their own reviews while others don't. While it's easy enough to make a post for every book review, most neither long enough nor notable enough for me to justify doing so. Allergic to brevity as I am, most of my reviews tend to be on the longer side. Except for my book reviews. While I have written a sprawling book review, for whatever reason, I generally don't have a lot to say about the books I've read. Beyond that, I try make my reviews notable beyond the work itself. I don't think everything (or anything) I pen is some heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but I do like to think I write for reasons beyond me liking the sound of my own typing. Sometimes I'll use a work's strengths or weaknesses to comment on its genre, more often I'll delve into how or why I was introduced to a work in order to give proper context regarding my opinion. I certainly have book reviews that meet both of these requirements — Endless Love and Beverly of Graustark to name my favorites — but most don't. My book reviews are still "important" in that they give my opinions on works, it's just that most don't really deserve an entire page worth of real estate.
Read from 01/13/2023 - 01/21/2023
Afternoon, a Story by Michael Joyce
Something, something Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm admonishing “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Afternoon, a story is the seminal example of what is referred to as “hypertext fiction” a digital storytelling medium in which stories are told non-linearly via readers clicking the words on the page, which will then take them to a page related to the said word. My lede may make it sound like I’m dismissing hypertext fiction as a whole. Au contraire: I’m always interested in works that bend genres and mediums. I place all the onus of my disappointment with Afternoon, a story on its author, Michael Joyce. I liken Michael Joyce’s work on Afternoon, a story to Walter Jackson Freeman II giving a lobotomy; showily demonstrating “look ma, I can do it with no hands” as he gives the crowd a toothy grin while ruining some poor sap’s brain with an ice pick — you’re impressed, yet disgusted. One of two things is true: either A, Michael Joyce is just straight-up a poor writer, or B, he’s so interested in showing off his apparent skills that, while impressive in their novelty, actively hurt the narrative. Whatever the reasoning, the result is the same: a genuinely good story buried under layers of post-modernist posturing. This much can be seen in the disconnect between the story’s premise and its starting point. “I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning.” Yes, while I may be a dumb bitch who gravitates towards weeb trash and cape shit, I’m not one to withhold credit where credit’s due: that’s punchy. That’s the type of premise that makes it impossible to dismiss the dreaded “lit fic” out of hand. And it’s a very simple beginning that would give a good number of jumping-off points while not being overwhelming to those new to the medium. Naturally, Joyce doesn’t start with this. No, he instead starts with…some conversation between two ill-defined people about winter that prompts the reader to answer whether they do or don’t want to hear about poetry. It might take you a while to get to the aforementioned passage. It’s an odd choice, but it’s par for the course for Afternoon, a story. Something as crucial as POV is muddled — the passage I highlighted is clearly from the perspective of “Peter,” who is ostensibly the main character. I say “ostensibly” because we jump from POV to POV with no rhyme or reason. There’s very little way to tell POV from POV, to the point where I still don’t have a firm grasp on who the five central characters are — neither as individuals nor in relation to one another. There are beautiful bits of description but nine times out of ten, they come with little-to-no context, robbing them of impact. The parts when they are connected to a clear person, place, or event are some of the highlights of the story, and…that’s weird, right? Basic shit being the highlight? It’s not even like Joyce eschews traditional storytelling to focus on making the most of the medium he’s writing in. No, it feels pretty damn disappointing as a form of hypertext fiction, as well. Not all words lead to a unique page and unlike actual hypertexts, there’s no indication of the ones that do, forcing to go back and obsessively click them all, not really caring what the next page is. Worst yet, many pages will railroad you to a certain next page regardless of what you click. It takes you right the fuck out of reading. Despite it all, I don’t hate Afternoon, a story, the sum of its parts is average; aggressively, disappointingly average. There are genuinely interesting and affecting passages. Despite being disappointed, I’d keep coming back to the story to try to find new content because the diamonds are just brilliant enough that I was willing to brave the rough. If nothing else, Afternoon, a story is disproportionately addictive. I so want to find more gems in the story, I so want to line the pieces up to create a narrative that’s at least sensible, I so want to find out who the fuck I’m dealing with, but each reading session, at best, I’m whelmed, at worst, I’m disappointed. Some might say this is the point, that as post-modernist fiction, it’s supposed to turn traditional narrative structure on its head, it’s supposed to make me as the reader work for understanding. But I don’t know, man, I’ve always been of the opinion that effects are more important than the cause. But what do I know, every other academic (something that my degree dictates I am, at least ostensibly) who reads thinks it’s the bee’s knees. I’ll just keep on sipping my “dumb bitch juice.”
Read from 02/04/2023 - 02/11/2023
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Some books are all but impossible to ignore once you’ve heard about them — Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow is one of those books. It achieves this feat just by the sheer number of novel parts that make up its whole.
Take, for example, its setting, which re-imagines historical and mythological China into a fantasy-sci-fi world. Whether you’re tired of the countless vague Medieval Europe pastiches that dominate the fantasy landscape or you’re just looking for something fresh, Iron Widow is a story that fails to disappoint. Zhao does a good job of painting a vivid, oftentimes disquieting picture of their world while not being bogged down by exposition.
Take its positive depiction of a polyamorous relationship. While a poly relationship certainly isn’t unheard of, unlike the only other example I can think of, it actually feels healthy and realistic instead of being a vehicle for a sleazy fantasy. I also appreciated the casual queerness that the trio displays — it’s cute and natural to see unfold
Me, being a massive nerd, took the most interest in Iron Widow’s third big draw — the mecha elements. I’m a huge mecha and fantasy fan and I’ve recently developed an itch to see the two blended together. This itch lead me directly to Iron Widow, which, to my knowledge is the only fantasy story that’s also widely considered a mecha. I’m pleased to say that Iron Widow scratched that itch. Zhao doesn’t bury the lede here — a few pages in we’re treated to a mecha battle delivered in stunning detail and clarity. Being a fantasy story, Iron Widow isn’t bogged down by the constraints of Real Robot and allows their mechanical stars to display all manner of powers — from distinct bestial and humanoid forms to conjuring weapons and
energy blasts using the pilots’ qi. There are even sentai elements in how the pilots don magical armor and use qi outside of their Chrysalis mechs. Magic systems go a long way in endearing me towards a world and I’ve got to say, I was giddy whenever there was a battle.
Like any good speculative fiction story, in The Iron Widow the sparkle of the fantastical doesn’t distract from introspection, instead, it provides another avenue to approach issues from our world. Huaxia is a severely patriarchal society where women are considered third-class citizens, if not outright subhuman. Everything a woman does and can be in society is considered in terms of serving a man. As an example of this story being a way to glimpse at reality, it made me aware of foot binding in a way that I wasn’t before. It’s one thing to have read a sentence or two about it in a history textbook, another entirely to have the agonizing pain described as well as the lifelong dependency it causes.
If the mecha action is a reprieve from the harsh world, it’s only a surface-level one, as the very Chrysalises that protect the nation do so at the expense of women — they’re powered by a men and women pilot, with virtually every woman being killed in the process. Iron Widow is as brutal as it is thoughtful. It doesn’t flinch from critiquing the patriarchy, the nature of war, capitalism, and the way celebrity culture magnifies myth while minimizing people.
All that said, wish fulfillment plays a big role in the Iron Widow — it's essentially the engine that keeps the whole machine going. Zetian’s life prior to becoming a pilot is terrible and her life after becoming a pilot is merely upgraded to “awful” with few well-deserved moments of respite. She’s a headstrong character who refuses to become the docile woman that society demands of her, instead using her frustration to heat a simmering pot of anger that repeatedly boils over throughout the course of the story. While changing the system is certainly part of her plan, it involves a lot of smashing and killing to get there. Iron Widow provides readers with the intoxicating coping mechanism of being powerful enough to singlehandedly destroy the systems that chain them. I’ve seen some criticize the story for being a “revenge fantasy” and while that’s true, I just don’t see it as much of a criticism. Unlike some examples of revenge fantasy, the story does more than enough to make us see why she’s gotten to that point and it doesn’t feel particularly gratuitous due to this. I guess I’m just someone who doesn’t see the harm in using stories as an avenue for rage.
As you can probably tell, the story has a lot going on; a lot it wants to say, a lot it has to juggle and balance. This is perhaps best emblemized in the final stretch — in a story that’s constantly at 100, it takes it to 1,000, then 10,000. It goes like five ways, each direction making your stomach lurch and forcing you to catch your breath. It’s kind of all over the place and it honestly works? It’s frenetic in the best of ways and left me on the edge of my seat.
With all that, you’re probably wondering what Iron Widow does wrong.
In truth, nothing.
Not that it’s a perfect story, it just doesn’t have anything that jumps out at me as being particularly critique-worthy. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say it excels at too much either. Don’t get me wrong, it handles many of its elements very well, but it doesn’t feel like any of them are hit out of the park.
But that could just be because this is only the first of a series. Perhaps the next book will be even stronger. Either way, this was a very entertaining and evocative introduction to Huaxia and I can’t wait to see what Zhao has in store for us next. It’s definitely a book I’d recommend on the basis of how unique the concept is. Fortunately, its execution is good enough to see it through.
Read from 02/28/2023 - 03/05/2023
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
As someone who balks at puzzle games, has trouble grasping mildly complex plots without copious Wiki crawls, and tends to go for emotional poignancy over artful ambiguity in his poetry, it’s a bit of a mystery why I profess to love mystery stories so much. After all, I tend to only vaguely put the puzzle pieces that comprise a mystery story together during the act of reading itself. I think, at the end of the day, I just enjoy being dazzled when the curtain is finally pulled during the final hour. And if nothing else, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle certainly dazzles. This isn’t your granddaddy’s mystery novel, instead taking on speculative elements, though it's distinct from the other fantastical mystery novels I’ve read, as this goes for a more subdued approach that, if you didn’t check out the blurb as we’re conditioned to do, you might not realize this was a work of speculative fiction at all. Think less “high fantasy” and more “Twilight Zone." The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle sees our protagonist trying to solve a homicide in a little over a week, inhabiting eight different hosts in the process, all guests or staff of an event held in the pallid, positively Poeian Blackheath Manor. Thanks to the same day being repeated over and over, the novel explores time travel. This combined with the body-jumping that allows Aiden Bishop to interact and observe his past hosts (who don’t know who they’ll inhabit in the future) makes for a trippy Rashomon-esque structure that’ll bend your brain in the best of ways. Due to the novel’s unique qualities, the circumstances surrounding Evelyn Hardcastle's death aren’t the only mystery it tackles. In addition, the story is tasked with revealing how all the hosts fit into the day’s events as well as explaining the nature of the bizarre situation Aiden finds himself in — and his past with it. Finding out how Aiden influences the various guests is unequivocally the mystery that’s handled the best. While I’m not in agreement with many fellow readers’ assessment that the journey of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a lot better than the destination, it’s primarily because they say it’s a lot better. I think the biggest strength of the book is following Aiden as he grows more aware of the situation around him and more desperate, seeing how his journey with himself proceeds both literally and metaphorically; the friends he makes, the swerves he must navigate. Perhaps this is because it feels the least mysterious, with an expectation that we’ll only know as much as Aiden at a given time, unlike the “true” mysteries which, at least in theory, are seeded enough that we can figure it out sooner. The reveal about Aiden’s past and the nature of Blackheath are perhaps a bit harder to swallow, both in terms of narrative as they bring up questions of morality and personhood (which I enjoyed) and because there may not be enough hints about their nature, making it feel out of left field. The final mystery about the murder similarly may feel a bit out of left field. There are essentially two “phases” to piecing together the murder — I think the first one works well enough, while the second is a bit unsatisfying. All that said, while the ending(s) could break the story for the more Sherlockian mystery fans, for those who like me who simply enjoy mystery stories as more of a magic trick, they work well enough. The ball hurdling from left field doesn’t scare me; the unexpectedness excites me. Perhaps the biggest mark I’d personally give the book is that there are a lot of people and names to keep track of. I’m not sure if reading it slower or faster would have done me more good. But the former proved impossible for me, which is another mark toward the book. It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed this book that I’d definitely be up for a reread, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of books that I finish. Less that, I definitely have my eye on Stuart Turton’s next book, as he has proved his writing can hold my attention as few others can.
Read from 03/06/2023 - 03/13/2023
Wicked Gentleman by Ginn Hale
The same search for a fantasy mystery book that led me to The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle led me to Ginn Hale’s Wicked Gentlemen. Unlike The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this can be considered high fantasy, despite the presence of cities, automobiles, and guns, making it similar to the Fetch Phillips Archivess that started me on this genre-combining journey. The similarities don’t end there, with grisly murders, systematic inequality, substance-corrupt cops, and jaded protagonists, like Fetch Phillips,Wicked Gentleman is solidly a noir. And a particularly gritty one, at that; Wicked Gentlemen delves into the angst that characterizes the genre while never becoming so entrenched in it that the story becomes too bleak to be engaged in. In fact, the story can be downright cute at times.
Wicked Gentlemen is comprised of two novellas featuring the characters of Belimai Sykes and Captain William Harper. Sykes is a Prodigal, a magical descendant of ancient demons; his status as a Prodigal makes him a marginalized and mistrusted member of the story’s society — certainly not helping matters is the addiction he must grapple with. Captain William Harper is an Inquisitor (essentially a cop in everything but name), with a troubled psyche. Due to the Inquisition’s persecution of Prodigals, Harper and Sykes make for an unlikely couple, but the Sykes is the only person Harper can turn to following a grisly murder and the disappearance of his sister.
The first novella, “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly” details the aforementioned mystery and makes for a pretty damn exciting read. Nothing groundbreaking, sure, but it was hard to stop the pages from turning as Sykes tries to piece together the mystery. The second book, Captain Harper and the Sixty-Second Circle, curiously enough, isn’t much of a mystery at all — as the readers we know all the details of the crime shortly after it happens. Instead, the focus is on seeing if and/or how our protagonists will make it out of his predicament alive, thus it’s more of a thriller. We’re also treated to a more of a deep dive into our protagonists and their burgeoning relationship. Additionally, It’s a testament to how much I fell in love with these characters that I was on board with this shift in focus despite not being what I signed up for.
I don’t have too many gripes with Wicked Gentlemen but they’re just notable enough to point out. There are three things that jumped out at me, from the most glaring to the most minor flaw.
A hallmark of speculative fiction is using fantastical elements to comment on our reality, usually in the form of metaphor. Sometimes certain metaphors are used so often that they’re codified in the genre and a given author won’t have to do much, if anything, to lead readers to connecting said fantasy characteristic to a real-world analog. They’re tropes, essentially. One such trope is the use of fantasy races and the conflicts between them as stand-ins for real-world racial relations. This trope can lead to negative reactions from readers through no apparent fault of the author. This is evidenced by Wizards of the Coast’s changing of how race works in Dungeons and Dragons — players saw fantasy races as analogous to real-life races and as such, found the fact that alignment and intelligence were tied to one’s race carried unfortunate implications. In an effort to foster a more inclusive environment, Wizards of the Coast changed the mechanics of race. All this is to say that any missteps Hale took with her handling of race in Wicked Gentlemencould simply be due to the automatic, ingrained reading of fantasy races as being equivalent to real races. That said, with Prodigals being seen as evil, being marginalized, being disproportionately targeted by the police, and having the revelation that they’re internally no different from humans being considered “heretical,” I’m pretty confident in saying the racial metaphor was more than intentional. As such, my biggest gripe comes from the way a certain character’s feelings towards Prodigals. They reflect on their burning desire to “be with Prodigals,” to “caress their bodies,” to “kiss their hot mouths.” The entire thing comes off as fetish-y. Not only that, but they reveal that they became an Inquisitor due to this very desire, as Inquisitors deal with Prodigals more than other members of society. Stripping away the fantasy shroud, the entire thing comes across as said character having a racial fetish and joining an institution that profiles said race in order to gain access to their bodies.
That’s going to be a yikes from me, dawg.
It would be one thing if the character was called out on this, either by his own reflection of the vents or by the story itself. Yet the only thing that’s framed in a negative light is the fact that the character lied about why they joined the Inquitiors, stating that they hated Prodigals instead of loving them. Idk, you can make the argument that the author is just displaying said attitude without endorsing it, but I’m not sure of the function of bringing it up without saying anything about it. Alright, creeps exist. I knew that but cool for reminding me, I guess? The situation doesn’t play much of a role in the story but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that the story doesn’t do much regarding it’s implied premise on the blurb. Sykes doesn’t really bring Harper into the muck — I’m not really sure what’s the dire price Harper had to pay for Sykes’ company.
The book isn’t terribly noteworthy — you got your crooked cops, systematic injustice, mysterious and complicated pasts, etc. You’ve likely seen many of these tropes used before and perhaps better. Yet they don’t prevent this from being an enjoyable book. At about 200 pages, it’s an engaging, breezy read fit for an airport or perhaps your window sill during the rain. Plus, it features a gay romance and we always enjoy those.
The ending wraps up nicely. Nearly everything I was curious about was addressed — not with as much detail as they could have had, no, but I’m no stranger to quick, open-ended conclusions. Solo fantasy books are rare, good ones even rarer, so Wicked Gentlemen left me pleasantly surprised.
Read from 03/12/2023 - 03/25/2023
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
It should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of romance — my favorite video game, my favorite show, and one of my favorite books are all romance stories. Beyond that, I’m a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to read Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War, a well-reviewed romance fantasy novel. What I expected was a good book that blended two of my favorite genres. What I got was one of the best love stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
I generally try to start with the positives but I think one aspect of the book that I thought wasn’t great plays a large enough role that I need to address it first. With as much respect as I can give, I have to say that I think This Is How You Lose the Time War is a great love story and merely an “okay” science fiction book. This Is How You Lose the Time War, as the name suggests, heavily utilizes time travel, with our main characters being representatives of all-powerful organizations/entities that are at eternal war with one another. They travel “up thread” and “down thread,” unraveling certain points in times to gain an advantage whilst foiling the other side. The concept is admittedly certainly interesting, but it ends up being so esoteric that I found it pretty difficult to wrap my head around. The mechanics are murky at best (for one, as part of their ops, the main characters essentially need to be in deep cover for years at a time — lifetimes on occasion — yet they don’t seem to age and I don’t think it was ever made clear why). I can admit that I’m not the sharpest knife in the crayon box, but even with that in mind, it just doesn’t seem like the authors put in that much effort to help ease readers into this esoteric world. More damning is the fact that, until a good 3/4ths in, I wondered if this even needed to be a science fiction story. I felt the story would be better served as a standard realistic fiction (or even fantasy story) about a forbidden romance on the battlefield, as the science fiction elements only seemed to make the work harder to approach. Admittedly, the ending does something really cool with the time-traveling aspect that essentially “earns” the science fiction aspects, but it’s still notable that it took that long. I’ll say that if you’re much more interested in science fiction than romance, you should probably sit this one out.
But goddamn if this isn’t a good romance.
I think the biggest strength of This Is How You Lose the TIme War’s romance, between an agent known as “Blue” and another known as “Red,” is its progression. It's enemy-to-lovers that’s blissfully light on the “enemy” part. We see their relationship progress through letters — beginning as battlefield taunts and evolving to something more. It’s really sweet to see and when the “I love you’s” started it made my heart melt because the progression makes it feel so earned and we really can feel how much these two women love each other. They open up about their lives, their desires, and their fears through a format that feels inherently romantic. In the character’s own words, they “hunger” for each other, though in a way that’s chaste. It’s the hunger you feel when you’re so enraptured with a person, so captured by their words, even if only via text, that you’re over the moon when they text back and you sink further and further into anxiety when they don’t. For a story about love on the battlefield, this provides one of the most tender depictions of romance that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. That said, the story knows when to give a real sucker gut punch when the need is there.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the book is very beautifully-written, with wonderful turns of phrases and descriptions throughout.
I can’t say enough good things about this book — if you’re looking for a sweet romance with an unorthodox setting, pick up This Is How You Lose the Time War; even despite my genuine gripes, this just might be a new favorite.
Read from 03/28/2023 - 04/04/2023
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
A good friend of mine says “comparison is the thief of joy.” That said, oftentimes, it’s hard not to compare — in this case we have Stuart Turton’s breakout novel, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Regardless of your opinion of the book, it’s hard to deny that, thanks to its unique premise and engaging mystery, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a tough act to follow. Fortunately, Turton’s second performance garners flowers instead of rotten tomatoes.
The Devil and the Dark Water not only firmly establish Turton as a mystery writer but as an esoteric one. I described Evelyn Hardcastle as more Twilight Zone; the Devil and the Dark Water is probably more Stranger Things, at least in how the mystery is presented. Evelyn Hardcastle's mystery, while ultimately complex, is ultimately realistic, with the framing doing the heavy lifting in terms of surrealism. In contrast, The Devil and the Dark Water is a barrage of apparent magic, occult rituals, and deviltry, making for a very interesting read. As the tagline is “A muder on the high seas. A detective duo. A demon who may or may not exist,” a big part of the book’s mystery is determining if the fantastical elements are actually occult, so I won’t delve too deeply into that aspect, but trust me when I say the book handles the resolution well. A lot better than Evelyn Hardcastle, in fact.
Many readers seem to agree that the end of Evelyn Hardcastle isn’t nearly as good as the journey to get there. The framing and mechanics of the investigation are by far the most compelling aspect of the novel and in pulling back the curtain, the mystique that drove the story is lost. I can’t say that The Devil and the Dark Water has the highs of its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the lows, either. It’s a more consistent read, with less room for disappointment. I’d say the sleuthing sort of mystery fan may enjoy The Devil and the Dark Water more. It certainly helps that this book does a better job of explaining the mystery at the end. You could call it “hand-holding,” sure, but I prefer to think of it more as “showing your work.”
There’s still fun to be had for the mystery fan who likes to be dazzled. The boat setting and the unholy miracles that occur on it are a treat to read.
The biggest area where I think The Devil and the Dark Water shines is in its characters. I’ve heard some state they find the characters of Hardcastle more compelling and I couldn’t disagree more. While I think Turton did a good job of making the hosts interesting, the principal characters effectively being amnesiacs really didn’t do any favors for their, well, characterization. Meanwhile, we really get a sense of the characters aboard the sardaam — their histories, their desires, their fears. Beyond that, I was constantly questioning the characters’ allegiances and motives, wondering who could be trusted. Plus, I found it easier to keep track of the characters. The story does a good job of laying a great mystery in front of me…
…which is why it’s so odd that I ultimately found the relationship between leads Aren’t and Sara the most compelling thing about the book. There were many sections where I was more interested in skimming through the mystery to get to sections of them together to witness their blossoming, forbidden romance. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re a hopeless romantic. It doesn’t hurt that these two genuinely bounce off one another well. Plus, as I said, I’m more interested in being dazzled by a mystery than trying to figure it out myself.
The Devil and the Dark water makes for a breezy, addictive read that’s as fun at the end as it is throughout. It’s certainly not perfect — like its predecessor, the ending raises questions of morality, but it feels like an afterthought due to how easily it’s resolved. At the end of the day, The Devil and the Dark Water feels about as good as the novel that came before it, though given how good that story was, this is a compliment rather than an insult and no easy feat. With The Devil and the Dark Water, Turton proves he’s not a one-trick pony, instead being a consistent workhouse of an author. I can’t wait to read what he has in store for us next.
Read from 04/11/2023 - 04/29/2023
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
I can’t quite put my finger on how I feel about Paolo Bacigalupi’s lauded science fiction novel The Windup Girl.
This in and of itself is a small miracle; if you asked me what I thought of this book a week ago, I would have just shrugged. Two weeks ago, I’d have told you I hated it.
At first, reading The Windup Girl was like pulling teeth, an exercise in endurance and tolerance with only the hazy, vague promise of long-term satisfaction down the line. It took about one week each to finish the other books I read this year. The Windup Girl took me just shy of three. While it’s in part a testament to how good I found the other books, it’s also a testament to just how dull I found the beginning of The Windup Girl.
The beginning of the story is definitely more “sci” than “fi,” more “windup” than “girl.” When starting this novel, you’re immediately bombarded with a deluge of terms — people, places, scientific concepts, and organizations. It’s all very overwhelming and it’s hard to make heads or tails of what it all means. While this might be immersive worldbuilding to some, to others, like me, it just comes across as techno-babbly info dumping. I haven’t made it much of a secret that I enjoy fantasy and science fiction for their innovative ways of depicting real issues and the beginning of The Windup Girl feels wholly uninterested in this. It instead caters more to those who enjoy science fiction as a way to speculate on scientific advancements or divergent technologies. There’s no issue with this, it’s just not for me. What I did find issue with was the fact that the characters, the anchors that should have tethered me to this world, felt flat. They were more avenues for infro dumping instead of people in their own right. The first stretch of The Windup Girl feels more in-service to its setting than its characters.
The biggest exception to this is Emiko, the titular windup girl herself. Her story is effecting, her emotions palpable. We’re treated to a scene of her abuse and immediately I connected to her in a way I didn’t others. In Emiko, those actual issues I care about are highlighted — in this case, the treatment of sex workers and foreigners. Plus, it’s tied into speculative elements in that she’s a genetically modified being.
The problem is that The Windup Girl has an ensemble cast, and there weren’t any characters I cared about nearly as much as Emiko.
Fortunately, this changes.
And it changes in a way that’s so stark it’s hard reconciling the backend of the book with the front. About halfway, I did find myself caring about the majority of the POV characters. Beyond that, at around this point, the plot picks up in the POVs begin intersecting in a satisfying manner. If the plot is moving at 1,000 miles per hour halfway, it rockets up to 1,000,000 during the last quarter. It’s wild to think that by the end, I read about 100 pages in two hours when I began the book struggling to get through 10 pages in an hour.
As engaging as the novel becomes to read, the already dour story is downright depressing by its end. I didn’t expect a fairy tale ending, but the darkness is offputting. Of the whole ensemble cast, only one character gets a decent ending. Given they’re nearly all anti-heroes at best, you’d think I wouldn’t mind much, but the scale in which they’re fucked over just makes the entire thing feel like an exercise in futility.
The Windup Girl is an absolute slog to start. While it eventually gets much better, it takes a bit too long to do so and this improvement is offset by the fact that it’s an aggressively depressing read. While Emiko’s a highlight, she’s not prominent enough that I’d recommend the book on her merits as a character alone. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty when it comes to sci-fi and enjoy a crapsack world full of scheming, you should give The Windup Girl a try. For those more interested in character explorations, you might want to sit this one out or proceed with caution. They’re certainly there, but you’d best be willing to wade through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat.
Read from 05/08/2023 - 05/11/2023
Indecent Proposal by Jack Engelhard
Dirty Deed Done Not So Dirt Cheap, better known as Indecent Proposal has a bit more going on under the hood than than you’d expect. It’s a bit hard not to suspect dreck with its high-concept, schlocky premise and its simple, clunky, and at times, laughably shallow prose (“when came the big bang she yelped the big yelp”).
A relatively simple question drives the story: what would you do for money? Is there something you hold so dear as to not offer for money? For some, it’s a question that doesn’t require 300 admittedly short pages of pondering to answer. For those people, the answer is either a resounding “yes” or “no.” I won’t bore and horrify you with the nitty-gritty details of my nonexistent love life nor dreary sex life, but, I’m someone who believes in a thing called love and who puts assigns a lot of mysticism to matrimony, yet can separate sex from all of it. It can feel good, great even, but can be ultimately unfulfilling — an example of momentary bliss. I’m someone who distinguishes “making love” from “fucking.” Essentially, assuming my partner shared the same values if I was met with this indecent proposition, I’d get to have my cake and eat it too. Sex would be had and money would be in the bag without a novella worth of psychological drama.
This isn’t the case for our protagonist, Joshua Kane, who is wracked with Othellian jealousy even before Middle-Eastern billionaire Ibrahim hits him with the eponymous proposal. Joan apparently sees the entire arrangement with more practical eyes — her husband is always complaining about the money they don’t have and this could be their ticket to the life he feels they deserve. She rationalizes that if they say no, they’ll be left wondering “what if” for the rest of their lives, the proposal haunting them anytime they can’t meet rent or their car breaks down. She argues that her having sex with another man needn’t change their relationship.
Naturally, you’d imagine that, whatever their decision, this will be Josh’s tell-tale heart, an unfounded fear of infidelity tearing his marriage apart. But no, surprisingly, it falls apart due to Joan falling into a depression over the act, or at the very least, she plays as much of a part as her husband.
Of course, complicating matters is the fact that this isn’t just a question of sex, it’s about autonomy and objectification. Joan isn’t the one propositioned with the promise of money, Josh is. Ibrahim is an asshole, not just in how he propositions, but in other ways he carries himself, how he treats others like toys. The proposition itself is a power play and he records a video of him and Joan having sex without her consent also as a power play. The story makes a point to characterize Joan and Josh going through with the offer as morally wrong, or at the very least, ruinous to their relationship, and it’s easy to see Joan’s body being made into a commodity as why. A point could be made that even if they treat each other with respect, the end result is the same if they play Ibrahim’s game.
Yet there’s little in the text to support this. Ibrahim shows Joshua the video and we see that Joan is enjoying herself in the moment. Joshua remarks that the sounds she makes for him during sex are now being made for Ibrahim, thus it’s easy to see this as being the crux of the moral failing; the sex itself, the fact that she enjoyed herself while having intercourse, as people tend to do. Throughout the story, Joshua claims ownership of Joan’s body and seems so the story could be moralizing him “giving up” this ownership, which would be gross, to say the least.
Yet it can’t be said with authority that this is the case. Sure, the book reads as very dated nowadays and a part of this is the general “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” thing Joan and Josh have going on, with the two saying that they love each other because they can’t understand each other. That said, despite Joan and Josh seemingly disagreeing wildly regarding their feelings about the proposal, they’re in-line at the end and a lot of the problems seem to be due to a breakdown in communication, which could lead one to believe the point is that women and men aren’t fundamentally different from each other.
Part of the reason it’s hard for me to pin down what the “point” is supposed to be is because we’re only given Josh’s perspective and, again, the two avoid talking about the event as much as possible. It makes the story feel lopsided because we’re essentially derived of the most important perspective. Sure, it puts us more in Josh’s shoes, but in doing so, the story feels a bit flat and frankly, Josh’s perspective doesn’t matter nearly as much as Joan’s.
The story also feels a bit flat because of how unlikable the characters are. Josh comes across as money-obsessed and just generally unpleasant from the jump and we don’t get much to endear us to him as the story goes on. A million dollars is hard to sneeze at for anyone, but Josh is presented as miserable when the money he’s bringing in should realistically take him far for the late 80s, even with him and his wife living with a one-income household because Josh is obsessed with a hyperspecific notion of what it means to be American. Part of the reason the whole proposal feels gross, even with Joan seemingly enthusiastic about it in the beginning, is because it feels like she’s doing it to appease her husband, furthering the idea of commodification. And it’s not like she’s off the hook, either; the two began their relationship by cheating on their previous spouses. With Josh, Joan, and Ibrahim being the most promimnent characters, it feels like everyone’s an asshole.
Yet as flat as the story feels at times, I can’t deny that it still is deeper than I expected, with questions of consumer culture, identity, religion, what it means to be in a relationship, etc. As a point of this, I don’t think Ibrahim is Middle-Eastern just because it’s fodder for “UwU it's such a shame my sweet white wife is getting railed by such a big brown cawk" and instead more about the nature of religion and the relationship between Jewish people and Muslims in the Middle East. Josh is Jewish and served in Israel for a time and that opens an entire-ass can of worms, one I strategically have decided not to open. While the religious and racial tensions in this book are an entire Thing™, Josh seems to be a pretty thinly-veiled self-insert for author Jack Engelhard, who actually is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor at that. With this knowledge, it's pretty clear some of the odd choices aren't just there to serve as cheap fap material. It's obvious enough that Engelhard is using this story, at least in part, to work through some personal shit (see: the venom Josh has towards a German man whose company has a suspicious blank spot in their history for the years 1939-1945) and the result isn't hateful enough that I feel comfortable criticizing him too harshly for it as a complete outsider. If he needs to publish racially-charged cuckoldry softcore porn to work through his generational trauma, I say let him.
The story is far from perfect, I struggle to call even call it good, but there are things going on that I’d probably need another read to appreciate, and that’s more than I expected from what I thought would be a silly little story about cuckoldry. It’s at times more thoughtful, exciting, anxiety-inducing, sad, and yes, even steamy than I anticipated. I think the story could be revisited with a more modern lens and with a more even hand, but I don’t regret buying this book one bit.
Read from 04/09/2023 - 07/10/2023
My (Almost) Life as a Hikikomori: Stories by Alexandro Chen
A friend has told me that comparison is the thief of joy. While I believe comparison is important, it's undeniable that it can be particularly ruinous to authors and other creatives, particularly ones that are starting out. It's hard to feel good about what you're doing if you're constantly stacking yourself up to someone else. You'll harp on your perceived flaws more than you'll acknowledge what you're doing right. While this could be a way to improve, it could also be the paralysis that keeps you from continuing. And that's just you comparing yourself to another. What's worse is when someone else makes the comparison. While there can be advantages to the association, this is only if it's favorable. If a new writer's horror anthology has a top review that says he's a poor man's Steven King, while not at all a fair comparison, it's a stink that can unfortunately linger and spread.
With this in mind, you'd think Alexandro Chen being compared to literary sensation Haruki Murakami would be a death knell. But au contraire, dear reader, this helps Chen quite a bit. And I don't mean "it helps" by virtue of simply getting eyes on him that he wouldn't if the comparison wasn't made. It helps because I enjoy his stories more than Murakami's. If I heard that Haruki Murakami and Alexandro Chen were coming up with new books, I'd pick up Chen's over Murakami's in a heartbeat.
Now, before you go grab your pitchforks or wallet, consider the following: the circumstances surrounding me falling out of love with Haruki Murakami are well href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... Get context if you must, but the short of it is I'm someone who enjoys the broad strokes of Murakami but grew tired of his idiosyncrasies, specifically his treatment of women. If you love Murakami and think he's practically perfect, then no, I don't think you'll get much out of Chen as it relates to scratching your Murakami itch. But if you're a bit put off by Murakami, if you want to like him but can't bring yourself to, then My (Almost) Life as a Hikikomori might be a good alternative.
But I don't wish to damn Chen with faint praise; he's more than just "I Can't Believe it's Not Murakami." (Almost) Life as a Hikikomori is a portfolio of a rising author who, while still having room for improvement, has already proven themselves capable of crafting stories that speak to the bizarre beauty of human existence.
If you're wondering where the Murakami comparison came from, spoiler alert, it's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me. Kind of. Looking through reviews of this book, there are a lot less Murakami comparisons than I remembered, which tells me the bulk of this perception comes from me myself, whoops.
In my defense, it's not that hard to make the connection. Chen is described as an admirer of Murakami and I'd make the argument that this admiration led to inspiration. I was first introduced to Chen's work via his story in the Slut Vomit anthologySlut Vomit anthology, "Cuddle Cafe," which also appears in Hikikomori. "Cuddle Cafe" is the story of a man who visits an establishment in which you pay someone to sleep with you. Not "sleep with you" as in "have sex with you." No, literally sleep with you. It is a bizarre, absurd concept.
One story in and I immediately wanted to read more of Chen's work. The way he depicted the ennui arising from lack of connection and the absurd lengths we'll go to plug the hole, both with surprising tenderness, made me wonder what other stories he'd come up with.
And I'm happy to say they're of similar caliber to the story that introduced me to him. Just some of the characters you'll encounter in My (Almost) Life As a Hikikomori include a woman whose leads her to live in a KFC restaurant, a man who keeps inexplicably getting into accidents that look suspiciously like suicide attempts, and regular at a restaurant who keeps having food delivered to them by a an apparently mute waitress before they order.
The eclectic ensemble is one that's after my heart. Most of these stories have a similar vibe to shameless-plug-inbound my own short story. Many of these stories speak to the often absurd nature of the human psyche, all without drawing attention to themselves. The matter-of-fact, almost distant voice, used for these stories paradoxically make the absurd elements feel all the more strange in how starkly they're treated while making the characters feel more approachable and relatable by refusing the urge to treat them like members of a human zoo.
This all makes for a very dreamlike vibe — showcasing something that while ostensibly foreign, makes sense in your heart.
While often bizarre, Chen's stories seldom dip into paranormal territory. To wit, there are only two stories that even approach this space. While I wished I got to see more stories in this vein, I certainly see merit in focusing on the more mundane, as it makes it all the more bizarre when it's tweaked and stretched to its illogical conclusion. Many can say they've been drawn to restaurants and other places they frequented with an ex after a breakup; few can say they've attempted living in said places. Many can say they've crushed on someone they were too shy to talk to; few can say they started a fan club of one for said person.
More than their oddity, I'd say these stories are characterized by their sweetness. All of these stories can either be described as love stories, documenting lonely people not desperate for just attention, but connection. My (Almost) Life as a Hikikomori is a very tender collection and while they're a few stories that err more on the side of dour than hopeful, overall, it's a positive package. The stories of Hikikomori remind me of one of my favorite romance movies, Punch Drunk Love, an absurd story about misfits finding one another. The collection would court sappiness if handled by a lesser writer, but Chen brews a drink that's sweet without being sickeningly so.
Of course, with me being drawn to this thanks to Murakami, a question constantly at the back of my mind was if Chen would treat the women he writes better than Murakami. And I'm pleased to say he does. This isn't about Murakami and I know Chen admires him, so I'll withold my tongue lashing, I'll just say it's great to experience a dose of the magic of Murakami without his baggage. For one, there's an even mix of male and female POV-characters. Chen's prose is fresh, egalitarian, and smart. Even when you feel a groan coming along, it will invariably die in your throat because Chen consistently defies disappointed expectations.
One example of Chen subverting expectations is "My Personal Superstar" which seems like a very unrealistic, eye-rollingly idyllic story about a woman getting with her charming crush before everything is flipped on its head when it's revealed he's an asshole who only used her for sex. The most example comes via the title story. You can reduce the plot to "antisocial loser has an attractive woman try to get him out of his house, their relationship quickly becoming sexually tense.” On the face of it, this is the plot of an absolutely terrible anime. Yet Chen genuinely seems to have something to say when he depicts the main character’s social aversion and how it differs from what he describes earlier in the story. Takahashi, the social reintegration worker stops short of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl when, come the end of the story, we see that she has her own baggage she's working through.
Of course, the anthology isn't perfect. Again, while ultimately a personal preference, I'd enjoy it if Chen tried his hand at more speculative stories. Beyond that, the stories we do have are a bit bare. Most of the stories top out at around seven pages. I know not everyone prefers longer short stories, but looking back, I was surprised at how long some of these stories were because most of them feel a bit short. For a good third of these, I wish Chen spent some more time with these stories because I wanted him to say more, dig a bit deeper into these interesting psyches. As-is, they feel a bit light; stories that are good in the moment, but I wonder how long they'll last. The title story is the longest at 17 pages and even that feels like it could have used more time to cook. Every story has something that leaps out at me but it dives back into the water before I can get my hands on it. While I praised Chen's narration, I do wish he employed more vivid descriptions at times to see how the environment informs the characters' headspace and vice-versa.
There's a couple moments of gender essentialism ("The embrace of a woman, he realized, was one of man's most indispensable needs." [I focus] especially on her warmth, which is the fluffy, perfumed kind that only women can exude. The type that can melt cold, lonely winters from men's hearts.") that make me uncomfy, but these are few and far between — I only spied two. Beyond that, I imagine Chen means well enough, and that goes a long way.
My (Almost) Life as a Hikikomori as a collection is like its namesake, hikikomori. They might seem unassuming, but if you give them a shot, you'll find a wealth of possibilities within them. While there's more to them that remains hidden, it makes you all the more excited to see where it leads in the future. I'm happy I got to read this book and I'm excited to see what else Chen has to offer.