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review 2018-03-28 19:23
How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - Charles Yu

With only TAMMY - a slightly tearful computer with self-esteem issues - a software boss called Phil - Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 - and an imaginary dog called Ed for company, fixing time machines is a lonely business and Charles Yu is stuck in a rut. He's spent the better part of a decade navel-gazing, spying on 39 different versions of himself in alternate universes (and discovered that 35 of them are total jerks). And he's kind of fallen in love with TAMMY, which is bad because she doesn't have a module for that. With all that's on his mind, perhaps it's no surprise that when he meets his future self, he shoots him in the stomach. And that's a beginner's mistake for a time machine repairman. Now he's stuck in a time loop, going in circles forever. All he has, wrapped in brown paper, is the book his future self was trying to press into his hands. It's called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And he's the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could save him.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Author Charles Yu writes himself in as the protagonist of his novel here, presenting himself as a fictional Yu working as a time traveling technician on Minor Universe 31, his job primarily being to repair heavily used time traveling machines.

 

In this universe, (fictional) Yu's father invented time travel, but has been missing for quite some time. Yu's mother is locked into a one hour time loop -- that is, she can only live one precise hour of her entire life over and over again -- where she basically just makes dinner repeatedly. Ugh, can you imagine the horror of that?!

 

Chronological living is kind of a lie. That's why I don't do it anymore. Existence doesn't have more meaning in one direction than it does in any other. Completing the days of your life in strict calendar order can feel forced. Arbitrary. Especially after you've seen what I've seen. Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward. 

 

Yu decides he wants to try to find his father. With the help of a book written by his future self and TAMMY, an operating system with incredibly low self esteem, he sets out on a space journey of mind-bending proportions through the space-time continuum. He uses time travel to move through memories and alternate scenarios looking for clues to his father's current whereabouts. The journey takes quite a complicated turn when Yu accidentally shoots his future self and has to dive into the closest time loop to try to escape the situation from escalating any further. But ooooh the mess this makes of things! 

 

It can sometimes get confusing keeping it all straight: In the early parts of the story, when fictional Charles is in and around his hometown, he lives and works out of his vehicle, the TM-31, but here's where it gets really wild. Minor Universe 31 is a world made of all the things we know of from science FICTION, but fictional Charles can travel in and out of areas throughout the universe that work in REAL time, such as Earth. When it comes to the US, in fictional Charles' world, ages ago Los Angeles and New York merged so now the States as a whole are basically considered one gigantic city! In this world, US citizens now live across the land in boroughs with names like Capital City, Lost City, Verse City, and New Tokyo ("old" Tokyo broke off from its original position, floated away until it attached to the landmass of the States). 

 

Established science fiction readers will likely have a fun time geeking out to all the Star Wars references and the plot reminiscent of a Douglas Adams novel. Even some similarities to Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series can be found here. But if you're entirely new to the genre, this book could prove to be a befuddling place to start your sci-fi journey. 

 

I was never totally sure why everyone wanted to be Han Solo. Maybe it was because he wasn't born into it, like Luke, with the birthright and the natural talent for The Force and the premade story. Solo had to make his own story. He was a freelance protagonist, a relatively ordinary guy who got to the major leagues by being quick with a gun and a joke. He was, basically, a hero because he was funny. Whatever the reason, first place was always Solo, always, always, always, and second place was usually Chewbacca, because if you weren't the one saving the galaxy, you might as well be eight feet tall and covered with hair. 

 

Portions of the story moved beyond clever into slightly irritating ramblings, especially the metaphysical points that continued for pages and pages before we are able to get back to the story. Module Y -- this novel is broken up into "modules" rather than "parts" -- felt like it went on FOREVER. 

 

The humor was undeniably enjoyable, but when it came to TAMMY's (the operating system) depression, I had hoped for a little more humor worked in there... she did have minor jokes here and there but a lot of her end of the story brought the whole madcap-ish tone of the novel down a bit for me. For this point, I refer back to the master, Douglas Adams, on how to incorporate heavy themes in a more light-hearted way. As a whole, the story is a fun, sometimes head-scratching, "wait, what did I just read?" ride. While I think I preferred the first half of the story over the second, I did really like the epilogue entitled "Appendix A".

 

 

 

 

-----------

 

EXTRAS

 

* How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe is Charles Yu's debut novel and was partly inspired by Yu's reading of The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

 

* Charles Yu has been awarded the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 Award and the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award for his short story collections. 

 

* In the acknowledgements of this book, Yu gives a nod to his wife, saying, "Thank you for being the best version of yourself, even when I'm my worst." ♥

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review 2018-03-11 12:11
I should have read the Crown Princess's actual memoirs instead.
The Red Queen - Margaret Drabble

Pretentious and self-centered.  Forget the book blurbs -- this actually isn't about the Lady Hyegyōng but about Margaret Drabble and the "connection" she allegedly feels with this 18th century Korean princess.

 

In fact, only the first half of the book even focuses on the Lady Hyegyōng's story at all -- and even that part is (1) almost all telling instead of showing and (2) clearly NOT told from a Korean (even if only a contemporary Korean) perspective but from the Western contemporary author's own perspective.  Then we get to the second part, where we're being presented with a Western POV stand-in character for Ms. Drabble, who (for reasons never satisfactorily explained) feels compelled to research and "keep alive" the Lady Hyegyōng's story after having mysteriously been sent a recent translation of her memoirs -- until, that is, during the Seoul conference forming the majority of the second part's backdrop, she embarks on a fling with the conference's star speaker / scientist / participant (or rather, throws herself at him with jet propulsion force).  And ultimately, Drabble doesn't even shy away from explicitly inserting herself into the book, as (you guessed it) the autor eventually tasked with telling both the Crown Princess's and the Western POV Drabble-stand-in character's stories.

 

If I hadn't been planning on using this book for the Kill Your Darlings game, I'd have DNF'd it -- at the very latest when the second part's supremely annoying Western POV character started throwing herself full-forcce at that star scientist (while at the same time being equally supremely rude to a Korean doctor who'd saved her skin on more than one occasion and who had even taken out time from his own busy schedule to show her Seoul's historic sites).

 

So, one star for the faraway glimpes at the Lady Hyegyōng provided in the book's first part, and half a star for inspiring me to seek out her actual story ... and her own point of view.

 

But if this is supposed to be one of Margaret Drabble's most celebrated books, I'm afraid I'm now going to need a truly huge incentive to go near her writing again any time soon.

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review 2018-03-07 18:15
Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Mambo in Chinatown: A Novel - Jean Kwok

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher. But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel briefly touches upon the themes of sexual assault and rape culture.

 

  

Cha Lan "Charlie" Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, has never been outside the city limits of Chinatown in New York City. Now 22, she's spent years keeping mostly to herself, working as a dishwasher in the same restaurant where her father is employed as a skilled noodle maker.

 

Life has been a constant struggle for Charlie. She did poorly in school and even now in adulthood is described as homely, uncoordinated, no domestic skills to speak of, not tech savvy in the least... in short, nobody expects much of her. Knowing this, Charlie is stunned when her younger sister Lian Hua ("Lisa") urges her to apply for a receptionist position that just opened up at a local ballroom dance studio. 

 

Charlie is awkward during the interview process but one of the co-owners sees something in her and decides to give her a chance. The reader is then given a front row seat to Charlie bumbling through this receptionist position. Still, she becomes fascinated with the world of dance -- the studio instructors, the different students and their backstories -- it undeniably leaves her feeling very much out of her element, yet she persists in making this job work so that she can keep her grasp on this new and beautiful world she's been brought into. 

 

When one instructor is suddenly unable to teach a beginner's class, Charlie is shocked to hear she's been recommended to pose as the teacher. Just for that one class... but still! As it turns out, the students in this class interpret her uncertainty in her abilities as Charlie actually being very down-to-earth and relatable. Suddenly, Charlie is approached with requests to teach more classes! Though she accepts, she quietly starts taking dance lessons between classes so she can move from imposter to legit instructor. This move turns out to be empowering and life-changing. For one, in the past whenever tomboyish Charlie would make attempts to get all girly and pretty, someone in the family would immediately shoot down her efforts, so she would quickly go back to her old routine. NOW, after getting a little rhythm and soul in her bones, she finds the boldness to snap back and inform people that such "primping" as some might call it, makes her feel good... and it's her right. So, there. 

 

Through Charlie's journey, author Jean Kwok explores not only the hard truth about the world of dance -- the discomfort that comes along with training your body to move a certain way; the surprisingly high cost of the proper shoes; ruined, blistered feet; certification exams, etc. -- but also family hardships. We see Charlie tackle emotions surrounding the process of emotionally letting go of familial or societal expectations (her family finds a multitude of ways to try to guilt her into staying the same rather than encouraging emotional growth or pursuing soul-fulfilling dreams), finding courage to forge her own path, discovering and embracing who she truly is. Kwok also weaves in themes not uncommon to many immigrant experience novels: she, through her characters, asks "How does one blend old and new? How do we move with the tide of modernism while still properly honoring one's heritage... can it be done?".  *Note: Though Charlie is American-born, much of the immigrant story is told through the experiences of her immediate & extended family, as well as Charlie's own observations of what comes along with being the child of immigrants. 

 

 

When a family member falls seriously ill with a mysterious illness that doctors can't seem to successfully diagnose, Charlie feels helpless as she watches her loved one fall victim to bouts of bed-wetting, nightmares, dizziness, and migraines. She wants to continue pursuing modern methods of medicine, even while fearing the expense. Conversely, her father prefers going to an old world style herbalist in Chinatown, simply known as The Vision. Charlie doesn't want to go against her father and leave him feeling disrespected, however due the seriousness of the symptoms of this illness, she (with a dash of guilt) admits that she's nervous to leave this matter to Eastern medicine. 

 

While maybe not every reader will relate to the immigrant experience aspect of this novel, the familial themes will likely ring relevant to most that pick up this book. Who hasn't had to face the struggle of making our family proud versus following our own heart's passion? While the story wasn't always particularly gripping, there was something to Charlie's world that I felt comfortably, breezily invested in. Recommended for those always on the hunt for underdog / ugly duckling type stories. 

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review 2018-03-07 16:00
Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation - Jean Kwok

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles. Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic American immigrant novel—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Ah-Kim "Kimberly" Chang emigrated from China with her mother when she was eleven years old. A successful music teacher in Hong Kong, Kimberly's mother struggled to raise her daughter on a single income after her losing her husband to a stroke. She gets an offer from her older sister to come to America where she's assured there will be plenty of opportunity for her.  Kim and her "Ma" arrive in the United States unable to speak English and with virtually no money to start out on. Upon first meeting up with her sister Paula and brother-in-law Bob, "Ma" and daughter Kim are amazed at the sensation of carpet and hot water available on command. Much to their disappointment though, the nice apartment Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob claimed to have  available for them turns out to be a major dump of a place, a rundown apartment full of bugs, in a Brooklyn ghetto. But with pretty much no other options to consider, Ma agrees to move in, taking a job in a Chinatown sweatshop, bringing in just enough money to barely survive. 

 

Kimberly also obtains a position at the sweatshop while also enrolling in NYC public school. Those early days of school are not easy for her thanks to immature, mean teachers, one in particular who seems to take pleasure in making fun of her accent, lack of English skills and general ignorance of American culture. Not surprisingly, as Kim gets older, she starts to develop a bit of a rebel side, often playing hooky from school just so she can have some peace of mind, even if only for a little bit.

 

But after a pivotal conversation with her mother one day, Kim realizes she wants more out of life than where her future currently seems to be headed. She re-dedicates herself to work and school after understanding that THAT is her ticket to better circumstances for her and her mother. Kim also navigates emotions surrounding first love / crush and the conflicted feelings that come with the sense of being split between two cultures. 

 

Elements of the plot were problematic... as in some details or ideas brought forth didn't feel entirely fleshed out. A few too many moments where the reader is just left with scenes full of question marks or hurried conclusions. What IS really appealing about this story is how immersive Kwok makes the environment, squalid though it may be. That's what kept me reading -- the sense that I was placed in the character's miserable circumstances with them. Weird as that sounds, I, as the reader, appreciated that.

 

Girl In Translation is definitely one to recommend to those who are getting just a little too much entitlement into their whining, those that ask "Are things really THAT bad anymore?" Author Jean Kwok notes that while this is a work of fiction, elements of it are semi-autobiographical, being that she herself emigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child and worked in a sweatshop just like Kim and her mother. Give this to kids whining about allowance and have them read the part where Kim calculates the cost of things she needs or wants by how many skirts she'll have to make at work, knowing she's only paid about 1.5 cents per skirt! 

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review 2018-03-06 13:44
Of Stillness And Storm by Michele Phoenix
Of Stillness and Storm - Michèle Phoenix

It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing.  At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction. Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Lauren and her husband, Sam, are living in Nepal with their thirteen year old son, Ryan, for the purpose of doing missionary work. This project is a labor of love for Sam, who has a sort of frenetic excitement for each day's work, while Lauren and Ryan, though supportive, struggle with their daily grind. 

 

As Sam is away in the villages of Nepal for days at a time, Lauren is left isolated with only her mostly silent, moody teenage son and her own inner thoughts for company. It is through these inner thoughts that the reader gets to know the story of Lauren & Sam and how the idea of the Nepal project came to be. We also get insight into the tiny fractures within this once solid marriage and why Lauren starts to question where her very life purpose truly lies. 

 

"A heart unrisked is a heart unshared and yours is too good to waste."

 

All those years ago, Sam & Lauren met as college kids experiencing a semester abroad in Austria. She was drawn to his intelligence and flattered by his honest interest in who she was at her core. Fast forward to the current moment and Lauren is living a life she flatly describes as "sufficient", which is pretty much aka BLAND. She finds herself bored, lonely and maybe just a bit bitter over the sense that she is doing a lot of the grunt work in this relationship while Sam reaps the rewards of her devotion to him. Even the burden of finding the means to fund Sam's dreams tends to fall on Lauren to answer. But all that is about to be challenged. 

 

It only takes one instance, one moment of weakness. Lauren receives an online private message (through FB, I believe, or something similar) from Aidan, an old friend of Lauren's from 20 years ago. The private messages continue and the friendship is gradually rekindled. As you can imagine, this can be tricky territory to manuever for a bored, lonely housewife desperate for attention. 

 

From there, this novel essentially becomes a character study of people and what drives them, their desires, what's worth sacrificing / what's truly important, etc. When it comes to Sam, he seems like a decent, considerate guy with a strong moral code but BORING. The semantics-filled conversations bantered between him and Lauren nearly did my head in at times! There's just not much warmth to the guy, too serious and analytical to be very enticing to readers... to the point where you can almost understand the appeal in the dangerous territory that is Aidan.

 

Lauren's not the obvious winner either, though. She struck me as having very little backbone, but the kind of person that has to work to just barely contain their whistling teapot of emotions brewing inside. She holds things in until it eats away at her and then when there is a release it's in the form of anger, taken out on others. That said though, one of the aspects of the novel I was most touched by was Lauren's struggle to stay connected to her son and her frustration at not knowing how to stop the disconnect growing between them. 

 

The setting for this novel is what first peaked my curiosity, as I don't often see fictional stories set in Nepal, a place I'd like to see for myself one day. While I do enjoy Phoenix's work with building the atmosphere, the plot itself didn't do much for me. As I mentioned, the conversations between Sam & Lauren were often a chore to push through and I didn't find either of them especially compelling. I did feel for Lauren when it came to her and her son and the emotional distance but that was about the only plot point that my interest stayed fully committed to to the very end. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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