HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford

What a darling book.  “In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s—Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent love that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.

It is the story of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, both twelve years old, both sent by their parents to a semi-prestigious school.  They are both there on scholarship, and work in the kitchen at lunchtime. They are the only ethnic students, and are taunted and bullied for it, Henry because he is Chinese, and Keiko because she is Japanese.  It was the early years of the second world war when the Japanese were hated and feared, and the story is set in the time right before the Japanese are rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Young love has a hard time surviving distance and time, and it is acerbated by Henry’s father, who hates the Japanese, and does what he can to see that the delivery of the letters between the two are disrupted, leaving each to believe that the other no longer cared.

Before the families were rounded up, most of them stored as much as they could of their personal belongings — documents, photos, important mementos wherever they could and with non-Japanese who agreed to keep them.  Many went into the Panama Hotel’s basement, a real place and a true event.  Most never returned for these belongings.

The two teens had a shared love of jazz, and a thread weaves through the story revolves about the existence of an old vinyl recording of a famous musician.

There is a lot about the anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, and the conditions in the internment camps, which for those of us who would prefer to pretend that that ignominious time in the history of the US did not exist, it was a stark reminder that the US’s immigrant and foreigner phobia is not a new phenomenon.

 

SECONDHAND TIME: THE LAST OF THE SOVIETS by Svetlana Alexievich

This is an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.

‘Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.

As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.’

A few quotes.

Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea.  This is entirely new for Russia;  it’s unprecedented in Russian literature.  At heart, we’re built for war.  We were always either fighting or preparing to fight.  We’ve never known anything else — hence our wartime psychology.

We thought that freedom was a very simple thing.  A little time went by, and soon, we too bowed under its yoke.  No one had taught us how to be free.  We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.”  Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be.  Our time comes to us secondhand.

The mysterious Russian soul.  Everyone wants to understand what’s behind that soul of theirs.  Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul.

Very interesting book.  The translator, Bela Shayevich, is a well-known writer, translator and illustrator.

WHEEL OF THE INFINITE by Martha Wells

The official plot description is woefully inadequate.  In fact, it doesn’t sound anything like the actual plot.  So I stole a really good plot description from a reviewer named Carol.  Hat tip to Carol.

Wheel of the Infinite centers on Maskelle, a formerly powerful woman who has left her position as her temple divinity’s living Voice in disgrace. Set in a society somewhat loosely based on Tibetan Buddhism, there is a pantheon of gods who have spent time on earth and have returned to the Divine Realms. A core ritual of the combined temples is to recreate the mandala pattern of the lands annually or the land will suffer, and this year marks a crucial hundred-year ceremony. Although Maskelle retains many of her powers from her time as the Voice, she’s been traveling incognito, acting as seer for a traveling theater troupe. While looking for herbs, she discovers a river inn overrun with raiders. Feeling rather ornery, she decides to see if there are any honest folk left to rescue, and she instead discovers a foreign traveler captive to the bandits’ amusements. They mutually rescue each other, discovering an immediate connection. He surreptitiously follows as she leads the troupe to the capital city of the Celestial Empire, until a temporary rouse as her bodyguard leads to a permanent association. Once in the city, Maskelle, her new bodyguard Rian, and the troupe quickly become the focus of local politics, both supernatural and corporeal.

There.  That’s more like it.

Again, my main bone to pick with this sorcerer and sandals type story, as with all sorcerer and sandals type fantasies, is the discrepancy between the nifty magic that can be conjured up by the wizards, and the everyday needs of the people.  Why is it that wizards can always wage some kind of fantastic war, change people into animals and vice versa, create castles in the air, and magic up some great ethereal phenomenon, but cannot come up with indoor plumbing, central heating,  and the combustion engine?  Or even the umbrella? The folks in these stories always live in some kind of medieval world with carts and dray animals, use outdoor fires or fireplaces for all their cooking and heating needs,  sweat a lot in the heat, freeze themselves silly in the cold weather, and get drenched when it rains.

What good is a wizard if he (or she) can’t heat your damn house or produce a flush toilet?)

This particular book seemed to have a bit of trouble with its internal logic.  I can suspend belief quite easily if the entire world and story line follows a consistent logic, but this one seemed to jumble around a lot.  First of all, there were the Ancestors, people who have lived so wonderfully that when they died, they became sages to the living, using a living monk or whatchamacallit as their Voice, speaking through them.  Our heroine, Maskelle, is the Voice of the top Ancestor, the Adversary.  Turns out the Adversary is a little mad, and is trying to kill itself. Very strange.  How can that be?

Also, this ‘wheel’, is actually a … ummm… what do you call those maps that are dimensional, with the mountains, elevations  and valleys, etc?  Physical maps?  Topographical?  It is made out of sand, painstakingly crafted which takes a year to do.  It keeps the world in existence.  So if someone messes with it, the world becomes like the messed up version.    A little odd and hard to understand.

But it is fantasy, and sort of fun.  I think most fantasy fans really liked the book.  I was only meh about it, not because it was not well written, but because none of these wizard-y, sorcerer-y people conjured up electricity.

 

 

JUDAS UNCHAINED by Peter Hamilton

This is the follow up to Pandora’s Star, which I babbled on about here.  And yeah, I know, I said in that review that I would not be reading the followup novel(s).  However, it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, so I did.

Another HUGE ginormous book, at 847 pages, give or take a flyleaf or two. Probably wouldn’t be damaged all that badly by the elimination of a detailed description or four of battles, landscapes, and trivial acts, but it is his style of writing, so we just go with it.

Again, (and I urge you to read my review of Pandora’s Star in order to get a grasp on the general theme), we have the several infinitely long plot lines which intertwine and finally merge at the end.  Here is the general gist:

Robust, peaceful, and confident, the Commonwealth dispatched a ship to investigate the mystery of a disappearing star, only to inadvertently unleash a predatory alien species that turned on its liberators, striking hard, fast, and utterly without mercy.

The Prime are the Commonwealth’s worst nightmare. Coexistence is impossible with the technologically advanced aliens, who are genetically hardwired to exterminate all other forms of life. Twenty-three planets have already fallen to the invaders, with casualties in the hundreds of millions. And no one knows when or where the genocidal Prime will strike next.

Nor are the Prime the only threat. For more than a hundred years, a shadowy cult, the Guardians of Selfhood, has warned that an alien with mind-control abilities impossible to detect or resist — the Starflyer — has secretly infiltrated the Commonwealth. Branded as terrorists, the Guardians and their leader, Bradley Johansson, have been hunted by relentless investigator Paula Myo. But now evidence suggests that the Guardians were right all along, and that the Starflyer has placed agents in vital posts throughout the Commonwealth — agents who are now sabotaging the war effort.

Is the Starflyer an ally of the Prime, or has it orchestrated a fight to the death between the two species for its own advantage? Caught between two deadly enemies, one a brutal invader striking from without, the other a remorseless cancer killing from within, the fractious Commonwealth must unite as never before.

The nifty thing about this universe is that the folks have the ability to re-life people who have died.  The common activity is to periodically backup your memories and leave them in a secure location so if you get killed or die by disease, etc., you can get re-lifed with your memories reintroduced.   ALSO, and this I totally love, they have a rejuvenation process which takes about a year or so, and from which you emerge all young again.  So you look young and bouncy, but you have the wisdom and skepticism and jadedness of your former lives.  hahaha.  So you can have marriages between two people, one of whom is a first time around-er, and the other maybe 300 years old, working on their third or fourth life.  Talk about a cougar!

I enjoyed this book more than the first, but I think it has more to do about where my mind is as opposed to where it was when I read the first book, than having to do with the books themselves.

 

EXIT STRATEGY by Martha Wells

This is the fourth and final installment of the Murderbot Diaries series.  Murderbot wasn’t programmed to care. So, its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah—its former owner (protector? friend?)—submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who’s going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it’s caught?

Our A.I., complete with sarcasm and social anxiety, is back. We already know that Murderbot is not really a bot (robot) or technically a murderer.It is a highly augmented human who is gainfully employed as a security unit. It guards the lives of those who hire him.

Not only is it highly intelligent, it is also personal and is burdened with empathy, loyalty and a love for escapism into video dramas. It had been searching on Milu for additional evidence against the evil-ridden corporation GrayCris. Because of key evidence found on the Milu trip, Murderbot decides it needs to meet face-to-face with Dr. Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s owner and possibly also its friend … though Murderbot would say it doesn’t “do” friendship.

Murderbot’s return to HaveRatton Station isn’t as straightforward or successful as it had hoped it would be. Station authorities have been alerted that there’s a rogue SecUnit on the loose, and security personnel are pulling out all the stops to capture or kill Murderbot. Worse, Mensah may be in serious trouble. News sources on HaveRatton state that she’s traveled to TranRollinHyfa, a major space station where GrayCris has its corporate headquarters, to answer GrayCris’s legal claim of corporate espionage against her. Now Mensah has disappeared and is presumably in the hands of GrayCris. Murderbot gets another chance to hone its talents at armed conflict and human rescue missions and, perhaps, at friendship as well.

So sorry this is the last in the series. However, we are advised that there is a full length Murderbot novel planned for release in 2020, so we will keep our fingers crossed.

PERMIAN – EMISSARY OF THE EXTINCT by Devyn Regueira

Official plot description:

Their vastness  concealed since an era predating the earliest mammals, two titanic chasms are uncovered beneath the canopy of modern Siberia.

Lining the granite walls of the first, high above an orderly reservoir of fossilized eggs, an inscription spanning eighty-five miles describes the genome of a proto-mammalian species eradicated during the Permian Extinction. In the next, researchers discover etchings of the constellations as they would have appeared across the eons; a global timeline of ten billion years remembered and foretold by a primordial intelligence beyond our own. Armed with a genetic recipe, compelled to act by the harrowing implications of a pattern detected in the timeline, an international effort begins to return that species from extinction before mankind encounters its own.

The human race has only just learned to pluck at the strings of life on Earth. Will the curtains rise on a siren’s song?

The group of governments who are investigating the genetic recipe etched around the abysses use that recipe to make a creature which is a compilation of an extinct somewhat-human species, and then spend a lot of time dialoguing with it.  Mixed in with this are flashbacks of a sort to episodes of the creature’s life in which we learn they have the ability to see into the future and predict their own extinction.

Interesting premise, confusing second half.  Reads like a textbook on genetics, etc. wrapped within some kind of plot.  The writing itself was fine, the plot line could use some serious work to make it a bit more palatable and less pedantic.

But again, intriguing premise.  I am always supportive of ideas that do not trod the tried and true ruts, but come up with something different.

 

ROGUE PROTOCOL by Martha Wells

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. continues his mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

Well, I just adore Murderbot.  I wish the series could go on forever.

Here’s the story, morning glory:  GrayCris appears to be intent on illegally collecting the extremely valuable remnants of alien civilizations. To all appearances Milu is an abandoned project of GrayCris, but Murderbot suspects, based on its online research, that GrayCris may have been secretly using Milu as a cover for its recovery operations for alien remnants. If Murderbot can find proof of these illegal operations on Milu, the legal case against GrayCris will become much more compelling … and perhaps people will forget about a certain SecUnit that has mysteriously gone astray.

As always with its plans, Murderbot thinks it’s going to do this thing all by itself; as usual, a group of humans that desperately needs its help causes a change of plans for our deeply introverted SecUnit. Masquerading as a technologically augmented human security consultant rather than a cyborg, Murderbot find that the bot-driven transport spaceship needs its intervention to mediate conflicts between its passengers (“If you bother her again I will break every bone in your hand and arm. It will take about an hour.”).

Once Murderbot reaches Milu, it finds the facility isn’t entirely abandoned: a team of humans, along with two suspicious security consultants and a chipper human-form robot assistant called Miki, are on an excursion to investigate Milu as well. Murderbot scrambles to convince Miki, and through Miki the rest of the team, that Murderbot is authorized to be on the site as additional security help. And then the team is attacked …

Murderbot’s system hacking, strategizing, and enemy ass-kicking talents continue to develop and amaze in Rogue Protocol, and are just a complete joy to read about. Even Murderbot’s interpersonal relationship abilities develop, despite all of its intentions otherwise. Murderbot does a lot of internal grumping about the various shortcomings of humans, bots and other sentient beings, but when they need its help and protection, somehow Murderbot never fails to throw itself into the fray.

Murderbot is also taken aback by the rather childlike bot Miki’s claim of friendship with its human owner, Don Abene … and even more dumbfounded to find that Don Abene considers Miki a friend as well. Murderbot’s interactions with them prompt it to reevaluate its own relationships with humans, especially Dr. Mensah, Murderbot’s legal owner.

Want some quotes from our A.I., complete with sarcasm and social anxiety?  Allow me:

About Miki, the human-looking bot belonging to Don Abene:

When I called it a pet robot, I honestly thought I was exaggerating.  This was going to be even more annoying than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated a pretty high level of annoyance, maybe as high as 85 percent.  Now I was looking at 90 percent, possibly 95 percent.

And

I couldn’t pin down what was bothering me.  Maybe it was something subliminal.  Actually, it felt pretty liminal.  Pro-liminal.  Up-liminal?  Whatever, there was no knowledge base here to look it up.

And

“With Gerth at the ship, we have a hostage situation”.   I hate hostage situations.  Even when I’m the one with the hostages.  Miki `[that humanish, child-like bot], said, “That’s not good.”  See that?  That is just annoying. That contributed nothing to the conversation and was just a pointless vocalization to make the humans comfortable.

And finally,

I was pretty sure the combat bot had been original equipment for the facility.  We were talking about GrayCris here, whose company motto seemed to be “profit by killing everybody and taking their stuff.”

So now on to the fourth book.