I made it! (Sort of, almost, kind of) through my first reading challenge with my buddy @fatgirlfatbooks. She didn’t finish either, so I don’t have to feel too guilty, I don’t think. The blame lies with The City & The City for being such a slog to read. The drag to that book was unbelievable. Actually, since I’m already talking about it…
The City and The City (China Mieville)
This was the most disappointed I’ve been with a book in a while. It isn’t hard to nail down why exactly I found this book underwhelming because all of it was underwhelming except for the setting. The City & The City imagines a city that, through some vague and unanswered process, became crosshatched with a sister city. These two cities, despite the fact that they occupy the same physical space, consider themselves to be in different countries. For that reason, the societies in each city have set up a way of “not-seeing” the other city and the people who live there unless they officially cross the border.
It wasn’t a problem of suspension of belief as I was fully committed to the idea of these two cities sharing space. Politically speaking, the setting also created a lot of interesting questions: who governs the cities? Who policies them? How do the cities deal with different countries across the world? How does the economy of one city influence, or not, the other? and so on.
Unfortunately, the protagonist of the story is incredibly bland. Having finished the book, I can honestly say I still have no idea what motivated our detective. His only character traits seem to be: Average™, sort of competent at job, gruff, possesses stubble.
There’s a political conflict set up near the beginning of the book between nationalists in each city (that believe their city should be the only city) and unionists (the city is actually one city and should be merged). But is our main character of either of these political ideologies? Of course not.
He’s just rogue enough to have problems with authority but not radical enough to believe anything counter-cultural. It’s a weird choice because this doesn’t make him compelling. I kept thinking as I read the book: what if he had been a radical? What if he was one of those people who ignore the boundaries of the cities?
Beyond his lack of motivation aside from being vaguely competent at his job, the main character also seems to have no grounding interpersonal relationships. No family, two casual romantic entanglements that are mentioned in passing a couple of times then brought up at the end as if they’ve earned a pay-off of emotional impact, and a mentor relationship with a rookie that ends up going nowhere as well. Why? Why set any of this up to ignore it? The main character feels like he’s a cardboard cut out of a police detective. Ironically, I don’t think he’d pass the lamp test that is usually applied to female characters (as in, you could replace him with a lamp and the story would still occur without much being altered).
You may be wondering why I keep referring to him as the main character instead of his name. The answer is that I barely remember his name, not enough to be confident to type it. My buddy and I had this conversation about this after I challenged her to tell me 10 character traits about him:
oh wait, that’s the guy from Romeo and Juliet
Frankly, the whole thing is baffling. Somewhere inside the kernel idea of The City & The City, regarding the co-existence of the cities, is a great novel. But this is not it.
To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (Mark O’Connell)
Full disclosure, I haven’t finished this book as I type this review (I’m at 73 percent, I believe) but unless it goes completely off the rails, I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts on it.
To Be a Machine has been entertaining on several levels for me as a reader. On the first level is the subject matter it addresses—that of transhumanism and the eccentric, intelligent, and (sometimes) wealthy visionaries who are obsessed with it. Transhumanism is the devotion to the rejection of our biological forms and the vision of a future where we are no longer inhibited by them. For different transhumanists, this vision varies, but the core idea is the same. For them, the human body and all of its limitations, including but not solely mortality, must be overcome.
The second level of entertainment comes from the author’s reaction to transhumanism and the people he interviews on the topic. O’Connell has a visceral rejection of transhumanism, which is fairly common when people bring up the idea of uploading their brains into machine bodies, but also struggles with his identity as a decaying organism. Humorously, and human-ly, O’Connell confronts humanity’s apparent need to reject its own nature and also ascribe meaning to its animal life.
As someone who is heading off to complete a post-graduate degree at a university that is a bastion of transhumanism, O’Connell’s journey through these ideas as an outsider is interesting for the exact reason that I’ve never rejected them. The resistance to transhumanism, where it comes from, why people find it ghastly, is laid out bare in this book.
The Pseudo-religion interpretation of transhumanism that arises through the book is a take that I’ve never considered or encountered before and O’Connell’s arguments are compelling.
Whether it’s a topic you’ve encountered before or not, I recommend the book because the fields involved with transhumanism (technology, biology, psychology, engineering, A.I. research) will continue becoming more prevalent in the next 15 years. The ethics of bio-technology, of the enhancements and the eventual future that transhumanists envision is sure to be the heated topic of debates that will filter into the mainstream media once the fringe technology advances far enough to be mass producible. As O’Connell’s writing is entertaining, accessible, and investigative, To Be a Machine is a decent entry-level starting point for people interested in the movement.
That Summer (Sarah Dessen)
This was Sarah Dessen’s first book and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of it. Many first books are easily identifiable as first books after writers have published as many as Dessen has, because like a painter’s style changes and matures over time, authors improve. In That Summer though, Dessen’s prose possesses the jaunty quality that I associate with her. To reference the title of this book, Dessen’s writing calls to mind summer because there’s a sunny, warm, breezy quality to it.
My favorite aspect of That Summer was that the focus of this coming of age story was between sisters. The novel captures how an age gap between siblings can influence how they understand or remember events during their childhood, in this case the divorce of their parents and the older sister’s behavior during the time.
The pacing of the book is slow, a lazy drift, but I’m not sure that’s a negative. Again, I think of the comparison to summer when, especially during summer breaks between high school years, the days stretch with little occurring each day.
A solid read, worth picking up if you’re a fan of Dessen and haven’t gotten around to this one yet, like me, or were thinking of skipping because it is her first.
Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet (Charlie N. Holmberg)
I waited for a week hoping that by the end of this challenge I would have a better idea on what I wanted to write about this book. Yet, I’m still at a loss. Maybe mixed-feelings is the best way to describe this book?
The plot was not what I was expecting, for sure. This is both good and bad—good, because it went in such an unexpected, off the rails direction (which I really liked at the end), and bad, because darn it! I wanted a magical baking book!
There is magical baking in this book, but it is an accessory rather than a focus of the plot. To describe the plot here would be difficult because it relies on the slow accumulation of memories by the main character to answer the mystery of her existence and unnaturally powerful baking skills.
I will say this—the events of the book are compelling. I didn’t want to put it down once I started and was eager to understand the mystery. The pay off at the end, where the identities of the characters are defined, is well done and I maybe, just possibly, shed a tear (I’m weak).
Maybe what’s leaving me reluctant on this book is how brutal it was. I’m not sure there’s redemption for actions of certain characters (Maire, the main character, I exclude from this because I do understand her). Maybe I felt the brutality was unnecessary? But that’s a personal preference and not related to the actual deserts of the book.
For now, I’m going to just conclude that my feelings are ambiguous. Still very much a fan of Holmberg though!
The Golden Compass a.k.a Northern Lights (Philip Pullman)
This is such a classic that I don’t want to spend too much time talking about it because what more can I add? All the accolades and praise for The Golden Compass are well deserved, especially for the world-building. Lyra, though she’s young, is relatable because of her pluck and genuine concern for others. The ending line to this book is absolutely incredible.
Hopefully it won’t take a reading challenge to spur me on to read the second one… using my Kindle to read library books has ruined my life in regards to reading books I own.