Book Review: Florida, Lauren Groff

Book Review: Florida, Lauren Groff

Short Story Collection: Florida, Lauren Groff

Florida was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and was named one of NPR’s “Books of the Year” for 2018. A collection of short stories is the official description, but this basic characterization fails to do it justice. It is a collection of gems, set (mostly) in a state with sun, sand, snakes, and stories that are moving and filling.

 

The only unifying theme of the book is the state of Florida. Not all of the stories are set in Florida, but all of them feature Floridians. The only recurring human character is a mother, nameless other than that description, “the mother.” She is married with two sons, and her life is both fulfilled and empty. She loves her husband but fears they have become simply clouds to one another, misty, amorphous, no longer in focus. She loves her children but fears she is not a good enough mother. She wants to finish the book she is writing on Guy de Maupassant, but finds when she takes her sons with her to France to work on the book that she actually abhors both the man and most of his writings. This mother spoke to me in her determination and desperation. She wants so much to be the wife and mother she thinks she should be. She wants to be the academic she’s dreamed of being. But life has conspired to move things sideways. She is determined to do her best, but is desperately aware that her best will never be what she wants it to be. She can only hope it is good enough, at least for her children, hopefully for herself and her husband. As of the end of the book, we can only hope with her.

 

The other recurring character is Florida itself. This is not the Florida of Disney and the travel brochures. This is a Florida where two little girls can be abandoned to starve on an island, rescued by chance after eating everything in their house and their neighbor’s house, wearing their mother’s dresses and lipstick. This is a Florida where a woman falls and injures herself with only two children to care for her for days, while a panther prowls outside their cabin. This is a Florida that a woman will not leave for more than a vacation, and where her husband will no longer stay. This is a Florida of survivors and victims, of homeless women and desperate men, of teens forced to raise themselves in empty homes and people trapped in empty lives. This is a Florida of hurricanes and heat. There are no talking cartoon mice in this Florida, though snakes and feral dogs and palmetto bugs make some very unwelcome appearances.

 

This can be a challenging book to read, but it is beautiful and heartfelt. If you want stories with happy endings, this is not your book. But neither is it unrelenting in its sadness. There are victors: an old man who survives everything life has thrown at him, (spoiler alert) the two girls who survive being abandoned, even the mother who appears in multiple stories. But these survivors do not survive without scars. They are damaged and wounded by their experiences, they are never completely whole again, they carry the marks on their bodies and in their hearts. But they do survive. And maybe that’s the theme of the book: if they can survive Florida, we can survive our own Floridas, whether they are in another state, another country, or just another state of mind.

 

Lauren Groff has given us a beautiful set of stories, gems which lay on a pendant of the Sunshine State. Like that perfect piece of jewelry, each gem shines individually. Together, though, it is splendid. Florida is a wonderful book that can be enjoyed piece by piece, story by story, but is perhaps most extraordinary when taken in as a whole.

Book Review: Florida, Lauren Groff

Book Review: American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson

Book Review: American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson

Thriller: American Spy , Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy is one of the deepest, most profound books I have ever read dealing with race, gender, imperialism, and American identity. Lauren Wilkinson has managed to weigh in on numerous deep and profound topics while weaving a tale of spycraft that stands its ground against thrillers that follow more formulaic plots.

 

Marie Mitchell is a single mother raising twin boys. One night a stranger breaks into their suburban home. Marie kills the stranger, but we quickly discover that she has been anticipating this possibility for years. She takes her boys, flees to her mother’s home on the island of Martinique, and begins writing a journal which is the content of the novel.

 

We follow Marie’s relationship with her parents, her older sister Helene who died years earlier, Marie’s career in the FBI, and her recruitment and missions for the CIA. We find out who the boys’ father was, we meet Marie’s lifelong friend (and occasional boyfriend) Robbie, and her father’s friend Mr. Ali. And in the process we read about the rise of an early military contractor, the mixed feelings of African Americans when working for instruments of their oppression like the FBI, and the casual sexism and homophobia that permeated institutions in the 1980s (and clearly still does far too often still today).

 

I really liked this book, in part because it was challenging to read. Wilkinson does not shy away from tough topics and she is willing to delve into them in depth and with solid background. Sometimes this can sidetrack the story, but it is necessary and the author puts it to good use. I love the opportunity to look through different eyes at the world. Marie is African American, female, and definitely provides this white male reader with that different perspective.

 

I also love the open ending of the book. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so all I will say is that the book ends with the chance for the reader to decide what happens next–or, hopefully, the opportunity for the author to write a sequel letting us know what happens next in Marie’s life.

 

Marie is a challenging protagonist, fascinating and sometimes unlikeable. Principled, but willing to reinterpret those principles when new information becomes available. Courageous, bold, and yet willing to admit she is afraid, but unwilling to be stopped by her fear. Motivated by love, love for her sister, love for her boys, love for their father. Marie is someone you’d love to meet and fear to cross.

 

American Spy is unlike any other novel I have read. It is powerful, breaks with convention, tells a thrilling spy story but wraps within it powerful social commentary. Read it while wearing a crash helmet. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Review: American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson

The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

Book Review: The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

Nonfiction: The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

When Matt Ridley titled his book The Evolution of Everything, he really wasn’t kidding. From the scientific to the social to the technological, Ridley examines how things develop from the bottom up rather than the top down. His arguments are compelling, his research is exhaustive, and his language is sharp. I cannot say he fully persuaded me in every particular, but his writing is worth reading and deserves serious consideration.

 

Evolution obviously refers to the Darwinian model of species origin and development, but as a word, “evolution” is much broader. Things “evolve” when they come to pass gradually, organically, without an external mechanism guiding and shaping the development. That is, of course, both the power and the controversy behind Darwin’s theory, that life arose and developed on this planet without divine origin or explanation. But many other things have also evolved in this broader definition, things that may not always first seem to have done so.

 

Language may be the best example. When students are taught a foreign language, emphasis is on learning “the rules” of the language and memorizing vocabulary. As I can attest from my own attempts to study other languages, this method has limitations. But that is neither how languages developed, nor is it how they are best learned. Toddlers learn languages naturally and almost intuitively. My granddaughters do not know nouns from verbs, they cannot give you the forms of “to be,” they are not ready for the NY Times crossword puzzles (I’ll get them there someday, I hope!). But they are learning English to communicate. They can tell us when they are hungry and thirsty and happy and sad and sick and silly. Their vocabularies are growing almost daily (they are ages 1 and 3 as I write this) and they love to have things read to them. This is an evolutionary process, and it is working with them as it works with toddlers around the world in their own languages. Someday they may sit in a classroom and stare at a book trying to sort der, die, und das. But the process will never be as natural as the one they are involved with right now.

 

I am not as libertarian as Ridley is, so some of his statements ran counter to my own deeply held beliefs. His thoughts on government run health systems were interesting to me as an American. I am not certain all of his fellow countrymen are as skeptical of the UHS as he is, and I am absolutely certain that most Americans are not as enamored with our own system as he seems to be. I will certainly grant, though, that we have no consensus on what we should do differently, but there are not a lot of Americans whom I know that would argue our decentralized system works well for the poor. Similarly his statements on education seem to give much more credence to private education working for all than what seems likely, although he does cite many examples. But those philosophical differences do not change my admiration for his intellect or his research. I am simply not convinced that there is no place for government in assuring that the poorest among us get access to health care, education, and other benefits of society.

 

I also do not think his lumping global warming/climate change in with religious belief is warranted. I get the point he was making, that there can be a kind of messianic fervor among those who are concerned by the changes we are making to the earth, but when 97% of those who have studied the subject directly are in broad agreement with the science and its conclusions, then the counter views of those who are not climate scientists should be met with skepticism. In his chapter on the origins of life, Ridley mocks those who are not biologists, paleontologists, etc. who question the evolution of life, yet in his chapter on religion(?) he lends support to those who are not climate scientists who question the views of climate science. That seems inconsistent to me.

 

I will freely admit, though, that I am a blogger, not a scientist. And Ridley’s arguments throughout the book are researched, compelling, well written, and thoughtful. I thoroughly recommend the book, not because I agree with everything in it, but because it made me think and to reevaluate my own opinions. I never want to just hold an opinion because that’s what I’ve always believed, or that’s what the last person I read thought about something. Ridley does not let thoughts go unexamined. If you want a book that makes you think, The Evolution of Everything is a great place to start.

Book Review: The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

Book List: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Book List: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

We at www.scintilla.info have had the privilege of reviewing many books by people whose heritage and ancestry hails from the world’s largest continent. Although this month is specifically devoted to the celebration of Americans who count Asia and the Pacific Islands in their genealogy, we are going to include other Asian authors (i.e. those who are citizens of Asian, European, or other non-US countries) in our list so as to make it as inclusive as possible.

 

Our apologies to anyone we’ve missed in this list. Asia is a large continent! In many families, including ours, family names do not adequately reflect ancestral homes so we did not rely exclusively on that. If someone should be on this list, please let us know and we will correct it. Any errors or omissions are entirely our fault.

1250081785 1250081890

Curtis C. Chen — Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too

 

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng How To Bake a Pi cover

Eugenia Cheng — The Art of Logic in an Illogical World and

 

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

 

Amy ChuaPolitical Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

 

0385542763

Michio Kaku — The Future of Humanity

 

The Poppy War: A Novel

R.F. KuangThe Poppy War

 

0756410843 Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Sarah KuhnHeroine ComplexHeroine WorshipHeroine’s Journey

 

0345803787 0804172064 052543237X

Kevin KwanCrazy Rich Asians trilogy

 

The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

R.O. KwonThe Incendiaries

 

Fonda LeeJade City and Zeroboxer

 

Liu CixinBall Lightning

 

Ling MaSeverance

 

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Celeste NgLittle Fires Everywhere

 

1451657714 1476795789

Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan and Music of the Ghosts

 

B07B2FJGYK 1941550584

Thaddeus RutkowskiBorder Crossings and Violent Outbursts

 

Somini SenguptaThe End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young

 

1618731432

Vandana SinghAmbiguity Machines and Other Stories

 

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Shaun TanTales from the Inner City

 

Book List: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Book Review: The Poppy War, RF Kuang

Book Review: The Poppy War, RF Kuang

The Poppy War: A Novel

Fantasy: The Poppy War, RF Kuang

Shortlisted by many as one of the best fantasy books of 2018, The Poppy War is a stellar debut novel that feels both familiar and brand new. In some ways there is familiar territory being covered: Runin, a poor orphan girl, studies hard to excel on the test granting admission to the top school in the country. While there, she is largely shunned and mocked for her poverty, her gender, her color, her accent, and her lack of a family. However, she discovers within herself access to a power greater than her classmates can comprehend, a power that allows her to become more than just a mere soldier, a power that can change the course of a war, a country, humanity itself.

 

Runin can become a shaman, a conduit of the gods. There is a cost, though. It may require she lose her very humanity. If the result is the salvation of her country, though, is that not worth it? What price should not be paid, what price is too high, if the enemy is at the gates?

 

RF Kuang’s novel is rich and nuanced. Runin is a very complex character, flawed and deep. Her drive to escape her childhood is so strong that she is willing to burn her skin with candles to stay awake and master the course of study. To study with the Lore Master at her school she is willing to carry a pig up and down a mountain daily (it builds physical strength, speed, and stamina) for the months it takes for the pig to reach maturity. Yet with this drive comes rashness and immaturity. She is nearly expelled for fighting a classmate. And later she comes close to killing that same classmate, pulling herself back only at the last moment.

 

When her country is invaded by their long-term enemy, Runin is drafted to serve in the defense forces. She sees how ruthless the invaders are toward both enemy soldiers and civilians, and she starts to come to grips with her own powers. And as both the atrocities increase and the country begins to fall, the questions of right and wrong become more muddled. The god she can access is a god of fire and a god of revenge. How much fire is she willing to unleash? How far is she willing to take her revenge? The rules of war are different when you are fighting with a god’s agenda. That agenda may overlap with human desires, but they should never be mistaken as being the same.

 

Reinterpreting portions of 20th Century Chinese and Japanese history, The Poppy War is both a fantasy and an alternate history that has some resonance with other coming-of-age books but is also unique and distinctly Asian in its telling. It is a powerful and thoughtful book, and a great start to what looks to be an excellent series.

The Poppy War: A Novel

Book Review: The Poppy War, RF Kuang

Book Review: Severance, Ling Ma

Book Review: Severance, Ling Ma

Fiction: Severance, Ling Ma

Severance is an odd novel, really almost three novellas telling the story of one person. Candace Chen is a millennial living in NYC. Born in China and raised in Utah, Candace loves her routine. Her job for a printing company has her overseeing the production of Bibles target marketed toward specific audiences. Her nights are usually spent with her boyfriend watching movies projected against the wall. Occasionally she dreams of something less predictable, but the truth is that she likes her routines, she takes comfort in the familiar, and although moving to NYC disrupted her previous routines, she has substituted those old ones for new ones that she is unwilling to change.

 

The book jumps around Candace’s timeline, from childhood in China and Utah to her early days in NY to a few years later when the arrival of the Shen virus decimates the city to her current situation traveling with a group of refugees to “the facility,” a place where they have been assured they will be safe. The refugees are led by a charismatic figure named Bob, a man who uses charm and manipulation to keep them together and is someone Candace does not trust.

 

Shen fever is a plague that strikes first in China then spreads around the world. Its symptoms initially mimic the common cold, but once the fever strikes people become frozen in routines they cannot escape. Mothers set tables for meals that are not there. Retailers fold clothes again and again and again. Taxi drivers wander through the city aimlessly. Candace is one of the fortunate few who does not contract the disease. Her routine has already been disrupted before the arrival of the disease, and not to give away any spoilers but I cannot help but wonder whether it is less a matter of exposure to the fungus that keeps her safe or whether it is the disruption of her predictable life.

 

Candace documents the collapse of the city on her photoblog NYGhost, posting pictures of flooded subways, empty stores, abandoned vehicles, and other images of a forsaken city. Eventually, though, she has to leave in order to survive. It’s a rather chilling view of how quickly a city can collapse: the time from the virus first appearing in the city to the time when she must flee in order to survive is only a matter of months. We rely so much on technology that it is easy to forget that the true infrastructure that lets everything continue is people doing their routine jobs. Without people, there are no trains, there is no electricity, there is no Internet, there are no book blogs–what a horrible world that would be!

 

Severance is a coming of age story. It is an examination of the challenges of living an ordinary modern life. And it is a look at a dystopian near future. These three stories woven together by the one life they examine are each powerful alone, but together they make a rich and complex examination of both the meaning and meaninglessness of modern life.

Book Review: Severance, Ling Ma

 

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine; Emily Bernard

Book Review: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard

Nonfiction: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard

Black Is the Body is an extraordinary book. It is a collection of first-person essays by Emily Bernard, essays that tell a story of being black in America. It is as close to perfect as any book I have ever read. Bernard exquisitely describes her experience of being black in a white world. Her prose is both beautiful and painful, compelling and chilling and heartwarming. After reading it, I have a better appreciation for both how much we have in common through our shared humanity, and how distant we are because of the experiences our skin color creates.

 

Emily Bernard is a writer and professor at the University of Vermont. She has brown skin. She is what we Americans in our racial fixation deem to be “black.” Vermont is the second whitest state in the US. She is married to a white man, and together they have twin daughters, adopted from Ethiopia. Growing up in the south, educated at Yale, living in Vermont, Bernard is perhaps uniquely positioned to comment on race in America. In this collection of essays, functionally a memoir, she does so with wisdom and compassion and grace and fire.

 

Bernard starts with an essay about being stabbed. She was one of six victims in a coffee shop assault while studying at Yale University. She was not singled out, she was not stabbed because she was black. She was simply there and was one of the victims of a man whose mind was sick. The physical effects of the stabbing have stayed with her for years and have required subsequent surgeries to deal with scar tissue and other issues. In some ways, the emotional effects have never left. The event became a watershed for her, an opportunity to deal with physical trauma and pain openly. This allowed her to deal with other emotional traumas, traumas more common than being a victim of violence. Some of these traumas relate specifically to being black in America.

 

Her husband was driving her parents’ car during a family trip in the south. One of the tires went flat. Her father wanted to continue along until they reached a gas station in the next town. Her husband insisted on pulling over to the side of the road and replacing the tire with the spare himself. Neither of them was wrong. The difference in opinion on what to do had everything to do with race. Her husband recognized the danger of driving on a flat tire. Her father recognized the danger of being a black family stranded on the side of the road. Both dangers were equally real. The tire was fixed and the trip continued, but the experience deeply affected all of them.

 

Bernard teaches at a university that has mostly white students in a state that has a mostly white population. In her classes she sometimes addresses the use of what we euphemistically call “the ‘n’ word.” Most of her white students cannot bring themselves to say the word aloud, either omitting it even while reading text where it’s used or substituting that clunky phrase: “the ‘n’ word.” (Nor will I write it here.) The power that word has is both revealing and concealing. Do we (whites) refuse to use it because we are not racist? Do some of us at least refuse to use it because we are racist but try to hide that behind our woke vocabulary?

 

Bernard’s children live in a town with few other children who look like them. She expresses pride, amazement, and fear that they have no fear of white people. A friend tells her, that’s because they live in a home where a white person loves them. Another friend tells her, you are my only black friend. These are experiences that I will never have. They are feelings I can only experience vicariously. Bernard has given her readers a gift: seeing the world from a different perspective. This is not a memoir of rage or a call to overthrow existing power structures. This is an invitation to walk with her, to see the world through different eyes, to know what it’s like to receive hate mail because you’re different, to have people stare at you in the grocery store, to hear a friend comment at the dark ring a young black man left in her bathtub and wonder whether she thought it was dirt or whether she thought it was something else.

 

Read this book. Whatever race you identify with, Black Is the Body will speak to you. There is pain, there is hope, there is tolerance and understanding and anger and brilliant writing. Emily Bernard has given us the gift of herself, of her memories, of her stories, of her life. It is a precious gift indeed.

Book Review: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine; Emily Bernard

Book Review: Mother Love, Rita Dove

Book Review: Mother Love, Rita Dove

Poetry: Mother Love, Rita Dove

Rita Dove served as US Poet Laureate in the 1990s. Her collection of sonnets, Mother Love, was written at the end of her tenure in that post. It is a powerful collection inspired by the myth of Persephone. Dove’s speaker sometimes is Persephone, sometimes her mother Demeter, and sometimes a much more modern woman addressing the roles of mother, daughter, wife/girlfriend/other that women often fulfill during their lives.

 

In Greek mythology, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and seasons. Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and captured her to be his wife. Demeter was so stricken by the loss she made the earth barren and cold until the other gods prevailed on Hades to allow Persephone to return to the surface. He allowed her return, but warned that she could not eat or drink anything from the underworld or that would require her to return. Persephone did eat three pomegranate seeds despite herself–or maybe intentionally–and so every year she had to spend three months with Hades underground. Thus, we experience those three months of Demeter’s grief as winter, ending when Persephone returns in the spring, and so on.

 

Sonnets are fourteen lined poems. Dove makes the choice to limit herself to sonnets, because it “chains” her to a format. Since Persephone, and in her own way Demeter, are chained, since women are also often chained to their roles and expectations, Dove felt the format itself would be a poem within the poems, chaining the form as further expression of the content. The poems do not limit themselves to the ancient myth, but rather express the relationships which comprise the myth: mother, daughter, wife, mother-in-law, girlfriend, etc. They express the pain of letting go, of watching a daughter grow up and make her own choices, of not interfering even when those choices diverge from your own. They express the pain of growing up, of making difficult choices, of living with the consequences of those choices, of finding out that love and sex and independence and adulthood are not everything we thought they might be. Women (and men) face these challenges, but it is fair to say that society places burdens on women that men often escape, and Dove’s poems look unflinchingly at those expectations and what it takes to meet them, or what it takes to defy them.

 

Mother Love was written, the author says, “for her mother and to her daughter.” It is a challenging and arresting work, powerfully unified throughout and offering deep insight on the pains and joys of being a mother, a daughter, and everything else we ask women to be.

Book Review: Mother Love, Rita Dove

 

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a young and rising star in the violent sport of “zeroboxing,” a zero gravity form of cage fighting popular on Earth, Luna, and Mars. Luka is everything a marketer could want. Blessed with good looks, character, personality, a rags-to-riches life story, incredible talent and a drive to succeed and put in the work to do it, the league sees in him their opportunity to grow the sport. Enter Risha, a Mars-born “brandhelm” charged with making Luka the face of zeroboxing. Herself young and ambitious, she is successful in promoting Luka. More than that, the two fall in love.

 

Fonda Lee’s debut novel, Zeroboxer, chronicles the rise of the biggest sports star Earth has had in a long time, fighter possibly good enough to go up against the fearsome Martians, those genetically enhanced descendants of humans who were bigger, stronger, and faster than their counterparts from the third planet.

 

But during his rise, Luka becomes aware of a criminal conspiracy, one that puts him in possession of a secret that could destroy him and his family. If he keeps that secret, it could destroy everything and everyone he loves. But if he reveals the secret, it almost certainly would do the same thing.

 

Sometimes in sports you discover that you cannot win. You can always, though, refuse to quit. In that way, sports becomes a compelling metaphor for life.

 

Fonda Lee creates amazing characters. Luka and Risha feel like real people. Their motivations and their actions make sense. Luka loves his mother, loves his coach, and loves Risha. Risha also loves Luka. Luka fears losing, whether that is in the ring or in his life. Sometimes that fear clouds his judgment. Even when his decisions are questionable, though, his core remains firm.

 

Some of Lee’s best writing comes in her fight scenes. I will confess to not being a big fan of sports like boxing, wrestling, martial arts, UFC, etc. Lee’s descriptions, though, of a sport that does not actually exist, made it sound like she was in the cage with the fighters. Sweat, blood, pain, the feelings of victory and defeat. If zeroboxing ever becomes a real sport, I suspect that its chroniclers will use this novel as a reference tool.

 

I am not sure why this book is classified as YA. I suppose it is because the protagonist is a teen. The themes of the book are mature, though, and Lee certainly doesn’t pull any punches in her descriptions of violence, sex, or other adult themes. I wouldn’t say it is inappropriate for teens, but I wonder whether some audiences might pass on it thinking it is for kids. It is actually a great book that certainly appealed to this middle-aged reader.

 

Fonda Lee is a gifted writer who is just beginning to make her mark. Zeroboxer, like her more recent book Jade City, features gifted writing and memorable characters. I look forward to whatever she chooses to write next.

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Jade City, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Jade City, Fonda Lee

Fantasy: Jade City, Fonda Lee

Co-Winner, 2018 World Fantasy Award

Finalist for both the Nebula and Locus Awards

 

Jade City is what foreigners call Jonloon. It’s an apt name. Dominated by clans of Green Bones, the city is the center of trade in biogenetic jade, a mineral which allows some people to have extraordinary powers–and gives others a terrible addiction that leads to a painful death.

 

The Mountain and the No Peak clans are the two dominant clans in Jonloon. For many years there has been an uneasy truce between the clans, sharing the city and the jade mining and trade. That truce is coming to an end and open warfare is impacting the entire city. And no family is more affected by this change than the Kaul family, leaders of the No Peak clan.

 

Fonda Lee has written a masterpiece in Jade City. She has built an extraordinary world, a world which has both Asian and western resonance but which also stands on its own as a unique creation. Over the course of almost 500 pages she paints a city with a political dynamic that intentionally reminds readers of the mafia, an economy that is dependent on a single natural resource, a culture that is unique to itself (albeit with undeniable Asian influence), a religion that supports and defends the power of jade, and a family that is fiercely loyal to each other and to their clan.

 

The Kaul family is a dynasty. Their grandfather created the No Peak clan and led it to victory in war decades earlier. Grandson and eldest brother Lan now leads the clan, supported by his military leader and brother Hilo. Sister Shae wanted to chart a different course for her life, so she left her jade behind and moved to another country. She is now back, but is still trying to live her life away from the demands of being a Kaul. And cousin Anden is just finishing his education, trying to determine what the course of his life will be.

 

Jade City is a long book, but it needs every page. Lee allows the work to breathe and to build, introducing each character fully, developing them deeply, allowing them to take their place in turn at the center of the narrative. Lan is wise and cautious, but is forced to make a decision with consequences that change the entire direction of the book and his family. Hilo is brash and violent, but capable of passionate love for others and utterly loyal to those he loves. Shae thinks she can escape her family, but when they need her she rushes to them and embraces her role wholeheartedly. These siblings love deeply, fight bitterly, and display emotions that are consistent and true to their characters. I hated to see the final page turn to the acknowledgments.

 

Central to the book is the idea of jade. Jade is not just a precious gem. It has certain properties that change people. When they wear or touch jade, both physical and psychic powers are unlocked. They can increase their speed, strength, and stamina. They can sense emotions, deflect moving objects (and move stationary objects), and even stop the hearts of unwary opponents. For those lucky enough to be born with the ability to handle jade, this power allows them to dominate in society. Others have a sensitivity to it that gives them some of the power, but in more of an addictive fashion. These unfortunates will, when exposed to jade, experience power. They will also be consumed with lust for that power and, in time, the jade will poison their bodies and they will die a horrible death. A rare few are completely immune to jade. “Stone eyes” can touch jade without experiencing either the positive or negative consequences felt by others. And, recently, a drug called “shine” has developed which gives people some of the power of jade without actually having the gem. This new drug has destabilized the balance of power between the clans, and the delicate truce between them is devolving into open warfare.

 

Jade City is a beautifully written, powerful book that is worth the investment to read and appreciate. I am very excited about the sequel, expected in May 2019. There are still many challenges awaiting the Kaul family and the No Peak clan, and I am eager to see how they handle them.

Book Review: Jade City, Fonda Lee