Tag Archives: storygraph's onboarding reading challenge 2022

Embassytown

Award-winning science fiction novel about cross-cultural alien communication

Content warning: war, addiction, mental illness

I picked up a copy of this book many Lifeline Bookfairs ago for one very obvious reason: the book’s tinted edges. While possibly originally black, the edges have since faded to a purplish colour. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time and I was inspired to read it when it came up in the category of “7th most read genre in your all-time stats” of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022.

Image is of “Embassytown” by China Mieville. The paperback book is upright against a glowing white background. Beside it is a small replica of the Rosetta Stone.

“Embassytown” by China Mieville is a science fiction novel about a young woman called Avice who comes from the eponymous city on a planet at the edge of the known universe. The city serves as a trading post and protected place of diplomacy with the endemic alien species the Ariekei, referred to as the Hosts. After becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who manage to leave and travel through space, Avice returns to her childhood home with her partner: a passionate linguist who has a keen interest in the Hosts’ unique form of language. Diplomatic relations with the Hosts are conducted by a very select few humans called Ambassadors and while mutual understanding between humans and Ariekei is limited, Embassytown has enjoyed peace, stability and exchange of technologies for some time. That is, however, until a new Ambassador arrives from the Out.

This was an extremely clever and well-constructed novel and it is not a surprise in the slightest that it won a plethora of awards when it was published. Mieville’s premise is highly original and is an incredibly creative exploration of language, communication and diplomacy and how small misunderstandings can have catastrophic effects. Without giving too much away and detracting from the enjoyment of letting the reader’s understanding of the novel unfold, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding such as the expression of names as linguistic fractions, the buildings made from biomatter and the almost indecipherable concept of humans as similies that left me puzzling long after the book was over. Mieville leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the implications of Embassytown’s establishment and each decision thereafter, but manages to do so without ever being boring. In some way, as the reader, we are required to empathise with the difficulties in understanding another culture by initially being faced with an unfathomable society and gradually gaining understanding and context as the book progresses.

I think the only very slight disadvantage to this book is that while Mieville’s pacing is very carefully done so as not to either overwhelm or underwhelm the reader with information, some readers may feel the time it takes to find your fitting a bit too long.

An exceptionally intelligent piece of science fiction, I am really looking forward to reading more of Mieville’s work.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Tinted Edges

Sharp Objects

Psychological thriller about unsolved murders and a suppressed past

Content warning: self-harm, child abuse

I am still trying to make some headway in my reading challenges for the year, so I have been trying to double up a little bit and combine both the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge into one. This was apparently a book that fits all of the criteria of my reading profile: a fiction book that is mysterious, dark, tense, fast-paced and 300-499 pages long. Specific! I actually have read a book by this author previously, and I had picked up another of hers from the Lifeline Bookfair some time a go and was keen to see what it was like.

Photo is of “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn. The paperback book is sitting inside a dolls house between a doll’s chair and a doll’s bed with a blue and white floral bedcover. There is a wooden table with a basket and a miniature bread roll inside. The cover is plain black with embossed dark blue text.

“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn is a crime thriller novel about a journalist called Camille who is asked to investigate a disappearance in her home town. Reluctantly, Camille takes on the assignment to cover the story of the second missing girl in a short period of time. When she arrives, she braces herself to see her estranged family while she interviews local police and the victim’s family. However, the longer she is in town, the clearer it becomes that despite the wealth and splendour of her family home, there are some very dark secrets that she thought she left behind. Despite seeming relatively stable if uninspired in her job, as the book progresses we start to see just how much of a toll Camille’s childhood has taken on her. Camille also has the opportunity to get to know her much younger, precocious teenage sister and becomes determined to protect her. The question is: who really needs protecting?

This is a compelling, disturbing story that examines the way trauma can ripple through families regardless of class with devastating effects. Flynn juxtaposes Camille’s mother’s pursuit of beauty and perfection with the emotional and physical scars Camille bears from growing up in that environment. Flynn is a very good at building and maintaining tension, and just like in “Gone Girl”, no matter how challenging the subject matter becomes, it is almost impossible to look away. There is a TV adaptation which is just as good with excellent acting.

I think the only thing about this book is that at times it feels almost provocative for the sake of it, kind of the same way that Camille’s little sister Amma is provocative for the sake of it. There were parts of this book that left me deeply uncomfortable; not just the fallout from terrible crimes, but the ethics of Camille’s own decisions.

An eminently readable yet uneasy story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Mystery novel set in Botswana about love, independence and humanity

Content warning: family violence, child labour

There are a lot of people in my family who enjoy detective and mystery novels, and I have had this book recommended to me several times. In fact, I have had a copy on my bookshelf for so long, I can’t remember where I got it from. This year, I have migrated from Goodreads to StoryGraph to keep track of the books I read. One of the things that StoryGraph offers is its new members is its onboarding challenge with six different challenge prompts to complete in your first year of membership. The second challenge prompt is “Read a book from the Five-Star section of someone from Similar Users”, and this book came up.

Image is of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith. The paperback book is resting between a toy hippopotamus and a pair of black binoculars. The cover has stylised drawings of a crocodile with a watch in its belly, a woman in front of a house with a thatched roof, trees and ayellow and blue artistic border.

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith is a mystery novel about Precious, a woman who opens a detective agency in Botswana with her inheritance from her father. Despite a slow start and some raised eyebrows from other citizens, Precious eventually receives her first clients. Although she does not have much experience or formal training, her unorthodox style, tenacity, powers of observation and empathy generate results. However, some of the mysteries prove to be challenging and solving them may prove dangerous. Meanwhile, Precious has to contend with advances from eligible men. However, with a history of heartbreak and a business to run, she is reluctant to think about romance again.

This was a fun and surprisingly complex book that tackled a range of social issues. I was particularly impressed at how sensitively McCall Smith handled family violence, and how a strong, independent woman can nevertheless experience violence and become a survivor. It is impossible to read this book and not empathise completely with Precious, and admire her resilience to begin her life again on her own terms. I also enjoyed a lot of the peripheral characters, most especially Mr JLB Matekoni, whose quiet sweetness is a delightful counterpart to Precious’ own style.

Although McCall Smith has clearly spent a lot of time in Botswana, and writes generously about the country, as he is a white man of Scottish heritage I did find myself wondering about the book’s authenticity (having never been to Botswana myself). I have read books by authors from other African nations including Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and South Africa but none yet by an author from Botswana. There is a really interesting, detailed article on Medium about some of the barriers to novels being published in Botswana and shared with the rest of the world. McCall Smith’s book has also been adapted into a TV series which was one of the first major film productions in Botswana and has a talented cast that bring this off-beat mystery story to life.

An enjoyable, original story that subverts the detective fiction genre.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller