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Jul. 4th, 2017

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What did you just finish?
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. A fantasy novel, though one that starts out in perfectly non-magical 1850s England and only gradually introduces its fantastical elements. Merrick Tremayne is a former employee of the East India Company, now back home and facing a life of boredom and genteel poverty due to a leg injury that never quite healed and which makes it difficult for him to walk. His old friend Clem convinces him to make one last trip, to Peru, where they will attempt to smuggle out a Cinchona tree – the world's only source of quinine and therefore its only treatment for malaria. England has tired of paying Peru's monopoly for quinine and wants to set up its own cinchona plantations, but Peru is perfectly happy to kill to protect its only source of wealth. Clem and Merrick pick up the novel's third main character shortly after arriving in Peru: Raphael, a local man with a mysterious past who serves as their guide and/or potential spy to prevent any cinchona smuggling.

There are wonderful things about this book. Pulley creates several absolutely magical set pieces, including the "Bedlam Stacks" of the title: a village built on a series towering obsidian columns above a river, where the bedrock is glass and anything going in or out has to be hauled up by a series of pulleys and levers. I do admire her imagination, and the novel's take on the rapicious greed of 19th century capitalism, from the East India Company to the Opium Wars to England's realpolitik threatening of Peru, is all great.

Unfortunately I didn't love the book. The middle section is extremely slow, to the point where I almost put down the book several times because nothing was happening and I was getting bored. In addition, Merrick (who is the narrator) persists on insisting nothing magical is going on long long past the point of reason. And I suppose that's realistic enough, but a fantasy novel where the characters refuse to notice anything fantastic is happening is kind of missing the point of the genre. Besides, any time the reader figures out a plot development hundreds of pages before the narrator, it's a problem. It's just annoying to wait for the characters to catch up to what you've already realized. Anyway. My final problem with The Bedlam Stacks is that the central love story didn't work for me. I really wanted it to! I loved the idea of it! But Merrick spends 3/4ths of the book needlessly suspicious and afraid of the other character (who is of course harmless, another time the narrator took forever to catch on to what was incredibly obvious, at least to this reader), and then abruptly switches to making a lifelong commitment, with seemingly no transition from one state to the other. I just wanted to dwell on growing love and trust, but it happened so quickly I missed it.

On the whole I liked it more than I didn't, but oh! It was so close to being something I might love, and didn't quite make it there.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Revolution by Piet Hein Wokke. A novel about Middle Eastern history from the 1930s to 50s, set in a fictional country. The point of view shifts between Jalal, Oxford-educated prince and later king of this country, married to a French feminist; Abdullah, a street urchin of the capital city who grows to become a palace clerk through a fortunate scholarship; and Khalid, a boy from a small town who becomes a fast-rising leader in the army. The book describes the political clashes as the country grows and attempts to modernize, such as between more conservative and more progressive factions of Islam or between the powerful old families of the country who want to keep their influence and Jalal's attempts to move towards democracy and egalitarianism. This was all fairly well done – enough so that I wondered why Wokke even set the book in a fictional country. If you've got a fictional setting, go ahead and do something interesting with it! But if you're going to stick so close to history, why not go ahead and set it in an actual country, and the reader can learn a few names and dates as they read? I never did figure this choice out, though I suspect the planned sequel might develop more in an interesting direction.

But I won't be reading that sequel, mainly because of the writing style. Revolution is written in extremely simple English, enough so that I spent a significant portion of it assuming that it was a middle-grade novel, not even up to including the complex sentences of YA. Though if nothing else, the extremely graphic scaphism scene definitely suggested it was not meant for children (by the way, if you don't know that word, don't google it! I'm trying to spare you nightmares. It's a form of torture). In the afterword the author says he learned English while writing this book, so I assume that explains the style.

On a minor note, there is a lot of anti-semitism in the dialogue. Which I suppose is realistic enough for the characters, particularly since the majority of it comes from Khalid's drill sergeant, but it did get uncomfortable to read after a while.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Copenhagen Affair by Amulya Malladi. A literary fiction novel. Sanya, Indian-American, is the perfect wife, businesswoman, and mother – until her nervous breakdown leaves her unable to work or maintain her relationships. She and her husband Harry move for a year to Copenhagen, partly for Harry's job (his company is in the late stages of acquiring an IT company based there) but mostly in the hope that a change of scene will make Sanya feel better. She soon meets handsome, mysterious Anders Ravn, the owner of the company Harry is buying, and begins to fall in love with him, even contemplating leaving Harry or having an affair. Matters are further complicated when it begins to seem that Ravn may be involved in a white-collar crime with the potential to affect Harry's company, and Sanya has to decide what she wants and who she is.

It's a fun little book, if a bit slight. Sanya's depression never felt entirely realistic to me. It's mostly an excuse for How Stella Got Her Groove Back-esque reinvention (there's even a makeover scene complete with new hairdo, pedicure, and Brazilian wax), with a few textbook-perfect symptoms. There's never a sense of the actual lived experience of clinical depression or anxiety. But that's all right, because the main goal of the book is to make you want to visit Copenhagen, and in that it succeeds 100%. The restaurants, the cafes, the stores, tourist trips to hippie neighborhoods to buy pot, name-brand clothes and internationally-recognized interior designers, the boat trips to summer houses in Sweden... it's like a glossy tourism ad in novel form. And hey, sometimes that's what you want! :D It's certainly what I was happy to spend a few days reading.

Though now I really really want to go to Copenhagen.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. It's surprisingly fun so far! Which is not necessarily an adjective I associate with Rushdie, but it seems to fit in this case.


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