Matt’s Weekly Reads, December 23, 2022


Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel (2022)

This is a difficult book to summarize. It follows the lives of characters across time and space — the ‘spare’ son of an Edwardian aristocratic family who is sent to exile in Canada, a woman in New York City looking for an estranged friend in early 2020, a writer from a Moon Colony on book tour on Earth, and a time traveler from the distant future — all of whom find their lives upended by pandemics and a common, uncanny experience where they felt like they were in two places at once. If that doesn’t sound like a wonderful and thrilling read, then that is my problem in trying to describe it and nothing to do with this incredible book.

Mandel gained a global following after her 2014 release, Station Eleven — a dystopian book about a pandemic illness — which was still making ‘best reads’ lists when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. She can be forgiven then if there is quite a bit of ‘meta’ commentary in this book, as one of her main characters is an author of a pandemic book who is writing at the cusp of a new pandemic and has to field a lot of media questions about the experience. I for one found this part of the book particularly insightful. Whereas Elizabeth Strout’s pandemic book, Lucy by the Sea (see my September 17 post for my review) felt like it was wallowing in the discomfort of 2020, like being stuck in a stuffy room without air, Mandel manages to capture the feeling of that time but in a way that opens the windows to let the fresh air in.

While I generally struggle with books told from multiple perspectives and from multiple timelines, Mandel not only deftly weaves the stories together, but succeeds in making each timeline and story compelling; I didn’t begrudge a single visit to any of them. None of what she does here is easy and yet it feels effortless in her hands.

My overall impressions are that this is not a book that should have worked for me. But, most of my favorite books sucked me in despite being far from my wheelhouse, and this follows in that tradition. I loved this book.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Science Fiction
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Time
  • Colonization
  • Pandemic Literature

My Rating: Premise 8, Atmosphere 10, Main Characters 10, Plot 10, Intrigue 10, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 10, Enjoyment 10, Meaning 10: TOTAL 98

Weekly Roundup

  • Amari and the Great Game, Supernatural Investigations 2, B.B. Alston (2022), 93: The first book in this series, Amari and the Night Brothers, was one of my biggest surprises in 2021 — a meaningful and action-filled middle grade fantasy adventure set in a complicated and diverse magical wold. In this second book, Amari’s loyalties are tested when an attack on the supernatural government allows anti-magician reactionaries to take over, while the magician community puts pressure on her to assume a leadership she feels she’s too young to take on. I have to admit that, when I read the premise and saw where the series was going, I wasn’t very enthused. But, B.B. Alston is a fantastic writer and I was hooked back in from the first pages. I will not doubt him again! (Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Magic, Supernatural Creatures)
  • Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (1851), 74: The sailor Ishmael recounts the story of his captain’s obsession with the whale who robbed him of his leg. This is a classic of American literature and it’s easy to see why: the obsession of Captain Ahab, the final action sequence, and the intentionally heightened language come together to create a vivid and memorable work. Unfortunately, the plotting and pacing are abysmal, with an entire forty chapters dedicated to cetacean biology and the history of whaling. It could easily be half the length and create a tighter and more exciting work. I’m very glad I took the effort to read this, and I’ll remember the climactic scenes with wonder, but I also understand why the book was widely panned upon its initial release.
  • Holes, Louis Sachar (1998), 92: Stanley Yelnats IV, just like all the Stanley Yelntases before him, just can’t catch a break. He’s overweight, unpopular, his house smells of old shoe, and his parents are facing eviction; and now, he’s been sent to a strange detention camp, for a crime he didn’t even commit. He spends his days there digging holes, exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. Why? You’ll have to read to find out. I only just now got around to reading this modern classic of middle grade literature, and boy was it a fun ride! Great characters, great pacing and plotting, and a fun backstory, in an unforgettable setting. (Middle Grade, Adventure)
  • Rizzio, Denise Mina (2021), 91: This novella reconstructs the dramatic events surrounding an attempted palace coup in in the court of Mary Queen of Scots in 1566, revolving around the assassination of her private secretary, David Rizzio. I really enjoyed this, and, I think, all the more for its brevity. Mina brings the writing style of crime fiction to this historical setting and it works really well in creating the atmosphere and mood of this fateful weekend. (Historical Fiction, Scottish History, Palace Intrigue)
  • The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, Ranger’s Apprentice 10, John Flanagan (2010), 89: This tenth book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series finds our heroes caught in the middle of a foreign civil war when a rebellion breaks out while they are on a diplomatic mission in the Far East. This is another entertaining entry into this series. (Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Teenagers Doing Espionage, Teenagers Doing Warfare)
  • Blue in Green, Ram V (2020), 79: In this visually stunning graphic novel, a struggling jazz musician is summoned to a family home where he’s haunted by dark memories from his childhood after the death of his mother. He also encounters a ghost of a different kind, one who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Overall this was a solid reading experience. I didn’t love the story, but the graphics by Anand RK were absolutely stunning in a perfect mid-century retro way. (Graphic Novel, Jazz, Difficult Families, Creativity, Muses, Paranormal)
  • The Christmas Bookshop, Jenny Colgan (2021), 74: Carmen has always felt overshadowed by her successful older sister — a fact that the closure of the department store she’s worked at for years does nothing to help. When her sister invites her to try to save a client’s struggling bookstore, she has no choice but to take it, and maybe just maybe find a second chance at life. This was a pretty typical cozy Christmas, coming of age / romance. The best parts are the sisters working their stuff out. (Christmas, Romance, Light Fiction, Family, Sisters, Niblings)

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