The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just CityTitle: The Just City
Series: Thessaly #1
Author: Jo Walton
Published: 13 January 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, mythology, fantasy
Rating: 8/10

Across the ages, a few hundred people pray to the goddess Athene to live in Plato’s republic, the Just City. In response, Athene conducts an experiment. She brings together all those who prayed to her, to design and build the Just City, of which they will be the Masters. She sets it on the island of Kallisti, also known as Atlantis, so that the city will be destroyed. No trace of it will be left to screw with history, but it could “leave legends that can bear fruit in later ages”. Using her time-travelling abilities, she helps the Masters collect all the literature they need, and rescue original works of art for the education of the citizens. To populate the City, they buy 10080 ten-year-old child slaves to train and educate to be their best selves, thus producing a just city ruled by philosopher kings.

Among the children is Athene’s brother, the god Apollo, in the form of a ten-year-old boy. Apollo couldn’t understand why the nymph Daphne would rather be turned into a tree than have sex with him and decided to live as a human to understand this strange idea that other people have their own desires that are just as important as his own.

Apollo – living as the boy Pytheas – learns a lot from his friendship with Simmea, a Libyan girl who loves the City and always strives not only to be her best self, but to understand what that means. Apollo and Simmea frequently clash with Kebes, a child who hates the City because no one ever gave him a choice about living there.

Kebes is in the minority because for most, the City is a utopia or at least a far better home than the times and places they came from. Maia, for example, used to be Ethel from Victorian England, where she was warned that her passion for reading and studying would cause her to be labelled a “bluestocking” whom no man would want to marry. In the Just City, however, she can do fulfilling work by learning and teaching what she loves most. Most women feel similarly liberated.

But it’s definitely not a utopia, as many realise from the very beginning. It suffers from the flaws and absurdities in Plato’s work, as well as the circumstances of its creation and simple human imperfection. Then, when Socrates is brought to the City against his will, he starts questioning everything about it in his classic style.

I’ll admit that I’ve never read a word of The Republic. Presumably those familiar with Plato will get a lot more out of The Just City, but I loved it anyway, and I think anyone who likes philosophy would enjoy it too. Much of the book is made up of philosophical debate, whether internal or between characters, as they reflect on the creation of the City, its ability to fulfil its ideals, and their own places in it. The City itself is a magnificent setting for a novel, with its beautiful architecture, fine art, delicious food and wine, expansive libraries… Basically, I want to live there, except perhaps for the bit about the naked wrestling and weird breeding practices (more about that later).

However, the most interesting thing about the novel is not the way the City lives up to Plato’s ideals but in the many ways it fails to be just or good, because these tend to be the most though-provoking aspects. Firstly, the way it was created leads to fundamental problems. The Masters are all people who prayed to Athena to live in Plato’s republic. The circumstances of history mean that most of the people who would have the education and inclination to do such a thing are men from the ancient world, most of whom are old and come from very conservative times. Thus the Masters suffer from a distinct gender imbalance and lack of diversity, so the City is heavily influenced by people who are used to being in power, have no respect for women, and think it’s perfectly fine to keep slaves. Even though Plato argued that women can be philosophers too, they end up having less say in the way the City is run, and their personal lives are affected by it. For example, it’s decided that the Masters should not have any children, but the responsibility for preventing contraception seems to be the women’s alone. When the issue of rape arises, the City suddenly seems a very backward place, not a philosophical utopia.

One of the biggest problems is the text that led to the whole experiment. All the Masters admire The Republic, of course, but many of its principles are what we would consider fascist. The children are not allowed to acknowledge the truth of where they came from; they have to repeat the Noble Lie of having been born from the earth in the City. All texts and artworks are carefully chosen to suit Platonic ideals. The children are forbidden from reading The Republic because it would reveal the extent to which the Masters (and the future philosopher kings) have to lie to and manipulate them. Slavery is forbidden, but only insofar as it is considered immoral for one person to own another; the work reserved for slaves still needs to be done. Athena provides robots from the future to do this, but this is only meant to be a temporary solution until the children have grown up and a worker class of inferior minds is identified. In fact, the Masters are expected to categorise all the children according to a hierarchical system, with the best philosophers at the top.

It gets worse. When the children get older and the girls reach childbearing age, the Masters start the breeding programmes that Plato described, and it becomes abundantly clear that “what Plato knew about love and real people could have been written on a fingernail paring”. Ditto for what he knew about what it’s like being a woman (i.e. a female human being and not, say, a baby-making machine).

So far I might have made this seem like a very cold, analytical novel, but it isn’t. It’s the characters who grapple with these issues in their daily lives, so that the philosophy becomes a very personal, engaging thing. I cared about all the POV characters – Simmea, Pytheas/Apollo, Maia – so I wanted to know how philosophy affected their lives and what they thought about it. And Walton has chosen characters that present some of the most interesting perspectives.

As one of the Masters, Maia experiences the deep-seated inequality among the people responsible for building the City, and worries about the way they’re raising the children. Apollo, as the boy Pytheas, experiences all this as a god in human form. He has all his memories and knowledge, but has none of his powers. He’s read The Republic and knows, for example, that Plato was wrong in his ideas about the soul. He can also compare being a god with being a human, and compare the way the gods think about humans to the reality of living as a human.

Simmea is essentially the City’s perfect citizen – highly intelligent, analytical, focused, hard-working, creative. She knows how much worse her life would have been if the Masters hadn’t rescued her, and she’s wholly invested in the core ideals of the Just City. At the same time, she’s smart enough to think critically about it, even if that if it means facing uncomfortable truths. Together, Simmea and Apollo also reflect on various kinds of intimate and sexual relationships, between themselves and with other people. The Just City doesn’t allow for any kind of close, long-term sexual relationship, which is terrible on the one hand, but also gives room to explore other ways that intimate relationships grow between people.

Then there’s Kebes. He’s an unlikeable oaf (especially since we never read from his POV) but he articulates one crucial problem – the children were not given any choice in becoming part of the Just City. At first it seems like Kebes is being unnecessarily rebellious, since the children were saved from slavery and now live what many would consider an idyllic life. But Kebes doesn’t seem so unreasonable when you consider the fact that no one is allowed to leave the City (and they’d have nowhere to go, either). In fact, he gets flogged for trying to run away. He’s considered a troublemaker by the Masters because he doesn’t buy into their idea of his ‘best self’ (another problem with the City – you can criticise it if you’re trying to make it better, but you don’t have the freedom to reject its ideals completely).

The story spans about a decade, pensively exploring its way this thought experiment. I know this sort of thing wouldn’t be for everyone, and lots of people might find it dead boring. It’s mostly ideas and debates, with a meandering plot. But that’s part of what I like about it. Intellectually, it’s very engaging, but I also find it to very soothing. It’s easy to follow the various trains of thought, to see characters backtrack through their thoughts to examine their assumptions, or see how a new experience changes the way they think. It’s a kind of meditation, but one that caters to a contemporary sff reader. I think the basis of its appeal is captured by Maia, when she expresses her admiration for Plato in response to Socrates’ criticisms of him:

I think he invited us all into the inquiry. Nobody reads Plato and agrees with everything. But nobody reads any of the dialogues without wanting to be there joining in. Everybody reads it and is drawn into the argument and the search for the truth. We’re always arguing here about what he meant and what we should do. Plato laid down the framework for us to carry on with. He showed us—and this I believe he did get from you—he showed us how to inquire into the nature of the world and ourselves, and examine our lives, and know ourselves. Whether you really had the particular conversations he wrote down or not, by writing them he invited us all into the great conversation.

The Just City has a similar effect. For that, and it’s many other lovely qualities, I recommend it very highly.

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Up for Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

I’m really looking forward to this philosophical fantasy novel.

The Just CityThe Just City by Jo Walton (Tor Books)

“Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.”

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

 

The Just City will be published on 13 January 2015 by Tor Books

Links
Publisher’s website
Author’s website

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body ProblemTitle: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Translation: Ken Liu
Series: Three Body #1
Published: 14 October 2014 (originally published in China in 2008)
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

In 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death for teaching the ideologically unacceptable theory of relativity. It’s a time of catastrophic anti-intelluctualism, when any academic considered too bourgeois and reactionary (i.e. most academics) is persecuted and killed. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist herself, but is forced to abandon her studies. Because of her father she is considered ideologically suspect, and when she is betrayed by a cowardly rebel, she ends up in jail awaiting death. She is saved only by a second form of imprisonment – the opportunity to work at project Red Coast, a top-secret scientific facility conducting SETI research. Ye’s work in astrophysics caught their attention, and her skills have become particularly useful since China started systematically executing its brightest minds. Ye expects nothing but a quiet life and death at Red Coast, but instead she finds something to change the world – communication from an alien race.

In the present day, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao notices a disturbing phenomenon on the photos he takes – each of them has a sequence of numbers, counting down. Soon he starts to see it imprinted on his vision, and no matter what he tries he cannot figure out how this could be possible. His investigations lead him to an organisation called The Frontiers of Science and a game called Three Body. In the game, an alien world is besieged by unpredictable cataclysms and apocalypses. Various characters in the game – leaders, philosophers and scientists from Chinese and European history – try to come up with theories for predicting the next cataclysm or apocalypse, but these always fail. To beat the game, the player needs to solve the three-body problem, which Wang eventually realises is a mathematical problem.

All this is connected to the strange phenomena he experienced, the mysterious deaths of scientists, and the way scientific research has been losing credibility in the world at large. And it all comes back to Ye Wenjie, and her actions at Red Coast.

The Three-Body Problem was a particularly challenging novel for me to read and review. Firstly, it’s hard sf, which I seldom read because the science just goes way over my head. Secondly, the novel is partly set during the Cultural Revolution in China, which holds great importance for the story as a whole. And… yeah, I don’t know much about that either. Add to this multiple plotlines, some of which are non-linear and one of which takes place in the surreal world of a complex computer game, and what you’ve got is a book best read at a desk in the morning with a few cups of coffee, not relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Three-Body Problem. I requested a review copy because I was curious, and although it was tough, it was worthwhile. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the science in the novel, but I found Liu’s depiction of the intellectual milieu of the Cultural Revolution unforgettable. China is described as a place where “any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.” The Revolution is both wildly ambitious and severely limiting and destructive. It’s hard to fathom how absurdly restrictive life under that regime must have been. One of the scenes I found most memorable is when Ye Wenjie asks her supervisor to authorise an experiment that involves firing a radio beam at the sun. Her supervisor immediately rejects her request – the sun is a political symbol, and firing a beam at it could be interpreted in a negative way that would create a political disaster for everyone involved. Absurd as everyone knows this to be, it’s become such a fundamental part of their lives that Ye isn’t even shocked or angry at her supervisor’s decision; instead, she can’t believe she didn’t think of the symbolism herself.

This sociopolitical landscape is crucial to the story because the Cultural Revolution leaves many characters feeling disgusted with humanity. Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father; works for a company that chops down beautiful, ancient forests for lumber; is betrayed by a friend, her sister and her mother; and is jailed, nearly killed and eventually forced to work at Red Coast, all in service of the Cultural Revolution. Her experiences define her perspective of humanity:

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.… It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

This, in turn, drives the plot. Many people feel the way Ye does, and what they want is for a superior alien race to take over and force change up on the world. Exactly what action they think the aliens should take is a divisive topic of debate.

It’s a very bleak notion – this idea that humanity is a lost cause if left to its own devices. But I’m not al that optimistic about humanity myself, and in reading the novel, it’s easy to understand how people have come to feel that way. Also, the novel doesn’t push that perspective as the truth – it’s a meditation on morality and human nature, constantly grappling with the questions it raises. As a novel about science and philosophy, The Three-Body Problem is an exceptional piece of fiction. Liu does a really amazing job of tying all the elements of the novel together – the Cultural Revolution, the game Three Body, mathematics, physics, first contact, environmental destruction, etc.

The novel does have its shortcomings however, and its weakest point is its characters. Most of them feel flat, moving mechanically through the story with little to bring them to life. It makes sense in a few cases – some characters are just simulations in the Three Body game, and there’s a fairly long section that doesn’t use any named characters at all, like a fable, focusing only on plot. But readers might struggle in the absence of strong characters to connect with, and  it really doesn’t help that Wang Miao, one of the protagonists, is terribly bland and forgettable.

There’s not much to say about him except that he works in nanomaterials and gets caught up in the story because of his scientific education and mindset. At the start, we’re told that he’s an avid amateur photographer, but this is just a plot device that gets discarded after serving its purpose. The same goes for his family, who seem completely pointless from the start. He has a wife and son who both express alarm at Wang’s strange behaviour when he starts freaking out about the countdown, but then they disappear from the plot and Wang doesn’t give them a second thought. It’s particularly odd given that he’s always doing things that would affect his family – he buys a virtual reality suit and spends hours playing Three Body; he skips work; he stays out late investigating the mysteries he encounters; he gets tangled up in a global conspiracy; he finds himself in real danger; he travels to another continent. All this, and not a word about his wife and son. Why write them only to drop them completely?

It’s no surprise, then, that Wang’s part of the story tends to be pretty boring, and the novel as a whole takes a long time to get its main story going with Ye Wenjie. Ye at least is a more exciting, memorable character, given that her experiences are far more dire and her ideas and actions set the story in motion (while Wang just runs around gathering info). Still, she comes across as cold, perhaps because she’s a scientist. In fact most of the characters are scientists or mathematicians, and it’s worth noting that the only other character I found memorable was a police detective – a big, boisterous man named Shi Qiang, nicknamed Da Shi (Big Shi).

So yeah, not an easy read – the content can be complex, the pace slow, and the characters hard to connect with. The one advantage of this is that when the plot eventually gets to its most dramatic moments, it’s incredible to read – bold, exhilarating, thought-provoking stuff. Although there were times during this book that I thought I’d made a huge mistake requesting a review copy, by the end I was very curious about how things are going to turn out for the human race in the second and third books. I don’t know if I’ll keep reviewing the series (feeling a bit out of my depth here), but I would like to keep reading.

Up for Review: Helen of Troy

I don’t get around to reading nearly as much non-fiction as my nobler self would like to, but I’m quite excited about this study of the paradoxical nature of female beauty embodied in the myth of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellHelen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell (Oxford University Press)

NetGalley Blurb:

The story of Helen of Troy has its origins in ancient Greek epic and didactic poetry, more than 2500 years ago, but it remains one of the world’s most galvanizing myths about the destructive power of beauty. Much like the ancient Greeks, our own relationship to female beauty is deeply ambivalent, fraught with both desire and danger. We worship and fear it, advertise it everywhere yet try desperately to control and contain it. No other myth evocatively captures this ambivalence better than that of Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, and wife of the Spartan leader Menelaus. Her elopement with (or abduction by) the Trojan prince Paris “launched a thousand ships” and started the most famous war in antiquity.

For ancient Greek poets and philosophers, the Helen myth provided a means to explore the paradoxical nature of female beauty, which is at once an awe-inspiring, supremely desirable gift from the gods, essential to the perpetuation of a man’s name through reproduction, yet also grants women terrifying power over men, posing a threat inseparable from its allure. Many ancients simply vilified Helen for her role in the Trojan War but there is much more to her story than that: the kidnapping of Helen by the Athenian hero Theseus, her sibling-like relationship with Achilles, the religious cult in which she was worshipped by maidens and newlyweds, and the variant tradition which claims she never went to Troy at all but was whisked away to Egypt and replaced with a phantom.

In this book, author Ruby Blondell offers a fresh look at the paradoxes and ambiguities that Helen embodies. Moving from Homer and Hesiod to Sappho, Aeschylus, Euripides, and others, Helen of Troy shows how this powerful myth was continuously reshaped and revisited by the Greeks. By focusing on this key figure from ancient Greece, the book both extends our understanding of that culture and provides a fascinating perspective on our own.

Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation will be published on 2 May 2013 by Oxford University Press.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository | Amazon | Amazon UK
On the publisher’s website

About the Author
Ruby Blondell is Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, co-editor/translator of Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides, and editor/translator of Sophocles: The Theban Plays. – From OUP
University of Washington profile page
List of works on Goodreads

Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Published: First published in Japanese in 2005; this translation published in 2011
Publisher:
 Little, Brown
Genre: crime, mytery
Source: review copy from Penguin SA
Rating: 7/10

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, when her ex-husband Togashi walks back into her life. She’d divorced him after he became an abusive drunk who took her money for gambling. Afterwards, he’d repeatedly harassed Yasuko and her daughter Misato, until Yasuko changed jobs, homes and Misato’s school in an effort to get away from him. But now he’s found them again. In their small apartment, he brags that they will never be rid of him, prompting a terrified Misato to attack him. In the struggle that follows, Yasuko defends her daughter by strangling Togashi while Misato holds him down.

Mother and daughter are both prepared to turn themselves in when their enigmatic neighbour, Ishigami, calls and offers to help them dispose of the body. Yasuko is shocked that he figured out what happened and wants to help, but she knows that Ishigami – a reclusive mathematical genius – has always had a thing for her. Although he’s too shy to exchange more than a few words with her and sometimes can’t even make eye contact, he always buys his lunch from the bento shop where she works just so that he can see her.

Ishigami immediately begins instructing Yasuko and Misato on dealing with the incriminating evidence and makes plans for disposing of Togashi’s body. Soon after, the police find a body with its face smashed in and fingerprints burned off. By the time they identify it as Togashi and come knocking on Yasuko’s door, the mother and daughter have credible alibis and there is no solid evidence linking them to Togashi’s death. But the police have no one else to suspect, and Detective Kusanagi of the Edogawa police keeps poking at the problems in Yasuko’s story and questioning the puzzling circumstances of the murder. He turns to his friend Yukawa, another genius who works in the physics department at a local university and sometimes helps the police with their cases.

Yukawa, Kusanagi and Ishigami actually all attended university at the same time, and when Yukawa hears that Ishigami is the neighbour of the murder suspect, he asks Kusanagi for the address. Yukawa simply wants to get in touch with an old friend and classmate whose brilliance he deeply admired, but in doing so he starts to suspect Ishigami’s involvement in the case. The physicist is the only one with a mind to match the mathematician’s, and with Kusanagi’s help he tries to solve the problem that Ishigami has created to protect the woman he is so devoted to.

This is an unusual and interesting angle for a mystery novel. For the reader, there is no mystery surrounding Togashi’s murder – we learn all there is to know about the why, who and how in the first two chapters. Instead, it’s Ishigami’s brilliant cover-up that drives the story, as Yukawa and Kusanagi battle to find the truth. We see only fragments of Ishigami’s plan, which at first seems simplistic and sloppy, but is soon revealed to be complex and deceptive. Ishigami has never done something like this before, but he is certain that “Logical thinking will get us through this” and applies mathematical ideas to the problem as if it were an equation or philosophical dilemma.

For the sake of suspense, most of his methods are hidden from the reader until the very end. It feels a tad artificial, since the story is told from multiple perspectives (Yasuko, Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi) and you are very aware of the fact that the author is being selective about what his characters say and think, or how much of their conversations are put on the page. But I thought the story worked very well nevertheless. Even if you aren’t privy to Ishigami’s plans, you get to see Yukawa and Kusanagi tackling the problem. The only irritating part is when Yukawa starts to figure out what happened, but only makes vague and provocative statements about it because he’s unwilling to incriminate his friend and doesn’t want such a brilliant mind to be wasted in prison.

There are some other interesting character dynamics at play. Yasuko starts dating an old friend, but both she and Misato are aware of how this could jeopardise their situation – Ishigami is obviously obsessed with her, so what might he do if he feels betrayed? Should Yasuko put her life on hold for someone so socially inept that he can’t even have a normal conversation with her? And how dangerous is Ishigami, a man who didn’t think twice about covering up a murder or mutilating a body to do it? The crime has been committed, but the sense of menace remains, especially when Yukawa describes Ishigami as a man who would do anything, no matter how horrific, if it was the most logical solution to a problem.

It’s quietly compelling story, somehow managing to be a page-turner with a minimum of the drama that that term generally implies. I appreciated its calm, straightforward manner and the way the plot differed from the norm. The Japanese police in the novel seem so very different from the brash cops often seen in fiction, or the overworked, under-resourced and inefficient ones you hear about in the news. The Edogawa police have all the resources they need, and Kusanagi is thoughtful and observant. He warns his partner about the danger of assumptions, when the younger officer assumes that a nice single-mother like Yasuko couldn’t possibly be guilty of a violent crime. Similarly, Yukawa warns Kusanagi about the assumptions the police are making, knowing that Ishigami could use that against them.

I like the strategic, rational thinking here, especially when it comes to the two geniuses. I only wish that the whole novel was as rigorous, because its logic fails somewhat in relation to Misato’s character. While there were only two or three technical details that bothered me in the novel, the worst one was about Misato – after she attacks Togashi, he retaliates and hits her repeatedly in the face, but at no point does she show any bruises.

Then, I felt that her character was badly neglected, which bugged me throughout the book and becomes problematic at the end. We’re always left to make assumptions about her motives and feelings, while other characters’ are described in more detail. It’s stated that Togashi had physically abused Yasuko, but whether or not Misato was also abused is not clear, although it’s very likely. Then there’s a subtle suggestion that he may have abused her sexually, which would certainly account for her fear, and her impulse to attack Togashi and help her mother kill him. Misato’s actions are what set the entire story in motion, but even in that crucial moment the focus is on Yasuko, and Misato feels secondary. For the rest of the novel, she is little more than a sullen teenager, spitting out a line here and there. She clearly feels guilty about what she did, not because Togashi was killed but because of the trouble and risk created for Yasuko and Ishigami. And yet Misato’s feelings are barely touched upon, even when we see the story from Yasuko’s POV as a concerned parent. If she talks to Misato about the situation, we don’t see it on the page.

On a related note, the police largely ignore the reasons behind the murder. The reader, of course, knows that Togashi threatened Yasuko and Misato, and several characters express relief at his death, knowing how badly he’d treated his ex-wife and step-daughter. The police, however, are more concerned with the who and how of the murder, not the why. With no one to suspect except Yasuko, they try to figure out how she could have done it, but aren’t too concerned with the glaring possibility that she killed Togashi in a kind of self-defence. Besides the fact that the police would need a motive for the case, ignoring the issue seems unkind, portraying Yasuko as a killer rather than a vulnerable person in a difficult situation.

Flaws aside though, The Devotion of Suspect X is an excellent crime thriller and an intelligent page-turner. It offers a refreshing departure from the norm in English-language fiction, not only because of the plot but because of the Tokyo setting, and the Japanese culture. The translation can be a little clunky at times, but some of that I would chalk up to a difference in style that I’ve noticed in other translations from Japanese, in both popular fiction and anime. I’d happily pick up another of Keigo Higashino’s novels, and I’d recommend that you do too.

The Book Ferret: Bookworm fuel on FORA.tv

I don’t get to go to many literary events. There just aren’t that many in South Africa (or in most places, I imagine) and when you do happen to hear about one, chances are it’s not in your province or it’s not of much interest to you. And the likelihood of meeting international authors is slim. So naturally I got over-excited and went download crazy when I discovered FORA.tv, and their Books tag in particular.

On FORA.tv you can watch and download videos (or audio, if you want to conserve bandwidth) of authors giving talks about their works, discussions on books and writing, and lectures on philosophy, culture and politics. All the cool stuff your mind can’t otherwise enjoy because you can’t afford to fly your body all over the world. How did we ever live without the internet?

FORA.tv describes itself as “the leading online destination for intelligent video programs on the people, issues and ideas changing the world”. Check out Neal Stephenson and William Gibson on sci fi, Neil Gaiman on his collection Fragile Things, and authors like Ian McEwan, and Zadie Smith. Find out more about how storytelling is changing in the 21st century or how journalist A.J. Jacobs tried to follow all the rules in the Old Testament (hilarious!). Salman Rushdie has several FORA videos, and he became one of my favourite speakers after listening to him on FORA.tv. I also discovered how fun and funny Mary Roach can be –she’s the author of books like Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Since this is a book blog and I am an unapologetic book nerd, I’ve focused on FORA’s book content, but the website offers far more – videos on politics, technology, music, science, art, the environment, religion… just check out their tags.

FORA was free when I first heard about it, and while you can still watch their content for free, I’m afraid you now have to pay for the privilege of downloading it, in either video or audio. Membership is priced at $4.99 for a month and $49.99 for a year. Which is fair, considering the opportunities you get in return.  FORA’s philosophy is “that there are brilliant ideas expressed everyday, everywhere, and [they] don’t want you to miss them”. I’m not going to say no to that.

The Book Ferret is a weekly feature on Violin in a Void that will showcase a cool or interesting book-related find every Thursday. Notable new releases, great bookshops, events, cover art, websites, gadgets and accessories – anything to make bookworms happy.

If you want to join in, grab the Ferret pic at the top of the page, link it and your post back here, and add your name to the Linky list. WordPress doesn’t allow me to show the Linky list in post, so you can also leave a comment here to say what your post is about.

Click here for The Book Ferret Linky

Candide by Voltaire

Candide My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Candide has the fastest moving plot of any book I have ever read. The story told in this slim novel could easily be expanded into an 800-page epic, but then it would lose its vicious satirical bite. I enjoyed Candide for its relentless, humorous criticism of the philosophy that everything is as it should and everything is for the best, as illustrated by Pangloss’s notion that “the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles”. It’s the same philosophy commonly espoused in religious contexts – that the world is as [insert deity of choice] wills it and thus everything is good and right(regardless of insurmountable evidence to the contrary).

Young Candide is Pangloss’s ever-faithful student, and clings to this quite stupid optimism despite being the constant victim of human greed and malice. His beliefs do falter as his fortunes fail, but the moment anything even moderately good happens to him he rationalises his way back to optimism. With the rapid pace of the plot however, and Volatire’s droll satire, we can see this philosophy for the delusion it is.