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Book review: "How Icasia Bloom touched happiness" by Jessica Bell

"How Icasia Bloom touched happiness" has one hell of a cool high concept, This novel takes place in a near(?) future (or maybe alternative present?) where people live in a globalised society. People have to find happiness by a certain age, or else they or their offspring will not pass to the "second life phase" (a kind of afterlife). The premise is a great means for exploring themes of happiness, religion, familial bonds and how far they can go. Basically, it's a book that's wondering "what's it all about?".

The main character, Icasia, is recounting her story to an unidentified listener. She's a plucky underdog, someone who survives by bartering, rather than living the more comfortable life of those who form the kind of family that's approved of in this global society, and live as much as they can "by the book" (a phrase that has become literal). During her usual hustle, Icasia falls in with Selma, who is running a bakery, Selma''s husband Jerome is a lugubrious fellow who has only a few months to live unless he can find happiness, although his icy relationship with his stepdaughter doesn't help. Jerome's "deathcare" therapist, who is supposed to help him find happiness, is a particularly interesting side character who would be worth re-reading.

It's a cool story with rootable characters that rattles along at a good pace, while throwing up some big questions. One thing that might alienate some readers, though I think is not a genuine flaw, is the extent to which (with exceptions) there seems to be little genuine sense of rebellion against what looks a lot like a "benign" global dictatorship. One character even notes that there doesn't have to be a rebellion if there can be an inward shift in one's mindset. Although this might annoy some readers, it's probably not unrealistic in terms of how everyday characters get by under this kind of rule. The one genuine gripe I have is that, although some of the more snappy, back-and-forth dialogue works well, the more expository bits of dialogue (and internal monologue) can get a bit clunky at times. Some lines from the main character occasionally veer close to provoking Mark Hamaill's response to an excessively-long line from George Lucas - "who talks like that?" Nonetheless, a bit of heavier exposition is unavoidable in speculative fiction.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book, that manages the difficult tonal balance of being heartwarming and unsettling at the same time. Fans of speculative fiction with a lot of heart should check it out.

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