Books in Review, June 2016

Damn, a bumper crop this month. A lot of shorties, plus a longstanding opponent finally meets his maker. This month also marks the time for my mid-year review, aka letting my statistics freak flag fly. For that, see this other post. This is the usual books of the month.

(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, translated Robin Buss

How does one even begin to summarize, let alone review the entirety of, a book as delightfully tangential and expansive as this? The story is so convoluted that main characters get kidnapped by bandits and/or pirates about half a dozen times and only once is it a major plot point! Edmond’s quest for revenge, ultimately dissolving his original personality, is as delightful to read as it was unpleasant for his victims to experience. Most of them did honestly deserve to be taken down a peg (the only truly innocent victim was Villefort’s son – Mme Villefort, while not part of the original hit list, was no saint), but Edmond’s single-mindedly living in the past instead of using his fabulous new wealth to create good in the world made him into an antihero-bordering-on-villain too. There were definitely chunks – especially in the middle third, where the main revenge plot gets kind of buried for a while – where the plot drags and the fact that Dumas was paid by the word shows. The novel was originally serialized (a chapter printed each week or so), as were many works of that era, and therefore constantly gives a “previously on” recap, but I took my sweet time reading this so I basically got the serialization experience. I’d definitely recommend tackling it that way. It’s a classic for a reason, and that reason is that it is deliciously satisfying to watch these jerks get their comeuppance in the end. The middle third of the book is kind of a slog – it took me about eight months of meandering along a chapter at a time – but that last few hundred pages where the Count’s plans pay off all at once made it all worth it.

Traditional genre: literary fiction or classics. Setting: historical realism. Story genre: adventure, character study, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3, because the middle third drags, but PLEASE CAN I HAVE MY EPIC TV SHOW OF THIS WHERE THE SIDEPLOTS ARE ACTUALLY SUPER FUN??

Working for Bigfoot, Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, wizard PI, gets a series of cases from a Sasquatch with a half-human son. Harry starts off being unnecessarily sassy to a magical creature thoroughly capable of kicking his butt, and ends two stories and about 10 years later with doing a favor to a good friend. Quality character development and lessons on parenting while magical (especially how not to do it), plus some adorable, low-stakes adventures. The three stories included are labeled with when they occur in the series and it would be acceptable to read them all at those points, but I think it’s more impactful to read them all at once sometime after Changes (because of the parenting stuff). As with all series and spinoffs, not worth your time if you haven’t done your prerequisites.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy with a dash of mythology. Story genre: mystery, relationship study, character study, specfic. (One of the rare instances these days where any actual detective work occurs in Harry’s life.) Format: novel. Rating: 3/3, but only if you’re up on your DF.

Lumberjanes, Vols 1 and 2, many authors and artists led by Noelle Stevenson

I’m treating these two volumes as one because they tell a complete story together – of ADVENTURE and MAGIC and SUMMER CAMP. This was a total blast to read. Just a few girls getting down to totally ill-advised shenanigans and getting their authority figures down into the muck with them. Their adventures were genuinely surprising, and followed absolutely none of the rules of normal narrative or fantasy world-building, to its absolute benefit. (Rule-breaking is sometimes a wonderful surprise or more often a reminder that the conventions exist for a reason.) The summer campiness was especially delightful to relive my brief, involuntary stints at outdoor school which, while fun for short whiles, also involved a lot of bugs and dampness. (I am what you might describe as indoorsy.) I wish graphic novels had been a thing when I was a kid/preteen (specifically, when I was young and still forming the major parts of my personality and interests from books). I read loads of books (seriously so many books) with girls who I could see myself in (the Tortall gals, see below, and Hermione come to mind) but I can’t recall even one illustrated non-kiddie book where there were girls who literally, on the page looked like me, having adventures. My imagination is much more verbal than visual to this day. (Maybe graphic novels would have helped me be not so comically sucky at art.)

Vols 1 and 2 collect the first 8 issues of the comic series, which was intended to end there. Because it was popular, it got extended. I just found out the next 8 issues are out in Vols 3 and 4, which I definitely intend to read! (And the remaining dozen or so comic issues… I will read once I figure out how comic book stores work. Or Vol 5 comes out.) 

Traditional genre: graphic novel or YA. Setting: eeeehhhhhyyy fantasy?? Story genre: adventure, specfic, ensemble, commentary, high concept. I vacillate on whether coming of age should be a genre and this is a pretty solid argument in favor. Format: graphic novel. Rating: 3/3.

Beka Cooper, Mastiff, Tamora Pierce

Speaking of characters I can see myself in – I couldn’t decide if I want to be Beka Cooper or be her best friend. (This installment pushed the debate firmly towards the former option, because SERIOUSLY I have a massive crush on her love interest.) Girl is a tank. For the first time in this series she takes a walloping from characters that she hasn’t just passingly got in the way of – they are actively out to get her specifically, and how. Pierce is not shy about having her characters fail sometimes (though not permanently), and I was genuinely nervous at points that she wasn’t going to succeed at her entire mission this time. Sadly, the three books of her series are all set in different locations, dramatically reducing the roles of several favorites from past adventures (I was especially sorry to see Clary sidelined after her and Beka’s travelogue of asskicking in Bloodhound), but at least we kept the animals (always the best characters, and Daine and I will fight you on that) and a few old favorites (especially Sabine, also Gershom and Tunstall). We also acquired my new favorite Tortall non-title character, Farmer Cape the mage (whose name is so ridiculous that he’s repeatedly questioned about it by other characters), a walking ball of sass and cunning and smart-alecking with just the right amount of genuine heart to be adorable without being cheesy. Beka is the determinator – she will literally beat down walls to get what she wants – but Farmer is the savvy one, playing off people’s expectations of him being a stupid backwater amateur to seriously ruin their days. The pair of them are the perfect ancestors for George Cooper, their grandson and a major character in the Alana books, and by extension his daughter Aly Cooper, who I also adore as a smart, determined protagonist I can project onto. Beka’s books had already earned my adoration for installments 1 and 2, but the emotional heartrending, genuinely nail-biting plot, and the deep bench of well-developed characters earned the trilogy the top series spot in the mid-year rankings.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy, also historical because it’s a prequel and is basically historical fiction in Tortall. Story genre: quest, specfic, relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 4/3 (thanks to the rule of bonus points if I cried, and I cried 4 times), please read this series, and also all the other Tortall books. Where do the Tortall fans hang out these days? Someone please invite me to hang with you.

M is for Magic, Neil Gaiman

I picked this one up at Gaiman’s book tour last year for his latest short story collection, Trigger Warnings. M is for Magic is quite a bit older now, but has aged well. A hefty dose of fairy tale-themed works, a few vaguely demonic entries (a Gaiman classic), and, as is his wont, a novelette featuring the characters from one of his novels on another short adventure. This story was one of two highlights in the collection. Bod, from the Graveyard Book, attempts to go shopping for a tombstone for Lettie, a young Hempstock witch (recurring minor characters across the Gaimanverse). The short adventure occurs before the events of the novel – in the interest of not spoiling, I will only say that the primary antagonists of the book are already present and menacing Bod and random unfortunates. The other story I also don’t want to spoil too much, because even though I saw the ending coming a mile off, I couldn’t break away. There was a loyal cat and I cried the entire way through and if that doesn’t sell you then I don’t know what will.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: miscellaneous, all specfic. Format: short stories. Rating: 2.5/3 (extra 0.5 thanks to the crying bonus). Read it for the one with the cat that made me cry and, if you’ve read the Graveyard Book, the Bod story.

The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder

I was in Our Town in high school. (Is there any theater kid who wasn’t, at some point, in Our Town? Or forced to watch interminable rehearsals of Our Town?) In retrospect, what at 17 I thought to be a plotless anthropological meander was actually kind of postmodern genius, scrutinizing this tiny town frozen in time with a cruelly detached eye (of the Stage Manager). Now, having this realization is great, but it in no way prepared me for The Skin of Our Teeth. There is a person in a dinosaur suit and a person in a mammoth suit. Noah’s flood hits a 1920’s New Jersey boardwalk where a literal convention of mammals belonging to a fraternal organization (like the Elks or Lions, wordplay quite probably intended by Wilder) is going on. I got to the end of each scene or act and thought, “well, that’s peak absurd,” and then kept reading and proving myself wrong. This was truly unlike anything I have ever read and probably will ever read again. It’s not often that works manage to be both retellings of other stories (mostly Bible tales) AND paradigm-shiftingly novel (which, according to the contemporary reviews collected in the appendices, it was). Wilder picked up a well-deserved Pulitzer for this one. Prepare to be confused and delighted. Stick around for the appendices, which were thoroughly researched and included letters from Wilder, reviews, production history, and more.

Traditional genre drama. Setting: absurd. I’m sure some literature prescriptivists are going to show up and tell me this isn’t *technically* absurdism, but I dare you to read this and not come up with that adjective at the end. Story genre: extremely high concept, commentary. Rating: 3/3? It’s hard to rate the really weird stuff but I’m glad I read this so I’m going to rate based on that. (Seriously. Weird.)

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