Books in Review, July 2016

I have found myself in the position lately of enforcing deadlines on others more than they have been enforced on me. Therefore, by the power vested in me by me, I declare this post NOT LATE.

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

The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry’s fifth and final Tiffany Aching book, the 41st Discworld book, and his final book completed before his death last year. I keep telling myself that someday I’ll read them all, which I plan to do at some future point in my life when my inflow of books magically drops below the outflow. (I’m currently at nine: the five Tiffany Aching books, and because I was young and naive, the first four in publication order, which are generally acknowledged to be mediocre at best and definitely not the place to start.) As often happens here on this site, my reviews pick up mid-series – this was book 5 and you need to start from the beginning, so go buy yourself a copy of the Wee Free Men and the other three Tiffany books and I’ll see you a week because they’re quick reads. This book, years down that road, was beautifully atmospheric. I don’t normally go in for books where not a lot happens, but because I already cared thoroughly for these characters, and the snappily-written book didn’t overstay its welcome, I really fell for it. I’m told by bigger Pratchett fans than I that the dialogue wasn’t as good as his usual (I thought it was reasonably comparable to Tiffany’s other books), but from a man going blind and dying of a rare variant of Alzheimer’s (a separate post for this neuronerd), how much editing can I ask? I felt this was a fitting and moving end to Tiffany’s – and Terry’s – story.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: adventure, commentary, character study. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Gunnerkrigg Court Vol 1, Thomas Siddell

Last year at my friends’ annual holiday book exchange (where we each of us bring a personally-selected book for each other person in attendance, a books-only secret snowflake) I requested graphic novels. Gunnerkrigg Court originated as a webcomic, and was later collected in print. It takes place at a Hogwarts-like techno-magical school with dangerous and mysterious happenings, an isolated and dangerous setting, overpowered and dangerous students and faculty, and a sassy and dangerous sidekick. Do you get the danger vibe here? Because this book desperately wants you to. It improved significantly in plot and art as it went along, reflecting the real-time drawing and publication schedule of its original publication, eventually settling into a style that wasn’t entirely defined by anatomically-improbable eyes. Similarly, the characters found their footing – not only a product of writing, but of their own maturing at school. However, it did play into a lot of my least favorite magical school tropes, especially that adults are useless, putting children into a location where nobody has made even a token effort to remove the most blatant dangers, weirdly communal dorms, and vague magic classes that miss the important parts like theory (of course, they are young, so that could change). I’m famously terrible about reading webcomics, but I will be moving from print to the online archives to see where this goes. (2020 update: I did not.)

Traditional genre: fantasy, or for those who lump non-novel formats a s a genre, graphic novel. Setting: science fiction AND fantasy. Story genre: adventure, relationship. Format: graphic novel. Rating: 2/3.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach

I want to grow up to be Mary Roach. I find her work endlessly entertaining and a paragon of science communication. There aren’t a lot of science writers out there whose work is appropriate for and actually interesting to both scientists and everyone else – mostly aiming to the much larger market of the latter – let alone those covering as wide a range of topics as she does. This particular volume deals with the human side of astronautics, dealing with both the humanizing (i.e., embarrassing) elements and some major concerns impeding long-term space travel. On the lighter side, she investigates how one poops in no gravity – which turns out to be rather less trivial than one would hope – and the effects of zero-gravity on consciousness – which to the relief of the early pioneers of spaceflight, are rather more trivial than they imagined, and largely amount to the worst seasickness ever. More seriously, she investigates the constant specter of sexual harassment and the cultural incompatibilities among crews living in tight quarters, the unhinging effects of living in said quarters and away from Earth, and whether we would currently be able to bring any astronauts to Mars back home (as of now – probably not). Despite tackling these heavy topics head-on, her writing steers well clear of being dour or pessimistic, and remains sunny about the future of humanity throughout. While I love space, this book was much more about human physiology and biology responding to extreme and hilarious (seriously, the Apollo transcripts contain some real gems) stressors than about rockets, and that’s its real appeal.

Incidentally, this book predated The Martian by several years, which is I suspect the only reason that it’s not laden with constant references to Mark Watney and/or potatoes.

Format: nonfiction. Subject: life science, engineering. Rating: 3/3.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, definitely mostly not JK Rowling, and mostly Jack Thorne I think

2020 update: Trans rights are human rights. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and nonbinary/genderqueer people are the gender or lack thereof that they say they are. JK Rowling needs to reexamine her assumptions, biases, and sources.

There are so many gazillion reviews of this book out there already and I can’t hope to compete with any of them for completeness or for capturing the zeitgeist of Potterdom. Instead, I would like to address one of HPCC’s most notable features, which has been thoroughly hated-on by many an outlet and baffled casual fans not really aware of what they were getting: its script format. The publisher basically stuck a binding on the script (the rehearsal version no less, if you somehow manage to score tickets to actually go you will see some variation) and sent it off. Most reactions to this announcement varied between confused and peeved. I was intrigued.

The play does not quite follow the usual conventions of scriptwriting – most notably, the stage directions are rather vague and atmospheric, and not actual directions – and thus might not be the easiest introduction to the reading of script. But we see scripts every day – on TV, in movies, on podcasts (even most nonfiction ones are clearly at least partially scripted), on youtube, even on commercials. And yet, even most people who read for pleasure will never read a script after they had to struggle through an inadequately footnoted edition of Romeo and Juliet and/or Hamlet in school. I can only hope that the experience of reading a script starring beloved characters in a familiar setting will take the edge off the unfamiliar format, and maybe encourage (especially kid) readers to try another script. Harry Potter made reading novels fun and cool and inviting for kids during my childhood and for the kids who have come since (though those ungrateful wee ones never had to wait for TWO YEARS to find out what happened! THEY WILL NEVER KNOW MY SUFFERING.), so hopefully HPCC can work even a little of that magic for reading scripts.

As far as the content, I was pleased to see the narrative torch being primarily passed to new characters – Harry’s story ended with the seventh book and he’s being the Bilbo, passing on the plot tokens to the new kids – though I was less satisfied that the now-adult main characters seemed to have forgotten what subtext is, and in Harry’s case, what his personality was. (Also, where are Neville and Luna? Too pure for these sad-sack alternate realities apparently.) The entire thing read like a really bizarre fanfiction at many points (Voldemort and Bellatrix getting it on, a mental image that literally nobody asked for? Bellatrix somehow not only totally hiding her pregnancy from everyone, but failing to announce it in every single sentence like you know she totally would because she is a Voldy groupie? Improbably convenient time travel devices? The Trolley Witch?????). I don’t mean it as an insult to call it fanfiction – I’ve read plenty of quality fanfiction, and plenty of trash too if I’m being honest – but an observation on how this doesn’t mesh with the rest of the HP universe all that well. That all said – Scorpius Malfoy makes the entire thing worth it. I am not exaggerating.

Traditional genre: fantasy, or for those who insist on grouping all of theater as a genre, play. Setting: fantasy. Story setting: adventure, quest, relationship. Format: play. Rating: too weird to rate.

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