Books in Review, August 2016

Well, Kaitlyn, you’ve done it now. I read, and therefore have self-assigned reviews for, TEN books this month. Now you’ve done it! Whoops. Fortunately, four of them were from one series, so in the great philosophical debate of Lumpers vs. Splitters, today I shall be coming down firmly with the Lumpers. (I’m usually a Lumper anyway.)

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

The Rook, Daniel O’Malley

This might be the best book I’ve read so far this year. Briefly, Myfanwy Thomas wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, that she presumably killed, and has to figure out who she is and why they want her dead (no spoiler, this is literally page 1). She quickly deduces, thanks to her hypercompetent pre-amnesia self’s Letters To Future Me, that she’s got superpowers and basically singlehandedly runs the supernatural equivalent of MI5, and that she’s narrowed down the suspect list of who tried to kill her to her similarly powerful colleagues, who are powerful in both the usual and the superpower senses. These are people who have, for example, the ability to exude poison gas from his every pore, and having four bodies. Yep, there’s a character who has one mind controlling four bodies simultaneously. This is as bizarre as you imagine, and every implication is thought out and incorporated.

The plot, once kicked off, is reminiscent of a John le Carre spy intrigue, but with horrifying supernatural incidents (spoiler: the giant flesh cube that absorbs people is somehow not the worst one), more than one superpower that I have never encountered its like before (MORE. THAN. ONE. And I read a LOT of fantasy), and the tightest intrigue plot I have ever encountered. Plus an actually good amnesia plot! And I’m not even upset by the dramatic amnesia, which is in procedural comes off so cheesy as that’s not how memory works in real life, because this one was magically induced. Turns out that being a kickass bureaucrat is a skill not affected by declarative memory loss, though being an effective bureaucrat is otherwise definitely not a personality trait as her personality is notably different. Whodathunk. (Not me, a person who studies neuroscience of skill memory.) I honestly did not see the finale coming but it fits so perfectly.

I won’t say more, because you’re going to go read this book RIGHT NOW and you’re going to love it. I can’t believe I let this age like fine cheese on my bookshelf for as long as I did.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, mystery, character study (and it’s a character study in-universe too!). Format: novel. Rating: 3/3 and not only do I require an adaptation, I will be GETTING ONE because it’s coming to TV! I CANT WAIT (2020 update: sorry, past me, it sucked!)

Meet Your Baker, A Batter of Life and Death, On Thin Icing, and Caught Bread Handed, Ellie Alexander

I thought these were going to be kitschy, mediocre pulp mysteries that happen to be set in my absolute favorite place in the world, Ashland, Oregon, the Disneyland of theater. But no, they are addictive and EXCELLENT. Because they are mysteries, and the later books obviously depend on the earlier ones, I can’t say much without spoilers (and hoo boy, if there’s a genre to not spoil, it’s mysteries), but the basic premise is pastry chef Juliet Capshaw has just separated from her husband and left her career (and him) on a cruise ship behind to return to her home and her family bakery in Ashland. The bakery (fictional Torte, loosely based on the very real Mix, which actually occupies the described location), including her mom and ragtag staff, gets continually mixed up (see what I did there) in murders around town. Top it off with mom and daughters’ romantic entanglements with the local detectives, and Jules’ conflicting feelings about what she wants from her life and her estranged-but-still-legal-husband, serve warm with whipped cream. (The books conclude with the recipes for all major foods the characters eat or make, so you can literally serve warm with whipped cream too.)

These darn books are like popcorn – you can’t just stop at one. The villains are not obvious a mile off, nor are they so obscure as to be impossible to identify, and they have (thus far uniformly) gotten their comeuppance – not a requirement, but always satisfying. While I’m not a fan of love triangles as a rule, the framing here of letting go of the past in more ways than one makes it work for me (plus the fact that both I and the author have the same clear favorite isn’t hurting things). I also get to enjoy being transported to Ashland, which is quite faithfully replicated, and more importantly, an accurate sense of the downtown’s atmosphere seeps throughout the whole series (the geographical mishaps are probably only visible to someone who is both an Ashland groupie and has a good memory of places, the Venn diagram of which is pretty well separated). My one quibble – nobody seems to know how to use a damn cell phone like a real-life person living in the 2010s. (The one instance where cell service is justifiably removed from the equation, at a mountain resort, is still not an exception, as nobody seems to know how to use a landline either.) Book five comes out in January. I’ve already preordered it. Start from the beginning, block out a couple hours to read each one straight through without stopping.

Traditional genre: mysteries. Setting: realism. Story genre: mystery, character study, ensemble cast. Format: novels. Rating: 3/3 individually and collectively, and I require a Murder-She-Wrote-style TV adaptation immediately

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler

Shakespeare has been absolutely strip-mined over the years for adaptations. Despite its hilariously outdated conclusion, Taming of the Shrew has been a popular target. Most “inspired by the Shakespeare”-type stories ditch the original women’s-submission-to-men ending in favor of something a little less backwards, usually the Katherine character realizing she’s been pushing people away for no reason and becoming more empathetic, sometimes also the Petruchio character being less demanding that others’ behavior conform to his expectations. (Notably, 10 Things I Hate About You.) Though there is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare actually meant the characters to be caricatures of how not to treat women and the tragedy of crushing a woman’s spirit, it’s traditionally played on stage without this interpretation incorporated into the performances. (The only version I’ve seen played the finale sarcastically, as though they were thumbing their noses at this social convention.)

Here, Kate is bitter and isolationist because she’s stuck in a career she dislikes, she Dropped out of college due to mouthing off at a professor and digs in her heels about returning, and clashes with her seemingly vapid sister Bunny. Her father, an eccentric biomedical scientist whose oddball theories and research have lost him the substantial respect he once commanded, decides he will have Kate marry his postdoctoral researcher Pyotr, whose visa is on the brink of expiring with no hope of a work renewal. Naturally, she doesn’t take well to this intrusion on her life, nor to the expectation that she’ll do what her father and Pyotr say. Misogyny is replaced by her father’s paternalism and Pyotr’s cultural misunderstandings, bringing the themes into modern alignment without sacrificing the essential plot and character feature of a value clash. Most interestingly, the wedding day fight at the altar is replaced by an entirely different conflict (the dramatics of which are amusingly familiar to any scientist) that I won’t spoil.

This adaptation took the story down to its bare minimum of characters, supported by sparse, first-person prose and a brisk pace. I was particularly pleased with the reimagination of Kate’s anger and frustration with her dead-end career bleeding into her personality – it’s implied that she was always a little too witty, but not unkindly so as she is now – and Pyotr’s mismatched expectations of others as due to a culture and language barrier. It’s the same story, but washes away all the sexist assumptions. I would be delighted to see a stage adaptation of this, and not only for the fun of a play adapted to a book adapted to a play.

Genre: literary fiction. Setting: realism. Story genre: commentary, relationship, character study. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3 and I require a top-quality faithful stage adaptation immediately

The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee really has a lock on the “biography of a field of science” genre. This time, he’s back with the history of genetics from Mendel through today, with just enough science to tie together the story of the field. If you want to learn something you didn’t know to even ask about, his books are the place to be. You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy his accessible writing, but you do have to be ready for a trek – The Gene continues his trend of lengthy, dense books. It’s worth every page, but it’s not a light read.

The narrative will provide all the genetics knowledge you need to enjoy the real stars of the show – the scientists. In my opinion, most science nonfiction does not sufficiently acknowledge the people behind the facts. You wouldn’t write a book on politics without discussing the politicians and political theorists in addition to laws, or a book on the arts without discussing artists and performers as well as their works. Science is no different. In fact, leaving out the human element leads people to the understandable but false conclusion that science just pops out of thin air, infallible and complete, when really science is an incremental process involving lots of dropped beakers and excel auto-formulas and hurry-up-and-wait data collection. It reveals a tiny piece of the picture at a time, and sometimes it’s wrong, and even when it’s right it’s never the whole story in one experiment. Telling the human history of the science helps drive home that reality.

Genetics has been wielded in socially and politically aggressive ways throughout its short history. Mukherjee shies away from none of them. He tackles the early European and American eugenicists, Nazi twin studies, the unforeseen effects of the Dutch Hunger Winter under Nazi occupation, American post-war genetic racism, the stigma of heritable mental illness, the emerging ethical issues of prenatal genetic testing, the promise and danger of gene therapy from embryos to adults, and more. Unlike cancer, where the controversies have been almost entirely related to the disease itself, in genetics the controversies arise more from attempts to apply genetics where it has no business being applied. All science carries the risk of its findings being used to justify something that it doesn’t actually support, or those justifications going too far, or any number of other clashes arising from science’s inherent uncertainty and incompleteness competing with the human instinct for certainty and completion. Alas, as far as I know, though, a book like The Gene doesn’t exist for neuroscience. (Yet.)

Subject: life science, history. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3 and I require a top-quality PBS adaptation like Emperor of All Maladies got immediately

Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal

The fifth and final novel of the Glamourist Histories series – do not pick up the series here, read it in order! This series is that rare creature – a fantasy series delivered at the entirely reasonable pace of one book a year for five years, doesn’t overstay its welcome or cut off prematurely, and with a cast of important characters (those who carry over book-to-book, not one-and-done people) I can count on my hands. The premise, way back when, was a quite literal “Pride and Prejudice with magic” but it’s really grown up along the way and found its own identity.

I can’t quite explain the urge seemingly every historical series set between 1700-1900 feels to find its way to the Caribbean. But off we are shipped to Antigua to deal with Vincent’s late father’s estate there, only to discover he’s not so late after all, and continues to be a horrible person. While stuck there by blackmail and pregnancy, Jane and Vincent come to terms with the fact that they aren’t the universal glamour experts they thought they were, learning from indigenous knowledge, confronting problematic family legacies, and making a better future for everyone involved.

What I really want here is a season-per-book TV adaptation like Game of Thrones or Outlander, with lavish costumes and beautiful settings and perfectly cast actors who make you wonder whether they bred them on a farm somewhere sketchy. (Seriously, where did they find a Jamie Fraser that perfect???) And the trend these days seems to be adapting fantasy series with 5-8 books, so GET CRACKIN, NETWORKS.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy, historical. Story genre: specfic, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3 and I require a top quality premium-network-style TV series immediately (a la Game of Thrones or Outlander)

Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky

I don’t read a lot of books about neuroscience, since I read about neuroscience all day for my actual work and my fun books should be fun, and also because I usually don’t learn much from them. But this is one of the classics of the field, recommended to me about five years ago by my wonderful undergraduate advisor who actually studies this topic, so I randomly grabbed the kindle book when it was on sale months ago and sat on it. (As I do.) This book meanders through various aspects of the physiology, neuroscience, and psychology of stress, the research that uncovered what we know, how we can treat or manipulate stress responses, and as indicated by the title, why humans’ stress responses are different from animals. The core thesis of the book is that humans have adverse responses to stress because our stressors are so different from the animals’ in which the stress response initially evolved. Being chronically stressed by a crummy job, a long term psychological stressor requiring no physical response, is an entirely different stress profile than being acutely chased by a lion, which is over with quickly (either way…) and requires quick physical engagement. Therefore, because our stress responses are optimized for running from lions, other stressors can cause poor outcomes when our own bodies inadvertently work against us.

Sapolsky’s writing is accessible and conversational, and he doesn’t oversimplify the technical details. I did feel like it was a little too wordy and sometimes repetitive, hence docking it one point in the rating. This tendency is also why I would love to see a PBS-style documentary series where they go around and interview all the relevant researchers and show off how that science was actually done, using his narrative and central thesis to tie it all together – it would keep the tone and detail that I enjoyed immensely, and bring in the human element of science (which I am always all about) and pick up the pacing a bit. It would be a great one to show in schools because the stress response impacts every system of the body, so the science of stress by its nature provides an introduction to the hit parade of anatomy.

Subject: life science, medical science. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 2/3 and a top-quality documentary series on youtube where all the various researchers behind the studies he cites are interviewed

Welcome to the Jungle, Jim Butcher and Ardian Syaf

A one-and-done side quest for Harry Dresden with rather less apocalyptic stakes than his regular misadventures. This is first chronologically of the eight Dresden Files graphic novels. As this takes place before the first novel, you can pick it up at any time. It’s not only because my soft spot for zoos occupies basically my entire being that I adored this little adventure. This story is quite short, so in order to not spoil anything I’ll restrain my summary at Harry investigating the possession of zoo animals by demon spirits.

All of us have had the experience of reading a book and then seeing it on the big or the small screen, delighted by how our imaginations matched the product or horrified at the terrible casting or design choices. This is the first time I’ve read a graphic novel tie-in to a novel, and it’s much the same experience, though the disconnect between my imagination and the pictures was exacerbated by being at a different point in the novel series (me: book 15. this: pre book 1). After this many books, poor Harry has been put through the wringer several times and then some, and it seriously shows. Plus he (minor spoiler) picked up a nasty scar on his face that he keeps reminding us of. The cover illustrations of the novels portray him as dark and more or less permanently encrusted with gunk. Consequently, I was rather surprised to find an unscarred, very young, and far more handsome Harry than I was expecting in these illustrations. When we play the game of are-you-hot-or-are-you-just-tall, this Harry is both, and he’s young and fresh faced and comparatively naive too. Unfortunately, as we’ve rewound the clock to Storm Front Harry, a solid 10 years in the past of Skin Game Harry, we’ve also undone much of his progress on his notorious sexism (which is thoroughly Harry’s, and not Jim Butcher’s). Harry suffers from a persistent need to save women, even when they’ve asked him not to (he gets his comeuppance for this more than once), and though in more recent books he’s improved, this story is in the long ago past. That said, in order for him to grow to a better place as a character, he had to start somewhere. But it is jarring to jump from the (marginally) more enlightened, heavily bescarred, substantially leveled-up Harry of “now” back in time to the blatantly sexist, surprisingly handsome, wee baby wizard of the beginning.

Traditional genre: graphic novel if you must, but the story is fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: adventure, specfic, Format: graphic novel. Rating: 3/3

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