Books, April 2018

It’s a bumper crop this month. Amazing what handing in your dissertation draft does for your reading time!

Henchgirl, Kristen Gudsnuk

For our annual Book Exchange party, my friends give each other books we pick specifically for them, based on requests or just what we think they’d like. This year I asked for villain protagonists, and one of the (excellent selection of) books I got was this graphic novel about a group of young people with superpowers of varying usefulness just trying to get by. In the case of the main character, she has an unfulfilling gig as a grunt for a mediocre butterfly-themed gang (all of whom have hilarious butterfly-pun names), and longs for a normal life. For such a short story, it does an outstanding job of exploring the ramifications of the various strange and unusual superpowers of the cast, the psychological toll of being a henchgirl, and the pressure to live up to expectations. Also, the art is adorable!

Genre: character study, adventure, thriller. Setting: superhero. Format: graphic novel. Rating: 3/3

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

I got this book for my 17th birthday, stuck it on a shelf (from the same person who gave me Henchgirl, incidentally), and promptly forgot about it for about 6 years, and then decided I might as well wait a decade and pretend it was a 27th birthday present instead. Fortunately, I think I enjoyed it rather more having waited than I would have back then, because I have more patience than I did then for slow-moving books with more emphasis on atmosphere and writing style than plot. Unfortunately, I still don’t have that much patience. The action finally ticked up in the third section, and the payoff was worth the wait during the first 2/3 if you’re a fast reader or like that style. In fact, I think the pacing would have worked much better for me if it had been packaged as three separate volumes. If you’re a fan of Austen-era literature (which this captures marvelously) or epic fantasies, this is a can’t-miss (especially since it’s been extremely influential on fantasy novels, especially those set in the 19th century, in the 15 years since its publication). But for Austenesque fantasy, I’d pick Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist books first.

Genre: fantasy/speculative fiction, character/relationship study. Setting: fantasy. Format: one big-ass novel. Rating: 2/3, but if it had been 3 separate books like it should have been, they would have been 2/3, 2/3, and 3/3

Natural Thorn Killer, Kate Dyer-Seeley

Meg is gone, but now we have florist Britta and her aunt’s Scandinavian flower-wine-classes shop, and honestly, I like this setting/occupation combination more. Plus I genuinely wasn’t sure who was going to be the murderer, so that’s always a plus! Can’t wait for the second book.

Genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks *

I’m trying to read more plays, and I impulsively grabbed this one at the bookstore after deciding that solely on the basis of a vague memory that it was staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival years before I started going (and now realize that even if I had been going back then, at 13 I was not ready for it). Theater and literary critics have already dissected this Pulitzer-winner from every possible angle as far as its content goes, plus I try to keep things around here PG-13 and this play is decidedly R. I’ll instead comment on the specific experience of reading, rather than seeing, this play. Plays generally contain some degree of stage direction, but this contained a remarkable amount of nonverbal communication, all specified in the script. It captures the visceral tension and posturing between the brothers, forcing the reader to slow down and hit those beats as they read through them. Most scripts leave far more of the nonverbal element up to the individual production, which is a missed opportunity for the playwright to include this crucial characterization.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is 100% not reading for kids. But it was influential and decorated, so it’s worth including in a survey of American theater for mature readers.

Genre: relationship/character study. Setting: realism. Format: play. Rating: 2/3, but would likely be 3/3 with the staging it deserves

Guys and Dolls, Damon Runyon

The musical was based mostly on a couple of stories from this volume (which collects Runyon’s greatest hits, well after his death, and was named for the show), and draws names of minor characters from across his work. The musical does a fantastic job in the translation in capturing the larger-than-life characters, aesthetics, and blasé attitude towards enormous stakes. If you’re a fan of the show, at least give those stories a run.

Genre: adventure/slice of life. Setting: realism. Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3

This Census Taker, China Miéville

I’ve written at length about my frustrations with the traditional genre system – specifically that almost all genre labels only tell you about the setting of the work, not its plot (the major exception being mystery). Telling me a work is urban fantasy or literary fiction doesn’t tell me anything about the story itself. That said, I love the emerging genre label of weird, also called new weird. It’s closely related to magical realism, but usually more outright malevolent (though magical realism certainly has its moments). Anyway, I expected a short fantasy-like novella when I grabbed this one on a whim and got a weird/magical realism short novel, so that’s what I get for not doing my research (in my defense, his other work I’ve read is definitely on the fantasy end of weird). I wish it had been more overtly magical, but I loved that it was from the completely unreliable perspective of a child.

Genre: allegory, character study. Setting: magical realism/weird. Format: it claims to be a novella, but it’s right on the line into novel. Rating: 2/3

* Suitable for high school readers and up

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