Books, August 2018

It’s another month of series!

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, King Hedley II, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson *

The logical order for approaching Wilson’s ten Century (or Pittsburgh) plays would be chronologically through either publication time or setting time. That said, I’m reading them in the order I happen to find them, which is entirely random. This nicely sets me up for contrasts as I juxtapose plays from different eras of Wilson’s life and the century. The 1910s’ Joe Turner was the fourth play written, 1980s’ Hedley was eighth, and 1920s’ Ma Rainey was second.

Jumping from Hedley back 20 years in Wilson’s life and 60 years in time to Ma Rainey illuminated the maturation of Wilson’s writing style and the similarities of the characters’ lives against the backdrop of different eras. At least on the page (in the hands of a skilled cast and director, things can be very different), Hedley was tighter and more thematically focused with all characters’ arcs and views contributing to that concept. Ma Rainey was more effusive and sprawling, with the themes and arcs being carried largely by one character and several supporting characters serving more to set the scene. Joe Turner fit between them, with all the characters and themes congregating around a core concept, but not so sharply directed to a single message. By reading these plays back to back, I was really able to see Wilson developing his skill at having every character and every side plot contribute fully and meaningfully to the principal idea of the piece.

Genre: character study, commentary. Setting: realism. Format: plays. Rating: 3/3, but my favorite of this particular group was Joe Turner

Backstagers Volume 2, James Tynion IV (words) and Rian Sygh (pictures)

I don’t have a huge amount to add to my original comments on volume 1 – if you liked Lumberjanes, or were a theater kid, or have magical realism-tinged technicolor nightmares, you’ll like the conclusion of this two-book arc. Now complete, it would make a great gift for a kid who finds joy in working behind the scenes (whether literally at the theater or not). Or – a kid who needs to learn to appreciate the backstagers and all they do to make the show go on.

Genre: quest, speculative, mystery, ensemble. Setting: fantasy. Format: graphic novel. Rating: 3/3

Ghost Talkers and Forest of Memory, Mary Robinette Kowal

Ghost Talkers: I have loved Mary Robinette Kowal’s other novels (before my book posting era, unfortunately), and I am always a sucker for both magical alternate takes on history and bold female protagonists. So I was already ready to enjoy this story of women mediums channeling the ghosts of recently dead soldiers to gather intelligence on the circumstances of their deaths, and the protagonist balancing SPOILER her personal quest to find her fiancé’s killer and the bigger picture of finding a spy. She and the supporting characters were tenacious and thoughtful, the stakes were clear and astronomically high, and the ending made me cry right along with the characters. The mediums’ quiet competence in the face of literal life and death was not only inspiring and impressive to me, but to the other characters. I hadn’t realized how rare it was for that kind of earned ability and professionalism to be directly called out by other characters – especially by other characters who had previously doubted them. This is going to be one of my favorite books of 2018.

Forest of Memory: The short story is a venue for exploring a single idea in a brief, transient setting. The novel (or series) is a venue for exploring a character arc in a developed setting through an involved narrative. The novella has to walk the tightrope between those levels of detail and length. This story starts with an intriguing premise – ubiquitous first-person recording technology that makes it so people never have to depend on their memories, plus an apparent social/environmental collapse driving a market in antiques with stories attached to them. But the story then slows to a crawl and the character exploration and atmosphere didn’t fill the void enough for me. I think I would have enjoyed this more if it had been expanded to a novel and more of the lingering questions answered OR dramatically shortened by leaving a lot more of the questions unanswered and focusing more on the atmosphere.

Ghost Talkers, genre: thriller, mystery, quest, ensemble. Setting: fantasy. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3. Forest of Memory, genre: allegory, commentary. Setting: science fiction. Format: novella. Rating: 2/3

* suitable for readers high school and older

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