Books, November 2018

It’s the time of year where I’m starting to think on my best-of picks for the year, and as usual, I have some late-coming strong contenders. I sure hope it’s not just a recency effect.

Featured book of the month:

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Time travel stories are notoriously fussy. One misplaced detail and the entire story comes crashing down, much like the space-time continuum our careless time travelers just broke. This, however, was a perfect Rube Goldberg machine of time travel mishaps and discontinuities fixing themselves and each other, which is expertly woven into the story itself as the characters investigate how the timeline corrects for the changes they make. Not only is the time travel totally watertight (unlike the protagonist’s crappy boat), it introduces the narratively excellent and also hilarious plot device that too many time travel jumps in a row induces confusion, memory loss, and excessive schmaltziness. The unfortunate protagonist thus spends a good quarter of the book just trying to remember what he was supposed to be doing in the past. What a delightful comedy bit! I’m honestly surprised that I had never heard of this Hugo award winning book or the multi-award winning author. But hearing of her now is better than not hearing of her ever, and I suppose one can never be truly late when time travel is involved, right?

And no, I shall not say nothing of the dog – his name is Cyril and he nearly breaks the timeline by eating a shoe.

Genre: quest, speculative. Setting: science fiction, historical fiction. Rating: 3/3

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, James Shapiro

Half history, half literary analysis, all Jacobean theater shenanigans. Shakespeare is mostly associated with the reign of Elizabeth I, but the reign of James VI/I covers nearly as much of his career, and even more importantly, the period in which his work was published. Mixing textual criticism of King Lear with the real-life unstable political context in which it was written provides insight into both. Art reflects politics, and politics were very much influenced by art – Shakespeare wrote for the court, and the rich and powerful were there on opening night of Lear and many other late plays. If Shakespeare was alive today, he’d be writing for HBO or SNL – sharp, relatable, funny hot takes. By placing him in the context of his political milieu and audience, this look lends both writer and writing a degree of relevance that is often forgotten under the ~classic literature~ prestige label today. (Also, Shakespeare’s twitter would have been on FIRE.)

Subject: theater, history. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder, Dianne Freeman

Now, I love me a good popcorn mystery novel. I loved the setting and the characters in this debut/first in series, where our heroine is struggling to protect her financial independence from grabby relatives while coming to the slow realization that her husband’s death wasn’t of natural causes. But I found the mystery itself to be unfortunately lacking. While the murderer’s motives made narrative sense, they weren’t hinted at before the big reveal, and the clues given would not be enough for a reader to have a good guess to the murderer’s identity, let alone their motive. Beloved classic mysteries like Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s work are so beloved because of their re-read value – once you know whodunnit, you can go back and see the clues you missed the first time because you aren’t even as clever as Hercule Poirot’s mustache, let alone Poirot himself. No such clues were present here, and it earns this much of a rating entirely on the strength of an entertaining cast.

Genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Rating: 2/3

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, Mary Robinette Kowal

WWII is over. The space race has barely begun. And a giant meteorite crashes down off the coast of Maryland, wiping out half the mid-Atlantic and beginning the slow-moving threat of an extinction-level climate change event. Humans have to get off the planet – but the climate threat moves so slowly that many people struggle to take it seriously. Elma’s personal quest to dismantle the structural sexism, and later also racism, of spaceflight absorbs most of the focus of the books, and also the efforts of the characters. (Kowal earned related accolades for her past work (Glamourist Histories, Ghost Talkers) exploring present-day inequalities, especially sexism, through stories about fantasy versions of the past.)

But in the background – for the story and for the characters themselves – is the slow creep of that runaway greenhouse effect from the meteorite. The frog is literally being boiled as temperatures rise. Using environmental forces such as climate (such as The Broken Earth), disease (Lock In), or the return of dangerous old magic (Darker Shade of Magic) as a threat to all characters and factions is really an underused plot device to keep everyone (reader included) on edge. The climate puts time pressure on space flight as a planetary evacuation strategy, social forces in response create political and funding pressure, and Kowal puts all that plus emotional pressure on Elma and the reader. It all makes for high stakes and an engaging read. I can’t wait for the next books – two whole years away?!

Also, all three of Kowal’s protagonists (Jane, Ginger, and Elma) are all kind of the same character in different eras/backgrounds/professions – super smart but allowed only ladylike work, professionally ambitious but shut out of male-dominated fields, painfully shy, stubborn as heck to the point of endangering herself. But I really like that character, so it’s cool.

Genre: commentary, character study, speculative fiction. Setting: science fiction, historical fiction. Rating: 3/3

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