Books, December 2018

WordPress installed a bunch of new stuff last month and I’m finally learning how to use it. Please enjoy some shiny new formatting!

Pick of the month: Binti trilogy (Binti, Home, The Night Masquerade), Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is the first from her people, and one of only a few from Earth at all, to be accepted to the interstellar Oomza University, where she will study math. But on top of defying her family’s disapproval and the potentially severe judgement of her tribe (which comes to pass, and then some), on the way to the school with all of the other students from Earth, the ship is attacked – and she is the only survivor. I don’t want to say too much more. The ends of the second and especially the third volumes genuinely surprised me, as well as how the endings executed the core theme of carving out an identity that is both individual and grounded in culture. That surprise and discovery was core to my enjoyment and I don’t want to take that experience from you. I had the pleasure in 2018 of reading several books that had truly original fantasy worlds, and this was a leader among that group on account of thoroughly weaving together that innovative worldbuilding with its literary themes.

I was able to run through all three of these in a row, and at around 100 pages each, they fly by. I pity the readers who had to wait a year between the original releases! (Related: this is why I have not yet started The Name of the Wind, because the release date for the third is currently ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and I refuse to do that to myself.) Make sure you have all three on hand before you start.

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

Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy, Martha Wells

I already gushed about this plenty last month, so I will simply say that Murderbot not only continues to be a delight, but actually manages to get even better at their job than they were ever supposed to be, and they were already better at it than the average bot. The surgical storytelling strike of the novella format complements Murderbot’s own solo operator misadventures, with no excess space or subplots to distract. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest book purveyor to get all four. (Much like Binti, you really don’t want to have to wait between volumes.)

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

Among Others, Jo Walton

I do not ever recall encountering a character in a novel who was not only obsessed with novels themselves, but tells you exactly what they are reading and what they think of it. Teen diarist and protagonist Mor records her hatred of boarding school (or is it really so bad?), her interactions with fairies and magic (or are they really real?), flashbacks of her twin sister before her death in an accident (or is it really?), and lots of opinions on the science fiction of the 60s and 70s that she inhales (no uncertainty there, other than exploring new works she might like). I am not usually one to favor stories that emphasize atmosphere and introspection over character interaction and plot, but in the diary format, and with Mor’s unfiltered thoughts, it really worked for me. The diary (and also epistolary) format lives or dies by the likability of the in-universe writer, and she is a great companion for the reader. Incidentally, the diary covers the period from 1979-80, a seriously overlooked era by current authors. Why is SO MUCH historical fiction in World War 2 or the Regency??

Genre: speculative, character study. Setting: magical realism. Rating: 3/3

‘Art’, Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton (from French)

I saw this play once, about 10 years ago at a local high school, and almost the only thing I remember is that the art piece in question – white on white with a few diagonal lines – was portrayed by a science fair board still in its plastic wrapping. (The plastic was necessary for a bit of late-game stage business.) What I didn’t remember is just what jerks these three guys are to each other! One of the three characters buys an expensive and pretentious art piece and the other two, nominally his friends (even they aren’t sure why), mercilessly and brilliantly mock him, and also mock the entire concept of modern art and friendship. When they apologize at the end for the horrible things they’ve said, you’re thankful for the darkness in the theater to cover the eye rolling you couldn’t contain. It’s delightful. It’s a little No Exit but with less death. It’s what The Good Place‘s characters could have been if they hadn’t started trying harder. I didn’t know back when I saw it that it was already a modern classic, but it deserves a higher profile than it has.

Also, why is Hollywood sleeping on this script? Seriously, they can perform it in 90 minutes 8 times a week on Broadway and it all happens in relatively plain rooms. You can film it in like two days max because film actors insist on having multiple takes, there’s no real special effects, and BOOM, cheap awards bait. I will accept my modest 3% cut now.

Genre: character study, ensemble, commentary. Setting: realism. Rating: 3/3

William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead, John Heimbuch

I like zombies, and I like Shakespeare, so of course I had to read zombie Shakespeare. This was way, way better written than it had any right to be, and also much less of a comedy than I expected. It pulls off the dramatics better than it had any right to do given its schlocky premise, which is to say that with the right production it could actually be heartfelt and not just silly. The characters were pretty thin, and the Elizabethan English a little overblown (but technically correct, more than comedy Shakespeare usually accomplishes), but that’s not the point of a short gimmick-based play like this. If you’re not already a zombie AND Shakespeare person, this probably won’t do it for you, but if you are, be prepared to be knocked over by the ending much more than you think you will be.

Genre: thriller, ensemble. Setting: zombie historical. Rating: 2/3 but really much better than it had any right to be

Violet Tendencies, Kate Dyer-Seeley

The second of the flower mysteries is set in the biggest floral event of the year: the Rose Parade, every June in Portland. (Also the main guarantee of rain that month.) Dyer-Seeley did a good job setting up the anarchists as background antagonists back in Natural Thorn Killer, so she really didn’t need to spend a good 40% of the book rehashing their motives and the threat they posed before the murder even occurs. We’re specifically here for murder and mystery, and the latter can’t get started until the former does. That said, the motive involving the SPOILER schism between the peaceful and violent wings of the anarchist group was surprising and engaging. I’ll probably look back on this installment as an important addition to the series-long mystery hinging on examining the relationship between the community and the police, but with what I have right now, it was pretty unsatisfying.

Genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Rating: 2/3, we had to wait much too far into the book for the murder to happen

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