Books, April 2019

April marks the delightful (Seattle) Independent Bookstore Day, which this year was celebrated by 21 local bookstores (three of which have multiple locations) in Seattle and nearby areas. Visit 3, and get 30% off any one purchase at any one bookstore. Visit all 21, and get 25% off everywhere for a year. I cannot be trusted with such power: Five minutes into the fourth and final bookstore stop of the day: “take away my wallet, I’m not allowed any more books.” Six minutes in: “this one doesn’t count, it was already on my list AND it’s on sale.”

Book of the month: Uprooted, Naomi Novik

I’m struggling with where to start here, because what I really want to do is reach through the screen to every one of you out there and hold this book in the center of your field of view until you read it. Also, there’s not a huge amount I can say without ruining one of the more delightful elements of the reading experience, which was the slow unfolding of the magic system’s rules and backstory, culminating in far more answers than I ever expected I would get. I will, of course, say something anyway.

Narrator Agnieszka lives in a (Polish folklore-inflected) village under perpetual threat from a literally evil forest that sometimes infects people with its evilness, and sometimes just eats them. A more intermittent threat is that the wizard at the end of the valley takes a girl from one of the towns every 10 years to be his servant, and then when she is released unharmed, she leaves the area and never returns. Everyone expects Agnieszka’s best friend to be chosen – but then, of course, Agnieszka is. (This all happens in chapter 1, no real spoilers here.) From there, it looks like it’s going to be a Beauty and the Beast story, and then it looks like it might be turning into a Shakespeare history but with magic, and also wanders vaguely towards Alice in Wonderland, but it’s actually none of those. To boot, that expectation/subversion cycle is part of the point for the reader – and for Agnieszka, who starts off the story thinking a lot more things in the world are fixtures than actually are, and has to learn that she can cause change. She can be a slightly frustrating protagonist in that she makes Bad Choices a lot, but then, she’s also 17 and SPOILER has magic that’s weird even by the scale of magic users, so I suppose some leeway is in order.

If you’re a fan of Tamora Pierce, this should be especially strong on your radar. If you’re not a fan of Tamora Pierce, please go find your nearest purveyor of books, obtain the Alanna and/or Circle of Magic quartets, and I promise you will soon be a fan too. Go on, I’ll wait.

Genre: speculative, quest, thriller. Setting: fantasy. Format: novel. Year: 2015. Rating: 3/3

In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire

The latest installment of the Wayward Children series focuses on the backstory of Lundy, a teacher at the school for children back from adventures to other worlds, who is slowly aging backwards and has gotten back to around age 8 by the time of her introduction in Every Heart a Doorway. A fundamental theme of the series is that the children are drawn to parallel worlds that reflect or amplify a key aspect of their personalities. More of the story’s energy was given over to developing the rules-bound Goblin Market world Lundy is drawn to than is given to her core personality. While the world clearly articulates an obsession with the rules of the “fair trade” the Market revolves around, we’re more told than shown that this is a good fit for her. She spends more of her time in the Market breaking rather than relishing the rules! (Of course, that’s why she didn’t end up staying there.) Also, Lundy had been featured so little after the first book that I wasn’t as invested in learning her story as I am in some of the other supporting characters who haven’t gotten their own feature stories yet (heir apparent to the school/student Kade in particular, also head of school Eleanor).

Also, she’s local! McGuire lives in Washington.

Genre: character study, adventure, speculative, allegory. Setting: fantasy. Format: novella. Year: 2019. Rating: 2/3, not the strongest entry in the series but still good

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson

The number one rule of time travel stories is that you pick your time travel logic and you stick with it, whatever it is. (Lookin at you, Avengers Endgame. Also lookin at you, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.) Robson picks her logic and sticks with it right through to the depressing end. Literally working backwards from a premise of environmental devastation, humans only recently reemerged from underground bunkers, and tentative ecological restoration efforts tied up in bureaucracy, she asks an obvious question: if you want to restore an ecosystem, and you have time travel, how better to plan your restoration than to go back in time and survey the pristine version? And as long as you’re at it, might as well go big or go home and survey the cradle of civilization itself, Mesopotamia. Toss in some inhuman-looking prosthetics and instant fabrication tech, and it seems headed straight for a tired “mistaken for gods” plot. But of course, it’s much more interesting and compassionate than that – but it would ruin it if I told you.

While technically a novella, it only just squeaks under the 40,000 word cutoff for the category (~225 pages – with another chapter it would have been a short novel instead). The last 10% or so was a little rushed, but the preceding 90% was so simultaneously trippy and entirely logical that I find I’m willing to forgive the main reveal/climax/denouement blowing by in about five paragraphs. Nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards, the panels picked a strong contender.

Genre: speculative, commentary, thriller. Setting: science fiction. Format: novella. Year: 2018. Rating: 3/3

Ibsen, Volume 1, Henrik Ibsen

This volume contains four of Ibsen’s best known works: A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder. I had tickets to A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, running at Seattle Rep earlier this month, and while they said that knowledge of A Doll’s House isn’t necessary to understand it, I figured I would do my homework. Not only was that claim was a load of bullshirt, I didn’t like the script (of Part 2) very much even with studying up in advance (it’s a lot of telling and no showing), despite the excellent performances.

I had forgotten just how visceral Ibsen’s writing is and how much I enjoy it, which is a little embarrassing, as my only leading role in a play as an adult was in his very weird John Gabriel Borkman. (In the distant past, John is in love with Ella, but can’t marry her because of Reasons, so he marries her twin sister Gunhild, played by me. During the show, they re-litigate old fights and dump a lot of exposition, and eventually John dies. I nearly broke an ankle and did break a door.)

Anyway, his writing is spare but immediate, and crams a lot of character development and commentary into unembellished, brutally efficient prose. I’m reading it, not even viewing it on stage as intended, and I felt the fear, anxiety, and crushing feeling of being out of options right alongside the characters. It’s a real shame that he seems to be fairly overlooked by artistic directors choosing seasons around here. A Doll’s House is the star of this volume, but The Wild Duck packs a real punch and deserves attention. And I’d never even heard of it!

Genre: character study, commentary. Setting: realism. Format: plays. Year: 1879-1892. Rating: 3/3, heckin underrated, especially The Wild Duck

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

It’s hard to disentangle where this book was prescient vs. where he was influential. While not as widely known today as it was at the time of publication (though certainly a pillar of scifi from that era), it was read by many early internet users – and especially proto-web developers – at the time of its publication. Ever had an “avatar” on the internet? Snow Crash used it, readers coded it into the internet. More firmly in the realm of prediction/commentary is the (fragmented) economic system, widespread mobile/VR technology (in a time where car phones were the height of portability), and the centrality of the internet (here, basically a giant virtual mall) to getting everyday things done. Most modern discussion focuses on Stephenson’s uncanny predictions, but that ignores just how weird the story is. Like, SPOILER the plot hinges on reprogramming the human brainstem by hollering in ancient Sumerian at people. The main character is literally named Hiro Protagonist. He has swords, because why not, I guess. He, the other main characters, and the leaders of modern fiefdoms/corporate nation-franchises travel to a floating city made of barges in order to steal basically antivirus software. It’s bonkers, but it’s also relevant nearly 30 years later, and what more can a book as for than to still be relevant?

Also, he’s local! Stephenson lives in Seattle.

Genre: speculative, commentary, adventure. Setting: science fiction. Format: novel. Year: 1992. Rating: 2/3

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory

One of the tricky bits with romance series is how to keep going after the characters get together. Some series take the Outlander route, and just kind of stop being romances. One of the most popular strategies is for each book to feature new main characters lifted from the supporting cast of earlier books, friends or relatives of the earlier protagonists. (Interestingly, the Wayward Children books also use this strategy. I could argue that they’re romances between the characters and the alternate worlds they love.) Here the spotlight turns from The Wedding Date‘s Drew to his best friend Carlos. Carlos and love interest Nik navigate her recent relationship implosion and search for a healthier pattern, his sense of smothering responsibility for his family that nobody asked him to take on, and cupcakes. Not only is their relationship a role model AND super adorable, it provides a platform for discussing toxic masculinity, finding a relationship-work balance, family and friendship bonds, and baseball. Plus, the pair are an interracial relationship where neither of them is white – an embarrassingly rare occurrence in fiction given that it’s common in real life. My only regret is that Drew and Alexa are shoved largely to the background due to their location in a different city, but since the next sequel is set to star Alexa’s friends’ enemies-to-lovers arc, that will be rectified soon enough. That installment comes out this summer, plus Guillory has another, unrelated novel arriving in the fall. I can’t wait!

Genre: relationship, commentary. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Year: 2019. Rating: 2/3

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