Books, October 2019

Stay tuned for a very special book surprise coming in December! (If I say it out loud, then I’ll get it done. Right?)

Book of the month: The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

Hill House is THE ghost story of the 20th century and a perfect atmospheric Halloween read (despite the fact that it actually takes place in the full heat and sunlight of midsummer, making it all the creepier). The less you know going in, the better – like much horror (ish, it’s horror-adjacent), the thrill comes from the unfolding story and the surprise. All I will reveal of the plot is that there is in fact a haunting and they are in fact at Hill House.

Rest assured (unlike the ghosts) if you are not usually a horror person and are feeling skeptical – neither am I. Horror often gets a little too under my skin – the last properly horror books I read were the Southern Reach trilogy, (aka Annihilation, the first one), and I could only stand reading them at the gym where I was surrounded by people and I could pretend to myself that my adrenaline was just from the elliptical and not from the… whatever the heck it was in Area X. But Hill House is truly, quintessentially a ghost story. But still, maybe don’t read it late at night, alone, in a stone-cold silent hotel room. I was also reading this while sitting at the counter of a restaurant waiting for my food to come. I was thoroughly engrossed in a particularly haunted section when they silently came up behind me with my lunch and literally scared me out of my seat. Haunting achieved?

Story genre: thriller. Setting genre: horror. Format: novel. Reason I read: seeing play. Rating: 3/3

The All Souls trilogy: A Discovery of Witches, The Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness

At last, I get to the spot where I was supposed to have started! Having now backtracked to their starring roles and first introduction, Diana and Matthew’s situation as supporting characters in Time’s Convert makes a lot more sense. Well, somewhat more sense – the complex mythology of witches, vampires, and daemons, along with (SPOILER) tossing the entire second book 400 years into the past, is still pretty bonkers and leaves me with far more questions than answers. To be fair, those questions are a substantial focus of the plot and some remain a mystery to the characters even by the end… but I still have the questions. And I don’t mean that as only a complaint! I got very invested in the characters and their story, which has significant element of mystery, and I want the mystery solved. I also can’t wait to watch the TV show of it now! (I am of the opinion that the book is not always or necessarily better, but when I can, I still like to read the book first and build my mental image of it before the TV version influences me.)

Fundamentally, and without spoilers, the core of the story is a) Diana’s journey to her power, and, b) determining the nature of and the relationships between witches, vampires, daemons, and vanilla humans. Harkness is herself a history professor and her true scholarly curiosity shines through Diana, as do some touches of real-life academia, in all its charm and ridiculousness. (Many of the main characters are professors, and they often get delightfully professorial at very inopportune moments.) But Diana’s complete lack of a self-preservation instinct and her massive blind spot regarding Matthew’s controlling behavior delay her path to her magic and make for a sometimes seriously unhealthy relationship between them. It’s essential that characters have flaws, but neither Diana nor Matthew are seriously called out for theirs by the other characters, and both of their efforts at self-improvement are often lip service. My recollection from Time’s Convert is that they seem to have more meaningfully addressed those issues, possibly because they had time to after (SPOILER) a magical conspiracy ring isn’t trying to kill them anymore.

Also, having now met the full cast, I must say that of all the characters who could have gotten a backstory prequel, Marcus isn’t the one I would have picked first. (That would be Emily and Sarah, Ysabeau, or Miriam.)

Story genre: mystery, quest, specfic, relationship. Setting genre: fantasy, historical. Reason I read: heard the author give an interview and thought, well that sounds up my alley. Rating: 3/3

How to Invent Everything, Ryan North

So, nonfiction content wrapped in a fictional story is kind of my jam, to put it mildly, and this is probably the most famous instance of the concept I’ve yet seen. North’s “manual” for unfortunate time travelers stuck in the past – especially for those stuck in the stone age – reviews essential botany, medicine, civil engineering, material science, and other technical trivia that took us millions of years to slowly accumulate through trial and error. (Imagine where we would be as a species today if, for example, we actually understood how diseases spread or how to build a steam engine longer than 150ish years ago.) But thanks to this handy guide, even though you’re irretrievably stuck, you can at least rebuild reasonably modern comforts in a matter of months instead of millennia. As I do for Halloween science, the science filling is all real, even though it’s wrapped up in a fictional story. (The footnotes hinting at a frustrated technical writer’s banal workday are an especially nice touch on the fiction side, as are the glass-half-full reminders that all the fundamental constants and other phenomena named for people can now be named for you.) There is quite literally something for everyone to learn here. And as far as the genre of “books I would want to have with me if I got stuck in the distant past,” it’s my clear winner.

Subject: uh… everything, I guess? Format: a nonfiction taco in a fiction tortilla. Reason I read: author’s other work. Rating: 3/3

The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk

I wanted this to be the science underlying the stories of Shakespeare’s plays (that is, a more successful attempt at that concept). It was instead the science of Shakespeare’s time and what he likely knew, and didn’t know, about the natural world. Trying to understand Shakespeare’s poorly documented life and the inner workings of his mind is a task as old as English departments, but for a non-historian, Falk makes a compelling case regarding how the average English citizen would have interacted with the night sky. Unfortunately for me, he focuses almost exclusively on astronomy (which at the time was synonymous with astrology), with no comment on medicine, proto-chemistry, engineering, natural history/biology, or anything else that I was really hoping to learn about. I picked this up on the (I think reasonable) assumption from the title that there would be some breadth to the science topics covered. As I don’t have a specific interest in astronomy and do have an interest in also learning about those other areas of science, I found myself wishing for the range of topics the title promised with every new chapter and never getting it. If you’re into astronomy, this is the book for you, and Falk is a pleasant storyteller with a clear love of his topic. But for me, it’s on to… the next science of Shakespeare book I have…

Subject: history, science, especially astronomy. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read: look at me. Duh. Rating: 2/3

Royal Holiday, Jasmine Guillory

I have adored Guillory’s ongoing romance series in large part because of its rotating cast, who pop in and out of focus depending on the story and setting. Unfortunately, that strength now becomes a weakness as the story hits the road, following Wedding Party‘s Maddie and her mom Vivian on a trip to England at Christmas where Vivian takes a turn in the starring role. Isolated from all the characters (besides Maddie) from the other books, and thus starting up an entirely new set of supporting characters, it’s too disconnected from the previously established world to really pick up momentum. But Vivian and Malcolm have real chemistry, and their more chill and mature romance is a great contrast to their 20/30-something predecessors. In fact, though their book wasn’t my favorite of the four in the series so far, they may be my favorite couple. They’ll be around for many installments to come (not a spoiler – it’s a romance, of course they get together!) and welcome every time they appear.

Story genre: relationship. Story setting: realism. Reason I read: series continuation. Rating: 2/3

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