Books, November 2019

It’s too cold and dark to do anything outside. NO TIME FOR RAIN. ONLY BOOKS.

Book of the month: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, Emily Croy Barker

What a terrible title for a wonderful book! Nora, a graduate student in English, accidentally falls through a portal to another world where she is enthralled by the fae and married to their prince. I do not think it too much of a spoiler to say that naturally she escapes, after sustaining some serious psychological trauma and getting stuck with an apparently cursed ring, and this is where the genuine surprises start. First, she escapes thanks to a powerful asshole of a wizard who really needs to go back to kindergarten and relearn sharing and teamwork, for whom the surprise comes not from his rigidity and competence, but his willingness to listen and change. (To an extent – he’s never going to be a go with the flow type.) While the idea of magic being a manifestation of energy, responding to the identity of objects, or reshaping natural forces isn’t new, little novelties cropped up in the expression and conceptualization of the energy by both the wizard (an expert) and Nora (who is super not). Not a surprise but a story kryptonite for me – Nora’s scholarly approach to learning to speak and read the local language and beginning to understand magic is very relatable (much as Diana’s was). I don’t want to spoil the ending, but she uses her knowledge of math to extremely good and shocking effect in the climactic battle to dismantle a key spell, and I just eat up that kind of thing. HUGE SPOILER: The biggest and most satisfying surprise is the late-game reveal that the regular fae were actually living under a dictatorship where they were effectively prisoners to the queen and her son, and on their deaths, shed their glamour spells and became treasured allies. END SPOILER. It’s not often that a fantasy book can surprise me anymore, and it was especially satisfying to see a grad student leading the charge this time. (Grad school was not so long ago!)

Story genre: specfic, adventure, allegory. Setting genre: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

BONUS book of the month: Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver starts off as a challenge to the story of Rumpelstiltskin, who saves a desperate young girl by magically making gold from straw, and who is defeated only by her good luck of overhearing his name. Instead, Miryem changes silver (rather than straw) into gold herself, and she (initially) does so not by magic, but by being really good at her work of moneylending. Then the fae-like Staryk demand she turns their silver into gold, and everything falls apart.

From that start, Novik leaves the Rumpelstiltskin premise behind (mostly) and dives instead into the parallel journeys of three young women on the road to independence, both emotional and financial. The three of them come from very different financial backgrounds (peasant, moneylender, and noble), so while the relevant institutional power structures vary wildly between them, they are alike in being shut out (respectively, due to her family being ostracized from the village, being Jewish, and being a disfavored child in a low-power family). There’s no platitudes about girl power conquering all (motivational sayings don’t eliminate the pay gap in a medieval fantasy world either) and the women’s ultimate happy fates do not feel inevitable. Like real-world women’s empowerment, inspiration is not enough, being determined is necessary but not sufficient, and a whole lot comes down to the good will of the men (and male Staryk) who hold all the cards. While financial dependence of young women in historical and history-inspired works is not an uncommon theme, Novik’s specificity is uncommon. Getting into the monetary nitty-gritty of collecting loans, gathering valuable collateral, and winning the support of powerful men is necessary to show the stakes if they failed (abusive marriages, starving in the forest in winter, or both).

A note for you, dear reader, is that the narrator is not clearly stated and sometimes changes abruptly and without annotation, so take careful note of who’s speaking.

I read this back in June and agonized over whether to make it or Circe the book of the month. As Uprooted had already been April’s winner, I opted for Circe for variety… and then somehow never wrote this up at all. Oops.

Story genre: quest, specfic, thriller, allegory. Setting genre: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read: Uprooted was great. Rating: 3/3

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

I don’t know if I would have quite realized just how little plot Long Way actually contains except that I have been constantly recommending it for the last month and grasping at thin air when asked to describe what happens. I was so sucked in by the charming cast and their lives that it didn’t seem to really matter. If I must try, it’s about some interesting people on the crew of a little spaceship in an intergalactic federation, and they live their lives together and get through some crises together in a literally cosmic celebration of diversity. Eventually, they do in fact take the long way to that small, angry planet, but even that’s just the biggest day-in-the-life plot. There’s some strong Firefly vibes here, with a plucky underdog crew in deep space asking big questions about the galaxy. But Chambers emphasizes, to great effect, genuine diversity along many intersecting axes (cultural, ethnic, gender and sexual identity, ideology, family structure, concepts of identity, and more), some of which Firefly took as window dressing but didn’t really commit to (with its Chinese-inspired visual design and complete lack of corresponding characters, institutions, or stories). I will acknowledge that Firefly was almost 20 years ago, but really the inherent value of diversity wasn’t news then either. (And I am just as shocked as you are that 2002 is almost 20 years ago.)

Meanwhile, Orbit all but drops the Wayfarer crew to follow SPOILER the ship’s accidentally-reset artificial intelligence as she struggles to adjust to her new humanoid body, being in the closet about it, and finding a new purpose outside of caring for a crew. She’s been taken in by a mechanic, who it turns out has a harrowing past of her own that illuminates why she might risk everything for an AI who isn’t, legally speaking, sentient. Where Long Way celebrates diversity, Orbit celebrates taking a chance on someone different from yourself, learning a new way to think, and the idea that while change is hard, it’s the only way to grow.

There is also a third book, currently on my bedside table, coming to a website very near you soon.

Story genre, Long Way: quest, specfic, ensemble, thriller. Story genre, Orbit: character study, commentary, specfic. Setting, both: science fiction. Format: novels. Reason I read: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda, Chelsea Cain (words), Kate Niemczyk, Ibrahim Moustafa (art)

Mockingbird, aka Dr. Bobbi Morse, is a spy, enhanced superhuman (having received both Captain America AND Nick Fury’s serums), and total smartass. While she spends most of her time being the best spy on her missions, at heart she’s a biology nerd, and also just a big ol nerd in general. These two volumes cover two story arcs: in the first, she runs some minor missions with major snark and gets increasingly frustrated by her constant summonses to SHIELD medical; in the utterly delightful second, she solves a locked room mystery on a nerd-themed cruise in the Bermuda triangle. Bobbi is a sharp narrator and genuinely funny – I truly would be her friend in real life, assuming she would deign to be mine – and Cain’s story is equally sharp. (Am I biased in favor of a smart, funny character with a PhD in the biological sciences? Not to be self-aggrandizing, but maaaaaybe.) Niemczyk sneaks in delightful visual Easter eggs all over the place, particularly on the cruise ship. I definitely didn’t catch them all, but my favorite was the PDX carpet as wallpaper on the ship.

Brilliant comics characters, and scientist characters more generally, often work alone, are somehow experts in everything, and depend on superhuman genius alone to propel them. Bobbi gets things done by applying her smarts with real, hard work. While she may be the best on her team, she’s got a team (of spies rather than research assistants, but still). How refreshing is that! I am delighted on behalf of my profession, and delighted that I have another great fictional scientist to recommend.

Alas, these two volumes are all we get. The economics of comic books are arcane, fickle, and to my outsider eye, very fussy about how consumers can read comics in ways that count. When I read comics, it’s always as collected editions binding 4-8 issues into a paperback pseudo-graphic novel called a trade, but unfortunately these don’t count as real sales in comics land and thus don’t help keep a comic from being canceled. Mockingbird lasted just 9 issues, all collected here, and the second volume was even padded out with some issues from another series. (Ignore those, they weren’t as good.) Fortunately, while we were robbed of a truly wonderful iteration of the character here, at least they were able to wrap up the story and it doesn’t end on a murder mystery cliffhanger.

Story genre: character study, specfic, commentary, mystery (Agenda only). Setting genre: superhero. Format: comics collected as a graphic novel. Reason I read: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

I truly don’t understand why this book was so popular and lauded. Two college students get tangled up with a glitzy 30-something couple of creative types, affairs are had, the participants in the affairs feel guilty but not so guilty they stop, and there is much ennui. Frances, the narrator, is passive to the point of becoming a prop in her own affair with Nick, while Bobbi serves mostly to moon over Nick’s wife Melissa and to be cooler than Frances. The plot lurches between vaguely-sketched homes and bars, never lingering on any event long enough to let the characters really process their feelings. I must admit, I have doubts as to whether any of them would be capable of such processing, if they were even inclined to try at all. Nobody seems to know what they want from said affairs, any of their other relationships, or their inexplicably successful creative professions. Since I didn’t like any of the four principal characters, I couldn’t really care if they didn’t get what they weren’t sure they wanted. If I never have to read another novel about how profound affairs are, I will die happy.

At least most of the rest of book club agreed with me. So, vindication, I guess.

Story genre: relationship, character study. Setting genre: pretentious realism. Reason I read: book club. Format: novel. Rating: 1/3, bleh

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