Books, March 2020

I have to be honest that I really struggled to find writing inspiration to be here this month. I would say that this is a great time to hunker down and read, but really, it’s just a great time to hunker down and do whatever entertains you from the safety of your couch. If it does happen to be a book you’re looking for, I got you covered.

Book of the month: The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, RF Kuang *

Rin is a shopgirl in a poor town in the poorest province of Nikara, determined to escape her abusive foster home and the prospect of an arranged marriage by taking the national university entrance exam. Her province rarely sends students to university at all – and she scores a spot at the most prestigious academy of them all, the school for future military leaders. MANY SPOILERS FROM HERE. Lest you think this is going to be a fantasy school adventure – we follow her at school just long enough for her to learn how to channel the gods (yep), and also to establish her best friends among her classmates. (Most importantly: Kitay is a total nerd, more suited in personality for research than battle, but is consistently the single most ride-or-die character I have encountered in a long time. I love him SO MUCH.)

By the end of the first book, not only have we long since left school, Rin has been trapped by and then escaped a months-long siege and then run all over the continent as part of a nominally-elite, actually-ragtag group of shamans (those who can channel gods) before discovering her true identity. By the end of the second, an entire additional war has been fought from declaration to conclusion. This is not a fantasy school novel. This is about the horrors of war, and Kuang doesn’t let you look away for one moment as characters suffer events like walling themselves into a basement full of dead bodies to avoid patrols searching for survivors to kill. Even when the generals in the story forget, the reader is constantly reminded that war is messy, unimaginably violent, and every little tactical choice is bought with lives. And that’s all even before we get to the poppy part of Poppy War – all the violence and strife is laced with rampant opium addiction and all that implies.

Kuang spends the first half of Poppy building up what Rin (and we) think about how summoning and channeling the gods works, and then spends the second half tearing down all the mechanics, and more interestingly, the ethics of the practice. By the end of Dragon, we’ve heard in detail from four different cultural-religious groups on how they think the gods work, and why channeling them is good or not. That kind of comparative philosophy just doesn’t get page time all that often outside of, you know, philosophy. (Or The Good Place.) Similarly, Kuang spends all of Poppy building up our Nikan-oriented view of international relations and cultures before undercutting all that too – Nikan is among the poorest named countries in the story and has subject to outside economic oppression and ethno-religious bigotry that its leaders haven’t really grappled with, and have continued the cycle of abuse on their own minority region, Speer.

Book three, The Burning God, comes out later this year and I CANNOT WAIT. This is a book to wait in line at the bookstore for on the day it comes out.

Story genre: specfic, allegory, adventure, mystery. Story setting: fantasy. Traditional genre: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

Book of the month runner-up: Speak Easy, Speak Love, McKelle George

I recognize that for most people, with this line-up of (so, so many) great books to choose from this month, this would not be the runner-up. But retellings of Shakespeare are my catnip, Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite of the comedy catnip options, speakeasy settings are also my catnip, and changing problematic story elements in a retelling are super duper my catnip. So much like a cat, I am really high on something that under most circumstances is totally mundane and am yowling about it to anyone who will listen. It honestly would have been enough for me to love this when it transposed the story to a rundown speakeasy and cast the main characters as:

  • The struggling proprietors (Leonato and Hero)
  • A wannabe writer who hasn’t realized what his privilege really means yet (Benedick) and his classmate with his privilege blinders really on (Claudio, now Claude)
  • A wannabe doctor who knows exactly what her lack of privilege prevents (Beatrice)
  • A cousin who showed up a while ago and never left (Prince Pedro, now just Prince) and his jerkass rum-runner brother (John)
  • In a surprise elevation to the main cast, a singer at the bar with bigger dreams (Margaret, Hero’s maid and originally just a plot device)
  • Lest we forget the minor characters – Dogberry and company become real-life prohibition agents and get a shocking upgrade in competence

The story is charming and sweet, and George knows that the story’s strength is with Beatrice and Benedick and leans on them to a delightful extent. But both the characters and narrative both don’t ignore the dark undercurrent of violence and poverty that threatens the Hey Nonny Nonny speakeasy/hotel and its inhabitants, especially the women. Unfortunately, while Much Ado has some proto-feminist elements in Beatrice’s outspokenness, Billy Shakes does Hero dirty with Claudio’s shaming of her and then making her take him back. George redeems the ending by kicking Claudio to the curb after he undercuts Hero and letting Prince, whose original “wooing on Claudio’s behalf” has been upgraded to an outright crush and a consistently good treatment of her, actually earn her affection. I previously raved about Vinegar Girl’s reinterpretation of period-accurate sexism in a more modern light that both doesn’t gloss over today’s sexism (which takes different forms than it did 400+ years ago) and changes the story to return agency to women characters. Speak Easy has pulled off the same update to give Hero the happy ending she deserves just as much as true equals Beatrice and Benedick have always gotten.

Story genre: ensemble. Story setting: historical realism. Traditional genre: romance. Format: novel. Reason I read it: read a review and then how could I not. Rating: 3/3

Book of the month runner-up #2: The Lost Man, Jane Harper *

You’ve heard of a locked room mystery – now with an utter lack of rooms in one of the biggest deserts on the planet. Two brothers are alerted to the mysterious death of their third brother of dehydration and exposure in the middle of the isolated Australian outback, from from home, car, or help. All three are experienced ranchers who know better than to wander off from the shelter and intense supply caches in cars and homes. (No word on how the livestock manage to make it work.) While the first question is obviously the presumptive murder, his death pulls the rug out from under decades of built-up facades, barely-concealed mental health problems (especially of protagonist Nathan), and denial of the crushing outback isolation. The investigation itself fades into the background at times as old history and everyday survival come forward, which is not at all to the detriment of the story – it serves to place it in context. Ultimately the death is solved and it’s a fascinating, psychological resolution.

I finished this just before we all went into isolation. I imagine if I read this today, I might find the isolation challenging to handle because its effects are painted so vividly.

I hesitate as usual to reveal too much about a mystery novel for obvious reasons, but I must say that this was refreshingly forward-looking about the prospect of coming back from social isolation and crumbling mental health. The mental health effects of isolation are not news, but many people are experiencing it for the first time or much more severely than usual. Call your friends and family, right now. I’m serious. This post is posted and isn’t going anywhere, I’ll still be here after you get off the phone.

Story genre: character study, mystery. Setting genre: realism. Traditional genre: mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 3/3

Bonfire, Krysten Ritter

The themes of collapsing denial mechanisms and unearthed scandal are actually quite similar to Lost Man, but I think that pulled off the psychological insights better. SPOILERS FOR BOTH BOOKS FOLLOW. Same: we’ve still got an unearthed scandal and crushing rural isolation (small-town Indiana instead of the outback, but related vibes). Different: this time, we’ve got a mysterious, cold case disappearance (it was actually murder) and a first person narrator. However, while Lost Man‘s protagonist by the end had recognized that he really needed to address his isolation and denial with better habits and therapy, Bonfire‘s Abby refuses to let go of the past and continually makes self-destructive decisions. It drove me bananas that she seems so aware that her choices are bad and then makes them anyway, and my theory is that it’s because she’s a first-person narrator, so when the narrative signals that this is a bad idea, it sounds like she knows it and it doing it anyway. But despite the fact that I found her behavior extremely frustrating, the mystery itself is engaging and surprising. As long as you don’t mind occasionally banging your head against the wall because you’re stuck in your house with this ridiculous protagonist, the unfolding mystery itself is great.

Story genre: mystery, commentary, character study. Setting genre: realism. Traditional genre: mystery/thriller. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 2/3

The City We Became, NK Jemisin *

I really can’t figure out how to talk about this without SPOILERS for a bunch of stuff. Seriously. Read no further to avoid spoilers, starting with the fact that the central conceit here is cities are “born” into avatars of people who live there when they achieve sufficient cultural identity, and New York City became six avatars: the five boroughs + the whole of NYC. They are then promptly attacked by a mysterious entity harnessing the latent racism, intolerance, and small-mindness of citizens to undermine the newborn city’s growth. (It’s not a subtle book, thematically.) I read some reviews (this was a new release) that thought the magic system was underexplained, but I think the explanations are just yet to come. In the Broken Earth and Dreamblood (pre my reviewing) books, the rules of magic come out over time, and we get most everything explained at the end – but only at the end. We start moving that way with the late-game reveal of the mysterious entity’s identity as R’yleh (surprise! This this in fact fanfiction that is also a smackdown of racist, sexist, super-gross HP Lovecraft) and the Bronx, Paulo, and Hong’s miscellaneous infodumps.

Most of all, this was a love letter to New York, where Jemisin lives and clearly adores, which was even more evident during the livestreamed author talk I tuned in for (I was originally going to go to her book tour). She made me really want to go to New York City, where I (noted theater nerd) have never been. Unfortunately, of all the places that I can’t go right now, that’s right up there.

The marketing for this book did not at all make it clear to me that this was book one of a trilogy, which slowly became clear to me well into it that this wasn’t wrapping up in the allotment of pages I had left. This was especially relieving to me as the ending kind of leaves Staten Island out to dry. While I understand the characters’ upset and anger towards her, it seemed to undercut the central ideas that cities are whole entities and that people should be capable of improvement. But now I have two whole more books to look forward to! Apparently Coney Island will feature at some point, which should be a hoot.

Story genre: high concept, specfic, commentary, quest, ensemble, allegory. Story setting: fantasy/weird. Traditional genre: fantasy. Format: novel. Reason I read it: what did we do to deserve NK Jemisin? Rating: 3/3

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet vol 1 and 2, Ta-Nehisi Coates (words), Brian Stelfreeze (art)

Instead of reading the stack of books I have in the house that is literally taller than I am, like a reasonable person, I decided now would be a good time to finally try Hoopla, the library’s emedia app for comics, TV/movies, and music. Turns out the comic/graphic novel app experience is not especially good on a phone, alas – zooming in is clumsy and you can’t turn pages while zoomed and arrive at the next page equally zoomed in – so I wasn’t really appreciating the art the way I was meant to. That’s a shame, because while Coates’s excellent writing gets most of the attention for this series, Stelfreeze’s art is gorgeous.

Unfortunately, while the dialogue and characters were wonderfully developed (better than Water Dancer!) I was a little lost plot/setting-wise. Most of the other collected comics editions I’ve read that are very stand-alone, but this run of Black Panther is dependent on already knowing the characters’ identities and the setting, and it’s a political thriller, so not only do you have to keep up with the superhero parts, you also have to understand the geopolitics of Wakanda. I’ve only seen the movie, so my knowledge is patchy at best and from the wrong timeline at worst. Comics timelines are famously convoluted, which is part of what keeps casual readers like me from getting more into the format (along with a bizarre, dated subscription model and a reputation for toxic behavior, among other factors). I spent a good 20 minutes searching for what comics series this follows (timeline wise, not necessarily publication order) and what followed it and Coates’s two sequel series. I still have no idea where to even find that information, let alone what the answer was. I am given to understand that this series and its sequels gets their feet under them as they go along, partly because Coates has a chance to build up his own backstory internally. I was already noticing it this early on, so I’ll stick with it. (I am still stuck with reading on the phone screen though.)

Story genre: high concept, specfic, quest. Setting genre: fantasy/comics. Traditional genre: comics. Format: collected comics. Reason I read it: follow the author. Rating: 2/3

The Piano Lesson, August Wilson *

I was very sorry that I didn’t get to go see Jitney at Seattle Rep (shakes fist in general direction of COVID-19, which is to say, every direction, stay home everyone), so I decided to read this to make myself feel better, and then I remembered I also had a copy of Jitney so I’m going to read that too. If you haven’t encountered his Century Cycle before, Wilson wrote one play for each decade of the 20th century, focusing on different aspects of the black experience, all but one set in Pittsburgh (and the one that isn’t has characters from Pittsburgh in Chicago). This one was the 30s. This isn’t one of my favorites of Wilson’s century plays – those would be Fences and Two Trains Running – but it’s a solid family drama with a memorable, intensely personal battle over the fate of an heirloom carved piano that never gets played.

Story genre: ensemble, commentary. Setting genre: realism. Traditional genre: drama. Format: play. Reason I read it: sad I didn’t get to see Jitney. Rating: 2/3

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Katherine Harkup

This was the first book I finished in March and honestly it feels like I was living on a different planet then, and in some ways I was. I picked this up years ago when I gave a version of my science of Frankenstein talk for an event organized by the UW literature department, and then finally got around to reading it when giving another version of the same talk at the end of February. Only six weeks ago was I not only willing to be within six feet of other people, I specifically was hoping there would be a bunch of people within six feet of each other just to see me! Now I’m Frankenstein’s creature in his “lurking in the woodshed hiding from civilization” phase. Anyway, this was fun, but isn’t actually about the science of Frankenstein (hence why I didn’t bother rushing to finish it before my talk). It’s actually about Mary Shelley’s life and the writing/publication process of Frankenstein, which was interesting, but the science was pretty incidental and too focused on galvanism/electricity over bioengineering. I wish that anatomy and physiology, medicine, and the culture of science was more included, but not at the cost of scaling back the literary history. I just wish it was a longer book!

Also, I don’t think you’d get much out of this if you haven’t read Frankenstein, but on the other hand, why would you want to read this if you hadn’t?

Subject: history, literature. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: giving a related talk. Rating: 2/3

The Overstory, Richard Powers

“Save the trees” environmentalism was never actually very effective tactically or strategically, and that’s even before we get into its pretty limp public image. While this book is mostly set in the 90s, when save the trees would have been period-appropriate activism, it doesn’t make the case for why saving the trees is inadequate, or what are better alternative focuses for activism, or really, anything at all. This was clearly a book with an agenda, but it utterly failed at making its case to me on merit of both substance and style. Why should I sit through 400 sanctimonious pages on unlikable, unsuccessful activists before it tears down all their efforts in a brief jump to the future and personal flameouts of the characters at the end? Other than that I want to participate in Zoom book club (zook club?) next week, I don’t know. I don’t know what new insights into environmental action Powers wanted me to have or actions he wanted me to take. Heck, this two-year-old book – not the 90s characters, before strong public awareness (but not scientific awareness) of climate change – only managed to acknowledge in the abrupt about-face of the last 100 pages what would have then been called global warming and the fundamental futility of saving individual trees if the changing climate’s just going to kill them. It’s a good thing I already have a good grasp on environmental science and activism, because this didn’t persuade me of anything or inspire me at all. It’s only the last section that convinced me to not give this a 0 rating, because it did at least acknowledge that the characters were bad environmentalists, even if it didn’t really articulate what effective environmentalists do differently.

Story genre: commentary, character study. Story setting: realism. Traditional genre: literary fiction. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 1/3. Someday we will see the fabled 0/3…

* best for readers teen and up