Books, June 2020 and halfway through the year

The first half of 2020 has lasted six months and also FIVE MILLION YEARS.

In that five million years since January, for the first time since 2015 (the era of me keeping track of the books I read) I am on track to – dare I jinx it – crack 100 books in a year. For some reason I cannot explain, my subconscious logic is “natural disaster -> power’s out -> can’t watch TV -> read a book,” so despite the fact that power is very clearly not out my brain is hollering NO TV. ONLY BOOK. Anyway:

Books: 57
Average book length: 301 pages
Average publication date: 2002
Books by people of color: 54%
Average rating: 2.56
Favorite book to date: ha, like I could pick

Book of the month: Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

100% SPOILERS HEREAFTER. Fantasy readers, just trust me and go read this – you’ll like it, I promise.

A trope I really struggle with emotionally is when a character’s story ends with their memories being wiped, they lose all memory of the adventure we’ve just accompanied them on, and they return to an earlier form of their personality without the growth they experienced on the journey. (For a particularly well-known and heartbreaking example, Donna Noble. It’s been 12 years and I’m still not over that.) So with that spoiler: we meet Hun-Kame, a Mayan god of the dead, and Casiopea, who accidentally released him from the trunk where he’d been imprisoned by her grandfather and Hun-Kame’s brother, and whose act of doing so accidentally binds the two of them magically. Casiopea has long dreamed of escaping her abusive grandfather and cousin in their small town, so she readily agrees to travel throughout Jazz-age Mexico to gather MacGuffins, pieces of Hun-Kame’s body that will restore his godhood when he has them all. Along the way, the bond that was established when Casiopea released Hun-Kame drains her life force and causes him to become more human – gaining emotions in a way that gods don’t have them and, most importantly, slowly gaining the ability to actually care about a human as more than a pawn in gods’ games. By the time he wins back the throne, he’s nearly human, capable of loving Casiopea in a way that gods usually can’t, just in time for all his emotions and the memories of their journeys to be wiped away by his returned divinity (with just a tiny spark remaining, and its influence is unclear and limited by the knowledge he’ll never have a brush with being human again). Memories make people (fictional or real) who they are, so it’s always frustrating and heart-wrenching to have that growth snatched away, especially when it’s clear the character has no chance of having their memories and growth restored. But what saves this story for me is that while that fate feels tragic for Hun-Kame… it was really about Casiopea all along. From her origin of having no opportunities and only vague dreams of seeing the world, she ends the book with all her memories, a chance to explore the world, and Hun-Kame’s parting gift of speaking all languages.

Meanwhile, on the flip side of the human-god relationship coin, we also see the nasty antics of Hun-Kame’s brother Vucub-Kame, who stole the throne of the dead and imprisoned Hun-Kame in the first place, his various minions with Hun-Kame’s body parts, and Martín, Casiopea’s mean cousin. It’s tempting for an author to rush into a speedy redemption arc, especially for a character who’s pretty clearly only mean because they were never taught to be nice. So I appreciated that Martín only just begins his journey to being a decent person and has a long way to go – undoing all one’s assumptions and bad habits takes time in the real world, so it should take time for fictional characters too. (See also: Zuko, king of the redemption arc.)

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting genre: mythology. Story genre: quest, specfic, relationship, high concept. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 3/3. Bingo square: mythology or folktale.

Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi

I was given a heads up before starting Riot Baby that it was intense, and that would be true even if I weren’t reading it in this particular moment in history. (It came out last year – it’s not prescient, the issues have always been there and are just finally receiving more attention.) Onyebuchi packs in a huge breadth of injustices faced by Black siblings Kev and Ella – the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately aggressive policing towards people of color, climate change and climate justice, cycles of violence, and more. Ella has some kind of magical gift – starting with seeing visions of the future (including Kev’s arrest and sentence), and later developing teleportation, a sort of astral projection, invisibility (or rather unnoticability), explosions, and more. Already fighting an uphill battle for resources and support, Kev is sucked into street violence and later lands in jail, while Ella’s gift drives her to isolation and a drive to fix the system from the outside. They always have each other, but little else goes smoothly. (Because of Ella’s ability to project herself into Kev’s cell undetected, they literally always can be together at least a little.) While the ending is far from hopeful, Ella, Kev, and Onyebuchi all believe the fight is still worth fighting, and so do I.

Most novellas concentrate on a single idea simply due to space constraints – Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series is a great example because each books so clearly focuses on a different character and idea, with others visibly receding to give that one focus. Though Onyebuchi packs in a whole cascade of related but distinct injustices that Ella and Kev face, the story doesn’t feel overstuffed, but rather that it captures the neverending grind on so many different fronts every day that even Ella’s literal magic can’t fix.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting genre: fantasy or magical realism. Story genre: commentary, specfic. Format: novella. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 3/3.

The Boyfriend Project, Farrah Rochon

Sometimes you read a book with a perfect title. Sometimes you read a book that clearly has a perfect title that emerges over the course of reading it… and it’s not the title of the book. Rochon starts us off with a bait-and-switch – heroine Samiah discovers she’s been three-timed by the guy she was seeing, and his three dates all dump him and become instant friends themselves. And it’s 2020, so the dramatic confrontation is captured on video and posted and goes viral. Looks like it’s going to turn into the three of them working on finding better dates together? WRONG! If it was, and it would have been a good premise too, that book would have been reasonably titled The Boyfriend Project.

But in this book, Samiah and her new besties make a pact to work on their passion projects and take time for themselves before jumping back in – in her case, an app called Just Friends to help people make new friends and facilitate fun outings. (I’d download it! If it weren’t literally illegal to meet new people or go places right now.) Meanwhile, she also works at a tech company that, unbeknownst to her, is being undercover investigated by the cute new guy Daniel for money laundering (she’s innocent!). She’s determined to concentrate on balancing finally making her app with her day job, and he’s on the cusp of a major promotion if he nails this case. So of course, they form an instant connection, but are justly wary of compromising their professionalism and goals – and for him, his cover. So you see why I wanted the book to be called Just Friends! It would have brought in her passion project app and the nature of their dynamic. But I only complain about this because the real title didn’t grab me – my friend who loaned it to me literally had to stuff it in my bag to get me to take it – and the book itself did. I inhaled it in about three sittings and you will too.

Traditional genre: romance. Setting genre: realism. Story genre: relationship, commentary, mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 3/3

A Song Below Water, Bethany C Morrow

A local read! Portland teens Tavia and Effie, already best friends and now Tavia is staying with Effie’s family, struggle with facing prejudice and untangling their families’ magical histories. Tavia is a siren, which gives her the power to compel with her voice. (Unlike the sirens of mythology, she’s only a perfectly ordinary swimmer.) Fear of the power of their voices leads to widespread discrimination and violence towards sirens – the murder of a siren and the use of a “siren panic” defense form a significant piece of the backdrop – such that Tavia has worked hard to keep her power under wraps. Meanwhile Effie is struggling to figure out what even is her situation – she’s dealing with a wide variety of odd physical symptoms, and as a young child inadvertently turned a group of playmates into stone statues. In the interest of not spoiling the end (and no, there is no consistent logic for when I decide to spoil things or not, thanks for asking): Tavia grapples with whether to come out as a siren, Effie finally learns more about who and what she really is, and some supporting characters have surprising roles to play. Prejudice against magical creatures in this world is a deliberate parallel to homophobic or racist discrimination – for example, Tavia is navigating her coming out process. Morrow skillfully layers this on top of the real-world racism that Tavia and Effie also face as Black teens in an overwhelmingly white city, like getting pulled over for no reason.

I think this was probably classified as YA, but even if not, it would be a great recommendation for a teen (and adults too!) looking for a novel that accessibly touches on issues of discrimination and discovering your identity. Morrow thoughtfully balances Tavia and Effie’s joy in discovering and embracing their identities with their confusion and fear, and she celebrates their victories and challenges the prejudice they face.

Traditional genre: fantasy or YA fantasy. Setting genre: fantasy or magical realism. Story genre: specfic, relationship, allegory. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended, plus local setting. Rating: 3/3

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

I saw The Color Purple musical on tour around 2007ish, and being the theater nerd I am, I’ve had the source material floating around on the to-read list ever since. There have been more than a few other plays and musicals where I have both read the source book and seen the show, but it’s usually been in fairly close succession. Consequently, my experience as a reader and as a viewer has been much more comparable – I’m approaching the two pieces at the same stage of life, and the historical context I’m reading/viewing them in is similar. Not so for Purple.

As a teen seeing the show, I didn’t have as strong an understanding of the historical context of its setting (with regard to sharecropping, queer history, religious missions, and more), and I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the concepts and language of theater analysis as I am now. My understanding of the show then wasn’t wrong, just more limited. As a reader now, I have a much stronger (but always still growing!) understanding of history. While I knew as a teen that the fight for equality didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I understand much better – but again still always with room to learn more – what’s left to be done and how to support the effort. The good news is that Purple was already revived on Broadway only ten years after the original production and it’s been on tour three times, so my chances are good of getting to see it with the eyes of an adult in the 2020s. I’m looking forward to seeing it again someday. Also, I want to acknowledge that Alice Walker has faced backlash for some problematic statements, but the book remains a powerful and influential piece of Black literature.

Traditional genre: historical fiction or literary fiction. Setting genre: historical realism. Story genre: commentary, character study. Format: novel. Reason I read it: because of the musical. Rating: 3/3

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, Paul Krueger

Having myself written a murder mystery dinner party set in a speakeasy and where different liquors give people different magical powers: I really wanted to like this novel where bartenders defend Chicago against roaming ghoulies by mixing cocktails that give them different magical powers. But I was a little underwhelmed by the actual execution of the premise, and especially how, if you’ll pardon the cocktail pun, muddled the many plot-critical backstories were. The characters and the story itself got hung up on chasing the McGuffin of mixing a Long Island iced tea – the only cocktail that can imbue multiple powers at once – so much that character development was practically abandoned. I normally gravitate quite strongly towards books that focus on character and plot over setting, but even I felt a surprising lack of place, especially considering the importance of territory to the bartenders and the creatures they charged up with cocktails to go hunt. Also, they killed the dog. You just don’t kill the dog!! But the action scenes were fun, and the story was scattered with lots of fun little touches, like different coffee drinks having healing powers. I wanted to like this more than I did, but it was still a fun, quick read. (Though the packed bar scenes gave me social distance jitters!)

Traditional genre: fantasy. Story setting: fantasy. Story genre: thriller, specfic, high concept. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended, plus in contrast to my own work. Rating: 2/3

Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert

Chloe Brown has relatively recently developed fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, but she’s determined to, as she puts it, get a life. So she makes a list of things she will do that will give her the sense of reclaiming the adventurousness and spontaneity that’s constantly frustrated by her chronic conditions, and sets about checking them off. (I’m all about a good checklist.) Hibbert successfully threads the needle of respecting and cheering on Chloe’s determination to achieve her goals, but not making her or her story disingenuously inspirational, pretending if she just works hard enough her diseases will go away, or just plain inspiration porn. She’s got The List, a job, and cardigans with fake buttons so she can keep her style even when she struggles with dexterity, but sometimes she also falls asleep on the couch for days at a time. Both things can be true.

Meanwhile, her love interest Red is an artist struggling with undiagnosed but apparent depression as a result of a past abusive relationship, which has led to a downward spiral as he then struggles to paint, which exacerbates his depression further. While I found both Chloe and Red to be compelling characters individually, their chemistry never quite gelled for me, despite the fact that I was really rooting for them as a couple. This was perhaps a result of the extremely slow pacing of the story, which didn’t seem to be a deliberate device to communicate Chloe’s experience of slow-paced, careful life with chronic illness, but just a general slow pace. Hibbert really takes her time sharing Chloe and Red’s experiences as members of marginalized groups – a disabled woman of color, and a man struggling with mental illness and a past abusive relationship. Just be prepared going in, which I wasn’t, that the story will move slowly.

Traditional genre: romance. Story setting: realism. Story genre: relationship, issue. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 2/3

There There, Tommy Orange

Orange’s debut novel tracks the intertwining stories of about a dozen Native Americans in or traveling to Oakland for a big intertribal powwow. It’s quickly apparent that trouble is looming: specifically, that one faction of the characters is planning to steal the prize money for the dance competition, and has backed up their plan with 3D-printed guns. Because it’s so quickly obvious that the story will end with the powwow and robbery – this is not a problem, it’s just that the story is a tragedy, and part of tragedy is the inevitability of a sad end – then it becomes primarily about getting to know the characters on their journeys to the powwow and wondering exactly how the end will unfold. Unfortunately, there were twelve viewpoint characters, and the book was only about 280 pages, so we only spent an average of 25ish pages on each person’s point of view. While most of the viewpoint characters also appeared in others’ chapters to various extents, I never felt especially attached to anyone in particular because I was constantly being whisked off to the next character’s story. Many stories with large casts also link characters into a few larger groups that are easier to keep track of than all the individuals, but while there were some obvious groupings (the group robbing the powwow, Jacqui and Opal’s family, and the staff of the powwow), the structure of the story didn’t take advantage of this to help the reader keep track of everyone. Unfortunately, because the time we had with each character was far too brief for me to really get attached, their injuries and deaths at the final shootout didn’t have the same visceral impact as I think it was meant to – I was upset by the violence and deaths, but because of the injustice, not my personal attachments. I had a few favorite characters I wanted to learn more about (especially Orvil and Blue), a strong feeling of the fracturing of the urban Native community and resulting frustrations, and a detailed and sensory sense of place as the characters moved through the same spaces over and over. (Plus I recently visited Oakland for the first time.) But I wish the story had taken more time so we’d really get to know everyone, or trimmed back the number of viewpoint characters so we got to know a smaller number better.

Traditional genre: literary fiction. Story setting: realism. Story genre: character study, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 2/3

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