Books, July 2020

I use a somewhat idiosyncratic system for sorting the genres of the books that I read, which also has shifted over time. I am also currently working on going back through old posts to fix those inconsistencies, starting from the beginning. (Early 2016 me is so much less cynical and less verbose than mid-2020 me.)

The three categories I presently use, and intend to stick with for a while yet, are:

Traditional genre: where would this book be found in a bookstore with typical organizational systems? Common categories for me: fantasy, scifi, romance, mystery, literary fiction, children’s, drama, nonfiction by subject (e.g. history, nature). Other categories I don’t read often include: horror, western, poetry, memoir, travel, business. Nonfiction only gets a traditional genre, which I label as subject matter.

Story genre: this comes from Writing Excuses’s table of elements. Basically, the idea here is to break down the story by its structure and focus. Traditional genres are a weird mix of setting (scifi, fantasy, historical fiction), story (mystery, romance), audience (YA, women’s fiction*), and literary fiction aka “genre fiction is for ~mass market~ writers, we write real literature” (whose writers/fans often lump everything else together as “genre fiction”).

Setting genre: after story genre, the other half of describing a book is the setting. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, I think. Examples include realism, historical realism, fantasy, magical realism, scifi, horror (rare reads for me, but definitely distinct from fantasy), alternate history.

I also sometimes just make up descriptors as the whim strikes me (or out of desperation, trying to come up with something that works) to best capture a book’s essence, so sometimes there are one-time or rare descriptors.

* Ever notice how there’s no “men’s fiction”? That’s because it’s just called fiction and women are deemed the “other” category.

Book of the month: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, Kate Racculia

Periodically the discussion prompt will come to my attention: what book/movie/tv show/video game/play/whatever do you wish you could experience again for the first time? If you wish you could read The Westing Game for the first time again, Tuesday Mooney is the book for you. (And if you have not read Westing, go forth IMMEDIATELY to read that too.) I could briefly tell you that Tuesday Mooney is basically “grown-up Wednesday Addams in The Westing Game plus Knives Out,” which if you want a comp title log jam, you could do worse than those three delightful works. But while that description is accurate and hopefully as alluring to you as it would be to me, people don’t remember the character-development-driven elements of either Westing or Knives – their reputations are much more heavily about the mysteries. I suspect Tuesday Mooney will wind up with the same focused reputation, which is a shame – not because the game isn’t great fun, but because it ignores the psychological journeys that transform it from just a game to a proper story.

Because Vincent Pryce’s (yes, really) game takes the entire story to resolve, and because the character development is tied quite closely to reveals in the game, and because the unfolding game and associated mysteries are the main point of the book, this will be a SPOILER FREE ZONE. Enjoy it fresh, do not read reviews with spoilers before starting! What I will say in this spoiler free zone is: the game is fun and attention-grabbing, but you’ll stay for the delightful, three-dimensional characters and their journey (true of Westing too). Of particular note in the character growth department are Tuesday, Archie, and Dex, but Dorry, Rabbit (Bert), and Lyle are also charming, and a certain other character is intriguing as a contrast to Archie. (And that is all I will say on THAT particular topic!) While now I wish I could read Tuesday Mooney again for the first time, I will definitely find time to reread it (eventually, once the book stack is more under control again) so I can focus more on the characters than the puzzle this time. I wish such games existed in real life.

Traditional genre: mystery, character study, adventure. Story genre: mystery/”mystery box” (meaning a puzzle driven mystery, as opposed to a whodunnit). Setting: realism… mostly. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 3/3

Mouse Guard, Fall 1152, David Petersen

An adorable mouse civilization consists of walled cities (because mice are still prey….), with the travelers and roads between them defended by the small but fierce Mouse Guard. When a traitor threatens the Mouse Guard’s home base (teeny tiny) fortress and their role as protectors, our heroes must uncover the plot, warn the fort, and fight for the Mouse Guard’s and mouse society’s survival. The guardsmice jump into action and put themselves in danger unhesitatingly to protect the townsmice and each other. They seem to function the way I’d like a guardian profession to function – protect everyone without preferences or prejudices, work smartly, do as little harm as possible. Also, respect and fear crabs. (They’ve got a lot of legs, ok?!) Being a good role model for public servants is a lot to ask of these little mice, but they succeed with utmost charm, and the art is gorgeous. There are two other volumes, but I’m waiting to get them from the library when I can do that again.

Traditional genre: graphic or fantasy. Story genre: adventure, specfic. Setting: fantasy. Format: graphic. Reason I read it: gift. Rating: 3/3

Party of Two, Jasmine Guillory

I already found the previous installments in Guillory’s unnamed romance series charming, but this was one of the stronger ones. OG protagonist Alexa’s sister Olivia takes the starring role this time, alongside a charming stranger she meets in a hotel bar… who turns out to be a rising star senator she didn’t recognize. The principal friction in their ultimately getting together comes from Olivia’s extremely justified concern for the loss of privacy and control over her life that comes with being in the orbit of a senator, in opposition to Max’s tendency to say whatever pops out of his brain and figure it out (or have his staff figure it out, often) later. Not only does Olivia not cave on any of her needs for privacy and not having Max commit to things for her without asking, but we actually see his growth process before he earns her trust back – he has to actively practice filtering his brain before he speaks and sometimes fails to. How refreshing! I can’t stand when a character is rightly chastised for a bad behavior or habit and then suddenly completely reforms with no effort or adjustment period. (Jane Austen’s Emma and Darcy are particularly good other examples that come to mind of characters for whom we get to really witness their growth and failures along the way.) I also appreciated that Max’s desperate and misguided attempts to win Olivia’s forgiveness by constantly sending her cake weren’t treated as romantic (as they might be in another book or movie), but rather as intrusive and demonstrating how much he still had to process and grow. I can’t imagine there won’t be another book, so of course I will be waiting by the library hold list.

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

Holes, Louis Sachar

I have fond childhood memories of both the Holes book and movie (Dulé Hill’s “I can fix that” = 😭😭😭), and I remembered the plot reasonably well, but the intensity of my memories had faded quite a bit with time. It turns out the intensity baseline was quite high – Holes is fast and brutal right up to the last chapters. Sachar pulls no punches – not about the shambles of a juvenile justice system that Stanley gets sucked into, not about the racism faced by Sam and Kate, and not about, to my surprise, the environment. (Writing in the 90s, I suspect he didn’t intend the hundred year drought leading to the “there is no lake at Camp Green Lake” situation to reflect how climate change disproportionately affects people who are already disadvantaged and marginalized, but it is!) It’s definitely a book for kids, and an adult reader can blast through the whole thing in about as long as it takes to watch the movie, but that doesn’t make it any less worth reading. Plus, readers with kids, get your kid to read it!

Reading Holes at the age of ten or so, I remember feeling sorry for Stanley and Zero and the other boys because of the injustice that had gotten them sent to a place as abusive as that. But returning to the story as an adult – especially at this moment in history – feeling sorry has been replaced with feeling angry for them, because it’s been over twenty years since Holes came out and things haven’t changed. Would you think it implausible if news came out that people in ICE camps were being forced to dig holes to “build character”? Because I wouldn’t doubt it for a moment.

Traditional genre: children’s. Story genre: commentary, quest, ensemble. Setting: realism… mostly. Format: novel. Reason I read it: reread, topical right now. Bingo: on your shelf. Rating: 3/3 held up

Green Grow the Lilacs, Lynn Riggs

Despite the aggressive “RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S Oklahoma” branding of recent productions, our titans of musical theater did not actually create the concept of Oklahoma. (The musical, I mean. Not the state.) The wildly famous classic musical is actually based very closely on Green Grow the Lilacs, a now-obscure play with music that had premiered about ten years before Oklahoma, which was written by a gay Cherokee man who was actually from Oklahoma, and which I had never even heard of but immediately decided to track down once I learned of its existence. In another great example of how long it often takes me to go from deciding to read a book to actually reading it, I saw Oklahoma about two years ago, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outstanding dramaturgs had highlighted Riggs in their articles about the show, particularly connecting his identity to their LGBT+-focused production. Thanks, dramaturgs! It’s always a pleasant surprise to find out that not only was there backstory I didn’t know about, but that that backstory involves resurfacing marginalized and forgotten historical figures.

Oklahoma follows the plot of Lilacs fairly closely overall, but does some trimming to the slow-moving dialogue, expands the roles of Ado Annie and Will Parker, and replaces all the farm-style songs in Lilacs with new Broadway-style ones. Overall, Oklahoma is a much cheerier show. Laurey and Ado Annie get some depth added to their characters, Curly has some edges sanded off, we get the whole dream ballet thing and I’m a sucker for extended dance sequences, and we end with the earworm title song celebrating the new state of Oklahoma. Notably, it also cuts back the time spent with Jud, the creepy farmhand who stalks and sexually assaults Laurey – Riggs spends much more time on the psychology of an abuser and how he can justify his violent possessiveness, while Rodgers and Hammerstein keep the very real threat he poses but don’t really explore why he does what he does. Unfortunately for us readers, Lilacs is written with a phonetic rural Oklahoma accent, so it’s difficult reading. Some plays make better reading than others but all plays are always better performed, and this is one that I imagine would be especially better on stage.

Traditional genre: drama. Story genre: commentary. Setting: realism/historical. Format: play. Reason I read it: saw play (well, Oklahoma). Rating: 2/3, but it would likely be a 3 performed

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, Alexander McCall Smith

I learned while reading this that before he was a full time writer, McCall Smith was a professor of medical ethics at the University of Edinburgh. This explains why Isabel Dalhousie, the lead character of the series that this book is in, is a moral philosopher before Chidi made moral philosophers cool (or marginally less uncool, really). Rather than the mystery novel I was expecting, it’s more like moral mysteries – Isabel gets pulled into various moral dilemmas of her friends and acquaintances. This volume stands alone just fine, but I’m very curious about some of Isabel’s other moral philosophy opinions (which are, I think, McCall Smith’s opinions too) because I disagreed with her quite strongly here.

Specifically, in this case, a physician-researcher was accused of a significant research error and general negligence in the project, had already lost his research reputation and position. Isabel eventually determines that it wasn’t an error – it was fraud. But she ultimately decides not to report the fraud because she felt he had already been punished enough and he didn’t have any more reputation to lose or positions to be removed from. I say the fraud must be reported because it’s the honest thing to do and maintains the integrity of the research community, and also because once he’d admitted to fraud all of his other work should be examined now too, just in case. While Isabel’s judgment wasn’t necessarily portrayed as the sole right answer, it was the kind of direct moral summary that rarely appears in a novel, so it was all the more notable that I really didn’t agree.

Fascinatingly, Isabel also seems to be the sole owner and editor of a notable ethics journal, but has no academic appointment or moral philosophy scholarship of her own (though perhaps that was just happening off page, or in one of the other dozen books in her series). That’s not at all how it works in science journals (a journal with a setup like hers I would immediately twig as a scam or publication mill), but I can’t speak to humanities journals.

Traditional genre: literary fiction. Story genre: commentary, character study. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: came in my mystery book box/bingo. Bingo square: philosophy or spirituality (because of the ethics content). Rating: 2/3

Undercover Bromance, Lyssa Kay Adams

On reading the first book in the series, I complained of not seeing enough of the bros of the eponymous bromance book club. Adams makes strong strides towards rectifying this situation in the second installment, but I still feel like I only have a decent impression of three of them – the stars of the first two, and the taciturn, gentle, and violently lactose intolerant The Russian (who finally manages to get a name – Vlad, of COURSE – about 80% of the way through his second appearance). Braden and Liv are actually more interesting, individually and together, than Gavin and Thea of #1. They’re a little bit of a Beatrice and Benedick act to Gavin/Thea’s Claudio/Hero (Gavin and Claudio both also have fragile ego issues!) – the much wittier and punchier pair. While it was interesting to see Gavin slowly unlearning his ingrained toxic masculinity, it’s mostly an internal journey – as the setting for an ensemble-oriented story it didn’t provide as much for the big group to do as an undercover infiltration of a celebrity chef’s kitchen to expose his serial sexual harassment and assault. I really appreciated that the bros meddled in Braden and Liv’s novel (both their relationship and their undercover operation) much more than they did in Gavin and Thea’s – the special schtick of this series is that we see the healthy male friendships that don’t usually show up in romance books (or many other books, for that matter), so I’d like more, please.

I’m not a romance expert, but it’s very obvious to even a casual observer that romance series overwhelmingly link the books’ starring players through connections between the female characters. For the first three bromance books at least (#3’s description is out, the book is not), the connections between the leading characters have run through both the men (the bros) and the women (Liv and Thea are sisters, #3 will star Liv’s best friend who we got to know in #2). This means past stars get pulled in more often and help support a richer world – but also means the supporting book club group is pretty large, so we don’t know the background bros very well at all until they get their star turn.

Traditional genre: romance. Story genre: relationship, ensemble, commentary. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: continuing series. Rating: 2/3

Nothing Bundt Trouble, Ellie Alexander

While I will love the Ashland bakeshop mysteries for always and eternity*, unfortunately, this wasn’t the most successful installment for me. A substantial fraction of the narration is delivered not by Jules, but through her late father’s journal, writing during Jules’s childhood about a case that he helped his best friend Doug work on. In the modern day, Doug is now Jules’s stepfather (and we learn Doug had loved Jules’s mom even before her dad’s death, which is a little… squidgy) and the case is now cold. Unfortunately, while we can all accept the convention of how a first person narrator is kind of talking to nobody, when first person narration suddenly comes out of a diary instead of just out of the ether like usual, it breaks things. The (lengthy) diary narration sections didn’t read like a diary should have, and because we were constantly being reminded that it was a diary, I kept getting knocked out of the (usually very immersive) world. If we’d just had Doug narrate instead, maybe from notes out of the diary, or the flashback sections actually sounded like a diary (a common and very fine writing device to have the story be a diary!), it would have been fine. I really appreciated that we had an opportunity to get to know Jules’s dad better! And I really loved the 80s flashback Ashland details. But the disconnect between the story being a diary vs. the actual style of the narration was so jarring, I just couldn’t sink into the book like I usually do with this series. Oh well, on to the next one.

* and that’s what we call a comedy callback, kids

Traditional genre: mystery. Story genre: relationship, mystery. Setting: realism. Format: novel. Reason I read it: continuing series. Rating: 2/3

Middle England, Jonathan Coe

It is not the fault of Middle England that it has the misfortune of being exactly the sort of literary fiction that I don’t like very much. With minimal plot, just as little humor, and an overwhelmingly obvious desire to be Serious, Intellectual Literature, it pushes all of my rebellious buttons against the genre. (And yes, much as literary fiction likes to call scifi/fantasy/mystery/romance books “genre,” literary fiction is a genre too. It’s sort of like how many Americans think they have no accent.) A collection of loosely intertwined characters traverse almost the entirety of the 2010s, orbiting vaguely around the Brexit election, but mostly failing to meaningfully engage with the vote, the culture leading up to the vote, or the repercussions of the result. (As seems to be the case in real life Britain, I suppose.) My book club didn’t realize that this book is actually the third of a trilogy that starts with many of the characters as children in the 70s, and we were meant to know that generation of characters already. Oops, but it doesn’t change my opinion, because I didn’t find most of those characters that interesting anyway. But this partly explains why I found the younger characters and the other peripheral characters the most interesting, because the story actually introduced them, but also they were the most lively and had the most at stake with Brexit. I quite liked Sophie and quite disliked Ian, the main younger characters, but more importantly they were actually interesting as they navigated their (unhealthy) relationship, (differing) politics, and (wobbly) careers. It is only because of them that I’m giving this a 2 (and also because the writing worked for me, unlike The Overstory, which I found pretentious in both contents and words). I found most of the other characters weirdly insular, and I was frustrated that most of them seemed to not really engage with what Brexit and the campaign was about, which was nominally the main topic of the book. To be fair, I also find many real world people to be weirdly insular and am frustrated that many seem to not really engage with politics, so perhaps this just wasn’t the book for me.

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

Real Men Knit, Kwana Jackson

The four sons (four books of a series, clearly) of the owner of a beloved Brooklyn yarn store struggle to take over the precarious business after her death. The brothers, led by slacker Jesse who has finally found a passion project, are aided by the store’s sole employee Kerry, who’s also been a friend of the family since they were all children. I knit, and I love the expert help and quirky, usually local selection at independent yarn stores like the fictional Strong Knits. (In fact, I finished a pair of socks while writing this month’s post.) So I expected and really wanted to love this. While I found the brothers’ relationships and the revitalization of the (beloved but dated) store to be charming and sweet, the romance between Jesse and Kerry didn’t work for me hardly at all. I found Kerry being forced to move in with Jesse to be too obviously contrived (after her apartment is condemned and Lucas, one of the other brothers, is among the firefighters on the job), their relationship was rushed and the initial getting together was weirdly sudden after much avoidance, and while Jesse says he’s trying to move beyond lust to love in his approach to relationships in general, it was very much told but not shown. But! I also liked that Jesse unselfconsciously loves knitting and that he was trying to improve himself (even if his success wasn’t demonstrated very well), and that Kerry was allowed to both be an expert (both at the yarn store and in her “main” job as a community center teacher) and still have professional struggles. It was cute enough that I’d give the next one a try and see if the pacing and relationship-building gets better for me, and also because the other three brothers all sound more interesting than Jesse. (Sorry, Kerry!)

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

The Misanthrope, Moliere, translated from French by Richard Wilbur

Spoiler for upcoming months: I am currently reading a book about playwriting. It asked me to read a play and analyze its structure, so I figured I’d kill three birds with one stone (with apologies to the birds) by also reading a book in translation for bingo and finally reading an impulse buy. (A nice thing about being in the tiny group of nerds who wants to read old plays is that they’re often like, a dollar.) It turned out that a 17th century French dark comedy in verse was not the most relevant choice for the playwriting book’s directive to analyze a play’s structure, because of being in verse and because of the use of the French scene rather than a standard scene. Oh well, but I still got two birds out of it, and a weird but fun read too. The play is intended not only to entertain, but also to make fun of a superficial high society. The titular misanthrope basically argues with all his friends in the nobility that one should always be honest while everyone else engages in white lies, little pleasantries, and bigger “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” deceptions. The misanthrope alienates his friends and goes into exile after discovering he has been deceived and fell for it, while everyone else has unsatisfying and shallow relationships instead of saying what they really mean. It’s not a play I would broadly recommend, because it is pretty academic and niche at this point in history, and also because reading verse plays falls somewhere in the spectrum between reading regular plays (yay!) and reading poetry (boo!) for me and is therefore not an automatic release of theater dopamine. But as the misanthrope himself would so generously rate it, if you’re curious about historic French theater, you could do worse. And it seems like it would be fun on stage.

Traditional genre: drama. Story genre: commentary. Setting: realism-ish. Format: play. Reason I read it: impulse buy/bingo. Bingo square: translated. Rating: 2/3