Books, August 2020

Blackout! A lot of my books this month were ones I would have read anyway but got bumped up the queue to fit a square. The bingo deadline was officially September 8, so come back next month to read about the last few that made the count.

Book of the month: This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Briefly: Rival top operatives in a mind-bending war that stretches through the timeline leave little notes to each other as they foil their opponent’s plans, and each of them slowly falls in love with a woman they’ve not only never seen, but are supposed to hate. The agents, called Red and Blue, represent a hyper-technological hivemind and a solarpunk sentient garden, respectively – totally opposite philosophies – that are battling for control of time itself, leading to different possible futures. (I think – or perhaps the war is destined to be perpetual.) Not only does their slow-moving (well, apparently – they manipulate time itself, so “slow” is what you make of it) romance threaten to derail their missions, but a mysterious seeker is on their tails, absorbing their notes (literally absorbing – for example, one of the notes is delivered via a tea service) and it’s not who I thought. (Though if one takes a moment to think through the number one classic time travel trope, the closed loop involving one’s own relative-future self, it becomes obvious in retrospect.) Adorably, El-Mohtar and Gladstone each wrote one of the agents’ letters (and collaborated on the narrative sections), which brought some delightful spontaneity to the recipient’s reaction – it really was received by someone. The time war is really a backdrop to the romance, but I appreciated that the story really interrogates the limits and outcomes of time travel as well. (An oldie but goodie, Back to the Future is pretty great about this. I am also convinced we live in the alternate timeline of Back to the Future Part II, where Biff’s alternate-future real estate magnate-turned politician was specifically based on 1980s Donald Trump.)

You’re just going to have to accept that the timeline is confusing and the setting uncountably vast (there’s several Atlantises, to start). If you weren’t put off by Inception, which isn’t time travel but is mind-bending in a related way, you should be fine. If you’re not a time travel fan but willing to give it a try, this might be a good test run, since it’s more about the super-sweet romance than the time travel in the end.

Traditional genre: science fiction AND fantasy. Setting: science fantasy. Story genre: relationship, high concept, specfic, thriller. Format: novella. Reason I read it: award winner. Bingo: epistolary. Rating: 3/3

How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X Kendi

There’s been a huge and well-documented surge in interest in books about racism and antiracism this summer. (You know I’m always about turning to a book to start tackling a challenge.) Kendi frames a guided journey through the many facets and impacts of racism via recognizing and overcoming his own internalized biases. It’s sociology and history wrapped in a deeply personal memoir, and an extremely readable one at that. There are a great many people and organizations who are just starting on their journey to antiracism this year, or who are trying to turn existing thoughts to action. Kendi gives practical instruction in how to recognize anti-Black racism, introduces frameworks and vocabulary to put to what you see, and how racism is enforced by people and systems. He also gives a philosophy for how to extend patience for learners and grace for mistakes that everyone makes (including himself) as they grow, which is essential to encouraging people to even try starting down the path of learning. I am far from the person to exhaustively recommend from the top books about racism, but this has been parked at the top of the NYT bestseller list for a reason. Plan to take your time, as it’s beautifully written and heavy – I read it over the course of about two months, needing a few days to digest each chapter focusing on a specific facet of racism and antiracism through an episode in Kendi’s life.

Also, to put on my theater nerd hat, HtBaA is the perfect rejection of Avenue Q‘s (2005) complacent and extremely catchy “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” Both start from the correct observation that everyone has biases and prejudices, conscious or subconscious. But while Avenue Q responds to that observation by saying that the butt of racist jokes should get a thicker skin, HtBaA asks that no prejudice go unchallenged and affirms that racist jokes give cover to racist actions. Just an interesting comparison, and one in which there is a definitely correct answer.

Subject: racism, sociology. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: current events. Rating: 3/3

Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey

Moving this up the queue for bingo after loving Magic for Liars, I was expecting another modern/urban fantasy mystery. Upright is also specfic – not fantasy or scifi exactly, but some kind of old-West-like low-tech dystopia, with a clearly 1984-like war effort, and the general population driven back in time technologically and culturally – and both Magic‘s Ivy and Upright‘s Esther are desperately clutching at some feeling of belonging. But while Ivy’s story ends with her beginning a journey towards being forgiven (hopefully! I ship it), Esther finds not only a place to belong, but a purpose she lacked in her homesteady town where she chafed under strict limitations on women’s roles, not least that being gay is strictly Not Allowed. The upright women in question are traveling librarians whose wagons of innocuous “Approved Materials” (read: censored recipes and clothing patterns) hide smuggled goods and people for the resistance, share intelligence, and generally embody a bright, diverse world than Esther’s town acknowledges. Esther smuggles herself out with the librarians, unaware of their other activities besides librarying, and her whole world is shattered and rebuilt for the better. (Much like reading a book from the library does for you!) It’s a bite-size race to the finish (all hail the novella) about resistance and gaining knowledge that’s uncomfortably on the nose for this actual literal dystopia that is 2020.

On the topic of libraries, Banned Books Week is the end of this month and celebrates books that challenged prejudice so effectively people tried to have them shut away rather than risk them changing minds. Go read a banned book today!

Traditional genre: specfic? Probably shelved with scifi for lack of a better option. Setting: dystopia. Story genres: commentary, high concept, specfic, thriller, quest, ensemble. Format: novella. Reason I read it: author’s prior work. Bingo: nonbinary author. Rating: 3/3

Buzz, Thor Hanson

I have always loved bees. (BEES!) Every year at the county fair, I always go check out the bee barn, even though it’s always basically the same, and I’ve always said that one day I would have a beehive. (That “one day” is still in the future, unfortunately.) And I love my wild bee buddies too. Anyway, despite my lifelong love of bees, I realized that I actually knew fairly little about bees themselves – more about beekeeping, pollination, and unfortunately, environmental threats. Hanson’s natural history of bees covers their origins from wasps (surprise! bees are wasps’ friendly vegetarian cousins), solitary and social bees (there are semi-social bees too, which is obvious now that I’ve thought about it), their many underappreciated roles in our ecosystem and agriculture (for wild bees too), and more. Hanson is funny without being intrusively comedic and a charming guide through the land of bees. (All lands are the land of bees. Bees are literally everywhere.) While I also love an expert-written nonfiction book, he’s clearly writing from a place of genuine, relatable curiosity and learning as he writes. I have another nonfiction book about bees I’m going to read soon (narrator: soon is relative on Kaitlyn’s bookshelf), but this is going to be hard to beat.

I’m taking a lot more walks around my neighborhood these days than I ever have in the past, which means that I’ve been noticing the bees in the grasses that I’ve never noticed before. I’m pretty sure they’re some kind of local wild bee, but they might be from somebody’s neighborhood beehive. Anyway, I see them bonking into the little clover flowers, and it’s just too cute. I’m glad to know more about them.

Subject: science – nature. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: BEES. Bingo: nature. Rating: 3/3

Emergency Skin, NK Jemisin

Jemisin, queen of viscerally weird creatures plus viscerally weird writing, is probably the most skilled writer I’ve read at making the allegorical nature of her story crystal clear without making the reader feel like she’s smacking you in the face because you’re too dense to get it otherwise. (She is probably also the most skilled writer I’ve read, period.) The titular emergency skin has been issued to a far-future manufactured being that’s basically a brain in a spacesuit. The being hails from a human off-world colony and has been sent back to Earth to salvage some important supplies of an unknown nature at first. The being – who the reader embodies, as the story is told by narration from their AI guidance issuing orders, and Jemisin is in fact the only person I trust with second person narration – slowly realizes that they’ve been misled about the nature of post-space-colony Earth (climate change IS a solvable problem if the people with the power to do so actually try), the politics of their home colony (it’s a Hunger Games dictatorship), and the nature of their mission (it’s not salvage, it’s theft – though the would-be victims have seen this before and know what’s happening). Having the alien being seek HeLa cells for manufacturing skin was a stroke of pure brilliance – the cell line’s origin is highly relevant to the story, and it’s relevant to growing artificial tissue in real life to boot. If you’ve never read Jemisin, this is a great place to start – it’s equally strange and probing as her other books, but this is a bite-sized chunk to start getting used to her extremely intense style. Then, of course, brace yourself to be absolutely bowled over by that intensity lasting for 300 pages instead of 30, and go read everything else (start with The Broken Earth!!).

This is technically a novelette (basically a long short story – a long story?) in the Forward collection of possible-futures-themed scifi stories, but for whatever reason, they were released as individual booklets. I’m probably going to read one or two of the others, but if the editor had just bundled them into a book like normal story collections, I probably would have been more likely to read (and quite possibly like) them all.

Traditional genre: science fiction. Setting: science fiction. Story genre: high concept, specfic, quest. Format: short story. Reason I read it: award winner/read everything she writes. Rating: 3/3

I Am Not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells

Teenage John is not a serial killer, but he has determined that he’s definitely on the road to becoming one if he doesn’t follow his Very Strict Rules for Not Being a Murderer, to the bafflement of his mom and therapist. (He has not been diagnosed with psychopathy because you have to be 18 to receive that diagnosis, as he points out in the story. But he says himself that’s where he’s heading.) His family owns the only funeral home in his tiny town, where he finds an outlet for his fascination with death. Unfortunately, when people start turning up dead, his rules and behavior start to deteriorate, bringing unwanted concern and a little suspicion (the title doesn’t lie! John is in fact not a serial killer!). Oh yeah, and the murderer… is a demon. Psych (pun intended), it’s a fantasy novel.

It’s a great setup and action-packed plot, but John’s self-awareness about his psychological status is what makes him really fascinating as both a main character and a narrator. (See below for a notably less successful first person narration.) He starts the book – before any murders happen – already walking a tightrope between his lack of innate empathy and urge towards violence vs. his effort to learn how to do emotions and his deep desire to not give in to violence. John slowly unravels as he tries to turn his psychopathic tendencies towards catching a murderer rather than becoming one, but his mental deterioration never impedes the clarity of the story, nor hides the seriousness of the demon’s threat. The demon himself is also a fascinating character, like John torn between a drive to violence (in his case, a biological need to replace his body parts) and genuine care for his family. It would have been a solid fantasy thriller even without the spot-on psychological component, but Wells nailed that too. I’ll be reading more of the series. (Also, Wells is one of the hosts of Writing Excuses, the podcast where I got the story genre concept from!)

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, mystery, thriller, character study. Format: novel. Reason I read it: interest/listen to podcast/bingo. Bingo: recommended by a librarian. Rating: 3/3

Traditional genre categories are meaningless and romance deserves a better reputation month: Loathe at First Sight, Suzanne Park, The Bride Test, Helen Hoang, and The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

First, quick recaps. Bride features a Vietnamese woman who’s scouted as a potential partner for a Vietnamese-American man who thinks his autism makes him unable to manage close relationships of any kind; she builds confidence and seizes educational opportunities unavailable to her in Vietnam while he learns that while he relates to others and experiences emotions differently, he’s not unworthy of affection. Loathe launches a female game designer, relatively new to the industry, into the noxious world of gamer culture; she ultimately forces change at the company that set her up to fail and finds some surprising allies. Innocence follows a young man in the rigid New York high society of the 1870s as he contemplates an affair with a cosmopolitan cousin recently returned from Europe; they make googly eyes at each other and don’t have an affair.

Bride and Loathe are both recent works that were marketed as romance novels, while Innocence would normally be called a classic or fall into literary fiction. But the romance in Loathe feels very much like an afterthought, Bride fits the genre but is just as much about autism* awareness and acceptance as it is about the romance, and Innocence finds itself among literary fiction, despite being the most about romance of the three, because… it won the Pulitzer and is therefore serious literature, I guess. All three of these books are excellent outside of the conventions and expectations of the romance genre as well as within it, and which Loathe only kind of fits and Innocence actually does kind of fit anyway. (I say all this not to imply that better books deserve a more prestigious label than romance, which is a delightful zone of the book world, but merely to say that everything’s made up and the lines between traditional genres are stupid.) I’d recommend all three of these, but Loathe was my favorite. Protagonist Melody has a love story, yes, but she also faces very real professional risks and challenges that we see from start to finish, enjoy her bittersweet and schadenfreude-laden success, and witness her fraught relationship with her parents and a possible frenemy who turns out to be a real friend. The book is even set in Seattle – if she were real, I’d want to be Melody’s friend.

* I would be remiss if I did not take this moment to once again say that vaccines don’t cause autism, they never have, and, as we approach having a covid vaccine, never will, because that is simply not how either vaccines or autism work.

Loathe: Traditional genre: romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: commentary, relationship. Format: novel. Reason I read it: loan. Bingo: set in a City of Literature (Seattle). Rating: 3/3

Bride: Traditional genre: romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: loan. Bingo: neurodiverse protagonist or author (both!). Rating: 3/3

Innocence: Traditional genre: romance or classics. Setting: historical realism (even at the time it was written, 50 years after it was set). Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 3/3

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

It’s hard to know even where to start with such an iconic work as Salesman. Briefly, Willy Loman, the titular salesman, is teetering on the precipice at the end of a long and unsuccessful career and slowly loses his grip on reality and slides into lengthy flashbacks. His wife and sons try to help but (like us all in 2020) they have their own struggles to attend to, both practical and emotional. The play would have been compelling and insightful just with the present-day sections, as it explores what it means to have and lose potential, but those flashbacks are what makes it a masterpiece. They’re woven through and balanced to both give story context and manifest Willy’s mental decline. He wanders through a rose-tinted view of the past, particularly focused on his older son’s star falling while his sidekicky friend finds success, avoiding and avoiding and finally confronting his own role in his son’s spectacular blowout from high school. I didn’t realize this while I was reading it, but Willy’s “nostalgia for something that never really existed” and “I’m not to blame for my failure, it’s my boss/son/car/luck” character arc has obvious relevance to… like all of 2016-2020. Salesman deserves the same credit as Shakespeare for speaking truths about the human condition that transcend the time and place in which it’s set.

Traditional genre: drama, if we must call that a genre. Setting: realism. Story genre: character study, commentary. Format: play. Reason I read it: interest/bingo. Bingo: mentioned in another book (The Playwright’s Guidebook). Rating: 3/3

Slipknot, Linda Greenlaw

A while back, I ordered a mystery box of books from a local bookstore – per your preferences, we’ll pick and send you a bunch of books! (This order was also the source of last month’s Comforts of a Muddy Saturday.) Unfortunately, this one didn’t hit the spot for me. The mystery itself was actually pretty interesting – briefly, an insurance scam gone lethally wrong, nearly killing the narrator and several others as well as the original victim, very different from the mysteries I usually read – but I really didn’t like the narrator’s personality or narration voice. Jane was judgmental, a little too clueless, and reckless (and not in a charming way, which is absolutely possible to achieve). Now, a judgemental, careless, and reckless character can absolutely be a great character even if I’d dislike them in real life, but she also managed to be pretty insipid too. She also kept going on and on about a hushed-up family scandal that shaped her whole childhood, but never gave enough detail to actually make me interested in learning what it was about. If you’re going to be a first-person narrator, you’d better have an interesting internal voice, which she didn’t have for me, and which got in the way of enjoying the interesting murder (and non-murder) mystery.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Story genres: mystery, issue. Format: novel. Reason I read: mystery box. Rating: 2/3

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