Books, September 2020

Look, October 2020 is an entire Molotov cocktail thrown onto the already blazing dumpster fire that is this year, and it’s only the 4th of the month. Allow me to offer a completely bonkers balm for your tired soul: experimental online science fiction piece 17776, released in 2017, and its sequel 20020, releasing M-W-F through the rest of the month. I have spent the last week obsessively refreshing football website SB Nation for updates and will be through the month. (I am not even remotely a football person, so this is an odd position I find myself in. It’s not actually about football. It’s about… space satellites and existentialism.) Anyway, it must be seen to be believed, so I’ll just let you go see for yourself. Open it on a computer or tablet, not a phone – it needs the screen space. (Juice is my favorite. Duh.)

Book of the month: Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia

I loved Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, and I loved this even more. This predates Tuesday in publication, though I read them out of order and that was fine. It introduces Tuesday’s supporting character Bert, called Rabbit by his friends, as a teenage bassoonist always called Rabbit.

Rabbit and his twin sister Alice have packed off to the remote, run-down Bellweather Hotel (yes, the hotel’s name is bellwether spelled wrong, it’s just part of the overall Wes Anderson vibe) somewhere in upstate New York for the statewide high school music festival. Alice is a classic teen drama queen, pathologically unable to let an opportunity for flamboyance pass by, but she also desperately craves attention and worries about proving herself. Rabbit is usually content to lurk in Alice’s shadow, wonders how to build his own identity separate from his sister in college, and spends the entire weekend fretting about how to come out to her. But when the orchestra conductor jerks the kids around, Rabbit publicly and very dramatically snaps, and suddenly he has the attention Alice wants, and she is thrown into the more private world of building her first genuine friendship besides Rabbit. Oh yeah, and there was a murder-suicide in Alice’s hotel room 20 years before and its sole witness, a child at the time, has come back for closure, Alice’s possibly-murdered roommate is the daughter of the cruel festival director, and Alice and Rabbit’s teacher chaperone starts a brief affair with the orchestra conductor, who himself used to have an affair with the festival director. There’s a lot of story threads in here that are being passed back and forth among only about seven characters. (That’s actually how I write murder mysteries – set up a bunch of storylines and have them passed around between about 14 characters so every story has about 3-5 characters and every character has about 3-5 stories.) All of them circle around letting go of the past and creating a new identity for the future.

If you were to ask me to shelve this book by genre, I guess it’s a mystery. But it’s only kind of a mystery story, much like Tuesday was only kind of a mystery, because in both cases the story isn’t *about* they mystery. It’s about the characters’ journeys. (By contrast, a regular mystery novel has other story elements going on but is primarily about the mystery to be solved.) Racculia sets up Rabbit’s trajectory heading off the end of this story so perfectly that I can absolutely imagine every step on his path from the last page of Bellweather his first appearance in Tuesday, 20 years later. Because I already knew him from Tuesday, he came off to me as the main character of this, though Alice was equally so. I hope Racculia’s next book features adult Alice – I want to know what happens to her too.

Traditional genre: mystery, but not really. Setting: realism, but also kinda ghostly. Story genre: character study, mystery, relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: Tuesday. Rating: 3/3

Axiom’s End, Lindsay Ellis

I am both delighted and absolutely appalled that my teen years are now long enough ago to be the setting for period pieces. It’s 2007, and a mysterious meteor-like object shatters Cora’s office’s windows in downtown LA. It immediately appears to be connected to a group of aliens whose existence was recently leaked by her own estranged father, a famous hacktivist. Obviously, the meteor was no meteor – it turns out to be the spaceship of the alien group’s leader. Cora, a 21 year old college dropout who just wants to keep her head down, winds up as their sole translator when the leader, known as Ampersand, implants her with a tracker and basically a Babel fish and forces her to help them, but soon enough both Cora and Ampersand get attached to each other, and then the US government tracks them down. The story is just as much about their weird and tentative interspecies friendship as it is about the politics, which is one of its greatest strengths. (Actually, their dynamic reminds me a little of Casiopea and Hun-Kamé from Gods of Jade and Shadow – young woman trying to figure out her path in the world, alien being who’s kind of a mentor but also exists on a totally different plane of morality and thought.) Ampersand is weird enough to be seriously alien, unlike for example Vulcans who are (to their dismay, I am sure) quite human, but articulate and willing to make an effort with Cora. She in turn starts to pull through the ennui and paralysis that gripped her since her father became an international fugitive and start re-identifying what drives her. I’m sure (let’s see if later books back me up) it’s no coincidence she’d dropped out from a linguistics major and then becomes Ampersand’s translator.

I’ve read lots of scifi, and a few political thrillers, and some scifi that was also a political thriller for fictional politics (and most of them, unlike the Star Wars prequels, were even good), but I’ve never read a scifi novel that was also a political thriller with real-life politics. (It’s also got the fictional politics of the aliens – which are extremely important to the plot too.) The political elements of the plot are more towards the back half so I won’t spoil them beyond saying that then-president Bush does come up, so it’s alternate history too. Suffice to say, there’s a lot to unpack here, genre wise, which isn’t really a surprise given its author.

I have been a huge fan of video essayist Lindsay Ellis for several years now for her hot takes on film and especially musicals/movie musicals, on her own Youtube channel (particular favorites being Why is Cats? and the Hugo-nominated Hobbit postmortem series), on PBS’s Youtube series It’s Lit, and her podcast Musicalsplaining. I’m very much enjoying her foray into another medium, and eagerly await the rest of the series. Write faster, Lindsay! (I say while staring at my own forlorn half-written drafts.)

Weirdly, the book’s marketing and jacket do not clearly indicate that this is in fact the first book of a five-book series. Do not be tricked like my friend who reached the end and said, “well, I really liked it, but the end kind of left a lot hanging.”

Traditional genre: scifi. Setting: scifi. Story genre: high concept, commentary, thriller, relationship. Format: novel. Reason I read it: Lindsay rules. Rating: 3/3

Heroine Complex, Heroine Worship, and Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

SPOILERS. Ten years ago, a portal to a demon dimension opened in the middle of San Francisco, and in the aftermath of the battle where the demons were defeated, their magical powers were distributed to random residents. In the present, Aveda Jupiter, recipient of telekenesis, has styled herself as the protector of the city, and successfully so – largely through athleticism and training and not her actual powers, which are pretty weak. Her best friend/assistant Evie pretends to be nonpowered, because she’s afraid of and hides her power of… throwing fireballs around. Also, Evie’s little sister Bea gets into trouble and turns out to have powers of her own, and the rest of the team is rounded out by an extended cast of powered and non-powered characters who ARE total characters. At the end of the first book, everyone in town with a power gets an upgrade in strength or skill as a result of another invasion being defeated, which of course is not the end of the demon incursions, much as they think it is. The level-up turns some really inventive “novelty” powers into genuine forces to be reckoned with, like emotional projection, prehensile hair, and super-duper attention to detail (but, pre-upgrade, at the expense of not seeing the forest for the trees). The superhero and demon mechanics are charming, thorough, and really novel, and that’s even without me getting into the puppy demons (which are really more like piranhas!).

The first-person narration rotates around the heroines, which is not just a cute device, but really important to exploring their very different experiences of being heroines (Evie for book 1, then Aveda for book 2, then Bea in book 3, and Book 4, which I am waiting on at the library, appears to rotate back to Evie). Evie is reluctant to participate and carries a lot of baggage around her dangerous power until she learns to own it (at which time it gets less dangerous, because she actually practices!), but continues to deal with anxious tendencies, especially towards her sister. Aveda has to learn to balance her flashy and pushy Aveda persona with real identity Annie’s genuine insecurities about feeling redundant and unloved. Bea has to grow into powers of emotional manipulation she barely knew she had while barely more than a teenager. Because the narration rotates around one book at a time, we get to see their perspectives on each other, but because they’re not rotating chapter-to-chapter (as is more common), we only get one person’s direct perspective on any given event (and recollections from the others). The characters and adventures are a bubblegum-pop level of upbeat but carry a sense of real stakes and danger, which combined with the novelty factor, kept me on my toes without ever really stressing me out. I’d have really enjoyed them at any time, but they were the perfect books right now.

Traditional genre: fantasy, probably. Setting: superhero (yes, that’s different from fantasy or sf). Story genre: specfic, ensemble, adventure. Format: novels. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 3/3

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Ok, look, the title doesn’t really sell this – it seems like it should be a subtitle to a title actually describing the book – but it’s really, really fantastic. Noemí is called from cosmopolitan Mexico City to a remote mansion where her cousin has moved after getting married some months ago, and who is now complaining of mysterious psychological and physical issues. When she arrives, she too is trapped and toyed with by the family of the house, the isolated, racist descendants of English mine owners, and by the house itself. She finds a surprising ally in Francis, the younger son who is the bookish and decent opposite of his nasty family, who then turns out to need an ally himself. From my perspective this sits right on the line between horror and fantasy, where the former emphasizes scary atmosphere and evil things in the shadows that just are while the latter includes more detailed magic systems with defined rules and (fantastical) explanations for scary things. I will not reveal what it is that is disturbing the house and torturing Noemí, but I will say that the explanation does in fact come. While horror often relies on keeping details in the shadows to maintain the scares from anticipation, in this case, the comprehensive backstory of how the house came to be so predatory only adds to the sense of revulsion and fear. (In contrast to, for example, Hill House, which is just evil.) But you’ll get to that point in good time when you please go read it yourself.

Traditional genre: I’d call it fantasy, but you could make a case for horror. Setting: same deal – fantasy/horror. Story genre: specfic, thriller, commentary. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended + follow the author. Rating: 3/3

Superior, Angela Saini

Much of the thought in science today about racism in the field, and my own professional efforts (as a person who works in science outreach/education and wants to create an inclusive environment in the field), are about how individuals and institutions have mistreated or pushed out marginalized people, or about racism in medicine (like the finding that half of medical students believe Black people feel less pain or multiple biased care-recommendation algorithms). I sought out this book for a related but distinct concept, how scientists have studied race and how science has been used and misused to support racism. Neuroscience, unsurprisingly, is frequently wielded to support racist/sexist/ablest arguments, so to combat that, I have to understand how such malignant arguments are developed.

That brings me to one of my favorite features of Saini’s book: it’s not only about scientific racism and eugenics in the past, since it’s too easy to write off “race science” as left behind after WWII. She brings us right up to the present day, of well-meaning scientists’ studies involving race being co-opted by racists, and studies that are racist and eugenicist from their inception, driven by fringe scientists (and social scientists and philosophers) whose goal is to run studies that back up their existing bigotry. They’re scarily well-organized and wear the veneer of science unfortunately very well – racist scholars coalesce around key journals and foundations that help them find each other, get funded, collaborate (on shoddy, biased studies), and distribute their work to each other and to the general racist population. (For example, such scholars work on studies claiming a basis in biological race for intelligence, poverty, test scores, and various medical conditions that are then wielded to support racist policies.) Mainstream scientists have to continue our efforts to make science a more inclusive community, but we have to also combat how “scientific” knowledge and the reputation of the scientific community are used to prop up unscientific, bigoted views. To do that, we have to understand what we’re up against, and Saini has done an amazing job distilling the motives, history, and outcomes of scientific racism.

My order of Saini’s Inferior just came in the mail, which is the same idea, but about sexism in science. I can’t wait to start it.

Subject: history, science. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: current events + subject matter. Rating: 3/3

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, NK Jemisin

I’ve already sung Jemisin’s praises at length, so I will not belabor the point again, though it remains as true as ever. I have mostly read her novel series before (and her standalone novelette last month, as well as the Dreamblood duology in my pre-website days), so what’s notable here is that a short story collection covers such a wider range of story concepts and genres than is encompassed in a novel, or even a series. Her novel series are all fantasy, but here we also get science fiction, alternate history, and horror. While she already deftly probes questions about the future through fantasy (in Great Cities, particularly about diverse and vibrant cities, and Broken Earth, about climate change), to do so through science fiction casts them in a distinctly different form than fantasy. Since I’ve never read scifi from her other than Emergency Skin, just last month, those stories were among the most fun because of being more unfamiliar and following her imagination in a new direction. My favorites (hard to choose!) were mostly scifi stories because they were those that most surprised me – Valedictorian, Walking Awake, and Effluent Engine, as well as fantasy story The Storyteller’s Replacement.

She also uses short stories to try out novel concepts and see if she thinks they’re worth pursuing, and stories that became the Great Cities, Dreamblood, and Broken Earth novels appear here. I wonder if some of the ones that appear self contained will become novels eventually? I’d especially read a whole book about The Effluent Engine. It’s also being developed as an audio play by a local theater company as part of their virtual theater projects they’re developing in this stupid timeline we live in. I’m going to listen to the whole season, but I’m especially excited for that one.

Traditional genre: scifi and fantasy. Setting: some scifi, some fantasy, some alternate history realism. Story genre: miscellaneous, but all are either allegory, commentary, and/or high concept. Format: short stories. Reason I read it: a LEGEND, NK Jemsin. Bingo: afrofuturism (literally right there in the title, though only some stories are in the genre). Rating: 3/3

A Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev, and The Marriage Game, Sara Desai

I was given these two romance novels starring and by Indian-American women grappling with their meddling families, first-generation American identities, and expectations for Indian women in relationships as they try to find love. Recipe and Game capture similar struggles for their two leading women as well as for Game‘s leading man, who have all gotten trapped in a cycle of self-imposed duty to and sacrifice for family – which their families did not ask them to do – compounded by family histories of bad arranged marriages (Recipe‘s Ashna’s parents, Game’s Sam’s sister and Layla’s disastrous suitor interviews). It was a really interesting reading these two back-to-back, because they do share many cultural similarities but the stories chart very different arcs starting very different protagonists. I preferred Recipe, a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion through a “Dancing with the Stars”-like cooking show, because I found Ashna and Rico’s characters more interesting as both people and as a pair, in part because of their long history, and also because I found the writing more engaging. (It also explicitly nods to its source material briefly and right at the end, which is a device I will never not find delightful.) Game was also delightful, with a particularly successful element being Sam’s evolving relationship with his sister, who became a wheelchair user after what he suspects (correctly) was abuse by her husband, as he learns to stop trying to help her when she doesn’t want it and respect her independence.

Traditional genres: romance. Settings: realism. Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novels. Reason I read them: gift. Rating: 3/3 and 2/3, respectively

A Deadly Inside Scoop, Abby Collette

A cozy mystery is always a good balm for my overstressed brain. This appears to be the first in a new series about an ice cream shop in a resort town in Ohio in, of course, the dead of winter. New owner Win (Bronwyn) has just taken over the family store and is determined to restore it to its heyday after her aunt turned it into a schlocky tourist trap, and on her opening day, an unknown man who turns out to have attempted to pull an elder abuse scam on the family to steal the shop, is waiting on her doorstep… and then turns up dead. It was a bold move to have the very first murder also be part of the series backstory – normally I would have expected him to menace Win and the shop for at least three or four books before he turned up dead, also making her a suspect. But I liked that it really cleanly set up the backstory and then made a clean break towards the future. Win’s family is one of only two Black families in the town, and Collette meaningfully includes their experiences of marginalization while primarily celebrating Black joy and achievement. The usual quirky friends and neighbors are fun, with special commendation to the eccentric local law professor for being simultaneously a love interest, a source of business for the ice cream shop (university functions), and deliverer of relevant legal exposition. It’s cute, it’s frozen, it’s a nice easy read for my 2020 brain.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Story genre: mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 2/3

Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith

I read this one for the bingo square. The writing is lovely and McCall Smith is clearly paying loving homage to his beloved childhood home of Zimbabwe, but it’s somewhat uncomfortable in the year 2020 to be reading a book by a white man who was the child of settlers telling a story that is specifically about being a Black woman from the colonized group. (For more, read this FAQ about the #ownvoices movement. The book is from 2003, well before the movement.) However, I do want to give him credit for an excellently thoughtful portrayal that doesn’t shy away from the violence of white settlers, mainly reflected in the scenes in/about the nearby South African mines. Mma Ramotswe, the owner of the titular detective agency (and its only detective), solves a variety of crimes both large and small and struggles to keep her agency financially afloat. She’s delightful and carries the story by sheer force of personality. The story is primarily short vignettes, with only a few plots that carry through more than a dozen pages – just an observation of an unusual structure, not a criticism. This was the hardest bingo square for me to fulfill, so I’m happy that I found a fun one for it.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Story genre: character study, commentary, mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: bingo – debut by an author over 50. Rating: 2/3

Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Truton

A man wakes up in the rain outside an unfamiliar house, with a big gash on his arm, and no idea who he is. He’s informed not long after by a mysterious figure in a plague doctor costume (very 2020 vibe) that he’s got eight days to solve the murder (of Evelyn Hardcastle), during which he’ll inhabit eight different bodies (wait, what?), and then catches up with Anna, another person trying to solve the murder, but she only gets one day. (Seems unfair? Too bad, you won’t find out why for 400 pages.) Oh, and there’s a footman who’s trying to kill both our nameless protagonist (he eventually gets a name, Aidan) and Anna, for reasons unknown. And if a host is unconscious at any point, Aidan will jump out of them and then hop back later for more time, so only half of his eight days are actually experienced linearly. Confused yet? Don’t worry, you’ll remain so throughout. I was reading this as an ebook so skipping ahead was a pain in the butt, but I would have been so lost if I hadn’t peeked, and even knowing the reveal on the setting and who committed the murder, I was still always vaguely lost.

I wanted to like the Groundhog Day + I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream premise, but the central mysteries of who killed Evelyn and why are Aidan/Anna/the third player here unfold far too slowly for the reader. Sure, keep the characters in the dark, but not us – it blocked my ability to try to solve the mystery and to connect with the characters. We’re a good 3/4 of the way through before we even find out why Aidan and Anna are trapped here (surprise! It’s scifi supermax prison, though I don’t see how wiping their memories every day or eight is going to lead to rehabilitation as claimed, and the mechanism/rationale for such a prison is never explained). While having the personalities of the “hosts” (the bodies Aidan is borrowing) bleed through into his thoughts was a fascinating and new idea, it was undermined by Aidan’s weak sense of self – he hasn’t got any idea who he is, so the effect of the host is only really obvious for the more egregiously nasty ones. (Plus, not having a sense of self didn’t stop some really nasty fat-shaming towards one host that seemed to come from the author as much as the character. Even the serial rapist host didn’t get that level of disgust leveled at him.) I stuck this out to the end because I really did want to know who did it and how – the core mysteries were really intriguing and the answers clever and unexpected, but there weren’t nearly enough clues for the reader, and too many reveals came out of a clear blue sky and far too late. I’m giving this a 2 on the strength of the writing quality and the core mysteries, but consider it a 1.5 – it was too confusing to recommend.

Traditional genre: it’s unclear if this is a fantasy or scifi situation, but certainly specfic. Setting: possibly fantasy or possibly scifi. Story genre: thriller, mystery, specfic, high concept. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommended. Rating: 2/3

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