Books, December 2020

See ya 2020, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Book of the month: Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

There is very little that I can say about the plot of Piranesi without ruining the point of the story, which is to experience the slow unfolding of the truth and meaning of the world in which it takes place. A man lives alone in an endless mansion (the House, practically another character), its top floor open to the sky and bottom washed by tides. He understands that there is no world beyond these walls, and that he and the Other, the only other living human he knows of, are two of the fifteen people who have ever lived (which, if this gives you a sense of the sad mood of the book, he deduced from finding thirteen skeletons). Piranesi is the name the Other calls the man who lives in the House, and while he knows this is not his name, he is unbothered by his lack of memory of what his name really is. His routine of subsistence foraging, mapping the House and its many statues, and reporting his results to the Other slowly begins to unravel, but I was not spoiled for the plot beyond this point, and it’s well worth going into it blind.

After writing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke developed a mysterious and debilitating illness that has left her, among other symptoms, exhausted and stuck at home, and the link between her experience and Piranesi’s life trapped in an endless house is the obvious connection to make. While Piranesi has elements of an allegory for isolation or being house-bound, it is also about what happens to knowledge and customs that are lost, both in Piranesi’s House and in our world. Experiencing Piranesi’s viscerally long isolation made this a great book for this moment, though it didn’t hit me quite as squarely in the quarantine-specific feels as A Gentleman in Moscow. I would have loved it at any time, but I think that contributed to an extra degree of getting sucked in.

Traditional genre: fantasy, I think. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: basically all of them! High concept, specfic, mystery, character study, allegory, commentary, and even wonder, the one I NEVER use. Format: novel. Reason I read it: loan + buzz. Rating: 3/3

Stand Still, Stay Silent, Minna Sundberg

Gorgeous watercolors illustrate this graphic novel/webcomic about a risky expedition from post-apocalyptic Norway to even worse-off Denmark to retrieve lost books and other goods. It’s not just the end of civilization – a plague had swept through Scandinavia, killing humans and all mammals (except cats, and yes Kitty is my favorite character) and turning them into specters out of folktales. The art is incredible, the stakes are deadly high, and the team’s journey from uneasy colleagues to a real family is sweet and sad. Read it at sssscomic.com. And don’t be fooled by the first chapter showing the onset of the apocalypse – it’s not representative of the rest of the story decades in the future.

Traditional genre: fantasy, graphic novel/comic. Setting: fantasy/post-apocalyptic. Story genre: specfic, quest, thriller, ensemble. Format: webcomic, also available in book form. Reason I read it: recommended to a different work by author, but this caught my eye more. Rating: 3/3

The Jewels of Paradise, Donna Leon

Caterina is a musicologist and music historian from Venice who hates her job in England, so when a mysterious contract gig turns up to go home to investigate some trunks belonging to a Baroque composer and determine which of his relatives should inherit them, she jumps without looking. The book splits into two parallel mysteries – the slowly unfolding facts of the gig, which turns out to be super sketchy (the shady relatives who hired her are hilarious as inept comic relief), and the mystery of the composer’s life, wishes for his heirs, and possible involvement in a murder. I am a little embarrassed that it only occurred to me about 2/3 of the way through to google the composer in question, Agostino Steffani, whereupon I discovered that he was in fact a real person. All the facts of his life that the main character discovers in her research appear to be accurate, and also his music slaps. There’s not a lot of dramatic tension in historical research, which is mostly carefully wading through piles of documents and then consulting library books/journal articles/her sister to find that one piece of useful information that pulls it all together, but these sections felt methodical and sucked me into the fascination of the chase, never dull. Caterina also captures delightfully realistic habits and practices of a researcher – she stays up too late to finish just one more thing, uses JSTOR, doesn’t have enough research funding, and gets frustrated by a dead end and decides to eat a pizza instead of keeping working. I would like to be friends with her, and I’m sorry this isn’t a series. I’d read more of her musicological adventures.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Story genre: mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: came in a mystery box. Rating: 3/3

Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix

Having snagged this on impulse (though from the NPR book exchange, which is very reliable), I had no expectations and was kind of thinking I got a horror comedy set in a fictional version Ikea, which the beginning does lead you to believe it is. Instead, it’s genuinely scary horror, and Ikea does exist in this universe – the characters themselves work at a knockoff. Between the scares and psychological torture – literally – underachiever Amy and her corporate true-believer boss Basil develop a truly touching friendship. Don’t read at night, or before shopping at Ikea. I enjoyed this more than Finna, with which it shares the inspiration for their setting but little else.

Traditional genre: horror. Setting: horror. Story genre: high concept, thriller. Format: novel. Reason I read it: impulse grab off the NPR book concierge. Rating: 3/3

Haunted Heroine, Sarah Kuhn

Evie and Aveda, superheroines extraordinaire on their continuing adventures, are invited to Evie’s grad school class reunion – spoiler alert, the fact that PhD students don’t have official reunions IRL should have been a red flag for fictional former grad student Evie too. They immediately get sucked into a ghostly mystery on the school’s East Bay campus involving her noxious former instructor/boyfriend (and yes, this gross scenario is recognized for the problem it is). The presence of ghosts apparently fueled by regret on her former campus, the site of her big regrets, drives Evie to speculate on what her life might have been like if she hadn’t dropped out. The jacket copy made me think this was going to be an It’s A Wonderful Plot, but it’s absolutely not – Evie reflects on, talks out, and finally comes to terms with what could have been, but firmly in the real, demon-infested world. Unfortunately, Evie and Aveda’s undercover status and being sent from San Francisco to the East Bay separate them from the team. But I wouldn’t be wishing for the supporting cast if I didn’t love them, so missing them is just a reflection on how interesting and fun they are. I understand that the upcoming book 5 is set in Hollywood, so here’s hoping the supporting contingent come along this time. The series is bubblegum pink superhero fun to is core, and also has some of the most realistic, positive friendships between women I’ve read in a long time too.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy or superhero. Story genre: specfic, character study, mystery. Format: novel. Reason I read it: continuing series. Rating: 3/3

Transcendent Kingdom and Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

I always feel something of a professional obligation to read high-profile books (and watch movies/TV) about neuroscience, so it’s nice when they’re really good. Gifty is a neuroscience graduate student at Stanford struggling through the late stages of her doctoral research. She flashes back and forth between the present and her childhood in Alabama, reflecting on her brother’s addiction (and overdose), her mother’s long-undiagnosed depression, and the intense evangelical church the family attends. Gifty’s personal and experimental experiences in grad school really captured real-life challenges I both experienced and witnessed.

I would have read Transcendent anyway, but I timed it on the heels of Homegoing (a historical epic tracing two parallel branches of a family tree starting in Ghana, one sold into slavery and the other not), for book club, and it was also excellent. Both grapple with painful family legacies, faith, and the struggle to find meaning in life through very different narratives.

Traditional genre, both: literary fiction. Setting, both: realism, of the historical variety for Homegoing. Story genre, both: character study, commentary. Format, both: novel. Reason I read it: professional connection, book club. Rating: 3/3 for both

Highfire, Eoin Colfer

A foul-mouthed dragon hiding out from humanity at large in the Louisiana bayous, a teen with a good heart and a dumb ass (in the vein of Jason Mendoza of the Good Place), and a dirty cop get in a tangle. Vern the dragon is equally wary of both publicity and violence and has to take pains to avoid them, which is a pleasantly unusual take on dragons who usually either flaunt their power actively or at least make the threat they pose known. I’d be curious to hear what a person from the bayous thinks of the depiction of the setting and characters. Side note, definitely a book for teens or adults – very much not for the Artemis Fowl target demographic!

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: relationship, specfic, adventure. Format: novel. Reason I read it: loan. Rating: 3/3

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

Novik arrives with the first book of a new trilogy that sports, as usual for her, a vibrant and unique magical world whose complicated mechanics she makes seem effortless. El is a junior at a magical school in a pocket dimension which was designed to protect magical teens from creatures eager to feed on them when they’re tastiest, puberty. Unfortunately for her, the school only manages to cut the mortality rate down to about 25%. So she’s got to fight monsters while not also killing people as much as the monsters do, with her natural affinity for destructive magic, and without the support that kids from from cliquish, fortress-like enclaves get. I eagerly await books 2 and 3.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, high concept, thriller. Format: novel. Reason I read it: big fan. Rating: 3/3

Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse

An enormous fraction of secondary world fantasy (that is, not our own world with magic) are set in worlds based on medieval Europe, so it’s a refreshing change of pace to travel to a world based on a real-life culture that I’ve never seen as fantasy-world inspiration – pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. Multiple intersecting storylines trace the divine and the political leading up to the titular solstice. Books 2 and 3 coming at some point, hopefully alternating with the remaining Sixth World books.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: quest, specfic, thriller. Format: novel. Reason I read it: big fan. Rating: 3/3

Inferior, Angela Saini

I thoroughly enjoyed Saini’s Superior a couple months ago, which tackled the bad science used to try to legitimize racism (recap: there is no legitimizing racism, “race science” is all flawed, often deliberately), so I next turned to her prior book, about the bad science supporting sexism. She ranges from evolutionary biology to development psychology to medicine, broadly covering of the bad “scientific” data and arguments wielded in the name of “proving” women’s inferiority, but I particularly enjoyed the parts related to my own field of neuroscience. I’ve never been especially interested in the neuroscience of gender and sex differences, but it was (unsurprisingly) my favorite chapter, as she flips back and forth between two camps of scientists who are adamant that there are or are not systematic gender differences in the brain. (Present thinking is that there are ranges of variability that are mostly overlapping, and that you definitely can’t look at a brain’s anatomy or function and determine the sex or gender of its owner.) It’s a good summary to point to when someone claims, for the millionth time, that women’s brains are just different (and, as the title notes, supposedly inferior).

Subject: science, sociology, feminism. Format: nonfiction. Reason I read it: liked Superior. Rating: 3/3

The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner

Gen is a thief who brags a little too loudly about his haul and gets thrown into prison, from where he gets dragged out by the king’s magus (a wizard/advisor type) to go into the neighboring, enemy kingdom to steal a magical artifact that might not exist. The heist itself is pretty straightforward and out of the team, only Gen and the magus’s skills were at all specialized – which is the opposite of what I want in a heist, the more ludicrous complications requiring the exact skills of the team the better – but the magical vault the team targeted was pretty cool, as was the escape scene (come on, it’s a heist, there’s always an escape scene). I blasted through this slim middle grade read in a single sitting – it would be a good gift for a tween.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: quest (heist), thriller. Format: novel. Reason I read it: gift. Rating: 2/3

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

I might have been less frustrated by the total lack of plot if I did not also have to wade through impenetrable writing heavily sprinkled with the output of a thesaurus. I found the characters to all be either annoying or bland, and even arson comes off as boring. Maybe this would speak to people who like poetry, but I was just thankful it was short.

Traditional genre: literary fiction. Setting: historical. Story genre: basically poetry. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club. Rating: 1/3