Books, January 2021

Goal: read more books this year, especially books I already have, than I add to my shelves or wishlist. But looking back at my goals of the past… let’s just say my completion rate on books is higher than my completion rate of reading goals.

Book of the month: The Daughters of Ys, MT Anderson and Jo Rioux

The review that led me to pick this up compared the art of this graphic novel to the animated movie Secret of Kells, which I adored, set in medieval Ireland with a rich, illuminated manuscript look. The comparison was apt. Based on a Breton folktale, two sisters follow sharply divergent paths. The elder develops a deep, introverted connection to nature, to the point of shunning most people. The younger cultivates a bloody, ruthless magic giving her command of the sea and its monsters at a terrible cost that eventually comes due not only for her, but for the whole kingdom and its residents. The beautiful, soft art belies the sharp story about the price the powerful pay for their power, and the price that regular people pay too when it’s unwisely wielded. (And that’s not relevant at all…)

Traditional genre: graphic novel, or fantasy. Setting: fantasy/folktale. Story genre: high concept, wonder, commentary, relationship. Format: graphica. Rating: 3/3

Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie

I presume that this ended up on my bookshelf because it is a sequel of sorts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I read in school and quite enjoyed, but unfortunately don’t remember all that well. Luka ventures into the world of imagination conjured into existence by his father and previously explored by his brother Haroun, bent on stealing the Fire of Life to save his dying father. His adventure blends the dangerous whimsy of his father’s creation, a chaotic array of inhabitants drawn from world religions and mythology living alongside original creatures, and most interestingly, an explicitly video game-like level-based structure. Now that this prompted me to think about it, a heist does inherently share some characteristics with level-based video games, both featuring a series of increasingly difficult or specialized obstacles between the hero(es) and whatever they’re trying to steal or reach. True to heist form, each of the characters makes a specialized contribution to the quest, most interestingly Luka himself, whose skill is understanding the mind of his father – the architect of the fantasy world, and though the world and its inhabitants are autonomous, he is sort of the ultimate creator of the heist. Luka and the heist crew he assembles are a charming bunch navigating a charming world in their quest, and the fun propels across the surface of a deep, thought-provoking setting and journey.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy/world of imagination? Story genre: quest, specfic, high concept, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Burning God, RF Kuang

Kuang caps her debut trilogy with this literally explosive, devastatingly sad conclusion. Rin, the main character, has always been a little self-centered, but she’s increasingly forced to grapple with big topics Kuang, the author, had already thoroughly explored: a series of colonizations (Nikan to Speer, Hesperia trying the same to Nikan), the ethics of war (which Rin repeatedly throws out the window), trying to put the past in the past, and now, what it means to be a leader and a figurehead. The trilogy, and particularly the conclusion, is relentlessly brutal, violent, tragic, and I mean tragic in the classical sense of “sad things driven by a character’s core flaw,” strengthened by Kuang’s clear and vivid writing. I would like a miniseries version immediately, please.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, thriller, character study. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Secret Life of the American Musical, Jack Viertel

Viertel, a longtime producer and occasional librettist, presents a dissection of the formula that successful musicals follow: the general song types (the “I want,” the big ensemble set piece, etc.), the plot structure, the character arcs, liberally peppered with examples. If you’re reading this it means you are interested in how musicals work, down in their bones, so all these examples are likely familiar to you, and the analysis pulls back the curtain on why you loved them. I thought I was getting a history rather than analysis of musicals when I picked this up (oops), but \it was kind of a history of musicals after all! Viertel draws on notable hits from the operetta era (early 1900s) to ~2015 (the most recent work being Hamilton) to illustrate his analysis of the development of this relatively new art form. Viertel’s intimate connection to the industry means he often had seen the examples he cites while they were in development, before they quite worked right, and could explain how they became the successful classics we know now. If you’re not a hardcore musicals nerd already this is not a good introduction point to the art form. But it’s a fascinating analysis if you, like me, are into that.

Subject: theater analysis. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

Chilled to the Cone, Ellie Alexander

While there’s always a murder to solve, some books in this (and any) series move the broader character arcs forward more than others, and this twelfth Bakeshop installment marked major life events for a nearly everyone: Torte opening an outpost, Carlos making several big decisions, Thomas popping the question (and sinking my ship), and Lance finally getting a love interest. Strangely, this book was not as well written as Alexander’s usual standard, seen in her other ~20 books, but I’ll chalk that up to, well, 2020. And the mystery itself was as tightly constructed as ever. The books are running somewhere between 3-5 years behind “real world time” – this one mentions that The Count of Monte Cristo is running at OSF, which played in 2015 in real life – and take place roughly 3 months apart, so it’ll be a while before it catches up to 2020’s pandemic and fires. I will be very interested to see how the effects of the last year influence the stories, which are very grounded in the real Ashland.

Traditional genre: mystery. Setting: realism. Story genre: mystery, ensemble. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

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