Books, March 2021

I’m late because my reviews were stuck behind the boat in the Suez Canal.

The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune

This absurdly charming story follows Linus, a social worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, in a world where magical beings live openly but under strict registration and regulation. Having caught the eye of Extremely Upper Management for his impartiality and detailed reports, Linus is assigned to travel to a remote orphanage home to the most dangerous children in the department’s care, under the charge of a dangerously eccentric housemaster. Of course, when he arrives, he discovers it’s nothing of the sort – the children are certainly strange, but they’re rare species like gnomes or have highly visible powers, putting them far more in danger from the prejudiced townies than posing a danger themselves. (Even the kindergarten-aged Antichrist just wants to listen to oldies records and lead expeditions into the island’s forest.) As Linus starts to question everything he thought about his job, magical people, and his first impression of the island, he’s also forced to question the choices he’s made about his own life and get out of the rut he’s stuck in.

Significant spoilers from here: So many stories about questioning your assumptions place the burden overwhelmingly on one side of the equation, but not so here. The orphanage housemaster Arthur and the island’s sprite Zoe are overly protective of their charges, refusing to let the townies even see the children, unwittingly feeding their fears of the “dangerous” children even further. Arthur also goes to great lengths to hide his own magical nature, rather than stepping up as a role model for the children struggling to understand their abilities. So when Linus and Arthur finally get together at the end of the book (after Linus quits his job, no conflict of interest here!), it feels like there’s been equal growth on both sides, not one person becoming worthy of an already idealized partner.

This was the longest wait I think I have ever had for a library book – about 3 months – and it was worth every second. While the story is quite predictable, that negates none of its charm.

Traditional genre: fantasy – the cover looks like it’ll be YA, and I’d certainly give it to a teen, but it’s officially shelved with general fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, commentary, relationship. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The 99% Invisible City, Roman Mars and Kurt Kolstedt

Anyone who has read my year-end posts knows how much I hate picking favorites, but I sure do perk up extra every time a new 99% Invisible episode pops up in my queue. Broadly exploring design, architecture, urban planning, and other related topics, the show also irregularly has “mini story” episodes featuring cool and interesting tidbits that weren’t complex enough to warrant an entire episode. The book, and I mean this in the very best way, sounds like a few hundred pages of these mini stories. They’re fascinating, quick bites of history and design knowledge from around the world, concentrated in architecture and urban infrastructure (the 99% invisible city), and I’ve already noticed a lot of the topics mentioned just around my neighborhood.

I don’t normally read the words of a book out loud in my head, I just kind of absorb the words, but the writing is delightfully JUST like it is for the show, so I not only found myself playing it as a mental podcast, it was in Roman Mars’s dulcet tones. I think you’d enjoy this even if you didn’t listen to the podcast, but why aren’t you listening to the podcast?

Subject: history and urban planning. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela are awkward, unpopular teens in Mexico City in the late 80s. They’re also adults who have emphatically gone their separate ways by the late 00s. Meche and Sebastian had a falling out and had not spoken for 20 years until Meche’s father’s funeral, making emotions run high and strange. In the 80s segments, which form the bulk of the story, we follow their exploration of magic spells fueled by music – LPs that just have an energy to them, driving spells that cause their effect through what might just be a coincidence… or might not be. Meche is a giant music nerd, and is also the most magically powerful, or maybe she’s just the best at believing in the magic of music. As she falls further and further into the dark side of magic, we build towards the cause of the rift between them that we see in the 00s timeline. Whether the magic is real or not is quite beside the point, because this is really about the teens’ coming of age, the rift between them, and their middle-aged reunion that forces them to finally figure out what they mean to each other. It takes quite a while for the story to get moving, bouncing between the time periods and establishing the characters before introducing the magic – stick with it, it’s worth it.

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy, or magical realism. Story genre: relationship, specfic, high concept. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

I’m continuing on the path of Steinbeck’s major works, with his brutally efficient, heartbreaking novella following two itinerant farm laborers. George puts up a front of being selfish and nasty but has a real heart he barely even admits to himself, and Lennie’s physical strength far outpaces his mental capacity and is transparently a total softie. The trick of a novella is that it has to only be about one thing – a novel can be sprawling and follow subplots and multiple character arcs, which East of Eden does to an extreme. But Mice is a precision strike on George’s conflicted but ultimately compassionate relationship to Lennie and their precious bond in a sea of lonely people they meet, all of whom are aware of how alone, powerless, and out of options they are. Prepare to cry.

Traditional genre: literary fiction. Setting: historical realism. Story genre: character study, commentary. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3

The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson

Cara works as an agent for a company that manages technology that allows travel between parallel worlds, which they use to harvest intelligence and valuable materials. It’s easy to move stuff around, but the catch for humans is that due to “resonances,” only one version of a person can exist on a world at a time, and if you accidentally wind up with two, it’s not pretty. That means Cara, who is from the slums outside of the futuristic Wiley City and who is considered almost subhuman by many of the city dwellers, and who is dead on all but 10 of the 372 known worlds, is a very, very valuable asset. Beyond this initial premise the slow revelation of more details is the main draw of the story, so I won’t recap it more, and while most of them are pretty well telegraphed in advance, seeing them coming is part of the appeal. In particular, Cara’s multiple relationships with different versions of the same people – none of whom know their other selves, by virtue of the “no duplicates” rule, but all of whom know or learn that their parallels exist and might be quite different from themselves – leads to some really interesting explorations of what it really means to be the “same” person, from low-stakes shared knowledge up to who she can truly trust.

Interestingly, this is not the first book I’ve read with the “parallel worlds where Earth 0 is defined by some unique property and the farther away you go from Earth 0 the farther back the branch point was so it’s more and more different” premise – the concept is quite similar to the Long Earth series. That series took the scifi premise to its extremes – what happens if you go all the way to the end of the parallel worlds? What if you do it on other planets? Unfortunately, it also lets pushing the boundaries of that premise take over any heart the story had, and veers a bit into eugenics territory by the end of the series. Space Between is, to its benefit, much more interested in the human stories than the mechanics of the setting, and it actively challenges the hierarchy of its society. Read this, not those.

Traditional genre: scifi. Setting: scifi. Story genre: specfic, thriller, commentary, relationship. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel

I loved St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven many years ago, so I was pretty stoked when my book club picked her latest novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as its predecessor. The two works share many characteristics – many intersecting plot lines, strong settings, and characters struggling to identify their purpose – they never cohered in Hotel the way they did in Eleven for me. I reached the end of the book without having really identified the central theme that St. John Mandel wanted me to take from the work (I got some themes but I’m pretty sure they weren’t the “right” ones), nor was I able to get inside the head of even one character. And I’m still a little baffled why it’s called that – the hotel in question wasn’t a particularly important setting, and if it was supposed to represent something deep, I didn’t get what it was. But the writing is gorgeous and the characters were interesting enough despite their lack of internal lives, so the book as a whole represented more of a missed opportunity than a true miss to me.

Traditional genre: literary fiction. Setting: realism. Story genre: ensemble, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3

Rain Dance, Skye Kathleen Moody

Venus has been yanked from her field posting in Southeast Asia tracking bear poachers seeking gall bladders (a real-life problem that persists to today) after contracting malaria, and is remanded back to her home office of Fish and Wildlife… in Seattle! While she’s pretty promptly dispatched to a shady small town on the coast to solve the main murder, and sniff around her suspicion that there’s a connection between the town and the bear poaching in Asia she was investigating, we get a fair bit of Seattle of the 90s, both the setting and publication date. (Not very much is the same now!) Venus, struggling with the mind fog characteristic of malaria, was an oddly flat protagonist – we get a sense of her extreme persistence, but little else. I probably wouldn’t seek out the other 5 books in the series, since I wasn’t very attached to her as a proto-cozy mystery series lead, but if they landed in my lap – as this one did, out of a random grab bag I’d gotten – I’d happily read them.

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

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