Books, May 2021

When book bingo came out in May, I immediately ran around to all my book stashes (yes, plural) and picked out books for 20 of the 24 squares. What a dopamine rush.

The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

Released in 1993 and set over the course of then-distant 2024-2027, teenage Lauren records her life in a walled neighborhood in LA ravaged by climate disaster, poverty, street violence, and a gutted, corrupt government. When disaster strikes at home, she joins a stream of refugees walking north towards the northwest and Canada, developing her idiosyncratic new religion and gathering followers along the way. Butler’s extrapolations about the future are scarily plausible. (A presidential election is happening in the background of the story with a candidate whose slogan is “Make America great again.” Butler must be rolling in her grave.) Within her spectacular foresight about the trajectory of the last 25 years, she also perfectly captures the types of responses people have to catastrophe and privation – yes, there are the violent, the nihilists, and the scammers, but also the protectors, the team builders, and the growers. It’s a pretty hopeless situation, but as we’ve learned over the last year, disasters can bring out the best in people too.

Traditional genre: is it scifi or is a realistic travelogue in the 2020s? Setting: the future when she wrote it, but also kind of just… the present day. Eek. Story genre: specfic, commentary, quest. Format: novel. Bingo square: cli-fi (climate fiction). Rating: 3/3.

The Midnight Bargain, CL Polk

Beatrice, the older of two daughters from a barely-hanging-in-there merchant family in a fantasy Austen-era England replica, has been railroaded into her first courtship season. She absolutely has to secure a wealthy husband or the family will be fully out of money, and she soon wins the attention of the richest bachelor around… but in her country, magic-using women are forced into magic-dampening collars from marriage to menopause in order to prevent spirits from possessing their fetuses. (This is a real risk – but only the most extreme solution of full-time collaring is used.) And she is intent on becoming a spinster magic user to support the family business, but then it turns out she really likes this guy, but she also comes to quickly love the childlike luck spirit she bonds with and the world of magic it symbolizes. The specific bargaining structure between humans and spirits, encompassing both legalistic deals and a personable bond, reminded me of the Bartimaeus novels, sans the sassy footnotes, but with the sassy dialogue. The magic collars are directly linked in the story to childbirth and serve more broadly as an allegory for reproductive healthcare and rights, bringing up salient issues like the right to choose, the need for medical research to include women, and reproductive choices also benefiting people who aren’t the one actually carrying a pregnancy too. I haven’t read a speculative fiction (fantasy/scifi) allegory this effective in a long time. (And no, Parable isn’t allegory – it’s pure extrapolation.)

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: historical fantasy. Story genre: commentary, specfic, quest. Format: novel. Bingo square: small press. Rating: 3/3

Fugitive Telemetry, Martha Wells

We love Murderbot, everyone’s favorite socially anxious, soap opera obsessed, snarky, Locus-winning security cyborg. Murderbot returns for a brief murder mystery (no, Murderbot is not the murderer, despite its name) novella set after the original four novellas and before the novel. Though this is a separate, self-contained story mostly independent of the major story arc in the rest of the installments, you’ll want to read at least the original four novellas first, since they establish Murderbot’s arrival at Preservation and the delicate political situation with the station leaders it finds itself in. Recurring themes of Murderbot’s story arc are working through its social anxiety and dealing with people, learning to apply its security (and murder) skills in non-security (and non-murder) contexts – and to combine those, learning to deal with people so it will be allowed to use its security skills. It’s getting better at the people part but there’s a long way to go – which is good, because that means we have reason to get more Murderbot books. (Book 7 due I believe in 2022 or perhaps 2023.)

Traditional genre: scifi. Setting: scifi. Story genre: specfic, mystery, thriller. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3

Lords and Ladies, Terry Pratchett

The Witches sub-series of the broader Discworld universe follows the adventures of a trio of badass witches in tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre. (Bad Ass is a neighboring town, if that gives a sense of why this fits the “made you laugh” square of bingo.) The witches use some magic, some farm skills, and a whole lot of applied psychology to be everything their communities need them to be – chiefly the sole keepers of common sense, and also healers, midwives, historians, arbitrators, and as of this installment, queen. Granny, Nanny, and Magrat are forced to fight off the encroachment of elves of the unpleasantly amoral fae variety while also dealing with conflict amongst themselves sparked by Magrat’s impending marriage to the king and Granny’s belief that Magrat is not cutting it as a witch. Pratchett is famous for his lethal combination of satire of the fantasy genre, social commentary, often-obscure literary references, and straight up slapstick, but we also get some truly impressive displays of magical skill from witches known for resorting to magic only as a last option.

I believe this brings me to twelve Discworld books from its famously convoluted reading list, mostly from the witches and Tiffany series. By the time I get to the end I will have quite forgotten the first ones I read.

Traditional genre: fantasy/humor. Setting: fantasy/parody. Story genre: specfic, adventure, ensemble, commentary. Format: novel. Bingo square: made you laugh. Rating: 3/3

The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Oscar Wilde

In addition to Earnest, this collection included Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, and a lengthy introduction discussing Wilde’s life and work. His plays and fiction veer between relatively light farces with an undercurrent of biting commentary, like Earnest and Fan, and outright heavy and cynical works like Salome and of course The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel. While Fan and Earnest are both comedies, they’re hiding serious critiques of Victorian society under the mistaken identities and eavesdropping behind the curtains (both devices he uses in both plays) – supporting women’s agency, poking at vapidity, and mocking hypocrisy. He’s rightly hailed as one of the best social critics on the stage in his day, taking aim at hypocrisy, decadence, pleasant lies over hard truth, and more with his famously pointy wit. For this reason, of all writers I’ve read from before the present day, I think he is the one I most would want to have seen on Twitter. Somehow I have gotten this far in my life without ever having seen his plays, especially Earnest, on stage. I love to read a play, but I can’t wait to hear his dialogue pop on stage.

Traditional genre: drama. Setting: heightened/dramatic realism. Story genre: miscellaneous, but all with commentary. Format: plays. Rating: 3/3

Take a Hint, Dani Brown, and Act Your Age, Eve Brown, Talia Hibbert

Following their sister Chloe’s story, middle child Dani and youngest Eve take the stage. Dani, a grad student, finds herself mistaken for the girlfriend of a famous ex-rugby player who works as a security guard in her building, and the two agree to fake a relationship to avoid bad publicity. As his rugby charity takes off thanks to the good PR and she takes a huge career step at a panel event, of course the mask eventually slips and their partnership becomes real. Picking up shortly after Dani’s story, Eve struggles to find a path that speaks to her and holds her frenetic attention. She impulsively takes a job as a chef at a B&B and then promptly hits the owner with her car, and must make amends while he slowly learns to trust her. All three sisters are the point of view character for their books, and their distinctive voices and personalities shine through in their star turns and supporting appearances in each other’s books. While I enjoyed Chloe Brown, I struggled to connect with love interest Red, but I understood Dani’s Zafir and Eve’s Jacob much earlier in their respective stories, and particularly found Jacob and Eve bonding over their related mental health journeys insightful and compelling. I read the latter two books back to back, and I think they would work particularly well as a set, since the crossover game is so strong.

Traditional genre: romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novels. Bingo square (Eve Brown): Black joy. Rating: 3/3

Hyde, Daniel Levine + The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but from the perspective of Hyde. We actually get surprisingly little detail about Hyde in the original – mostly hearing about him secondhand. Levine builds out a new internal monologue for him that expands Jekyll’s motivation for having pursued the matter in the first place, greatly increases Hyde’s repugnance, and adds more disturbing backstory and fractured psychology. I read Strange Case first, then Hyde (though they are printed in the opposite order in the printing of Hyde), which was the right move – while some fanfiction works if the reader knows only the general outlines of the source, Levine sticks very closely to the original plot and his story depends on knowing actual plot and not just the Jekyll/Hyde reveal. (Yes, it was a reveal in the original!) While it left me wanting as a work of fanfiction – in its rigid adherence to its source, it didn’t do enough to add new insights – it did help me work out what I find so fascinating about villain protagonists. Specifically, I’m captivated not only by the examination of their psychology, which I knew, but also gratified by the villain getting their comeuppance, a catharsis we don’t get often enough in real life.

Traditional genre: fantasy, and also fanfiction. Setting: fantasyish. Story genre: character study, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3