Reading Roundup: June 2019

Friends, did you know that you do not have to scavenge bookstore clearance tables to read affordably as well as ravenously? You do not have to wait for coveted books to go on sale, or pounce on ARCs before they are published? Did you know you could check out all the new fiction you please at a library?

Of course you knew this. I did too, but I couldn’t quite seem to get into the habit. But now I have mastered the arcane rituals of checkout and return at a university library two blocks from my office, so I was able to squeeze in a few more reads this month.

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. This book opens with a girl who simply can’t wait to get to the beach, and I felt the same way as I started reading. All I knew about the novel is that it is a translation from Russian and that it entails a school for magic–drawing the inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter, although reviews were clear that Vita Nostra was a darker, more violent take on magical education. I was as ready to dive into this as into the ocean.
What the reviews did not mention was the tedium of magical education. Our main character transforms quickly from a schoolgirl who loves the sea to a drudge who memorizes meaningless textbook passages to a novice savant who begins to glimpse meaning through the passages. While I respect the audacity of depicting the academic rigor it would take to transform a normal human teenager into a mystic, I found the transformation very uncomfortable to read. I was reminded of a period in my own life when I spent so much time poring over obscure texts until reality seemed to unravel.

Fortunately, the plot matches on, and although the creeping sense of dread does not let up, the tedium gives way to wonder and shock.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. On Twitter, I asked:

This widely acclaimed debut book was one of the responses. It burns slowly at first, and I could see the much-admired craft of the book–the natural, realistic dialogue, the almost clinical observations of the first-person narrator’s psychology–but I was too uncomfortable to consider re-reading this book anytime soon. I’m slightly older than the older couple who fascinate the novel’s college student protagonists. I can’t imagine getting involved with someone so young, but I remember being in the throes of becoming and all the growing pains of vulnerability, cruelty, and crisis. I didn’t much enjoy revisiting that age.

That said, I was impressed by the way this book makes sense of what sometimes seems to me a senseless age. It made me want to revisit my old journals, to see if I too can find meaning and poetry in the flailings of youth.

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi. I expected the same breezy prose and space politics as the enjoyable first book in this series, and the sequel did not disappoint. The storytelling is noticeably more slapsticky at first–as though the major and minor characters are still reeling in disbelief from the events of the first book–but the stakes remain high as the Interdependency hurtles toward collapse.

Mass Effect: Initiation by N.K. Jemisin. Yes, a video game tie-in novel… by award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. The Kindle app on my phone pushed a notification that the book was on sale this month, and I was furious. How dare you come into my house with this kind of targeted pitch! Of course I am going to read it!

Initiation is a ME: Andromeda tie-in; as you may recall, I did not hate Andromeda, but in any case this novel takes place before the Initiative leaves the Milky Way. (In fact, it takes place during the events of Mass Effect 2, so there are plenty of callouts for fans of the original trilogy.) Cora Harper, an asari-trained human biotic and one of your party members in Andromeda, is just trying to get used to human space, and instead, gets embroiled in a suspenseful heist plot involving AI. Reading her story felt like I was playing a DLC–there are fights! alien planets and asteroids! cutscene-like passages of exposition-via-dialogue!–and I loved revisiting the universe I have spent so much time in, so much so that I’m tempted to read other books in the series (which are not written by Jemisin). In the past I haven’t been as delighted by tie-ins for other beloved game series, but I was primed for a novel of this pacing after finishing Consuming Fire–both move quickly and don’t take themselves too seriously–and I think Jemisin’s style was well-suited to balancing Cora’s interior life with the progressively leveled action sequences.

Tender by Sofia Samatar. I’ve raved about Sofia Samatar’s novels, which offer imaginary worlds so densely packed with detail that I’m forced to read slowly and enjoy. Tender is a collection of short stories–twenty stories!–which offer a very different canvas for her gifts. Instead of detailed works that unfold slowly, these are brush sketches that evoke familiar times and places as well as eerie and otherworldly ones. I was particularly moved by “Tender,” not only for the way it plays on every possible meaning of that word but because its radioactive landscape reminded me of the creeping horror of the Chernobyl television series. Some stories suggest alternate perspectives on folkloric and cultural touchpoints like fairies, selkies, Heart of Darkness, or Coppélia; others take the form of academic or ethnographic research notes on supernatural phenomena. It’s a lot, especially for someone like me who wants to read at a gallop, but if you love short stories and fantastic tales you may love these.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Unwinnable argues that The One Good Dog in all videogames is your faithful companion from Fable 2. I can’t disagree. The dogs in Fable 2 and 3 are the reason I got so excited when I started playing Fallout 4, knowing little about the game beyond its premise, and was met by a German Shepherd who seemed to want to hang out and hunt molerats with me. Like the Fable dogs, Fallout 4’s Dogmeat was delighted to bite my enemies and sniff out ammo and food. He didn’t have the expressive range of the trainable Fable dogs, but I could collect colorful bandannas for him to wear. And that’s where it ends: Dogmeat broke my heart by simply disappearing off the map halfway through the main quest. He’s not in the gas station where I first found him. He’s not in the settlement where I thought I sent him. He’s just gone.
I digress, but I would be remiss if I didn’t complement this link with Can You Pet the Dog? on Twitter.

I about lost my mind when I saw that this rare book exhibition of modernist publications included a weird little play by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Edward Gorey. I once found a copy in used bookshop.

A French artist draws beautiful illustrations on books that have little to do with the books. Love it, instant follow.

It turns out that I will read anything about The Westing Game, but I always appreciate Jia Tolentino’s lyrical, sharp-eyed reflections on culture.

On the Fine Art of Researching For Fiction

On Fanbyte, Where Should LucasArts Take Star Wars Video Games? offers three entirely coherent video game concepts that employ different genres to play to as-yet-undersung strengths of the Star Wars universe. I was underwhelmed by The Force Unleashed 1 and 2, and for that reason haven’t gotten excited for the forthcoming Fallen Order. But I would absolutely play a turn-based tactics game built on Stormtrooper specializations, and would possibly throw my money at an RPG exploring Lando’s backstory if one existed. Aside from the good ideas, though, I was impressed by this writer’s fluency in both the Star Wars universe and game genre conventions. For example, I have a fondness for turn-based tactics games but couldn’t articulate the mechanics and appeal this well.


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