March 8, 2017

February Reading Recap

I returned to my regular diet of wildly different novels last month, and I also read a play:

THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK by Tom McAllister: Hunter is 29, and the one thing he's accomplished is creating a happy marriage with Kait. His life revolves around their relationship and their shared dream of saving up enough money and time to travel the world. When Kait dies with no warning, Hunter can't face the thought of remaining alone in their Philadelphia home. He takes Kait's ashes and very little else, gets in the car, and starts driving west in search of anything that might help him comprehend a future without Kait.

This is a novel about grief, so it certainly includes plenty of sadness. I cried at the end of the short first chapter, which means McAllister pulled off the tricky writing challenge of getting me emotionally invested in just 10 pages. It's also a book about a road trip that goes ridiculously wrong, and I often laughed at the people Hunter encounters and the situations he gets himself into. Finally, it's the story of a relationship, and the flashbacks to Hunter and Kait's marriage contain some of my favorite bits, both funny and heart-wrenching. I admired the perceptive observations about the reality of how people relate, such as a passage on the concept that "It's in the arguments that you ultimately felt the love."

I recommend this to anyone who likes character-focused novels and the opportunity to both cry and laugh over a book. I also recommend the weekly podcast McAllister co-hosts, Book Fight!, which generally only produces laughter.

THE LIMINAL PEOPLE by Ayize Jama-Everett: The author is one of the honored guests at the upcoming FOGcon, so I tried out this book that wouldn't otherwise be the type to attract my interest. I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed the characters and the writing, and I recommend this novel, especially to fans of urban fantasy.

Taggert has the power to alter bodies at the molecular level. He can use his ability to heal, but during his time in Morocco, he's more often applied it to harm or impede the enemies of his boss, an international drug dealer whose powers far surpass Taggert's. When a long-lost love gets in touch asking for help, Taggert returns to London to assist her and her family, and he ends up caught in a life-and-death struggle between opposing superpowered factions.

Taggert is an excellent narrator, with a voice and perspective that pulled me into the story immediately and drew me along to the end. He's highly competent and frequently short on patience, with an attitude that makes for a fun narrative. ("I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker.") His ability to analyze and modify bodily processes, both his own and those of people nearby, is an ever-present part of his awareness, which is cleverly conveyed and used to drive the plot. The other characters are a fascinating and unexpected bunch, and I liked how the dynamics between them shifted over the course of the story. This is the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with some closure but also some setup for the next installment.

MISTER MONKEY by Francine Prose charts the final weeks of a way-off-Broadway production of a terrible children's musical. Nobody in the cast and crew of Mister Monkey the Musical is proud to be involved, though they're grateful for the work. Audience members young and old are largely bored or confused by the story of a talking chimp who ends up in a New York City courtroom. As the show falters, it takes on a larger and stranger role in the lives of everyone connected to the production.

Each chapter of this novel focuses on a different character, generally someone appearing in the chapter before, so the story moves out from the central actors to more peripheral figures. This structure means that every chapter has a new set of conflicts and concerns, and the developments are constantly surprising. I found the individual chapters engaging, some more than others, but the pieces didn't fit together as well as I was hoping. There's a certain amount of resolution to each subplot, but no big finish where all the stories merge.

I enjoyed this book despite some disappointment about how the structural constraints played out. Prose's characters and situations are great fun, and she writes excellent human interactions. I was interested to see how she handled the shifting perspectives, and always curious to discover what would happen next.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD is the script for a stage play written by Jack Thorne, from a story created by Thorne, director John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling. The play opened in London last year, and the script was published with much fanfare about "the eighth story in the Harry Potter series". I was curious about the production but thought it an odd choice and manner to extend the series. After hearing mostly lukewarm reactions from those who read the play, I decided I wasn't in a rush and got on my library's hold list. (By the way, it appears I've given some people the impression that I'm a Potter superfan, but I think my enjoyment is fairly average. I read each book and watched each movie once, and I find it a fun series with some great aspects and some flaws.)

The play opens during the epilogue of the series, as adult Harry and his peers take their kids to catch the Hogwarts Express for the first day of school. Harry's son Albus and Draco's son Scorpius become best friends, which everyone else is uncomfortable about due to the history of antagonism between their families. Part of the reason the boys bond, however, is because they both struggle with the pressure of history and legacy, which makes it difficult for them to relate to their fathers. Albus and Scorpius, like the generation before them, get up to some antics that start as fun adventures but affect the fate of the magical world, and eventually everyone comes together to fight evil forces again. (Even Professor McGonagall, who's still working at Hogwarts twenty years later because apparently wizards don't have pensions.)

THE CURSED CHILD succeeds in feeling like a Harry Potter story by delivering all the expected pieces and themes. At times that familiarity made this installment seem an unnecessary addition, but there were enough new elements and ideas to keep things interesting overall. The play has a cleverly constructed plot, and many parts were exciting and surprising. On stage, I bet it's quite impressive, because the script includes a ton of directions for magic and special effects that must be thrilling to see live.

My big problem with this play is that it's actually two plays, Parts 1 and 2, which irritated me before reading and now seems completely unjustifiable. This script sets out to accomplish too many things and manages to drag in places anyway. Rowling stated that a play was "the only proper medium for the story", and I still don't know what that means, but I maintain that if a story must be told on stage, it ought to fit into three hours. THE CURSED CHILD takes five, presented in two performances that theatergoers need to buy tickets for and figure out the logistics of attending. I wish the creators had trimmed back or eliminated several plotlines, such as Harry's attempt to resolve his conflicted feelings about Dumbledore, resulting in a single play that would be more enjoyable for readers and more accessible for viewers.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Patricia C. Wrede considers whether and how to follow the advice that writers avoid adjectives and adverbs: "The usual advice is to replace generic nouns and verbs with more specific, evocative ones, but it's not as simple as that. English doesn't have a common, specific word for 'lice-ridden bed' or 'fireplace that smokes' or even for 'clogged-up chimney that will make the fireplace smoke.'"

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