March 6, 2024

February Reading Recap

When I'm not busy figuring out character arcs, I've been reading away:

COME AND GET IT by Kiley Reid takes place mostly inside a dormitory at the University of Arkansas. Millie is one of the resident assistants for the dorm, and she's good at it. Even when students make clueless comments about race or class, Millie keeps up her facade of perky responsibility and patiently smooths over conflicts between residents, like the three roommates in the suite next door. A couple of her fellow RAs are much less invested in the job, and as Millie's friendship with them grows, she adopts some of their slacker ways and cares less about doing everything by the book. Agatha is a visiting professor who first connects with Millie for help setting up interviews for Agatha's next book about attitudes toward money. The interviews provide such great material that Agatha talks to Millie about spending more time in the dorm to observe students informally -- in other words, to eavesdrop. What begins as a harmless arrangement develops layers of complications over time to threaten consequences for everyone involved.

This story is all about people listening in on what other people say and how they say it, and the reading experience constantly delivers the juicy thrill of eavesdropping on an outrageous conversation. Much of the novel is seemingly unimportant discussions that go on surprisingly long, and I expect some readers will find it slow, but I remained entertained by everything the characters had to say. Reid demonstrates her skill at rendering realistic dialogue for characters of all backgrounds once again, as she did in the faster-moving SUCH A FUN AGE. Though it takes time for the plot of COME AND GET IT to really get moving, Reid sets the characters on their eventual trajectories from the start and uses tiny moments to build up an intricate plot. I loved how nuanced and quietly complex the story is, and I really admire Reid's craft.

THE BEE STING by Paul Murray: The Barnes family is under financial strain because of the global recession, and that's pushing every family member into situations they don't want tell the others about. Teen daughter Cass worries her best friendship will end if a class divide grows between the two girls, and she becomes increasingly desperate not to lose the relationship. (Increasing desperation eventually drives all the characters.) Her younger brother PJ has his own friendship issues, but the boy he met on a gaming forum is the one person who seems to be on his side, and may have a solution to all his family's problems. Their parents, Imelda and Dickie, are overwhelmed with concerns of an adult nature, complicated by a past that's far darker than their children realize.

I'm always interested in stories about family secrets, and this one is well constructed, unfolding to reveal more and more surprises. I liked how even though these characters interact daily and are all impacted by the failing family business, each is largely occupied with a plot the others are completely unaware of. Those separate plots are set up in a section for each character before the perspectives interleave in the final section. The structure allows time to really sink into the distinct points of view, but because the parents' sections are quite long, I got impatient waiting for an update on the kids' stories. Though I wasn't sorry to read 650 pages of this book, I think it could have been shorter.

I'm glad I read this, but it won't be for everyone. Along with warning about the length, I'll mention that one POV is written without any periods or commas, every character makes terrible decisions, and the story gets disturbing in numerous ways. If none of that scares you away, you might also be a reader who will appreciate THE BEE STING.

HOLLOWPOX: THE HUNT FOR MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: After a difficult first year as a junior scholar in the Wundrous Society, Morrigan Crow is excited to finally begin her magical education in earnest. Her new set of classes is strange and thrilling, and she's so caught up in learning and practicing that she barely has attention for anything else. Still, Morrigan can't ignore the increasing number of disturbing incidents involving Wunimals. These sentient creatures, who normally behave like any other member of Nevermoor society, have started attacking humans in the manner of senseless beasts. While a disease is suspected, even the Wunsoc can't figure out how to stop it, and fear and prejudice is spreading. Morrigan is just a kid, so the adults don't want her trying to find a solution, but she may be in a unique position to help.

I'm continuing to enjoy this series, and how with each new book, we're learning along with Morrigan that there's more to Nevermoor and Wunsoc than was apparent before. The suspense is high in this installment, and the story goes to some tough places and covers them thoughtfully. Morrigan's friendships keep developing in great ways, with this book particularly focused on the idea of found family. I look forward to the gang's next adventures, so I'm joining the wait for the fourth book, expected later this year.

UNLOCKING THE AIR AND OTHER STORIES by Ursula K. Le Guin: For this collection, Le Guin compiled her stories from the 1980s and 90s that aren't science fiction. I didn't realize that when I checked it out from the library, but I was glad for the opportunity to read a different side of her work. Unfortunately, I wasn't that taken with most of the stories. I don't want to pin my disappointment on the lack of scifi, because I'm happy to read realistic fiction, and many of these stories aren't entirely grounded in reality anyway. But my sense after reading them was usually that something was lacking, either in the follow-through of an intriguing setup or in my understanding of the point. The writing is great at a sentence and paragraph level, of course, and Le Guin develops some good characters and relationships, but I wanted more from these stories.

The opener, "Half Past Four", was one of the most interesting to read: In each scene, a set of recurring characters are remixed into different versions of lives and relationships to one another. I enjoyed figuring out all the pieces of each iteration, but the ending left me feeling like I didn't get it, a recurring experience with this collection. The most effective story for me was "Standing Ground", which depicts a tense situation at an abortion clinic from different points of view, though I was also confused by the abruptness of that ending. "Ether, OR" is about the relationships between residents of a small town that doesn't remain in a fixed location. The characters are strong, and the premise is a fascinating one, but I was surprised it mostly provides background flavor more than it impacts the events.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe considers the importance of food in storytelling, on the page, on screen, and in games such as Pentiment: "Some of the most interesting moments in the gameplay is when Andreas joins one of the local families for a meal. The act of sitting down for lunch or dinner plays several important roles in the game, including marking the passage of time by moving the day forward. It also reveals a significant amount of information about the family and their social class, as well as being a space for discussion, local gossip, and family arguments. It also allows us to see what kinds of foods were eaten during that time period in Bavaria, enabling the player to feel more connected to this historical moment."

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