Tag Archives: nisi shawl

Favorite books from the beginning of 2017

I’ve been reading a lot more than I’ve been writing here, so I thought I’d do a round up of my favorite books from the first quarter of 2017. These are just books I read in January-March.

middle grade

Ratpunzel by Ursula Vernon: Harriet Hamsterbone continues to basically be the best. Mother Goethel here was genuinely creepy (something I feel Rapunzel retellings often fail to pull off). This series really manages to tackle some big, complicated issues in thoughtful and kid-appropriate ways. So good!

Lumberjanes vol. 5: Band Together: FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX! (someday I will start a Lumberjanes review with something else) (jk, that will never happen) Look, this volume has mermaids, and also lots of confusion about how an underwater mermaid rock band is even possible, and it contains the immortal line, “I don’t want to die confused” so yes.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis: This book is just so comforting (much like a cup of chocolate). While this might sound like faint praise, it’s really not–comforting things are really necessary, and books that lie at the crossroads of smart and comforting are harder to pull off than they look. It’s a unique take on dragons, and I loved Aventurine and her determination.

YA

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour: Okay, I will say upfront that the premise of this book is a bit implausible, BUT please accept it and move on because it is full of LaCour’s most mature, rich writing to date and so many feelings. There’s this feeling that’s common to many young adults of being out of place, of not knowing who you are or how exactly to find out. This book is quiet and specific in its characters and setting and it feels so textured and beautiful.

The Hate U Give by A.C. Thomas: Any praise I have here will be slightly superfluous, but oh this book. I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished. It is so amazing on so many levels, but Starr herself really stood out for me. This is a book about her finding her voice, but at the same time, even on the first page she shines.

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow: To be honest, I delayed reading this one at first because even though I trust Bow, I wasn’t sure how anything could follow The Scorpion Rules. But this one did. It starts small and quiet, but the tension and the implications build until it becomes an incredibly heartbreaking exploration of identity and love and what it means to be a person. I love sequels that dig deeper into the world of the first book, and that’s just what this one does.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: I reread this one at the beginning of the year, and it was just what I needed. Learning to tread new brain paths, learning to love and be loved. Living in the tension between the old and the new. This book is just a LOT in all the best possible ways.

Lucy & Linh by Alice Pung: I realized as I was typing this up that Lucy & Linh (aka Laurinda in its native Australia) has a lot in common thematically with We Are Okay: growing up and moving to a new place, complicated friendships, feeling unsure of yourself and who you are. But Lucy also deals with class and privilege and race, which tie back into the theme of identity and friendship in really interesting ways.

adult

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: I’ve discovered that I love good biographies of complex, difficult women, and this one is a great example. “Christine Granville” and her life make for an incredible, infuriating, and achingly sad story.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: While I basically just love all of Laura Florand’s books, this one really hit me in a personal place. It’s a quieter story, more intimate, full of the weight of the past–both family history and historical events. It’s about learning to acknowledge that weight without letting it bind you. And, on a lighter note, I really enjoy the setting and descriptions of the countryside as well.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl: I talked about this one quite a lot already, but I’ve found myself thinking about it regularly ever since I read it. The approach to the story is so inventive and thought-provoking, and the sense of what-might-have-been is both inspiring and heartwrenching.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: Math and magic IN SPACE, and family, and culture, and diplomacy, and explosions, all in one short novella that doesn’t have that frustrating too-short-and-too-long feeling that some novellas do. It just makes me happy whenever I think about it, and I can’t wait to read Home.

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairEverfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

 

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