Tag Archives: reading diversely

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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Complex and haunting adult SFF: Oyeyemi and Jemisin

Spoilers for The Fifth Season below!

I wanted to take a look at two books which fall on the literary end of speculative fiction, but which are also very aware of the genre’s conventions and influences. Which is to say, that they are both complex and sophisticated, while remaining very much a part of SF. Also, I am still thinking about them two months after first reading them.

To begin with, I have now read two books by Helen Oyeyemi, and both were bewildering and beautiful. I started with White is For Witching and then read Mr. Fox, and let me say that I have no idea what is happening in Mr. Fox and I love it.

Except that this isn’t quite true. I do know what is happening, but Oyeyemi is writing in a non-linear way, trusting the reader to make connections between disparate times and places and characters. So the text feels both impenetrable and exactly right. I understand it in the way I understand difficult poetry: I can’t say what it means, but I know what it means. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, to steal a line from Yeats.

In this case, Oyeyemi is circling around several related ideas. Mr. Fox is about stories: the stories we tell, the stories we’re a part of, the stories we consume. And it’s about fairy tales, which of course are stories with extra power. It’s about patterns: who gets to tell the stories, who is featured in them, and how they are portrayed. At the center, the tangled heart of this book, is the relationship between the male novelist and his muse. The book uses this relationship to talk about male consumption of women, in the sense of fictional portrayals but also emotional labor. And it talks about women and their relationship to each other, their resistance and/or non-resistance to what men ask of them.

In short, this is a book that demands attention and energy to give up its meaning. It is coherent, but it doesn’t boil down to a simple argument or theory. It takes delight in taking you by surprise, especially in the moments when you think you finally have a grasp on what’s going on.

The second book I wanted to talk about is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Many people have already talked about this book’s strengths, so on a certain level I feel like anything I say is just a matter of “me too!” However, I’ve been reading Jemisin’s books for a few years now, and I remain fascinated by how deftly she plays with big concepts and assumptions about story.

In The Fifth Season one of the big twists is the revelation that the three main characters–Essen, Syen, and the “you” of the second person narration–are all the same person at different times in her life. There’s a convention in epic fantasy that the story feature lots of different characters and viewpoints. Here, Jemisin trades on that convention brilliantly, as the reader slowly realizes the truth. The question of how these three parts of the same person fit together propelled me through the second half of the book.

But on a larger scale, Jemisin starts off with the end of the world, the act that causes this world to fall apart. I keep thinking about the end of the prologue:

But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

Not only does it set the stakes for the rest of the story, but it’s a brilliant almost-echo of Eliot. And indeed, part of what’s agonizingly effective in this book is the extent to which it’s all a whimper. The revelations of the last chapter or so change that to a certain extent, but most of the story is fueled by this tension between knowledge and ignorance. Who knows that something bad is coming, and who believes this is just another Season. Jemisin shows us her hand and then unfolds all the decisions, all the little moment which lead up to the cataclysm.

It would be easy for all these different parts–the narrators, the structure of the narrative itself, the looming apocalyptic threat–to end up feeling like tricks. But they don’t. Instead, they deepen and enrich the story, so that when you reach the end, it feels real and raw and devastating.

In fact, this is a large part of what I admire about both Mr. Fox and The Fifth Season is the way in which the authorial choices are made in service to the story that’s being told. Neither books are easy; both books ask something of the reader; attention, sympathy for difficult people, patience to unravel the pattern. But on the other hand, neither book has style with no purpose. It’s the marriage of story and style that I’ve found myself returning to since I finished reading, because it’s somewhat rare but also so lovely when it’s pulled off.

Other reviews:

 

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Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina

burn_baby_burn_coverI read this book last month in the midst of a reading slump, when all I wanted to do was reread old favorites but the pressure of all the new books sitting on my library shelf was too much. I picked it up after getting home from work and read it in one evening, completely ignoring everything else I meant to do. I liked Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass a lot–in fact, I was on the Cybils panel that shortlisted it the year it came out. But Burn, Baby, Burn is even stronger, in my opinion. It does so much so well that the only challenge is which of the threads to talk about.

For instance, there’s been a spate of YA set in the 1980s & 90s which seems to have no reason for that setting aside from nostalgia on the part of the author. By contrast, Burn, Baby, Burn not only engages with its historical setting, it could not possibly have been set in any other moment. Medina writes out of personal memory and experience, as her backmatter notes make clear, but she doesn’t stop there. The atmosphere of the summer of 1977 is woven into every scene and character.

There’s also a kind of mythologized, idealized NYC that exists in a lot of YA, as in a lot of other media. Medina resists that as well, pushing back against the idea of the glittering city full of a thousand possibilities. Nora’s city is on the edge of something, full of danger, full of people trying to make their way in a difficult world. It would be easy to say that it’s gritty, and I think that is wrong: it’s also full of hope and excitement. But it’s not smooth; when Nora visits her father and his new family, we see briefly the kind of NYC that usually appears in YA and feel the same relief that Nora does when she returns to her neighborhood.

Most of all, though, the setting here underlies and informs the characters. Medina draws everyone with understanding and complexity, but at the heart of the book is always Nora. Like her neighborhood, Nora is not smooth: she’s prickly, both self-assured and self-doubting, brimming over with hope and joy and fear. Medina shows a very specific Latina girl growing up in a particular neighborhood in NYC at a particular time in a particular family. But at the same time, Nora’s journey towards becoming a young woman resonates deeply.

I’m also grateful for the way that Nora’s story includes other girls and women on their own journeys. While she does navigate falling for a boy, the story starts and ends with Nora and her best friend Kathleen. We see their similarities and differences, but we also see the older generation. Kathleen’s mother and her black best friend (one of Nora’s neighbors) are both feminists, but we see the differences in their experiences as well. Without being the History of Feminism, we’re also given a picture of what the struggle for equal rights looked like in that moment, which doesn’t erase the experiences and legacy of women of color.

The final strand I wanted to note is the depiction of Nora’s family. Over the course of the book we see Nora slowly, slowly coming to terms with the fact that her brother Hector is truly dangerous to himself and to others. And once she realizes that, she also has to decide what she’ll do with that knowledge, in the face of her mother’s determination to not see. It’s a tricky thing to show that undercurrent of things not being okay, and Medina does it really well. Nora’s final decisions and determination in keeping herself and others safe is a really great and powerful way to tell this story. More teens than we sometimes realize or want to admit have families where things are broken, and a lot of growing up is learning to acknowledge this and find your own path.

This is definitely a book where difficult things happen, where the hard parts of being a teen aren’t shied away from. But there’s also a tremendous sense of hope and joy. There are second chances and learning to find your own place to stand and grow. There’s so much more to talk about here, but the heart of it–what’s stuck with me in the last month–is Nora’s courage and determination to do the best she can, by herself and by other people.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Candlewick; YA historical fiction

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Icon by Genevieve Valentine

icon(Orthodox readers, this is not an Orthodox book, despite the title! I’ll talk about this a bit more below but I wanted to make it clear right away.) (Everyone: There are spoilers for Icon below. I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to in this book without spoiling it, I’m sorry, please don’t read any more if this bothers you!)

Oh, friends. This book. However this review turns out, please understand that the temptation to just add that Community “MY EMOTIONS” gif and hit schedule is going to be super high. Genevieve Valentine is really good at making me feel lots of things, it turns out. Also, she writes books that I possibly would not read from anyone else but which are so good that I consider her an auto-read author at this point. I’m pretty sure she could imbue the phone book with strong characters and a tense plot, also that I would like it.

In this case, Icon is a sequel to last year’s Persona. Both are near-future political thrillers, about the same main characters, Suyana and Daniel. I finished Persona and was astonished that both of them made it out of the book alive.

Well, they don’t both make it out of Icon alive.

Icon has a sense of narrative inevitability from page one, and a sense of tension and doom that increases to an almost unbearable extent over the course of the book. I both knew and felt that things were gong to end badly. I kept finding myself holding my breath until the most immediate danger had passed. And yet, I kept reading, even knowing I was going to cry.

I cried so much.

Suyana and Daniel are completely compelling, partly because Valentine has a keen sense for what to tell us and what to leave out. Asking the reader to fill in the blank spaces makes us more invested, keeps us caring, keeps us turning the page. In Persona, we had a sense of them as unlikely partners. Here they’re separated. But they keep fighting and fighting, for the soul of the IA, for the people they care about, for each other. They never get a break or a rest, they hardly have a single moment alone together, and yet their relationship is so potent that it becomes the center around which the story turns.

(I also love that Suyana gets to be calculating without being heartless.)

But Valentine is also excellent at throwing her characters into tense, impossible situations. In Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Persona, they manage to win some sort of space, peace, love. Icon, on the other hand, refuses any way out. I have always thought that West Side Story is more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, because one of them lives and has to go on living. In Icon, not only does Daniel die, and in dying save them, but Suyana “wins” at a horrific personal cost. She ends the book almost entirely alone, muddied by politics. She has done the right thing for the IA and therefore the world. It’s not exactly a bleak ending. But it is a hard one.

Now, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of the title. I understand what Valentine is trying to conjure–the complexity boiled down into a symbol. But since I am Orthodox and the word icon has a primarily religious connotation for me, and since that religious understanding is quite different than Valentine’s usage, it just…doesn’t work for me. I realize this is a personal issue, and one not every reader will share.

I’d recommend this book for people at the unlikely intersection of: invested in Hiddleswift (I have not even gotten into Suyana’s fake relationship with Ethan!), interested in politics, and the red carpet, and into Code Name Verity. (Weirdly enough, I feel like I know multiple people who fit that profile.) Actually, you don’t have to be interested in all of those things, or maybe even any of them. You just have to be willing to let these characters in and then let them break your heart a little.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Saga Press; adult science fiction

 

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Mahvesh Murad at Tor.com; Bridget Keown @ RT; you?

 

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Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana

mirror in the skyMirror in the Sky is Aditi Khorana’s debut, and it’s a pretty neat take on YA speculative fiction. Tara Krishnan is an outsider in her rich, white school. But when a mirror planet is discovered–a version of Earth that’s just a little different from ours–Tara is jolted out of her usual life. Her mother might be joining a cult, she becomes friends with unexpected people, and she starts to wonder about the other paths she might have taken. Essentially, this book takes an SF premise, the discovery of Terra Nova, and uses it to tell a quiet, thoughtful story of family, friendship, and identity.

The family strand is the one I had the most conflicted reaction to, which is mostly down to the depiction of Tara’s mom. I had mixed feelings about the fact that her choices are seen as selfish, that her decision to go to California is shown as being a bad mother. On the other hand, we’re seeing everything so much from Tara’s point of view, and from a teen perspective it rings pretty true. And by the end of the book, Tara has come to see some of why her mother might have made those choices. In the end, while I wasn’t wild about this storyline, I felt comfortable with the way it resolves.

Tara also becomes friends with Halle Lightfoot, one of the most popular people at their high school, and through Halle with a group of tight-knit kids. This opens her world, but also complicates it. A lot of this book engages with questions about friendship: who’s really a friend? How and why do we choose our friends? and having chosen them, when do we leave them behind? There aren’t really easy answers here, but the depiction of a group that is both close and at odds with each other was really well done.

And for Tara herself, the discovery of Terra Nova and her changing relationships call into question a lot of her identity. As the only brown, poor kid at Brierly, she’s often felt herself to be an outsider. Late in the book, there’s a powerful moment when Tara realizes, “I was afraid of the messiness that closeness brings, afraid of friendships that turn to something else, afraid of my own petty jealousies and the monstrous things that can come of them.” This is partly a book about learning to let people in and also stay yourself.

There are definitely some clunky moments in the story. Sometimes the images and thoughts are a bit repetitive and sometimes Tara’s conclusions are a little pointed. Nonetheless, this is an accomplished and impressive debut that’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I definitely recommend it for readers who are looking for a quiet, complex story.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Penguin Random House; YA speculative fiction

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Peas & Carrots by Tanita S. Davis

peas & carrotsI’ve been hearing great things about Tanita Davis’s books ever since her first, Mare’s War, was published. But (confession time!) I haven’t actually read one until now. That will be changing, because I loved Peas & Carrots.

The story is a contemporary YA, set in California. It’s told in alternating chapters between Dess, whose chapters are in first person, and Hope, whose chapters are in third. It took me a little bit to settle into this style, but I think it does a great job of differentiating the two characters and their perspectives.

As the story begins, Dess is being placed with Hope’s family temporarily. They’ve been fostering her younger brother, Austin, and Dess asked to see him. She didn’t expect to leave the group home she was in and go live with this family. Hope, meanwhile, is used to having foster kids in her family, but never one so close to her own age.

Given how many children are part of the foster care system, it seems important to have stories that reflect their realities. There aren’t enough, but this is a wonderful addition. Davis’s family fostered kids when she was young and I think that experience shows in the depth and complexity of the characters she portrays here. This is a story that it would be easy to get offensively wrong, and while I can’t say definitively, it certainly read as a sympathetic and nuanced look at one situation.

I also appreciated that Dess is a character who has a lot of integrity, and yet isn’t perfect. She refused to let her grandmother take her in if she wouldn’t also take in Austin, who’s biracial. And yet, she also judges Hope and her family because they don’t meet her expectations of how African-Americans* should be. We also see her pushing back against assumptions and stereotypes: she’s a good student and gets along well with most people.

Hope was a bit less clear to me as a character, but I also really enjoyed her sections. She’s a bookworm and scifi fan and later we find out that she read and liked The Goblin Emperor (!!!)**. Dess certainly pushes her to face her own assumptions, and to take chances that Hope might otherwise pass by. Mostly I loved seeing the slow growth of a friendship between them, as both girls learn to value each other. This is done subtly, but it’s really effective and I think fits their personalities and situation.

While there definitely is some plot here, this is a book that’s primarily focused on characters, and it really shines in that regard. Even the more minor characters seemed fleshed out and considered. Since I tend to be a character-based reader, this worked really well for me.

All in all, this is a thoughtful, complex book about a subject that needs more reflections in fiction. I’m really glad it exists and that I read it.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Knopf Books for Young Readers; contemporary YA

* this the term that’s used throughout the book, so I’m using it here

** Tanita Davis knows all the people I do online, so this isn’t really surprising but it was very fun!

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

a thousand nightsA Thousand Nights is a loose-ish retelling of the Scheherazade story. It’s E.K. Johnston’s third book, and it’s firmly cemented her as a go-to author for me. I got the ARC for this one just before the Cybils started, so I set it aside until now. And while I’m sorry I had to wait this long, I’m happy that I had a chance to really savor this lovely book.

First, I think it’s worth stating upfront that Johnston is really thoughtful about how she changes the Scheherazade story. She resists romance here, which I appreciated. This is not the story of a girl falling in love with her captor, and it so easily could be.

The narrator of A Thousand Nights is never given a name–in fact, many of the characters aren’t. They’re defined in relationship to the narrator, or to the each other, which gives the story an immediacy and intimacy that I think works really well here. In fact, I felt that the narrator’s voice throughout the story, and the authorial choices that Johnston makes in terms of the way language is used, are one of the major strengths of the book.

Despite the fact that she’s not given a name, I found the narrator’s character–the way she experiences the world–worked in a really powerful way. This story is about some big themes and ideas, but it’s driven by the narrator and her choices.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is the way it centers the relationships between the women in the story. The narrator is motivated by  her love for her sister, and she has strong, important connections with her mother, her sister’s mother, and Lo-Melkhiin’s mother. Even more so, the story explicitly honors and talks about women’s stories, women’s secrets, and women’s lives in a way that I found really refreshing. The place of handcrafts and traditional women’s work in the story is also really great; they’re shown with respect for the work and knowledge that goes into them and shown to have power, even if that power is often overlooked or misunderstood by men.

Moreover, the women in the story are not set in competition with each other. The narrator and her sister love each other, and their mothers are dear friends. Even Lo-Melkhiin’s mother and the servants in the qasr are shown to have relationships with each other and with the narrator that are supportive and nurturing, rather than competitive.

There’s also a great exploration of pride in who you are and where you come from. Many of the narrator’s images and similes grow out of her life in the desert, and she’s shown to draw much of her sense of self and her sense of strength from that identity. In the end, the story makes that a bittersweet thing, and yet I found that it really grounded the narrator and gave her a sense of purpose and the readers a sense of who she is. I had a sense of tradition and culture that’s very deep, even if we don’t see all of it.

Finally, this is a book that’s all about choices. The narrator faces hard choices again and again, and she has to choose rightly and see clearly in order to keep herself alive and to keep her family and country safe. The narrative deals really well with this, making it seem natural, while at the same time drawing attention to this theme and to the narrator’s sense of being on a knife’s edge.

In case it’s not clear, I really loved this book–I found it a joy to read and I was consistently surprised and convinced by Johnston’s choices, and by the narrator and her story. It combines a sense of being rooted in a sense of family and history and self, with a strength and purpose that’s shown to be how the narrator saves herself in the end.

Book source: ARC passed on from Brandy

Book information: 2015, Hyperion; YA historical fantasy

Other reviews: Brandy, Kirkus, Kaye, you?

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