2017 Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

Theme I’ve noticed this yearthe Hugo ballots more closely match the Nebula ballot than previous years (ignoring the past two years of Puppy-rigged ballots), and no more so is this the case than the Hugo ballot. I barely had anything new to read at all! This seems to speak to some amount of consensus among the “popular” and the “professional” categories of voters that make up the two awards about the best works published in 2016.

Unfortunately I was not able to finish reading all the nominations before the awards tonight (namely Penric’s Demon). (Seriously, what is up with conventions like WorldCon and RCCC occurring one month earlier than usual?) Aside from this one discrepancy, behold the novella ballot review.

  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold, (Spectrum Literary Agency)

Did not finish in time; intrigued by the bit I read.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • This Census Taker by China Miéville (Del Ray/Picador)

I don’t care that this is written by China Miéville, and I don’t care that everything he writes is supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. I have way too large a TBR pile and too little time to waste on books that bore me and my god, was this fucking boring. I gave up 70 pages in. Theoretically there’s a story buried underneath all the words put on paper to look and sound pretty and create setting, but I don’t have the time or interest to slog through and see if there is.

(I have enjoyed several of Miéville’s novels in the past, but he remains one of those authors whose writing I feel obligated to like because the Literary Establishment—both SFF and otherwise—have indicated that he can do no wrong, and even if he does do wrong it’s still brilliant anyway.)

My vote: A Taste of Honey

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Review: Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

crossroads of canopy

Setting a fantasy novel in a rainforest is, with the benefit of hindsight, a genius idea, due to the genre’s historical love of stratified societies and hierarchical social structures.

Canopy is home to those who worship the thirteen gods and goddesses of their pantheon. Residents are closest to the sunlight, have more access to resources, and are the safest from the creatures that roam the forest, thanks to the magical barrier that separates Canopy from Understorey and Floor. This barrier also traps those who live in Understorey to the mercy of harsher, more dangerous living conditions and fewer resources. To those in Canopy, Understorians are savages fit only for slavery.

Unar, a Canopian born and bred, knows she has a powerful destiny. At the age of twelve she ran away from home to avoid being sold by her impoverished parents and gained entry to the Garden of Audblayin, the Waker of Senses and the goddess of birth and life. There she easily masters the magic that lies in Audblayin’s province, arrogant in her knowledge she was meant to serve one day as the bodyguard for her patron deity’s next incarnation.

Instead, Unar’s plan is thwarted again and again. Refused to ascend in rank in the Garden, entangled in promises and debts to a family of slaves, Unar’s destiny takes her beneath the barrier into Understorey. There she learns of another, powerful type of magic, and discovers an organized plot to overthrow Canopy—a plot that Unar has the power to aid or destroy, at the cost of everything she’s striven for.

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Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedly

I was ready to give Allegedly five stars. It’s a gut-wrenching thriller that hammers with pinpoint precision at the status quo and the intersection of the criminal justice system, bodily autonomy, racism, mental illness, and child abuse, as well as the struggles and roadblocks that prevent the most vulnerable and in need of help from ever getting any. The writing is tight. The plot is gripping. All of the characters have depth beyond their first impression. Also it turned my emotions into a bloody mess.

And then the last five pages happened. And I want to unpack my response.

(This will be a SPOILERY review).

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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale is rooted in Russian fairy tales and mythic creatures, early Russian history back when Moscow paid tribute to the Mongol Empire, and spiritual warfare between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Slavic pagan beliefs of the peasantry. It’s a straightforward story and a compulsive page-turner (always a plus for me these days) with an engaging storyteller voice.

Vasilisa Petronova is the last daughter born to Pyotr Vladimirovich and his first wife Marina. Independent, inquisitive, and more than a little stubborn and unruly, Vasilisa is most at home inside the surrounding forest and amongst the guardian spirits inhabiting her home and the land. Everything changes when her father brings home two additions to his household: Anna Ivanovna, his second wife, a devout Christian who fears and despises the household spirits as demons, and Konstantin Nikonovich, a priest with a magnetic presence, powerful voice, and deep-seated need for devotion. As Konstantin instills fear within Pytor’s people, the guardian spirits wither, and the village’s strength weakens. But more is at stake than just the village. Medvev, the Bear, has been entrapped for several years, but he is slowly growing strong enough to break free and gorge himself on the fear of the world.

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Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

an-accident-of-stars

Sixteen-year-old Saffron Coulter’s life is changed forever when she witnesses a strange woman she met a few hours ago enter a giant portal leading god-knows-where. Almost unthinkingly Saffron follows and finds herself in a whole new world. This strange woman, Gwen, is originally from Earth but years ago became a worldwalker and made this world and its country of Kena her home.

Kena is in the midst of political turmoil. To Gwen’s eternal regret, she supported a candidate for the thorne who turned out to be a backstabbing tyrant. Now Gwen and the group of rebels she belongs to have laid their sights on forming an alliance with the neighboring country of Veksh, whose government is rife with its own set of tensions and factions. Immediately thrust into a bewildering landscape of magic, politics, and religion, Saffron comes to play an integral role in determining Kena’s future. But at what cost? And what price will she have to pay upon the day she returns home?

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Review: The Devourers by Indra Das

the-devourers

Late one night on the outskirts of Kolkata, a middle-aged, lonely college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger who claims to be part-werewolf. He gives Alok mesmerising, terrifying visions, a prologue to what will become this stranger’s unbelievable story. Captivated by what he’s seen and wanting to know more, Alok agrees to transcribe the contents of two ancient scrolls the stranger possesses.

These scrolls contain a bloody, magical tale that transcends recorded history and legend both. The first tells the story of a powerful Nordic shapeshifter, one of whose many names is Fenrir, who travels east with two other shapeshifters and seeks to fuck a human woman in order to partake in what his people do not—the creation and bearing of children. The second scroll is written by Cyrah, the woman who was raped by a bestial-looking white stranger. Her story is one of resistance, sought clarity, and dissolution of boundaries as she straddles the two worlds she—and her unborn child—will inhabit.

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My Favorite Reads of 2016

So, 2016, amirite?

From a personal standpoint, my year wasn’t half-bad – I finished grad school, got a new job (albeit in something way outside my field, but still! Job! That pays well!), and didn’t have any major mental health breakdowns (which is a huge improvement from last year!) Other than that, I and everyone around me got to have fun watching a screaming orange toddler with a penchant for fascism, white supremacy, and sexual assault get elected to the presidency.

Anyway.

I had a difficult time coming up with this year’s best-of list. Compared to last year, it seems as though I’ve read fewer books I’ve truly loved with both my head and my heart. Which isn’t to say I read terrible books, but that fewer reads instilled in me that mysterious, alchemical (and highly biased/personal) feeling of transcendence and love and deep-seated knowledge that a book is For Me, that it speaks to my soul. As such, my “books I enjoyed” list is almost twice as long as my “favorite books” list. So it goes.

Without further ado, and presented in chronological order of when I read them, from earliest to latest:

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

out of darkness

One of the few historical fiction books I read this year, and inarguably one of the best. This book hurts, in the best possible way, and confronts racism, classism, sexual assault, widespread tragedy, and rewriting of personal and larger narratives in all their ugly reality while honoring the love and tenderness and core of steel possessed by Naomi Vargas and shared between her and Wash Fuller and her siblings Cari and Beto. Out of Darkness caused grapple with what it means to write historical fiction honestly and with integrity.

 

 

Illuminae and Geminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

illuminae gemina-by-amie-kaufman-and-jay-kristoffThese books are so much fun – epistolary space opera with crazy plots, serious consequences, ridiculous (by which I mean fantastic) senses of humor, and (heterosexual) romances that AREN’T TERRIBLE. Illuminae is in the vein of my beloved Battlestar Galactica in terms of plot and stakes, and Geminae ups the ante even more so.

 

The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

parable of the sower parable of the talentsI am simultaneously crying that I read these books on the very year current events aligned to lead us down a path that will very likely resemble the future portrayed within them and relieved that at least I read them and can now walk into that future with further-opened eyes. Octavia Butler is a grandmaster of science fiction for a reason – she’s really fucking good at it.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

the lie tree

The year one of my best-of lists doesn’t contain a Frances Hardinge book if one was released is a year that doesn’t exist, and if it does the year will need to have a do-over in order to set things right. The Lie Tree may be the best of hers I’ve read yet – wonderful, witty, and incisive writing, fantastic horror and mix of genres and stories and exploration of truth and unreliability of both people and narratives, and in the writing Faith Sunderly, Hardinge continues to write the kinds of stories about gender and women and being people that I love best.

 

 

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

roses and rot

Fairytale art sister love. That’s it, that’s the book. Kat Howard has written the most fairytale book of the year and it is a heart-gauger in its honesty and meaningfulness when it comes to the power of art and creation, and what art means as something individual and as something shared. Also “Tam Lin.”

 

 

 

Rise: A Newsflesh Collection by Mira Grant

rise

Reading this ginormous book of short stories and novella-length fiction set in the Newsflesh universe felt like coming home. I continue to love Mira Grant’s worldbuilding, and even more so I love her characters, all of them fighting to survive in the ways they each know how in a world where the dead are no longer sacred and the rules regarding survival are as harsh as they are deadly.

 

 

 

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

girl-mans-up

In the first line of my review I wrote “I am Pen and Pen is me.” That statement, the way I explained it, continues to be true. The story of a butch lesbian having strength and confidence in her appearance and who she is against her friends and family who tear her down – all while getting a girlfriend – is a book I love not just because it’s well written, but also because it’s one of those rare books that I personally have that recognizable instance of “seeing oneself” in literature, in a way that’s meaningful.

 

 

Radical by E. M. Kokie

radical

I have a type, and that is butch characters in my fiction. And this year I got to read TWO books with butch protagonists. Bex plans to survive anything that happens – she knows how to prep, she knows how to shoot, and she’ll continue practicing even if no one in her family takes her seriously or truly cares about who she is. But when her brother gets himself, and her family, involved something truly dangerous what is Bex willing to do to survive? And who is she doing it for? This book ripped out my heart and crushed it into itty-bitty pieces. Also – actual, explicit F/F sex scene in a YA book from a mainstream publisher! Contemporary is typically not my jam, and E. M. Kokie’s books are one of my favorites in YA.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homecoming

This is a perfect book for someone who loves history, specifically the intersection of history as personal as national as personal—seven generations of two branches of a family, one in Ghana and the other in the United States, one side growing out of aiding and abetting in the Atlantic slave trade and the other side forged out of its direct experience of tyranny and brutality under it, connected through their shared history of the slave trade and thrown apart because of it. Yaa Gyasi is a beautiful writer, evoking both fourteen (!) separate historical milieus and fourteen different POV characters with equal skill and grace.

 

Books I also really enjoyed:

Out of a total of 68 books read in 2016 (including nonfiction and print novellas), 30 were by authors of color (44%), and out of 43 book reviewed on this blog, 21 were by authors of color (49%). My aim for this blog is for half the books I review to be written by authors of color, a parity I almost achieved. I am still much more likely to unthinkingly reach for a book written by a white author, one reason being I’m still used to unthinkingly reaching for white-authored books as a matter of course, and another reason being those books tend to be more immediately available in the library, and individual titles are more likely to be present in larger amounts of copies. For next year I need to start putting more forethought into what my immediate TBR pile looks like (including which books are on my holds list), which requires awareness of which books I’m likely to acquire more quickly in conjunction with awareness of what kind of story I feel like reading at any given time.

This coming year I will also be planning to incorporate a bit more adult historical fiction and nonfiction into my reading list. (The nonfiction will not be getting reviewed because no, I am no longer in school, and I refuse to succumb to any guilt I might feel for not doing a full academic analysis instead of a book review).

Happy end of 2016 (finally!) and best of luck in the coming year. May we all survive the best ways we know how.

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

shadow-and-bone

It feels a little odd to write a review of a popular, NYT best-selling book published four years ago—not only does my review inherently veer towards obsolescence (what’s the point of reviewing a commercially popular book several years after its publication? Most people have likely already read it or made up their minds whether or not they’re going to), there’s a good chance I’ll compound its obsolescence by not having anything new or worthwhile to say. But hopefully people reading this are interested in my thoughts because they are my thoughts. (And if not, I hope you stick around anyway.)

A good friend of mine has been regularly prodding me to read this book and its sequels for over a year now, and now I’ve finally made a start. (Also I reeaally want to read the Six of Crows series, but I want to have read the Grisha Trilogy first for context.)

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Review: Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

pasadena

Maggie was the glamorous, larger-than-life, shining star all her friends revolved around. Maggie was Jude’s best friend, the only one she told her secrets.

Now Maggie’s dead. Her body was found floating face-down in her family’s pool. Drowning? Overdose? Suicide? No one knows.

No one except for Jude. Jude knows it was murder. And as she investigates Maggie’s friends and family, the facade Jude had built around Maggie while she was alive starts to crack open. And, unwillingly so, does Jude’s armor as she comes head-to-head with her past.

Pasadena is a noir YA novel clocking in at a breezy 228 pages. I’d read Sherri L. Smith’s apocalyptic/dystopia novel Orleans and was a huge fan, but hadn’t read anything of hers since, and so I was curious to see what kind of noir story she would write.

228 pages and a week and a half later, I have little to say about it. It’s engaging overall, and the writing style and atmosphere is suitably noir-y. The scorching-hot, tinder-pile of a city that is Pasadena and the outskirts of L.A. is evocatively rendered, and the over-bright sunniness of the setting is effectively utilized in direct opposition of the hidden, shadowy secrets scattered throughout the book.

I really liked the portrayal of Jude and Maggie’s friendship through Veronica Mars-esque flashbacks. (And if you like Veronica Mars, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Pasadena). I especially liked the mystery that was Maggie Kim, a rich, confident, melodramatic glamorous girl, the glue that kept her friends together, the balm that soothed and assured them they mattered and their troubles had answers.

The dealbreaker is the climax—it negates the entire purpose of the story being a noir. (Highlight for spoilers.) Dead people don’t commit suicide in noir—other people kill them. Even though Maggie’s death was aided and abetted by an outside figure, it’s still suicide. All this tension had been built up about what kind of person Maggie was, what secrets of her own she was hiding, the closer Jude gets to solving the mystery of Maggie’s death, and what ended up being the big reveal deflated that tension, big-time. The more I think about it, the more frustrated I am.

My disappointment with the ending has colored my overall feelings towards Pasadena. Other readers may appreciate the book as a contemporary YA exploring friendship, loss, and sexual assault with zero gloss. I picked up Pasadena for the promise of a noir story, and IMO it did not live up to its advertising.

Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

girl-mans-up

I am Pen and Pen is me.

We’re not identical. Yet this is the first time I have read a book with a character whose relationship with their gender and their body  felt relatable for the reason of  OMG I HAVE HAD THOSE SAME EXPERIENCES. Not all of them, but many. The details are different, the essence is the same.

Pen Oleivera is a masculine, butch teenage girl who for all her life has been getting shit from her parents and her peers for being the “wrong” kind of girl, the kind who wears men’s clothes, hangs out with dudes, loves FPS video games, and is an overall un-feminine person. Pen’s never had a problem with herself, with being female, or being into other girls. What Pen does have a problem with are people’s expectations and assumptions. Her traditional, Portuguese-immigrant parents expect respeito from her in the form of acting like an appropriately feminine daughter. Her douchebag-of-a-best friend Colby expects loyalty for his “bros before hos” mentality in return for treating Pen as “just another guy.” All three of them accuse her of trying to be something she’s not, trying to be a man, because why else would she look and act the way she does?

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