Review: The Devourers by Indra Das

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Hiatus

So I haven’t posted a review in a couple of weeks – some of that’s to do with general burnout and a lot of it’s to do with (take one guess) the motherfucking election results.

I was already considering taking the rest of the year off from reviewing books, and now I am definitely planning to do so. This next month and a half will be all about finding pleasure in reading and giving my brain a way to take a temporary break from obsessively refreshing every social media site ever for the latest bit of terribleness.

I’ll be back on December 31st with a post on my favorite reads of 2016, and am planning to pick up regular reviewing again in 2017.

In the meantime, how about that apocalypse? Looks like it’s gonna be a bad one.

(But seriously, fight it. Fight it with everything you can. I know I will.)

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

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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

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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

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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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Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfair

I can’t remember the last time I read a steampunk novel, but I always knew I would be reading Nisi Shawl’s Everfair as soon as it came out. A what-if take on the outcome of the colonization of Africa and the enslavement and brutalization enacted upon the people of the Congo, Everfair uses steampunk not as a shiny gloss, but as an integral mechanism powering her alternate history in which the existence of the Belgian Congo takes a markedly different turn for the better.

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Review: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

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In some far future in what used to be the midwest of the United States, monsters walk the streets of V-City at night. If a human commits violence, a monster comes to life as a result of the crime. The Corsai are violent maulers, and the Malchai are emaciated vampires. The mysterious Sunnai, that most rare of monsters, eat souls. Not only are they the most destructive, no one knows what they look like, and that makes them the most dangerous monsters of all.

Kate Harker is a human who wants to be a monster. The daughter of the crime boss who rules half of V-City, she’s gotten herself kicked out of six boarding schools so she can return to be with her father. She’ll prove one way or another that she’s a Harker, her father’s daughter, and worthy of his time and attention.

August Flynn is a monster who wants to be human. He lives on the other half of V-City, the side where humans decided to fight the monsters rather than pay exorbitant fees for Callum Harker’s protection. August and his two siblings look human but are all Sunnai, and they live with the man who runs the task force dedicated to monster hunting and crime prevention. August is tired of being who he is and the things he’s capable of doing when he doesn’t eat for too long.

Kate and August are two sides of a coin, and they are both able to see the city for what it is, and each other as the people they truly are. As the power structure in V-City teeters and threatens to make collateral damage of Kate and August, the two of them are on the run for their lives to save the city, themselves, and each other.

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Review: Infomocracy by Malka Older

infomocracy

Do elections become more democratic when everyone has access to to the same infinite, universal information? Does ease of access to information and universal availability and ability to vote diminish voting disenfranchisement and lead to smarter, more thoughtful voting outcomes?

Maybe. Ideally. It’d be nice if that happened.

Malka Older’s cyberpunk election thriller Infomocracy posits a late twenty-first century future in which microdemocracy is the norm. Instead of traditional, old-fashioned nation-states, Earth (or rather its participating constituents, but that’s still most of Earth) is divided up into 100,000-people voting blocs called “centenals.” Rural areas may have only a couple of centenals spread out over hundreds of miles, while densely packed cities can have a couple hundred centenals within the space of several street blocks.

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Mini-Reviews: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin and Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

I have read too many books I have not written for reviews for yet, and I would like to be caught up, therefore I present you with some mini-reviews.

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin:

the-obelisk-gateThis is the book I would love to write a full-length review for if a) I had the time and b) this book wasn’t due back at the library the moment I am writing this post. N. K. Jemisin is a phenomenal, fantastic writer—it’s true what everyone is saying that these are the best books she’s written yet—and it’s all to do with how much fine-tuned control she has over the story and its many converging threads, as well as the words and tone she uses to tell it. 10-year-old Nassun’s chapters are pieces of painful beauty, the way they balance her childness, her trauma, her cynicism, her self-loathing, and her bottomless pit of yearning for the adults in her life to love, and to have loved her, the way she wants them to, the way they were supposed to.

… [Nassun] never knows anything of his ultimate fate other than that she has killed him, which makes her a monster.

“Perhaps,” [he] tells her as she sobs these words. He holds her in his lap again, stroking her thick curls. “But you are my monster.”

The Obelisk Gate is a comparatively slower, steadier book than The Fifth Season, which doesn’t mean it’s stagnant. More is uncovered about the nature of orogeny, the obelisks and Alabaster’s plan, and Essun is running on borrowed time to understand all of them before the current Season leads to starvation and the end of all humanity. To use a geology analogy, the story, and Essun and the comm of Castrima and Nassun, are all subjected to heat and pressure on all sides, and the rising tension threatens to explode and obliterate everything around them. Essun has already had her world destroyed far too many times already, and now she has a choice to make whether she’s going to do something to prevent her grudgingly adopted world from suffering the same fate as well.

“No vote,” you say… “Leave. Go join Rennanis if they’ll have you. But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people… This is a community. You will be unified. You will fight for each other. Or I will rusting kill every last one of you.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal:
ghost-talkers This novel posits a World War I that contains the all-important Spirit Corps, a group of mediums who channel the ghosts of recently killed soldiers in order to obtain crucial information about the battlefield to aid the British war effort. American heiress Ginger Stuyvesant is one such medium. Like her fellow Spirit Corps members, she is beyond exhausted from channeling the influx of soldiers and handling their death experiences. When a ghost passes on information that suggests a German plot to neutralize the Spirit Corps, Ginger embarks on a dangerous mission that carries her to the front lines of battle and back to uncover both the plot and a murder.

Ghost Talkers is a breeze of a novel to read, which is an odd thing to say about a book set in World War I during the Battle of the Somme. Mary Robinette Kowal’s prose is smooth and light, and the scenes are written with levity, kindness, and warmth while retaining the horror and senseless destruction of war, and the particular form of disillusionment that characterized World War I. The characters are fun, and Kowal’s cast is composed of more than white, male soldiers, such as female nurses and hospitality women, Jamaican and Indian soldiers and aides in the war effort, and elderly and disabled soldiers and civilians.

Ginger herself was fine as a protagonist, but she never felt as having more than surface-level characterization, demonstrating generic strength, determination, and fire-branded-ness that didn’t actually tell me much about who she was, or what kind of person she was before the war. Additionally the plot involved some too-convenient twists near the end and unconvincing revelations (namely why the spy was a spy to begin with). Ultimately the historical fiction and supernatural elements of the book were far more successful than the actual story, which is a shame, because the world-building was so good.