Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, games, and podcasts.
I really enjoyed The RavenTower by Ann Leckie (which I discussed here), a beautiful and fascinating fantasy novel about a world in which gods are able to directly interact with humanity and all the power structures that come from such interactions.
Another phenomenal read was The Book of the Unnamed Midwifeby Meg Elison. The story is a set in an apocalyptic world in which the population has been decimated by an illness that was particularly hard on women and children. The result is a world in which children are nonexistent, women are rare, and most men rove around in gangs claiming the few women left as slaves. The midwife — whose diaries have been preserved by a future society — survives by pretending to be a male and issues what little help she can to the women she meets in the form of contraceptives and medical care.
There is a certain bleakness that tends to come out of this kind of storyline — much of the worst of humanity is revealed. And yet, this book doesn’t fully dwell there. For all the awful things that happen, there are people who are trying to help or at the very least trying to just survive without doing harm. Interesting cultural structures crop up, which reverse power roles and people are capable of trust and be good to one another, if they try hard enough. This is, in the end, a story of hope in a brutal world — and it moved me to tears several times. I loved it.
I also read a lot of poetry this month. One of my favorites was Locus by Jason Bayani, which draws on his heritage and cultural experience to delve into the fragmented identities of Pilipinx Americans. Blending memoir and lyricism and inspired by hip-hop and DJ culture, these poems do powerful work in recovering the voices of silenced communities, reflecting on the importance of family and community in tying us to ourselves.
I met Bayani at a reading he was doing and was fortunate to be able to have a moving conversation with him for the New Books in Poetry podcast, which I should be able to share soon.
I adored Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, with the first book Ancillary Justice being one of my favorite reads in 2015. One of the things I loved about these book is how the author was able to shape cultures that felt vivid and complex, exploring the power structures that exist and the various nuances of custom, belief, and prejudice within those societies — and this is something she does equally well in her first foray into fantasy, The Raven Tower.
It was a great reading year for me. The vast majority of the 63 books I read in 2018 were excellent, beautifully written, and/or just plain fun — and this could potentially be a much longer list, if I were to include every book that I enjoyed reading last year.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emzi
Connected to gods and spirit, Ada navigates her life with a sense of fractured self. Emzi’s debut novel is stunning from top to bottom. Ada’s story is heart wrenching. The writing is lush, vivid, and lyrical. It’s the kind of writing to sink into and get lost in. This book haunts me in the best of ways. (Full review.)
The Murderbot Series by Martha Wells
Technically, this is a cheat, since this series constitutes four books — All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy — but I’m counting them as one, since they are all just too good. All Murderbot (as it has dubbed itself) wants is to be left alone and watch hours of vids in peace. But as a security robot assigned to protect a team of scientists surveying a new planet, it has to spend a significant amount of its time preventing humans from doing stupid things that could get them killed and then saving those humans when they do those stupid things anyway. This becomes even more difficult when it becomes clear his clients are under threat of being murdered by outside sources. I loved Murderbot and all its depressed sass from page one, and each of the novellas in which it appears is full of thrilling action and humor.
Provenance by Ann Leckie
Driven by the need to impress her politically motivated mother, Ingray embarked on a dangerous and desperate scheme with unexpected consequences. Leckie is a master of world building, and the planet Hwe on which Ingray resides is a fascinating world of political intrigue. The intercultural confusion that occurs when alien ambassadors and rogue ship captains get mixed up in her scheming makes for an entertaining twists and turns and Ingray stumbles through dramatic conflicts she accidentally sets in motion. Another great book from one of my favorite authors. (Full review.)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
In order to escape her past, Rosemary joins up with a motley crew of space farers who are tasked with opening the wormholes that enable long distance space travel. The relationships between these lovable goofballs (comprised of a mix of backgrounds and species) is at the center of this novel. Presented in episodic chapters, the novel feels a bit more like a sitcom than an epic space opera — and if you like humor, found families, and stories about compassion, then that’s totally in its favor. (Full review.)
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
Believing it can bring her a balm to her trauma and anger from the violence she witnessed on her way to Oomza University, Binti has returned home only to unveil strange new family secrets. While deep in the desert contemplating this new knowledge, she learns that the presence of her friend Okwu (the first of the Meduse species to journey to Earth in peace) has stirred up violent repercussions from the Khoush, putting her family in danger. Can she rush home in time to protect them? The Binti Trilogy is an imaginative and thrilling space opera, with beautiful layers of culture and character woven throughout. The Night Masquerade makes for a wonderful and satisfying conclusion that left me in tears.
Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
The island of Sawkill Rock is a idyllic place, where the the ocean crashes against rocky shores, prize horses graze in green pastures, and where the people are lithe and prosperous and unconcerned. Yet the Rock carries a dark secret — girls have been disappearing there for decades and urban legends abound about a monster in the woods. No on has braved out the truth about the missing girls, not until three girls come together to peer into the secrets hidden on the island. I love the way this book puts female relationships at its center, providing the power to root out evil only when three girls come together to fight it. (Full review.)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
Apollo Kagwa is a book man, tracking down rare first editions to make his living. When he falls in love with Emma and they have a son together, he is determined to be a better father than the man who abandoned him when he was young. But Emma begins acting in strange and unsettling ways, building to a terrible act before vanishing — sending Apollo’s world spinning out of control. The Changeling by Victor LaValle is a powerful novel, presenting a variety of horror, both mundane and supernatural, a mix of folklore and familial love and violence.
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Looking for answers following her friend’s death,Danielle Cain (a “queer punk rock traveller”) finds herself in Freedom, Iowa — a squatter town professing to be a utopia. However, something’s wrong about the place, and it’s not just the heartless animal life wandering around as though they aren’t really dead. I freaking love The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion — which I grabbed off the shelf because of its amazing title and strange eerie cover. The story is beautiful, unsettling and surprising with a multitude of interesting, believable characters. When I finished reading, I just sort of clutched it to my chest, wanting so much more of these people and this world.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Aster is an adept healer living in the slums of the generation starship, HSS Matilda. The class inequalities between the upper and lower classes are dramatic, with those in the lower decks struggling to survive under the dominance of the police force. Aster is a fascinating character — brilliant, obsessive, curious, and solitary — who pushes back against the strict oppression in what small ways she can, uncovering truths about her mother and the ship in the process. (Full review.)
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Stories of Your Life and Others presents a collection of short stories with characters who are driven by the pursuit of knowledge. The science at the core of these tales is not the flash bang of laser guns or space ships or explosions, but in the contemplation and study of our world through linguistics, mathematics, architecture, and beauty. As I read Chiang’s stories, I was continually impressed by his skill as a writer. (Full review.)
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
If They Come for Us is a stunning collection of poetry that ” captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in America by braiding together personal and marginalized people’s histories.” These poems are lyrical and powerful and moving. I love the creativity offered, from the way Asghar addresses the political through the personal to the ways she plays with language and uses humor to emphasize the messages within many of these pieces. (Full review.)
R E D by Chase Berggrun
In R E D, Berggrun presents a series of erasures of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The poems transform the text from a storyline in which women have little to no agency to a stunning exploration of abuse, violence, power dynamics, and femininity.
I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland
I Am Not Your Final Girl is a collection of horror-themed poetry draws on the female characters of horror cinema — the survivors, victims, villains, and monsters — who prowl through dark worlds, facing oppression, persecution, violence, and death. The women in this collection channel their pain and rage into a galvanizing force. They fight. They claim power over their own bodies. They take their power back. They do not relent. (Full review.)
Bonus: A couple of amazing chapbooks I read this year include Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar (interview) and No God In This Room by Athena Dixon (interview) — both of which I highly recommend.
Comics & Graphic Novels
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris
Set in 1960s Chicago, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is told by Karen Reyes a young girl with a passion for pulp horror stories. In her spiral bound journals, she draws out her life in a mix of sketches, journal entries, and comic panels — presenting the interconnected stories of her mother, brother, and the people who live in her community. The use of color and crosshatching makes for some of the most beautiful artwork I’ve seen in any graphic novel, and the story itself is wonderfully complex and layered. (Full review.)
Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror, written and illustrated by Junji Ito
I’ve read a multitude of works by Ito in the past year, going into my own spiral of exploring his graphic works of horror. If I had to choose just one of this books to recommend, however, I’ll go with the classic Uzumaki, in which a town is threatened by the looming presence of a simple geometric shape. The image of a spiral fills the town, infusing and consuming the people. The black and white artwork manages to be both beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
Aimed at writers of speculative fiction (but valuable just about any writer), Wonderbook covers the full range of the writing process, from structural story elements to world building to revision, providing a theory and practice of writing. What sets this above the average writing advice book is the multitude of prompts, writing exercises, and essays from a variety of authors. (Full review.)
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books, starting with Ancillary Justice, is at the top of my list best trilogies that I’ve ever read. I loved the intricate intergalactic universe she created along with the characters who roam it. I’m pretty much down to read anything Leckie writes at this point.
Provenance is set in the same universe (an instant draw for me), but it’s focused on a different region of the galaxy, primarily set on a planet called Hwae, which has their own unique conflicts and cultural values. There is a strong focus on family as a political construct, as well as a passion for “vestiges,” or cultural artifacts that provide a level of prestige on the owner.
Driven by the need to impress her politically motivated mother, she embarked on a dangerous and desperate scheme — to bring a criminal out of imprisonment so that e can reveal the location of some stolen vestiges. Of course, nothing goes according to plan. The person she broke out claims to be someone else entirely. She quickly devises a new plan, but her ship home gets stopped by an ambassador with a gripe and once she does make it home, she’s greeted by political turmoil. Things only get stranger and more dangerous from there.
I don’t want to say much more than that — vestiges play a large role in storyline, as does the question of whether they are valid or forgery It’s twisty story with many, many threads from seemingly dissimilar occurances that all somehow come together in the end.
Ingray, at first, seems a bit frivolous. Her plan is absurdly risky and has cost her much in it’s execution to only have it fail. However, she’s a person who proves herself capable of thinking her way through just about any crisis (with only a little panic in the interim). Her plans are wild and sometimes foolish, but they also tend to work. She’s also really compassionate toward other people, helping who she can despite the risk to herself. It makes her lovable.
She makes some interesting allies throughout her journey — most notably, Garal Ket, the prisoner who may or may not be who she was seeking, and Captain Tic Ulsine, who ran away from his life on Geck by making off with a few of their ships. Both of these characters are clever and entertaining in their own unique ways.
On the whole, I would say that Provenance is a lighter romp than the Radch trilogy, the elements driving it more down-home with several iterations of family and family conflict being at center. A lot of the characters motivations are the result of the desire to fit in with family or the rejection of family along with the formation of new families. It’s impressive how Leckie is able to bring so many threads together into such an interesting story. It’s brilliantly done.
Provenance is nominated for Best Novel. All my Hugo related posts are under the 2018 Hugos tag and you can check out the complete list of nominated creators and works here.
1. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
2. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
3. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
4. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
5. Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
6. Ringworld by Larry Niven
7. Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler