Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, games, and podcasts.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was my favorite read of the month. Set in Nigeria, the story focuses on two sisters — one is who alluringly beautiful and has a tendency to kill her boyfriends, and the other who is a nurse and is often left with cleaning up the mess. At the heart of this novel and what makes it so compelling — is how it addresses the complexities of sisterhood, with its blend of frustration, jealousy, anger, compassion, and love. Sisters, I just want you to know, I’d help you clean up your messes, too.
Another great read this month was Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, which has a fascinating genesis, as it is based on a song called “The Deep” from experimental hip-hop group Clipping. The story is about a community of mermaids living at the bottom of the ocean. A young mermaid, Yetu, carries all of the memories of her people so that they don’t have to be burdened by their weight. Among these memories is the knowledge that their people are the children of African slaves thrown overboard from the ships that were transporting them to America. The horrors of these memories are tearing Yetu apart, driving her to try to find a way to escape them. It’s a powerful novella, which looks into how our history defines us and considers its value if it’s so heavy.
I also read two stunning poetry collections last month. Soft Science by Franny Choi is a gorgeous book-length collection, which explores queer, Asian American femininity through the lens of robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. Kerrin McCadden’s chapbook, Keep This to Yourself, is a stunning examination of addiction, reflecting the mix of emotions — compassion, frustration, anger, and sorrow — of watching someone go through it.
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.)
I’ve been hearing about An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon for a while now, someone or another popping up in my twitter feed to announce how wonderful the book is. Having read it, I am in complete agreement with the praise it’s received.
“Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.”
Aster is a fascinating character, an adept healer, as well as a scientist with an avid curiosity for how things — machines, the ship, the universe — work. She’s also brilliant, obsessive, and somewhat solitary due the way many in the community treat her, calling her ogre and freak. She’s The ways she interacts with other people is complicated by her being aneurotypical. She has difficulties with parsing out meaning behind people’s words, has difficulty recognizing sarcasm, and tends to have difficulty understanding the emotional undertones in her interactions with others.
The few people she is close to — Giselle and Theo — are each hard edged and complicated in their own ways. Giselle, her closest friend, is violently self destructive. Theo, the Surgeon General of the ship, is an ally and friend who helped to educate Aster in medicine and health care. Both act as a kind of foil to Aster, providing pushback and counter perspectives to the way she perceives the world.
It’s Giselle who provides the key Aster’s obsession with discovering more about her mother’s past, providing the key to unlocking her mother’s journals. As she dives more and more deeply into that history, hoping to understand herself, she begins to see how the some of the stories she’s been told may not be what they seem and that the ghosts of the past provide no easy resolution.
This novel provides many layers that could be unpacked. It’s a stunning and beautiful accomplishment — and I’ll be keeping my eye out for more work from Solomon in the future.
Rivers Solomon is nominated for theJohn W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, an award associated with the Hugos. 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.