Things have been crazy busy for the beginning of the year, and I should totally catch you guys up on books I’m reviewing over at City Book Reviews, but for now, take a look at these four books that I totally recommend you should read:
John Scalzi’s Lock In was an absolute blast and I can’t wait for its sequel coming out this year. In a not so far future, an epidemic has swept across the globe, leaving millions of people completely paralyzed and entirely conscious. Its been long enough by the time we get to this book that people are well taken care of and neurological science has advanced far enough that the locked in people, or Haydens as they are referred to, have the ability to participate in online worlds and network with robotic bodies to interface with the world. This novel is a buddy cop drama featuring a Hayden in his robot body and his first week on the job as an FBI agent. Needless to say, it is a very rocky first week. This book had me laughing out loud repeatedly and I have the sequel reserved from the library for the moment it comes out.
The third installment of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti is just as engaging and fun as the first two novellas. If you haven’t picked this series up yet, do it, this conclusion is completely satisfying and well worth the time. I love how math is so advanced its basically magic at this point. I also love how, for once, I’m reading a far-off science fiction that takes into account tribal cultures that still exist and flourish and how that might impact future societal relations. So much fun.
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into with Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, as I am not normally a fan of alternative histories, but this was seriously well done. We maintain a discreet distance from the action, following a host of characters over the first few decades of a new country, Everfair, which was purchased away from King Leopold in an effort to rescue the Congo from his rubber trade as well as create a refuge for freed slaves. It a fascinating look at how cultures collide and what would have happened if the natural talents that were, in our history, destroyed, but here allowed to flourish. Its a bit quieter in tone and if you have trouble following multiple narratives or large time jumps, this probably isn’t the book for you, but it was certainly an interesting thought experiment.
Saved the best for last! Michael Strelow recently released his newest novel, Some Assembly Required, and it is a mind trip. To begin with, our narrator straight up informs us that he hears voices, no, not those kinds of voices, rather innocuous ones, but that definitely leaves the reader with some questions. It’s a fun, stream-of-consciousness adventure of this journalist/writer trying to figure out what is happening with a particularly odd science experiment in his home town. I can’t say much more before ruining the plot, so that’s all you get. I love the themes this explore about determination and evolution, and I definitely think it’s a fun read for those of the more science minded among us.
I’m awake way too early on New Years Eve, so I decided to spend the time contemplating the end of this year and the beginning of the next. Because that’s what people do, right? Shortly to be followed by angst-ridden resolutions and the fear of failure in living up to our own meager expectations of willpower. So, let’s not.
2017 was a dumpster fire of a year politically, climatologically, culturally, and yet, not everything was horrible. While 45 was setting the United States back fifty, nay, one hundred years in advancement in some areas, other humans were working their butts off for their fellow humans. There are the wonderful compilation videos of 2017’s best news bloopers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bD3DjN7i1Fg), but that’s not what I’m talking about (though those ARE funny). I’m talking scientific breakthroughs in water production or how we managed to make the first edit on a human embryo’s genome which will allow us to edit out disease before implantation. Or, going the other direction, scientists are one step closer to being able to effectively treat some forms of paralysis which brings hope to so many people who struggle in their daily lives in a world not suited to those differently-abled.
But for all the stunning new discoveries in science, the one thing they haven’t figured out is why humans are so terrible to each other so consistently. Every time I opened an internet browser this year, I was besieged by stories of another mass shooting, of another racially/gender/sexuality-based crime; of another march against the injustice of living while POC/female/immigrant/poor/sick. God forbid you are any combination of the afore-mentioned as it is nearly impossible for you to pull yourself up by your second-hand bootstraps. If you even have boots. And all the cis-het-white-males of the world get their panties in a bunch at the phrase white privilege, so maybe we should restyle it as white advantage and rebrand it as just that, an advantage on the game of life that allows us to have the luxury of making a difference. Our advantage is in being heard, in having weight and influence, and it should be used to help lift up our fellow human. Our worth as humans lies not in what we manage to acquire for ourselves but in how we treat and help our brethren with the losing tickets in life.
In response to this madness, I choose to take advice from Mr. Rogers: Look for the helpers. The heirs to fortunes who speak out against tax policy that would be greatly beneficial for them, but ruin the rest of the country. People turning out in record-breaking numbers to show their dissatisfaction of the government. And the few politicians standing up for the well-being of the entire American population, despite being verbally attacked and forced out of hearings whenever possible. (I’m pretty sure Senator Warren is fueled by the insensate screams of her opponents.)
With all of this weighing on our hearts as we head into the new year, it can be daunting to try and feel hope and optimism that things will be better. I’m not going to make false promises to you about the direction of politics or how the only direction is up. There are too many competing factors to even begin to make those sorts of observations. The only thing that is true is that at this time tomorrow the number on the calendar will have changed and its up to us to find our place in the dystopic America we are now mired in. Here’s what I can say, though:
It’s time to stop looking for the helper and instead become a helper yourself. You don’t need to become a national politician or an award-winning writer with death-threats from the conservative elite to make a difference. That’s where most people come up short, terrified of failing, certain there is no difference they can make in the world because they aren’t big enough. So start small.
First, you have to decide which issue you want to focus on. You can’t focus on them all, it’s too much pain, too much suffering, and you’ll become overwhelmed by it all and paralyzed into submission. So do you care about women’s issues? Or the struggles of POC in our country? Or the homeless epidemic? Or the opioid crisis? Pick one thing that you can connect with on a personal level and latch on. Now, pick a small way to make a difference. Maybe it’s a five dollar donation. If you can’t afford the money (let’s be honest, a lot of us in this country have empty pockets right now) what about an hour of your time? Can you help the local homeless shelter by volunteering one hour to clean the bunk room? Can you spend one afternoon tutoring kids at a local free educational center? Can you take ten short minutes to email your political representatives to express your concern for a particular subject in your area? Pick just one, do it tomorrow, while the sun comes up on a new number because nothing in this world will have magically changed for the better. We have to be the change we want to see, even if it’s one tiny step at a time, so small we think it’s insignificant. You never know where that one step will take you, or how grateful people will be when you take a step towards them and hold out your hand. So start the new year right, not with hope, but determination and resolve.
This one, if possible, is even better than the first. Binti is dealing with the emotional aftermath of her traumatic trip off Earth and decides to return home and complete her woman’s pilgrimage to recenter herself and reaffirm her tribal connection. This time, at least, the trip was uneventful, but once she gets home, nothing goes the way she had planned.
The writing is smoother in this sequel and the story is incredibly strong and fluid. I love the language and I love the voice Nnedi Okorafor has created for Binti in these stories. They are full of beautiful metaphor and evocative settings and peoples. I also love how math has gone so far it’s basically magic at this point.
It ends with another cliff hanger than made me gnash my teeth with frustration, but the third one, Binti: The Night Masquerade is due out in January, so at least I don’t have to wait very long! I am terrible at being patient for other authors to write books yet take my own sweet time with sequels, so I have no grounds on which to demand books faster, but I do love Okorafor’s work and I can’t wait to read more.
Yes, I am immersed solidly in NaNoWriMo, and yes, I am still finding enough time to read! It’s the only thing keeping my brain from collapsing in on itself as the words rush out–words rushing in! Last night I blasted past the 20% mark a full day ahead of schedule and I’ve been writing all day between work and chores. Hoping to get to 25% tonight, we’ll see if I manage it! But back to books…
When I was at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas one day, one of the other volunteers had a novella that they were reading called Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The cover caught my attention first for its striking composition and second because it implied a Black protagonist, which i am trying to actively seek out since it’s so rare in speculative fiction. I requested the book from my library and had to wait a few weeks to arrive, but when it did, I bolted through it.
The story and voice are striking from page one, and we are thrown into an Earth well beyond our current understanding. The main character belongs to a family of superior mathematicians and abandons her duty to her family to instead attend the most cherished university in the universe which requires leaving the only place she’s ever known as home. Needless to say, the journey to school is highly eventful and Binti must stretch her nearly psychic mathematical powers to their extremes in order to survive, while still staying true to her people and her home.
While on occasion the writing felt unpolished, it wasn’t enough to throw me out of the story, and I enjoyed every paragraph of this 90 page novella. There are strong themes of home, and what it means to leave it, a question which we are faced with more and more in this global economy and culture. Binti is strong and resourceful, and her situation is relatively unique in speculative fiction, and for once we have a protagonist resolving conflict with wit and words rather than through blasters. It was quite refreshing. I also loved how the alien race was truly alien, in all of their aspects, and yet, mathematics allowed them to communicate. That tickles the scientist in me quite a bit. I highly recommend taking the time to read this, and I very much look forward to its sequel, Binti: Home.
So when I was at Geek Girl Con, I stopped by the Razorgirl Press table to chat and picked up a couple of books, and since I finally made it through the list of books waiting to be reviewed for City Book Reviews, I was able to pick one of them up.
I started with Trace by Ian Smith. The lead, Joanne Shaughnessy, is a young woman who was adopted as a child from China by a family in Montana and grew up not only as an adopted minority, but also as an amputee missing her right hand…and any memory of why it was gone. The story picks up as Joanne is trying to build a new life in Seattle after college having moved in with her best friend from high school. During her quest to figure out a way to deal with her phantom limb sensations in her missing hand, Joanne ends up discovering that she has the ability to sense imprinted memories on objects and stumbles into a an ongoing power play between those who have this gift and those who wish they did.
The first thing I want to say about this book is that although the author is a white male, he does a remarkable job creating a nuanced and realistic female, Chinese-American amputee. Not once did I feel like he went for the easy and stereotypical descriptors, and Joanne is well represented in all of her aspects, all of which had valid story aspects and were not used for tokenization or fetishisaztion. In fact, if any of the characters were lacking in depth, it was the white males in the book. But even them I found believable. So congrats to Smith on threading that dangerous needle.
Beyond the excellent characterization, the story itself is fun and unique in its representation of a supernatural gift. The quiet suggestion that it is all a part of their chi and somehow related to her missing limb were well articulated and drove the story forward, especially how it worked together with neuroscience and technology. This was a definite page turner and I maybe spent more time reading it than I should have over the last few days.
The last thing I want to say is that this book also did an excellent job of characterizing Seattle (yay, hometown!) and the city came out feeling more like a character, more real, than I’ve found it in most other books set in the city. It was grounded, realistic, and all the little inside jokes about living in Seattle were well placed and utilized in the novel. As a (non-native) Seattleite, it rang true and was highly amusing. So thanks for that!
It does end with the suggestion of a sequel, so I’m hoping that might be in the works. I would definitely buy it when it came out!
For the first time ever, I had the opportunity to attend Geek Girl Con and it was everything I hoped it would be. I’ve never seen such a joyous celebration of geek-dom with a broad range of cosplay, gender expression, and family attendance. All of the little kids dressed up as their favorite characters just about made my ovaries explode with cuteness. And the artists! Oh my gosh, I have so many new favorite vendors, and I’ve included a list of my favorites below.
There were a couple of other standout events I wanted to give a shoutout to. First of all, I was privileged to be chosen as a model for the fashion show on Saturday night and it was wonderful seeing the broad range of sizes, ages, and skin colors that were represented between the five designers. If you want to see the designer I modeled for, check out the Geek Girl Fashion Show – Haute Geek Catwalk Video!
Second was a panel on inclusivity in table top role playing games. The panelists were Jaden Emme, Lauren Karp, Jessica Lanzillo, Kristine Hassell, and Nicole Jekich. We stopped by one of the panelist’s booths after the fact to chat and she was awesome (Nicole Jekich for Daily Magic) and we traded some tips and gossip. The main gist of the panel for those of you who couldn’t attend: Tabletop gaming comes from a very male-centric genesis and has a lot of problematic features. The best way to combat this and create a welcoming space is to be conscious of your choices as a game master/dungeon master/story teller, and to make sure the way in which you are running the games is conducive to accommodating any quirks and limitations your players may have as well as making sure the game is a safe space where everyone is having fun. Some specific tips I walked away with:
- Create math cheat sheets/short cuts for anyone who struggles with the math heavy portions of RPGs
- Use an X-card that is available for players to utilize whenever they become uncomfortable with something that is happening at the table in order for the DM to address it and rewind. Turns out we’d been doing this already with shop bells, though those are normally used at our table when we just want someone to stop describing something gross.
- Banning phones/tablets at the table if people aren’t paying attention to each other, also limiting people’s talking time during rounds if someone is an over-talker.
- Confront your usage of traditionally problematic characters/races such as the Drow. In safe spaces, work on subverting their traditionally colonial presentation.
- To assist people with possible physical impediments do things like call out all dice rolls rather than depending on the table to be able to see them. Also color-coding dice for new players or players who have trouble distinguishing shapes.
- Make sure to have a large range of representation in your miniatures and reference images. Use resources like Medieval POC, Deviantart, and Writing with Color tumblr to help expand your references.
Also, with impeccable timing, this article appeared on Tor’s blog today: “Where are all the women?” which explores the absences of women in speculative fiction roles.
And the shopping list you’ve all been waiting for: Favorite Vendor List!
- Haute Geek is run by two fabulous sisters who create the art and make the skirts. I modeled the Heroes skirt and purchased These Are Our Voyages for myself!
- The other vendors in the fashion show that I desperately want to purchase from: Little Petal, Jordandene, Elhoffer, and Booty and the Geek
- We bought five pieces of art from Monkey Minion Press, including this one:
- GeekStar Costuming has the best flashy acrylic jewelry and I bought a set of earrings and a necklace of shiny silver bat’leths! If you need me to tell you what those are, we can’t be friends…
- Boutique Academia has gorgeous and affordably priced science and math jewelry. Definitely need to order some…
- Women Write About Comics is a fantastic blog about…well…it’s pretty self explanatory, though it’s expanded beyond its initial mission and also has an awesome goat-themed journal called Bleating Heart Press. I can’t get over that pun!
- Razorgirl Press is local and awesome and had some quite excellent books up for sale.
As my quest for non cis-het-white-male spec fic authors continues (now and forever abbreviated as Non-CHWM) I delve into the worold of Malka Older in Infomocracy. In this novel, we follow several characters as they navigate a world where the internet is run by a single entity called Information and the world government has been broken down into micro-democracies with hundreds of political options to be voted on to run your small corner of the world, and a super-majority government that sees to the inter-governmental interactions. What follows is a fast-paced and rousing political intrigue including, but not limited to, election tampering and natural disasters.
I have to say, the plot, the characters, and the writing are all phenomenal. Older does a fantastic job making sure you don’t get lost between jumps of characters, helped along by the fact that they span a world’s worth of ethnicities and so have vastly different names and identities that help the reader keep them separate. No, where I struggled with this novel was in the world building.
It took me a long time in the novel to pin point where my feelings of disjointed-ness were coming from and an even longer rambling rant to my husband to figure out what exactly it was that wasn’t working. The problem was two-fold: there were too many small unnecessary details thrown in each time we changed global locations, with a lot of new food and clothing and vocabulary that was hard to keep track of and instead was a distraction from the plot. That’s not to say that ethnically appropriate details should be omitted, just that in this instance there were just too many and the changes between locations was too fast and too abrupt for me to be able to even begin to grok the local cuisine, let alone figure out why the knowledge of it was relevant to the story.
The second problem was that I just did not believe the technological aspects of the novel, or that the micro-democracy as it stood would ever be functional. On the political side of things, it felt like a thought-exercise for a political philosophy class was put into action, but had no real basis in reality for surviving. I would have expected it to have dissolved into anarchy and infighting between the microcosms long before the twenty years it had survived thus far in the novel. It’s the same problem I have with books like Divergent; I just do not believe humans would suffer that political system without rebellion and pitchforks. It reminded me a lot of Snow Crash in its attempted feel, but without the elegance or feeling organic like Snow Crash. But on to the technological problems…
The world supposedly revolves around a version of the internet referred to as Information: an unbiased, and ungoverned, controlling bureaucracy which handles all world-wide communication, dissemination of knowledge, and voting. Everything, and I mean EVERYthing is routed through Information, including social media, payment, etc. **SPOILERS** At one point in the novel, Information is compromised and everything goes down except for Information’s intranet and a few other intranets that have been set up, but they can still access data from before 3 weeks ago, or essentially, cached data. But that’s just not how the internet works. It’s as if the entire thing suffers a giant DDOS attack, but Older doesn’t really explain how it’s attacked, why it fails, or even really how they get things working again, and as someone who works in a technological field, the entire concept and proposed reality of Information drove me NUTS. When it was a passive background part of the world I was like, okay, fine, sort of 1984 Big Brother, but whatevs, and then it gets compromised and I was like, “NO…WAIT…STOP. THAT’S NOT…NO…STAHP PLZ.” **//SPOILERS**
All that being said, I enjoyed the interpersonal stories, and the political intrigue and the writing itself was amazingly fun and it kept me turning pages regardless of its flaws, so that should show you how strong the other elements in the book actually are. If you don’t mind technological hiccups, or wouldn’t know a cloud computational solution if it bit you in the butt, then you would really enjoy this novel and not have any trouble with it like I did. However, if computers or poli-sci are your life, I would probably steer clear unless you like yelling at books…
As many of you already know, I’m an avid fan of K.B. Spangler and her OACET universe of stories and web comics. However, her new novel, Stoneskin, takes place in an entirely different universe than the OACET series, though one might argue for it being in the very far flung future of that very same world. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this newest novel, but turns out I was worrying needlessly. I made the mistake of starting the novel before bed, stayed up way too late, woke up early and was done reading it before lunch. And I want more; write faster, Spangler!
In Stoneskin, Tembi is a young bioformed human living on a planet far from the original Earth when she discovers that she has been selected by the Deep to be a Witch. Now, the Deep is a sentient life force, possibly other dimensional, with a puckish sense of humor that has decided it likes humanity and enjoys helping humanity spread through the star systems and the Witches it decides to communicate with and through are its envoys in our universe. Tembi is by far one of the youngest ever selected and it leads to an interesting and unorthodox training all leading to the eventual question as to why the Deep is changing its selection criteria and behaviors.
If that synopsis doesn’t intrigue you, it should. The plot is unique and fresh while at the same time drawing from masters such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert A. Heinlein. Characterization is excellent, with everybody having discreet and believable motivations, even the Deep, whom we don’t actually get to have a conversation with and is most often characterized by the colors, sounds, and scents it makes its attitudes known by. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly bite sized, and if you’re looking for a new dose of epic sci-fi, this is it. I cannot recommend it enough!
When I asked for recommendations on speculative authors who were not cis-gendered white men (for now and forever referred to as CGWM), I received several recommendations for N.K. Jemisin. Funnily enough, at the same time people were recommending her to me, my husband was at Powells buying me her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
It wasn’t the novel of hers I’d planned on starting with, but I’m glad to have gotten it as it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t sure as I started it whether I could get behind the voice, but it quickly became clear that the memory issues of the protagonist and the slightly stilted and disjointed storytelling had a definite purpose and it won out in the end. This novel is a story about a young woman who is brought back into the fold of her royal family after her mother’s death and who struggles to understand her family and personal history while politicians and gods alike try and use her for their own ends.
It is a fabulous story, with some excellent writing, and I am not surprised she has been in the running for several major awards; they are all well deserved. This story is at times poignant and sweet, and bloody and chaotic, and even a little bit (more than a little in one instance) sexy. If you like stories with strong female protagonists who take no nonsense and make their own space in their world, this is definitely a book for you. I highly recommend giving this a read.
One note on something I’ve noticed as I dive into this reading pattern: The female protagonists are all beautifully strong, but they also face cultural issues that I just don’t see protagonists of male authors facing: realistic subjugation due to sex through micro aggression. It is shockingly realistic in the books I’ve read by female authors thus far, and I never realized it was something that was missing until I finally read it. There is something just so much more real about their struggle to me than most of the speculative fiction I have read before, and it makes the endings of the books just that much more satisfying for me when the ladies come out on top.
So I have decided I end up reading way too much fiction by white cis-gendered American men, so I am beginning a journey to read as much speculative fiction by authors that are NOT somehow in that category in one way or another. Preferably in multiple ways. To start off, I give you The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.
This was a fun, wild, and surprising ride through a revolution of identity for bots, humans, and demigods alike. I really can’t say enough good about this book: The setting is vivid and engrossing, and as an American it is just alien enough to set loose my expectations and allow full immersion in the crazy clashing of singularity and mythology. The characters are beautifully developed, and even though we are constantly jumping perspectives from chapter to chapter, everybody is fully 3-dimensional with their own unique motivations and beliefs and I was never lost in the jumps. The story itself is amazingly wrought, with several twists and turns and the feel of a vortex–the deeper you get the faster you move. And it all spins down to one brilliant point of intensity before flaring out into a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.
I definitely recommend you give this beauty a read. I’ve got a few more on my list of to-reads, and a few I’ve already read and am reviewing for City Book Review (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and A Tyranny of Queens) and I will post those reviews here once they are live!