THE FIFTH SEASON (2015)

download“To all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.”

This is the dedication provided by the author, N.K. Jemisin, at the beginning of The Fifth Season. Now pause, and read it again. . . This dedication set the tone for my entire experience reading this novel. Every page, it was there in the back of my mind. The Fifth Season does what all great works of fiction do. By pulling you into a fictional universe in which you are an outsider, it allows for a fresh perspective, and forces you to see your own reality more clearly. I dare you to try to read this book and come out the other side thinking that human beings have the right to abuse and take advantage of the environment the way we do, or thinking that the earth cares whether or not it’s habitable for any given species.

Now I want to be honest in that as much as I loved and will continue to rave about The Fifth Season, I didn’t find it perfect. However, I do not want to undersell this book because it doesn’t deserve that (also it won a Hugo so it doesn’t really matter what I think anyway). It’s unique, impressive, and gripping. The writing is excellent, the depth of the narrative is astounding (I’m always amazed by world-building and the history and depth to to the world of The Fifth Season is incredible), and the ways race, gender, and human/environment interaction is explored is fascinating and eye-opening. I was engrossed the whole time. I began this book with the intention of only reading a chapter or two, which of course did not end up happening (I should know myself better), and instead finished it 6 hours later without taking a single break. Maybe it’s just that it’s been awhile since I’ve read a good epic fantasy, but I was continually struck by how unique The Fifth Element was in so many ways in a genre that, in my experience, can sometimes suffer from repetitiveness in its themes and story arcs. A lot of it felt new, and I wouldn’t hesitate to partially attribute that freshness to the author being a black woman. Why should we be surprised that a genre historically dominated by white men can sometimes begin to feel stale? (P.S. do NOT think there isn’t precedent for remarkable black female authors of fantasy or sci-fi)

With all that said, I don’t see this book lingering with me in a long-term, powerful way the way my favorite books do. There’s no concrete reason I can give for why I found The Fifth Season less than perfect. The fact is, personal taste varies, and The Fifth Season simply didn’t resonate quite as deeply with me as some other fantasy novels I’ve read. That doesn’t mean this would be the case for anyone else. I plan to read the 2nd book in the trilogy ASAP and will be anxiously awaiting the third. If you’re a lover of fantasy novels, I wouldn’t miss this one for the world.

Links: N K Jemisin .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: Fantasy, Strong female protagonists, R-rated content, LGBTQ content, human/environment interaction themes

 

CHALLENGER DEEP (2015)

downloadNeal Shusterman is a prolific writer of amazing young adult fiction. This is the first book of his I’ve read, but after hearing so many great things about Challenger Deep and learning it contains references to Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues (stories i both love), when it was recommended to me by my wonderful teacher friend Laura, I couldn’t put it off a second longer.

As expected, it was amazing. I’ve never experienced a more beautiful and seemingly (because what do I know) realistic portrayal of severe mental illness.  Shusterman wrote the book with the help of his son Brendan who has suffered from mental illness/psychosis, and while the book is not about his son, Shusterman’s experience with mental illness comes through making the story feel honest and personal. The thing that makes Challenger Deep really incredible, though, is its structure. As Shusterman explains in an interview, there are four different types of chapters:

“There’s the real world, in which Caden is losing touch with reality, and becomes an unreliable narrator, because his version of the world is increasingly skewed. Then, simultaneously, there’s the world on the ship – a dark, fantastical voyage which we eventually discover is Caden’s delusion – an alternate version of his experiences in the hospital.  Third are observations on life, and reflections on the nature of mental illness, that are almost like journal entries and are not tied to any specific time at all. Fourth are the chapters in which the real world of the hospital, and the world of the ship begin to flow into one another within the same chapter, as those two realities start to merge.”

This structure operates in a way that makes you feel like you are descending into Caden’s mental illness with him. The story is at its most strange when Caden is having a psychotic break and as he begins to come back to reality it is as if you as a reader are coming to understand reality again too.  It may seem like I’m giving away spoilers, but in a way there is nothing to give away. I could tell you everything that happens in Challenger Deep and still you would need to read it to understand, because it is the way that it’s written and the experience of reading it that give this book its magic.

Mental Illness is something that is still so misunderstood (partly because it is very hard to understand!!) and Challenger Deep does an amazing job of making it make as much sense as mental illnesses can. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from one of the last chapters comparing the mysteries of the brain to the mysteries of the universe:

“There are many things I don’t understand, but here’s one thing I know: There is no such thing as a “correct” diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catchphrases for various collections of symptoms… We are however, creatures of containment. We want all things in life packed into boxes that we can label. But just because we have the ability to label it, doesn’t mean we really know what’s in the box. It’s kind of like religion. It gives us comfort to believe we have defined something that is, by its very nature, indefinable. As to whether or not we’ve gotten it right, well, it’s all a matter of faith.”

Links: storyman .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: Young Adult Fiction, teenage protagonists, adventure stories, honest depictions of mental illness

OUT OF DARKNESS (2015)

perez-outofdarknessI do my best not to judge people based on abstract categories, and I do my best to understand and to see the best in everyone, even when they have fundamentally different beliefs than my own. Everyone has a history, their own unique series of experiences that lead to the building of their own world view.

But racists. Racists to even the most casual degree. Those who think we should build literal and figurative walls to prevent immigration. Those who believe there are substantially more black men in jail than white men, not because of a broken system, but because more black men tend to be criminals. Those who feel the shocking number of black males who’ve been murdered by police are justified. Those who see all Muslims as terrorists. And those who don’t really believe any of the above but still find themselves pausing to think that maybe there is some truth to it.

Those people, I can/will not understand. I understand fear of the unknown and fear of change and the desire for security for you and your own, and I understand how these fears and desires can lend themselves to putting others down; keeping them out. I understand the power of history and the extent of peoples differences and that we all can’t be expected to get along all the time. But despite all of that, no matter what explanation you have, I will always respond with what is to me the most obvious thing in the world: Kindness!!! And human compassion!!! Always! The knowledge that life is unfair and that not one of us is ever more deserving of happiness and security than the other.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is a young adult historical fiction set in East Texas in 1937 featuring a cast of whites, blacks, and a mexican girl. Sometimes it takes a narrowing of focus to generate deep compassion. When faced with constant and widespread injustice, its nearly impossible to not become hopeless and begin to see injustice as normal and inevitable.  But when it is narrowed down to one place, one tragedy, one family, one girl, you can’t help but burn with compassion.

There’s so much I have to say about Out of Darkness, but when I turned the last page, what I found myself thinking about was this: How would one of those previously mentioned people react if they read this book? What if I found someone who supported the building of a wall, and got them to read it? Would they tell me it was a lie? An exaggeration? That things were never that bad that unfair that unjustified. Would they say, “I would never have done anything like that, but….”? Would they say that things were just different back then and not at all related to how things are now? Would they truly continue to believe that they’re on the right side of history? Or, what if this book was the thing that finally made them understand how real and painful and tragic racism is and how current events are unfolding in the shadows of this cruel, not-at-all distant past? I’m inclined to think not, but that’s not my judgement to make. The most important thing I have to say about Out of Darkness is that no matter who you are, you have something to learn from it, something to gain. Please, do yourself a favor and find out what.

Links: Ashley Perez .com | Goodreads | Amazon 

You’ll like this book if you like: great books, historical fiction, love stories that aren’t stupid, mature young adult lit

A BRIEF HISTORY OF 7 KILLINGS (2014)

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I’ll preface by admitting that this book is very hard to read, and for multiple reasons. The first chapter is from the POV of the ghost of a politician who speaks in a flowery/poetic prose. The second chapter is from the POV of a boy born in a Kingston ghetto who speaks in a heavy Jamaican dialect. And from there, the story gets harder to follow before it gets easier. There’s an extremely steep learning curve for both learning who all of the characters are and for being able to read and understand the Jamaican dialect that the majority of the book is written in. It’s slow going and it’s 700 pages long, but with that said, if you feel up to it, A Brief History of 7 Killings is devastating and incredible and sheds light on a world and a history horrifying beyond belief.

If forced to choose the focal point of the novel, it would be the fictional account of the very real assassination attempt on Bob Marley (referred to only as “the singer” in the novel) before his Smile Jamaica concert in 1976. However, do not think this novel is in any way ‘about’ Bob Marley. It is not about one thing or one individual at all. It, through a cast of 50+ characters all with their own stories, chronicles the political/social unrest and growing drug trade (mostly crack/cocaine) in Jamaica in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Characters include gang members, dons, political leaders, CIA agents, drug dealers, a white journalist, and a middle-class Jamaican woman who wants more than anything to immigrate to America. There are innumerable elements to this novel, and Marlon James’ ability to weave and balance so many stories within one narrative is incredible.

There is no ‘moral to the story’ in 7 Killings. It is full of unimaginable cruelty, ugliness,  and poverty. The depth of the racism, sexism, and homophobia inside and outside of Jamaican society is shocking. All of the rape and murder and police brutality that takes place begin to feel normal simply because of how commonplace it is. While the ghettos see the worst of it, the cruelty and injustice is not contained only within them.The most memorable story-line in the novel for me (possibly because it is the only continuous story-line from the POV of a woman) is that of a middle-class Jamican girl who faces injustice and judgement from everyone around her – her parents, her sister, her lovers, the police, and complete strangers.

There are a million beautiful, striking, poignant, shocking, or illuminating quotes throughout A Brief History of 7 Killings, but the following is the one I want to leave you with:

“[He] think it an even match, they with power, he with being right.”

Links: Rolling Stone on Marlon James | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: historical fiction, character-driven plots, criminal drama, political conspiracy, history of international drug trade