AMERICANAH (2013)

download (2)I love the way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, and I’m sure I’ll love every book she ever publishes. Her writing reaches a perfect balance of intellectual and accessible. It isn’t pretentious but is always very very smart. Her outlook on race relations in America is brutally honest, well-informed, and personal. I loved Americanah and enjoyed reading it. It’s long but went by quickly. I can completely understand other reviewers who found it a little too lecture-y (because it is a bit lecture-y), but I didn’t mind that being the case at all. I will happily sit and absorb everything and anything Adichie has to say because what she has to say is important and insightful.

Americanah is not another Half of a Yellow SunIt does not elicit the same depth of emotion, because how could it? With Americanah, Adichie wrote with completely different goals in mind than with Half of a Yellow Sun. What was most thought-provoking to me in Americanah was how constantly aware I was that life is unpredictable and unfair. Not just unfair in the sense that whites have an upper hand in every situation (which is true, of course), or that those born into wealth have a billion more opportunities to create wealth than those who weren’t (also, of course, true), but unfair in the sense that, so often, the best things that happen to us happen on accident. As with the worst things. It’s a humbling reminder to acknowledge that everyone faces hardships – has good times and bad times – no matter their position in life or where they come from.

Links: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie .com | Goodreads | Amazon

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THE ALCHEMY OF STONE (2008)

download (1)There are a lot of layers to this story enabled by the nature of the protagonist. A mechanical girl – an emancipated automaton – whose freedom is “allowed” by a man of wealth and power. Her point of view, the mechanical girl’s, allows for a unique, in many ways un-biased, view of a class-based power struggle. At times the writing is noticeably detached from the events that would typically be the focal point of a comparable narrative: the assassination of a figurehead, mass destruction of the city, lives destroyed, and homes burnt to the ground. But this is the nature of the eyes we’re given to look through as the reader. It was an interesting and enjoyable way to experience this narrative, and opened up a lot of opportunities for social commentary. The over-arching issues were that of power and freedom, and Sedia wove these in with issues of gender, race, slavery, and technology (as they are woven in reality). As a result, The Alchemy of Stone is overflowing with perceptive and thoughtful quotes on social justice issues. I am always drawn to well-written thematic sentences and one that stood out was:

“Or perhaps you just think someone who doesn’t want to be your slave is aiming to be your master.”

The end of the story is unusual, which I was more surprised by than I should have been considering how unusual the entire narrative is. Either way, it caught me off guard in its abruptness and lack of satisfying closure. I’ll need more distance before settling on what I think of the ending, but I think I liked it, and if pressed, I’d guess that I’ll become more fond of the ending over time. If nothing else, the conclusion is thought-provoking and just the right amount of troubling. The Alchemy of Stone is unlike anything I’ve ever read, and that is always a good thing.

Links: Ekaterina Sedia .com | Goodreads | Amazon

THE STONE SKY (2017)

downloadUpon finishing the The Stone Sky, the first thing I did was return to my review of The Fifth Season to refresh myself on why I was confused about my own thoughts on it. I was confused because I enjoyed reading it, couldn’t put it down, loved the characters, loved the writing, had no complaints whatsoever, but despite all of that, did not feel consumed by it. I even said that I didn’t think it would stick with me in a long-term way like all my favorite books do. I struggled to express this well the first time, and I’m not sure I’ve done a much better job now, but I bring it up again for this reason: The Stone Sky consumed me. Or more specifically, the last three chapters did.

One thing I repeatedly noticed as I read this trilogy is how I was reading faster than my brain could keep up with. There are many sections in the book that get almost technical in their description and explanation of the geological events that are occurring, and I would fly through all of it whether I fully comprehended what I was reading or not. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to read in this way, it’s the way I tend to read a lot of page-turning fiction, but it is definitely a shallower, surface-level method of reading. The point of explaining this, however, is to emphasize that the moment I started the third to last chapter of The Stone Sky, I was suddenly reading slowly…one sentence at a time…one word at a time. I had been racing through this crazy chaotic emotional turmoil of a trilogy, and then the last 60 pages hit me so hard that I stopped in my tracks and had to slow down and take in every single word. There are many great novels that don’t need their endings or don’t truly have one, and their effectiveness is found in the telling or in the small moments or in the overarching message. The Broken Earth trilogy, in contrast, is made complete by its ending. The ending is the heart of the story, and I wasn’t able to fully love the story until I reached it.

There’s so much about The Stone Sky and the entire Broken Earth Trilogy as a whole that is remarkable. One of the most notable is something I also talked about after reading The Fifth Season, which is that it forces you to see the injustices of your own reality more clearly by making you look into another’s as an outsider. It’s been a troubling year to say the least, and The Stone Sky throws punch after punch of reminders that our country and our leaders are going the wrong direction. Making the wrong choices. Choosing the wrong priorities. Jemisin shows us how much worse-off the world can become if we continue to follow this path, while also showing us that it is never too late to change course. And this is what the ending encapsulates in a remarkable 60 pages. It’s tragic, gripping, emotional, realistic, but ultimately so full of hope. Heart-wrenchingly full of hope. How often does that happen? How often do we get to be crushed and then uplifted by a realistic conclusion? It’s a rare thing and it’s the difference between loving a book and being consumed by it.

Links: N K Jemisin .com | Goodreads | Amazon

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (1969)

LeftHandOfDarkness-ebookI read The Left Hand of Darkness quickly after finishing The Dispossessed because of how much I loved the latter. I’m picky with my science fiction, and The Dispossessed is the first work of science fiction that I’ve truly loved on every level since reading Dune a few years ago. And so, I couldn’t help myself from immediately following up with Le Guin’s most well-known work. As expected, it did not disappoint. While I preferred The Dispossessed to The Left Hand of Darkness, its very possible this is the case simply because I read it first. There’s something about the first book you read by an author you come to love that makes it a little extra special. But if The Left Hand of Darkness does take second place, it’s an extremely close second.

Again, I found myself astounded by Le Guin’s genius. To write a book like The Left Hand of Darkness requires a multi-faceted genius: it requires the mind of an anthropologist, a scientist, and a philosopher all-in-one. If that isn’t enough, Le Guin’s writing is top-notch. It’s elegant, natural, well-paced, and scattered with beautiful sentences such as the following:

“We creep infinitesimally northward through the dirty chaos of a world in the process of making itself.”

Some beautiful writing tends to be, while still enjoyable, a bit pretentious. There is nothing pretentious in Le Guin’s words. Just beautiful writing and a beautifully told story working together to make the reader think about their world in a whole new way. And that is what science fiction, at its best, is meant to do.

Links: Ursula K. Le Guin .com| Goodreads | Amazon

EVERFAIR (2016)

downloadI came away from Everfair with a huge amount of respect for Nisi Shawl as a writer. Everfair is a novel that must have required extremely extensive research and planning, but even more than that, I was impressed with Shawl’s ability to balance viewpoints. No character’s point-of-view was ignored, overlooked, or presented any less seriously than any other, and there were a lot of different viewpoints. Everfair, set mostly in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century, does an incredible job of demonstrating why race relations and gender relations continue to be so hard to navigate, even by those who are trying their very best to be good, and by all accounts are good. It demonstrates how easy it is to, as a white person, male or female, forget the extent of your privilege and hurt or ignore or invalidate people of color. It reminded me how important it is to constantly question the way I treat others, to always be willing to accept I’m wrong, to always be willing to change, and that when it comes to the rights of people of color, the only voices we should trust are theirs.

The novel is split into two parts. The first part is the story of the colonists of Everfair fighting with the indigenous people of the Congo to end King Leopold III’s cruel reign over the Congo. The second part deals with what happens after King Leopold III is defeated. With their common enemy dealt with and WWI taking shape, how do the white colonists and the indigenous population live harmoniously in one country both feel they hold claim to? It’s this second part of Everfair that truly blew me away. Shawl deals with numerous complicated questions of right and wrong, and handles these difficult questions gracefully and insightfully. The novel is also a powerfully feminist one. There are many important and central characters in Everfair, but the main protagonist is a  woman who throughout the novel greatly inspired me. She is realistic in her flaws but also realistic in her strengths and that believability is what made her character and her story so powerful to me. Everfair presents a fictional, alternative history, but one that offers a lot to learn from.

Links: Nisi Shawl .com | Goodreads | Amazon

THE DISPOSSESSED (1974)

13651The Dispossessed has reminded me what science fiction is capable of. Published in 1974, I’m amazed by its timelessness. It could have been written yesterday. It could be written 50 years from now. And I think this is something that many of the best works of science fiction have in common. It tackles ideas that, no matter what technology is or isn’t present, are relevant to humanity as a whole. I’m clearly behind on Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m sure the whole literary world already knows she’s a genius, so there’s nothing more for me to do but reiterate that fact. She is a true genius and an astounding writer. In The Dispossessed, she made me think new things, and see old things in new ways. There were countless paragraphs I read two or three times over because one time wasn’t nearly enough time to process.

The story starts off a little slow, but that’s only because you’re thrust into the middle of the plot on the first page. It takes a little adjusting, but once you get used to the structure, it adds a lot to the way you’re able to experience the novel. There’s two separate timelines that Le Guin alternates between. The first chapter takes place in the protagonists current situation, then the next takes place in his past, and so on. This structure works really well to emphasize how the main character grows and changes because you’re learning about his life as a child and young adult alongside his present life. And when, at the end of the novel, you learn the extent of the sacrifices he made for the pursuit of knowledge and for his people, it hits you more powerfully because of this structure. If you like science fiction, if you don’t like science fiction, it doesn’t matter. The Dispossessed is a must read and will make you reevaluate how you see the world, government, capitalism, education, and your own personal priorities.

Links: Ursula K Le Guin .com| Goodreads | Amazon

BROWN GIRL IN THE RING (1998)

download (1)I had some doubts about Brown Girl in the Ring for the first 150 pages or so of reading it. My main concern was that the entire novel would be predictable – tropes were introduced that had the potential to unfold in a boringly predictable way. But as the conflicts took shape and began to reach resolution, Hopkinson blew me away with her creativity and particularly with her powerful feminism. There’s a lot of reviews that complain about Brown Girl in The Ring having an identity crisis. Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Neither? Is it Jamaican or is it Canadian? The other recurring complaint I saw was about the protagonist being annoyingly immature. My response to these complaints are, respectively, I don’t care! and you’re wrong. Allow me to explain further.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize Brown Girl in the Ring in terms of genre, but frankly, I don’t care. If pressed, I’d describe it as a blend of science fiction dystopia and magical realism. Whatever it is, it worked for me. I could maybe understand the complaint that Hopkinson’s exploration into the science fiction themes just barely scratch the surface, except that this isn’t what the book is primarily about (more on this later). The setting is Toronto and the majority of characters are Jamaican immigrants or children of immigrants. This is drawn from Hopkinson’s own experience as a Jamaican immigrant who lived most of her adult life in Canada. I found the merging of cultures in Brown Girl in the Ring to be unique and interesting and not at all cluttered. As for the immaturity of the protagonist, I have a lot to say in response.

The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is immature in many ways at the start of the novel. She has a child that she isn’t prepared to care for and has very little interest in caring for. She blames her grandmother for all of her frustrations, and she can’t control her attraction to her good-looking, sweet-talking, ex-boyfriend: Tony. But even at Ti-Jeanne’s most immature, you can see her potential for growth. One of my favorite feminist moments in the novel happens early on when Ti-Jeanne still thinks she’s in love with Tony. Tony asks why Ti-Jeanne left him (it was because of the baby), and just as Ti-Jeanne is about to open up to him and tell him “all her worries about whether Tony would have been able to help her provide for the child,” he interrupts her and says, “I would have let you keep the baby, no matter whose it is. I love you Ti-Jeanne” (73). Moments earlier Ti-Jeanne was swooning over Tony, but as soon as he says this, her response is shock. She thinks, “He would have ‘let’ her keep the baby? The moment had passed. She gave Tony the glare that always threw him off balance.” This scene introduces feminism as a central element to Brown Girl in the Ring, and I quickly saw the novel as, above anything else, a feminist one. The central characters to the plot are Ti-Jeanne, her mother, and her grandmother, and the way these three generations of women navigate conflicts with each other, surpass obstacles, grow together, and support themselves in an unforgiving place is remarkable. It’s a powerfully feminist novel, and that, above all else, is what Brown Girl in the Ring is about. So to those who critique it for not being science-y enough, or not exploring the nuances of the dystopian setting enough, or whatever else, I think they’re missing the point of the novel entirely.

Links: Nalo Hopkinson .com | Goodreads | Amazon