The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson

Read: 19 January, 2019

On this story, Faulkner wrote: “if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reasons or for what color, we do not deserve to survive and probably won’t.”

To which Tyson responds: “Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is so different now.”

This is the story of a gruesome murder, a complicit culture, and a miscarriage of justice. While the United States was fighting its cold war in the name of democracy, it allowed two men to be acquitted of a murder that every single juror knew perfectly well they had committed, simply because their victim – a child – was black.

And have we changed? Really?

In a time where “Black lives matter” is a controversial statement and Trump is president, I can’t see that we have. As the author puts it, “we cannot transcend our past without confronting it.”

Apart from the subject matter, this is an excellent book. It covers Till’s life, giving a good sense of who he was as a unique person. Tyson also spends a good deal of time setting the stage, going into some of the recent events of the time. After going over the murder and the trial, Tyson covers the aftermath – both immediate, in the civil rights movement, and more long term, in Till’s memory in the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a good coverage of what happened and why it matters, without that “true crime” fetishization.

Binti #1: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Read: 19 January, 2019

This is a quick read about a girl who leaves home and becomes mixed up in a galactic conflict.

I love how deceptively simple the story is. The prose reads almost like a fairy tale, taking a very top-down sort of perspective, yet the themes are important. Or, perhaps, that’s still true to the fairy tale as well.

It also reminded me of the “into the bush” stories, like those of Amos Tutuola. Except, this time, the “bush” is outer space and the spirits are aliens.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Read: 18 January, 2019

I was really surprised to find out that the author is USian – Space Opera reads just like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, with their particular brand of dry, critical (yet optimistic) humour. It really was such a pleasure to get to enjoy that style of writing again, but updated for modern sensibilities and with modern pop culture references.

And while this may out me as some kind of SJW, I loved the genderfluid and pansexual representation. In particular, I liked the way that aliens got to figure out how to have sex with each other – it was a great analogue for “what do you like?” conversations that we don’t model enough in our representations of sex.

Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

Read: 5 January, 2019

Rather than Urban Fantasy, it might make more sense to call this Urban Mythology. The world of Dreams Underfoot is one where the city is a living ecosystem of magical creatures.

I had read that ‘Nathan Burgoine was inspired by Charles de Lint, and I can absolutely see the connection. Both tell stories of urban magic and found family, and of people that have historically been outsiders coming together to form a new community within a city environment. Both also make magic of art.

There is rape and child abuse in Dreams Underfoot, which is something I really don’t enjoy. However, I did like that de Lint usually used these stories in the victims own character arc, with her being the protagonist of her own story, rather than using it to motivate someone else. Not only that, but victimhood is one part of these characters, not a backstory used in place of a personality. One story, that doesn’t end particularly well, has five (and then six) victims coming together to support each other, to create art, and to help others in similar situations. It’s an exploration of victimhood that does a lot more justice to its characters than I normally see, and I appreciate that.

The Expanse #1: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Read: 29 December, 2018

A hard-boiled detective story in space? Oh goodness, yes!

I loved all the little “space living” details, like the physical differences between people who grew up in different gravitational environments. I loved the interplay between Holden and Miller as they both grapple with complex morality in extenuating circumstances. Mostly, though, I loved the detective story elements.

I went into this without knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised.

More books in the Expanse series:

  1. Leviathan Wakes
  2. Caliban’s War
  3. Abaddon’s Gate
  4. Cibola Burn
  5. Nemesis Game
  6. Babylon’s Ashes
  7. Persepolis Rising
  8. Tiamat’s Wrath

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

Read: 24 December, 2018

This is an excellent and thoroughly wrenching look at the holodomor – the artificial famine created by Soviet Russia as part of their genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Stalinist Russia was no stranger to famine, but the brutal and systematic starvation of Ukraine was something else entirely. There was food, but it was taken. Even the seed grain was taken. Those who were still surviving were suspected of withholding food and searched again.

Applebaum captures the background and the strategies, the ways in which the holodomor was different from the famine in the 1920s. She looks at the other acts of genocide, such as the burial of bodies in mass graves and taking down of communal centres. She describes the effects of starvation in vivid detail, as well as the horrific lengths to which individuals went to avoid death (including, in some cases, the consumption of their own children).

Much of what happened was hidden by the Soviet propaganda machine, but the effects are still being felt today. In fact, I think this is an essential book for understanding the background of Russia’s activities in the Ukraine today.

Vorkosigan Saga #20: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 16 December, 2018

This is one of the more casual of the Vorkosigan books, as the stakes never get particularly high. Even toward the climax when death is on the table, it’s a slow sort of death that leaves plenty of time for rescue.

I love this series for that frantic, ‘can’t turn the pages fast enough’ feeling, but this was nice, too. I like Ivan, and I enjoyed getting to spend so much time with him. I also enjoyed seeing him find love, at last. In typical Bujold humour, and so in keeping with Ivan’s character, Ivan gets married first and then does his courting. 

This is also a great story about growing up. Ivan has always been something of a Bertie Wooster, resisting all marks of adulthood. He was an committed bachelor who exerted a great deal of effort into avoiding career promotion or responsibility. Now, he’s coming to grips with just how old he’s getting, and finally ready to start thinking about what he wants to do with his life. Being about the same age, it was delightful to see that settling in process handled so adeptly. 

It’s a small story, but that fits Ivan. He’s never been the adrenaline junkie his cousin is. And, to be honest, it was just lovely to get to spend a little domestic time with old friends like Simon, Lady Alys, Gregor, and Ivan.

Read more in the Vorkosigan Saga series:

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Throne of Glass #4: Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas

Read: 15 December, 2018

I’ve passed the series halfway mark and the books just keep getting longer! But while Heir of Fire felt unearned – the characters staying in a holding pattern through much of the book’s length – Queen of Shadows justifies its pages. 

Things I liked:
-Manon’s discovery of her inner humanity was interesting and heartfelt. While her interactions with Abraxos were the saving grace of HoF, it was her relationship with Elide that really made her narrative in QoS.

-Speaking of Elide, she’s just great. She’s a complex character, and her journey is an interesting one.

-Aelin gets some really badass moments in this book. Like, reallybadass.

-Aelin’s scheming. We get to hear a lot about how she’s such a great assassin in the previous books, but her rescue of Aedion was the first time I actually bought into the hype. Especially later on, when we find out the additional layers of that plan. 

-I’ve been a huge fan of Chaol’s devotion to Dorian. Intimate male friendships do not get enough love. In fact, I’d throw in friendships in general, because Aelin and Lysandra is a great relationship, too.

-Lysandra. Just, Lysandra. Even without powers, she’s badass and amazing. With powers, she’s magnificent. 

-The twist ending.

Things I didn’t like:
-Nesryn seems like she has potential as a character, but also feels like she was only added as a consolation prize for Chaol. I hope more gets done with her as the series continues, but this book certainly lets her down. 

-The way Chaol acts toward Aelin is annoying. I get what Maas was going for, and his reaction does make sense – especially when he questions the wisdom of a mageocracy. However, because we spend so little time with him, and spend so much time with Aelin, he just comes off as unreasonable and whiny. I’m not surprised that so many people were really angry with how this book treated him.

-The number of endings. QoS totally pulls a Lord of the Rings by giving us a fantastic ending, a nice fade-to-black, and then kicking right up again with another chapter. And another. And another. Each of these endings was great, but there were just too many of them, and my body just can’t process that many climatic tension releases in a row. It’s overwhelming, and it ends up lessening the impact of what should have been excellent triumphant moments. 

I’d put Rowan in a medium category. I’m really not a fan of that feral, aggressive, possessive masculinity. I do like the way Aelin keeps it in check, but not that she has to. 

Overall, I’d say this is my favourite entry in the series so far. It had the most plot, as well as the most interesting plot, and I’m getting pretty invested in how this will all turn out.

More books in the Throne of Glass series:

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There Is No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell

Read: 9 December, 2018

As the book itself says, “you can’t ‘cheat sheet’ your way into meaningful connections.” That said, the menu of ideas and empathy directory are extremely helpful.

I like the frank discussions of how our natural inclinations and helping strategies can often be counter-productive, as well as the reassurance that being there just a little bit is still better than not being there at all (and that we can still be there for people without making a huge commitment).

Of course, the sample phrases will need some wordsmithing before being used in real situations – I can’t imagine anyone I know responding well to me asking “How does that make you feel?” – but the ideas are there, and I’ve taken away a lot of food for thought.

Legacy of Orisha #1: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Read: 1 December, 2018

Over the basic structure of your standard YA (chosen one goes on a quest to defeat the tyrant who killed her mother, finds love and friendship on the way), Adeyemi builds a fantastic story. The storytelling reminded me quite a bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender. In a good way. In a “this captured the spirit that I loved about the show, without coming off as trying too hard to be like it” sort of way.

The worldbuilding is refreshing, drawing from African history rather than European. Between this and the compelling characters, the story was able to sustain my interest fairly consistently, despite being rather on the long side.

There’s the central romance we’ve all come to expect from YA, but I was surprised by the depth and care given to Zélie and Amari’s platonic friendship. They have the same “hate at first sight” dynamic that romance often gets, as well as a very organic building of mutual respect and, eventually, intimacy. While I’m as disappointed as the next person about the lack of queer content, I do appreciate it when friendships receive serious attention in YA.