Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue

FTC disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive. 

Ah, this book. I tore through the audio, supplementing with the e-ARC when I couldn't listen. 

"Behold the Dreamers" is the story of Jende and Neni Jonga, a couple who immigrate to the United States from Cameroon. They came to New York City to pursue the American Dream, like so many immigrants before them. We meet Jende as he is on his way to interview for a job as a private driver to Clark Edwards. Unfortunately, Edwards is an executive at Lehman Brothers, and it is the eve of the company's collapse. As the two families' lives intertwine, the reader can see the ruin hurtling toward them, and the country. 

This is the first novel I have read that is set during the 2008 recession, and it captures that moment well. Even more so, it captures an immigrant experience with sincerity and an impeccable relatability. The Jongas' story is just one of many immigrant narratives, but certain elements are familiar in many such narratives. From their confusion and frustration navigating the broken immigration system, to their constant struggle to find work that will allow them to save while still supporting their family both in the US and in Cameroon, to their re-evaluation of the American Dream and how they can make it work for them - their story highlights the everyday struggles and the overarching system through which immigrants must fight.

The characters are well drawn, and the ways they fit into each other's lives are compelling and drive the story on. The relationship between Neni and Edward's young son, Mighty, is particularly touching. Each character makes their own mistakes. But they feel like honest, real-people mistakes, not mere plot devices. You will almost certainly disagree with some of these characters' choices, but you understand how they have been driven to make them. To top it off, the ending was both not what I expected going into the novel, and entirely satisfying, a difficult & rewarding balance to strike. 

Verdict: Affirmed. There are many well-deserved reasons to praise this debut, but I expect the characters and ending will stick with me above all. 

"Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue, published August 23, 2016 by Random House. Audio narration by Prentice Onayemi, published August 23, 2016 by Random House Audio.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"A Very Special Year" by Thomas Montasser

I stumbled upon this tiny novel in a list of books about books, which is a link I will always, always click on, despite seeing many repeats (most of which I loved, of course). I was pleasantly surprised to find a new one on this list - and I apologize now that I didn't save the list! But anyway, this book, newly translated from German, is an adorable, quick read.

Valerie's aunt has disappeared, so she has been summoned to take care of her aunt's bookshop. Valerie thinks business background will help set the shop to rights & put her accounts in order. Yet, while working at the shop, she frequently finds herself lost in a good book. As she meets the shop's patrons and settles in to life as a reader, she tries to puzzle out what her aunt's plans were all along. 

This was another single-sitting read. More importantly, it is beautifully written & will call to the book lover in any reader. There's a tiny mystery tucked into the pages, a mysterious book that seems to appear at opportune moments in readers' lives. Valerie encounters it, and has to puzzle out its meaning as well. This novella is definitely recommended as a gift for other readers in your life. 

Verdict: Affirmed. A quaint and charming book celebrating the joys of reading. It's a lovely read for an afternoon when you're looking for a break.

"A Very Special Year" by Thomas Montasser, translated by Jamie Bulloch, published August 9, 2016 by Oneworld Publications.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

GUEST POST: "The Wall of Storms" by Ken Liu

I'm excited to share a special guest post from one of my former law school peers, Tochi Onyebuchi. I had the honor of working with Tochi on the Morningside Muckraker, and he is an incredible writer in his own right. He has had fiction published in Asimov's, Ideomancer, and Panverse ThreeHe publishes his non-fiction writing at Boy Boxes Bear and tweets @TochiTrueStory.

Here, he reviews Ken Liu's "The Wall of Storms," the second installment in the Dandelion Dynasty. Please note, this review contains SPOILERS for the first book, "The Grace of Kings."

Sequels bear outsized burdens. They’re tasked with enriching a world introduced in their predecessor, deepening it while enlarging it, marking continuity, ensuring they carry the same genetic material while insisting on their own newness, their own uniqueness. Ken Liu’s debut was wuxia War and Peace. How was he going to top that? And what did that even mean?

"The Grace of Kings" ended with functionary-cum-bandit-cum-rebellion leader Kuni Garu betraying his former friend, the Achillean Mata Zyndu. By the novel’s end, Kuni, now Emperor Ragin, was poised to bring about a new era of rule to Dara, defined by fairness and justice. Mapideré’s tyranny was over. The epoch of divisions had ended. Rebellions extinguished, peace was imminent. But the novel’s ending aptly foreshadowed much of what would follow, confirming the suspicions of any reader who suspected that peace was an illusion.

"The Wall of Storms" is a bigger, better novel than "The Grace of Kings" and may be the best fantasy novel I’ve read in the past five years. Emperor Ragin’s two wives, his first love Jia and a woman he admires and adores in equal and different measure, consort Risana, work both in concert and at cross-purposes to assist and in some ways influence Kuni Garu in his governance of the Empire of Dara. The battle plays out not just in the administration of empire but also in the question of which of Kuni’s children will succeed him as ruler. Erudite, first-born Timu? His immediate younger sister Théra who struggles to stake her claim in a landscape still dominated by men? Or Phyro, the charismatic, battle-eager second-son? Fara, whose mother, a third woman, died in childbirth, is Kuni’s youngest daughter.

Additionally, a terrifying force from the north threatens what fragile peace Kuni has been able to bring about in an empire still wounded from recent war.

Despite its panorama, "The Grace of Kings" was Kuni’s story. "The Wall of Storms" multiplies its foci. Perhaps the most meaningful addition to the cast comes in the form of Zomi Kidosu, a young woman revealed to be a pupil of Luan Zya’s and who enters the capital at the novel’s opening to take part in the Imperial Examinations that grant posts in the Dara administration, a set-piece that triggered rather apocalyptic flashbacks of the Bar Exam. Zomi’s story is also an early indication of another of this book’s successes.

This novel is driven by women. With Jia, Risana, Théra, Gin Masoti, Zomi, and eventually the general of a ghastly invading force from the north, the preeminence of women in the narrative of the Dandelion Dynasty continues Liu’s project of upending those conventions of epic fantasy formerly taken for granted. It is one of the book’s wonders that the copious world-building and depictions of wartime research, the flashbacks, the theological ruminations, even the philosophical and linguistic analysis of Ano logograms do not prevent the book from being anything but eminently readable.

In "The Grace of Kings," Liu gave us wuxia writ large: an authorial perspective that dived from the tops of trees to examine individual lives, then ascended on thermal drifts to catalog the strategic placement of armies poised for battle. In "The Wall of Storms," Liu’s authorial viewpoint continues to dance.

The result is panorama and heartbreak in equal measure.

"The Wall of Storms" is its parent’s child, but as the stories people of Kuni’s generation tell their children are turned into wisps of myth, the world is being remade yet again, new, unique, its fashioners able to stand and fascinate all on their own.

"The Wall of Storms" by Ken Liu, published October 4, 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

It's been a while since I finished this book and I still don't know how to wrap my head around it or put into words my exact feelings about it. Luckily, many many others have tried.

On its face, it's the story of four friends living in New York City. It follows them through life and love as they grow and their relationships change. But centrally, it's the story of Jude St. Francis, a man with a horrific past who has nonetheless grown to find three devoted, loving friends. I will quibble with those, including the author, who describe this as a book of male friendship. That's certainly a theme, but it's a love story at its heart, and an exploration of how to love someone who doesn't know how to accept it. 

Haunting and beautiful and gripping and tragic. There are so many words for this book and they're all still inadequate. Yanagihara has a gift for describing the most traumatic, grotesque, staggeringly painful events in beautiful prose. Even when the events are too much to bear, the beauty of the prose pushes you on to the next page and the next. 

Verdict: Affirmed. I can't recommend this book highly enough, but I also want to warn that the subject matter is heartbreaking and tragic.

"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara, published March 10, 2015 by Doubleday.