Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin (Books 1 & 2)

I have so much love for N.K. Jemisin. She spins incredible, engrossing fantasy novels with strong heroines and impeccable, exciting worldbuilding. As if providing an excellent story wasn't enough, her books get bonus points because they're published as trade paperback originals (my favorite reading format), and installments in her series tend to be published in subsequent years, so readers aren't left waiting. Basically, Jemisin is one of my few auto-pre-order authors, and her latest series does not disappoint.

The Broken Earth trilogy is the story of Essa, a woman whose personal world is torn apart when her husband kills their young son and escapes with their young daughter shortly before the an apocalyptic Fifth Season occurs, literally tearing apart the larger world in which Essa lives. Yet these Fifth Seasons are normal in her world, occurring with enough frequency that preceding generations have passed down stone lore detailing methods of survival.

This is also a world where a minority population of orogenes possess immense innate power to control and manipulate earth and stones, yet the powerless majority lives in fear of orogenes, and societies are structured around controlling them at best, killing them at worst. We see these structures through the eyes of an orogene child, Damaya, and an older orogene-in-training, Syenite. Their narratives intertwine with Essa's to give a full picture of this well-crafted world in "The Fifth Season." "The Obelisk Gate" picks up immediately where "The Fifth Season" leaves off, and continues the narrative. To explain more would spoil "The Fifth Season," so I'm going to stop my recapping here.

The Broken Earth trilogy is deeply concerned with themes of oppression, subjugation, and power. How is power created, who should wield it, what rights and responsibilities and struggles come with power, how should power in various forms be confronted or countered and by whom? These themes run deep, providing a lasting resonance to a captivating fantasy series. I can't wait for the conclusion this year.

Verdict: Affirmed. "The Fifth Season" was a book club pick, and most of us went straight on to "The Obelisk Gate." Highly recommended for readers of fantasy and anyone who enjoys strong female characters.

"The Fifth Season" by N.K. Jemisin, published August 4, 2015 by Orbit. "The Obelisk Gate" by N.K. Jemisin, published August 18, 2016.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"The Mothers" by Brit Bennett

I don't remember first hearing about Brit Bennett's debut novel, "The Mothers," by I remember the buzz building throughout 2016. It helped that Riverhead (the publisher) designed a fantastic-looking tote based on the cover art to help promote the book, but too many early reviewers were raving about this for the popularity to be based solely on good marketing. In fact, so many early reviewers raved throughout the year, that by the time its October publication rolled around, I felt I was the last to read it! Luckily, Book of the Month offered it as an October selection, so I was able to get my hands on a copy quickly.

I ended up saving it for my honeymoon when I could devote my full attention to it. This was the right choice for the wrong reason. this book is engrossing. Bennett writes simple, accessible, but beautiful prose. Once I started, I could not put it down. Luckily, I was able to focus on reading it in 24 hours while on vacation!

The novel opens in a small black church community in Southern California, shortly after Nadia Turner's mother has committed suicide and Nadia has started a relationship with Luke, the preacher's son. Soon, Nadia gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. Though their abortion is kept a secret, its ramifications ripple through the years, impacting their relationships with each other, their families, their friends, and the larger church community.

The church mothers collectively narrate the book, offering their commentary and perspective that has been shaped largely by rumor. Yet the book offers more than a rumination on secrets within a community, exploring also the evolution of a powerful female friendship and how our struggles and secrets can unite or isolate us from those we love most.

Verdict: Affirmed. One of the best books I read in 2016, I highly & widely recommend this debut novel.

"The Mothers" by Brit Bennett, published October 11, 2016 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best of 2016

My reading dropped off a bit in the last third of 2016, as you may have noticed by the correlating drop-off in posts. Turns out starting a new job and getting married in a few months leaves a sadly tiny amount of time for reading. I am resolving to find more time in 2017 - all that time spent wedding planning can now go toward reading.

But I still read 134 books this year (45,438 pages, per Goodreads), and really liked a lot of them. As per usual, I'm pulling from all 134 books this year, regardless of publication year, though I'll note the ones that were 2016 releases. I'll also link to my reviews of the book, where applicable, otherwise to the book's Goodreads page. I regret that I failed to write reviews for many of these, and I'm going to get better about corralling my thoughts quickly after finishing a five-star book this year.

Let me know what your favorites were, and if there are any 2016 releases I missed! (This seems a good place to note that I currently have 23% left in "The Underground Railroad," and couldn't quite squeeze it in before the end of the year.)

1. "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. Gyasi's debut novel of half siblings whose lives and those of their descendants are shaped by very different experiences of the slave trade is the best book I read all year, hands down. This was also my single biggest fail in review-writing. I have been recommending it to nearly everyone I've talked books with since I finished it, but didn't manage to get a review together. In my defense, I listened to it on audio and promptly bought a hardcover copy when I finished it, thinking I'd re-read it in print (because the prose is stunning and deserves the direct attention of my eyeballs) and write a more detailed review then. But, I started my new job two weeks later, and the review is unwritten. One day, I will get to it, but for now, this is my favorite book of the year, and everyone, everyone, everyone should read it. (2016 release)

2. "The Library at Mount Char" by Scott Hawkins. This 2015 release was the freshest, most innovative novel I read this year, and another that I listened to on audio (and supplemented with an eARC from NetGalley) and promptly purchased a print copy upon finishing. Hawkins' tale of Carolyn and her siblings and the strange library she inhabits is creepy and intriguing and impossible to put down once you've started.

3. "The Fifth Season" and "The Obelisk Gate" by N.K. Jemisin. A joint review of the first two books in Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy is forthcoming, as I just finished "The Obelisk Gate" on my honeymoon last week. Jemisin's apocalyptic fantasy novels are powerful dissections of oppressive social structures and the myriad ways people attempt to control or otherwise deal with those who are different and/or feared. I can't wait to read the conclusion this year. ("The Obelisk Gate" is a 2016 release)

4. "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara. Like when I wrote my first review, I don't have much to say about this powerhouse of a novel that hasn't been said more eloquently by others. It blew me away, the prose was stunning, and the utter emotional devastation it brings is a testament to its strength. I am still bitter it didn't win more of the awards for which it was shortlisted.

5. "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue. I loved this debut novel detailing the intertwined stories of an immigrant family and the family of their father's employer in the immediate run-up and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The vibrant characters made this novel, and I look forward to more from Mbue. (2016 release)

6. "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett. This is another 2016 debut that lived up to the hype (and its beautiful cover), and another novel whose review is forthcoming, as I also read it on my honeymoon. Bennett's story of Nadia starts with her mother's death and her decision to have an abortion, and covers the ramifications of that decision through the eyes of her church community. It was a fast, powerful read, and I'm glad I managed to get to this one before the end of the year. (2016 release)

7. "Leaving the Atocha Station" by Ben Lerner. This was a NYC book club pick that took our group by surprise. Several of us in that group had met while studying abroad in Madrid, and this novel captures that experience perfectly. It's a modern, and for me, far more accessible version of "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," with beautiful, lyrical prose. Apologies for re-hashing my Goodreads review here, but my feelings toward this book are identical and, perhaps most tellingly, just as strong seven months after finishing it.

8. "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family" by Amy Ellis Nutt. This 2015 non-fiction title was another early 2016 read for me, but one that has stuck with me. Nicole's life story and continued activism will remain essential reading as long as transgender people continue to face discrimination.

9. "Middlemarch" by George Eliot. I feel really great when I read a classic and understand how it earned its place in the cannon. We tackled this in big book club, and had some really excellent conversation on feminism and relationships. I'm happy to report it did not kill our book club, and I am glad to have read it and shared it with our group.

10. "Kitchens of the Great Midwest" by J. Ryan Stradal. I'm posting this with the paperback cover under protest, as I far prefer the hardcover, but I suspect the paperback is the one you're more likely to find now. I have been widely recommending this novel as pick-me-up snuggly blanket of a book that makes you feel warm and comforted and loved. It's a novel told in interconnected vignettes centering on a woman with an extraordinary palate that comes together in a delightful, satisfying conclusion.

So there you have it! To wrap up, I'll also share my other five-star books this year, in no particular order:

  • "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt
  • "Aurora" by Kim Stanley Robinson (my favorite SF read of the year)
  • "Shrill" by Lindy West (2016 release)
  • "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" by Jon Ronson
  • "My Life on the Road" by Gloria Steinem
  • "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay" by J.K. Rowling (2016 release) - I feel this deserves a small explanation. I pre-ordered the screenplay and read it quickly because I knew I wouldn't make it to the theater opening week, and I didn't want to be spoiled. However, I thought I'd make it to see this in theaters at some point, and was (and still am, I guess) holding my review until I see it it in the form in which it was intended to be enjoyed. But I really loved reading this, and feel it is the rightful heir to the Harry Potter empire. (On the other hand, the further I get from "Cursed Child," the more I would like to pretend it just doesn't exist. I'm a hypocrite, though, since I'll still try and see it when it comes to the US.)