As part of a determined “read things for fun” kick (as opposed to “read for review/story research/copy edit” which had become most of my reading) as well as an attempt to read more diversely, I decided to stop adding things to my To Be Read list and start TBRing them. And thanks to many good recommendations and things like K. Tempest Bradford’s challenge, I got to read some awesome books.
New and recent books
Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in 1988? Centred on teens, mix tapes and the power of music to change lives? Set in Mexico City? And an awkward homecoming? Shut up and take my money! This is a great story, which jumps back and forth between 1988, when three friends (Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela) figure out how to cast spells using vinyl records, and 2009, when Meche returns for her father’s funeral, and struggles to make sense of her father’s legacy as well as avoid — or reconcile with — her estranged friends.
Things to love about this book: The setting and characters live and breathe in both eras, with all the complexity of change from the time you’re young to the time you think you’ve grown up. Meche gets a lot of ink, and I might be tempted to say she is the most complex of the characters, but that’s not entirely true. She’s smart and clever and creative, but also proud and stubborn and lacking in self-reflection. Sebastian on the other hand may be book-smart but that’s just a cover for his also being street-smart and keenly aware how precarious his social status is at a school where there’s a real mix – and divide – between the haves and have-nots. And Daniela is ridiculed by Meche for her love of girly things, taste in music and social timidity, but guess who sees to the heart of the matter when they’re all grown up, and can accurately, if nicely, call Meche on her tough-and-smarter-than-thou smokescreen? This is a nuanced book that rewards multiple readings. You can find Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s site here.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Things to love about this book: The treatment of an alien intelligence that isn’t necessarily bent on colonizing Earth, but definitely means to transform its inhabitants is complicated and surprising. The human characters touched and changed by the visitors grapple with strange new abilities, and attempt to do the right thing in their own complex, flawed lives. Equally fascinating are the ways the non-human entities behave – such as a vengeful swordfish with an utter hatred for pollution, a sentient highway that eats traffic, and an ancient power that watches the arrival of an alien race with some bemusement. All the while, the disruption caused by the otherworldly visitors plays out in a Lagos where Area Boys gangs contest with the military, civilians, a hypocritical religious leader and his followers, and a president on death’s door. It’s fair to say I never knew what was coming next in the story and it was a wild, thought-provoking ride. And laced with a lot of humour, horror, and pragmatism. Visit Nnedi Okorafor’s site here.
The Eternaut by Héctor German Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López
This long-running Argentinian sci-fi comic strip is well-known to international audiences, but until recently it was never available in English. What a loss for unilingual readers — but I’m glad to have received this book as a gift, because I’d never heard of it before.
Reasons to love this book: The art is all in black-and-white, and like other comics created originally for that aesthetic, it works beautifully. Remarkably for a serial, it’s sure-footed from the start, carefully setting things up in the narrative that will pay off in the end. But even if it hadn’t, the beauty of the stark artwork and the quietly disturbing story would have hooked me. The story begins with four friends trapped by a mysterious deadly snowfall in a house in Buenos Aires, and plays out as an apocalyptic-to-post-apocalyptic story of survival and societal collapse. But there’s much more to it than that, and to give away the twists and turns of the story is to ruin the experience of following Juan Salvo, Professor Fatally, Franco, and the others as they search for answers and attempt to survive. Some things are dated when reading for the first time in the 21st century; the story focuses almost exclusively on male characters, for one thing, and perhaps in the post-Cold War era the threat of nuclear war and its fallout don’t seem quite as imminent. That said, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a story from the last 50 years that better handles the distrust and societal breakdown of a post-apocalyptic world as well as the stark reality that people aren’t as much in control of things as we think. Its easy to see why this was a massively popular series for decades.
Read an excerpt here, or below:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Not a new book, but it was new to me and at the top of my list when I was thinking which books I could start with when taking Tempest’s challenge. Boy, am I glad I did, and I’ll definitely be reading the next books in this series.
Reasons to love this book: Gods as slaves to an empire. A diverse epic fantasy world in which there are no “good-guy nations” to fight the “bad-guy empire.” A fantastic black female lead – Yeine Darr, from the barbarian north — who gets thrown to the vipers of court intrigue in the city of Sky and risks certain death, but doesn’t give up. Oh sure, there’s a massively powerful empire, and there are countries and cultures clashing with some in danger of being invaded and possibly enslaved, but Jemison’s world is one where things are changing, things have changed, and, by the climax of the book, are changing again. And the way magic is handled, especially as it pertains to the gods who have been enslaved by the ruling family of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, giving them unmatched power over the other nations, is both elegant and complex. Gods can be playful, passionate, regretful, vengeful, beautiful, and as the story makes clear, above all: dangerous. You can find N.K. Jemisin’s site here.
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So: these books were awesome! And aside from just enjoying them as a reader, I felt, for the first time in a while, as a writer, that joy of Oh so this is how stories can be and Now I want to write something this fantastic too.