My feminist fantasy book club has been in full swing, and we deviated a little for our most recent book and tried a Hugo-award winning science fiction novella instead.
“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor is an eponymous science fiction novella about a young Himba woman who defies her close-knit family’s wishes and runs away to accept an offer as the first Himba person to study at an intergalactic university. Although far from her family, Binti proudly displays her distinct culture with her very visible otjize. However, when the ship is boarded by a hostile alien race, it is Binti’s unique culture that may be salvation.
This is a quick, intense novella that throws you headlong into Binti’s world. Okorafor pulls together all the classic elements of science fiction with space travel, aliens with tentacles, futurism and social commentary. Okorafor is a spirited writer, and this is an incredibly quick read. There are lots of pockets of technological ingenuity scattered throughout the book, and I love Okorafor’s approach to Afrofuturism and how it pays homage to traditional culture while weaving it seamlessly with science and space travel.
I think the only difficulty, which is one I have experienced with novellas before, is that because the story is so quick, it’s a little bit hard to get attached to the characters. There is an incident that happens about halfway through the book, and Binti refers to the impact of it several times afterwards, but the affected characters were introduced so briefly it is a little hard to empathise.
Nevertheless, this is a creative, enjoyable story that you will whip through in no time.
Non-fiction book about black women in fantasy
Content warning: racism
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Dark Fantastic” by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is a non-fiction book about the representation of black women in fantasy. Thomas focuses on four examples of popular fantasy books and television series that feature a black female character. Thomas presents her theory of the Dark Other as a lens through which to understand how black women are marginalised, even in magical worlds. Exploring the themes of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting and emancipation, Thomas analyses “The Hunger Games”, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Merlin” and “Harry Potter” in depth while making mention of many other examples of afrofuturism and black fantastic stories.
This is a meticulous and thoughtful book that gives characters like Rue, Bonnie Bennett, Gwen and Angelina Johnson the attention and analysis that they often did not receive in their own stories. There were some very compelling arguments in this book, particularly Thomas’ discussion of hesitation and the rationale behind why readers, writers and publishers find black characters so disconcerting – even in fantasy worlds. I thought that the idea of waking dreams and the hypocrisy of how the idea of magic doesn’t break the illusion but an empowered black woman does was particularly piercing. Thomas is very frank about her experiences in fantasy fandom, and this first-hand knowledge and response enriches this structured and well-researched book.
I think the main question I have after reading this is who is the intended audience? Although softened y the autoethnography parts of the book, as well as the appealing subject matter, Thomas nevertheless has a very scholarly writing style that indicates her significant academic experience and qualifications. While I highly doubt anyone could fault her theories, research or conclusions, part of the advantage of writing non-fiction books is to bring complex yet important concepts to a broad audience and I think that some parts of Thomas’ book could be a little too intellectual for the average reader.
A fascinating and academic work about a phenomenon that any pop culture consumer has been exposed to but most probably haven’t even noticed.
Legal drama about a life and death decision
I’ve only ever read one book by this author before, but he recently came across my radar after a minor controversy where he appeared to suggest that his new novel was unlike conventional science fiction and examined ethical dilemmas instead of focusing on “anti-gravity boots“. Anyway, I’d bought this book for my friend a long time ago because I thought it’d be relevant to her interests, so I asked her if I could borrow it back to read.
“The Children Act” by Ian McEwan is a legal drama about Fiona, an English High Court judge, who specialises in family law. Although extremely successful in her work, congratulated by her peers for her well-written judgments about impossible ethical questions, Fiona’s personal life begins to fall apart when her husband announces his intention to have an affair. Unable to deal with this, Fiona throws herself headlong into a new case about a Jehovah’s Witness boy is refusing treatment for his leukemia. When the hospital makes an urgent application, Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital to determine whether he is competent to make his own decision. However, as the judge, it is Fiona’s decision that matters the most and the way she makes it will change his life forever.
McEwan is compelling writer with a keen eye for human interest topics. This is a well-researched book and McEwan combines interesting case law with the realities of living a very privileged, but in some ways very lonely life. I thought the stand-out of this book was the character of Adam, a 17-year-old boy on the cusp of adulthood who is both dazzling in his potential and very, very young. McEwan captures his beauty and his folly extremely well.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it was I didn’t like about this book. I’ve looked at it from a few different angles, and ultimately I’ve had to conclude that it was Fiona’s characterisation. McEwan takes the stereotype of the working woman to its extreme with Fiona who had no children, has no time for her roving husband and whose only foray into any kind of wild abandon was a couple of trips to Newcastle with some cousins who are never named. Even though she is the main character, there’s an element of humanity, of realness missing from Fiona. I accept that McEwan is trying to shine a light on how cool legalistic arguments are not always suited to hot moral issues, but I refuse to accept that real people exist who are as banal as Fiona.
A well-written book but a shadow compared to my favourite fictional magistrate, Laura Gibson, who I cannot wait to see return to screen.
New York flapper suffragette murder mystery
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.
“Relative Fortunes” by Marlowe Benn is a murder mystery novel set in 1920s New York. The book follows Julia Kidd, a young woman in her mid-20s who has arrived in the city to sort out her father’s will and pursue her dreams of being a boutique publisher. In between dealing with her maddening half-brother, she spends her time socialising with her friend Glennis. However, when Glennis’ suffragette sister is found dead, Julia finds herself in the middle of a life-changing wager: prove Naomi’s death was a murder, or forfeit her inheritance.
There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. I really liked Benn’s research into some of the things an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would get up to in the Roaring Twenties and some of the barriers she would encounter. I felt that the tension between Julia and her brother Philip was very well done, and the repartee between them was particularly scintillating. I also liked how Julia’s own attitude to the suffragette movement changed throughout the course of the book as she found that her own independence was not something that could be taken for granted.
I think that probably the part about this book I enjoyed the least was the murder mystery. No spoilers of course, but I felt like some of the twists in the story, while exploring some real life issues, felt a little melodramatic. I wasn’t quite sure that the motive fitted the act.
Nevertheless, I understand that this is to be the first of a series, and I would be interested in reading another Julia Kidd novel – if only to find out what happens next.
Collection of 50 true short stories
A couple of years ago, I was juggling (arguably) too many book clubs. Membership of one particular book club was made up of colleagues, and when one particular meeting fell around Indigenous Literacy Day, I thought it would be a good idea to run a bit of a Great Book Swap. The idea is pretty straightforward: bring books and gold coins, and for every gold coin you pay, you get a book and the coins go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. I ended up picking this book, but unfortunately the attendee who “donated” it didn’t realise that it was a permanent donation. I agreed to return it once I’d finished it, but unfortunately it fell a bit by the wayside. After introducing a new “system” where all my unread books are in a stack looming threateningly over me, I managed to finally get to it.
“The Moth: This is a True Story” edited by Catherine Burns is a collection of 50 true short stories adapted from spoken word performances. I hadn’t heard of The Moth prior to reading this book. Essentially, The Moth is a particular type of live event where storytellers with a really good story about something true from their own lives tell it to a live audience. The stories are loosely arranged by theme and range in topic from travel, medicine, parentage, medicine and just about everything in between.
Needless to say, there are some very compelling stories in this collection. I think my favourite, and the one that stayed with me the most, was A View of the Earth by astronaut Michael Massimino. I also really enjoyed Mission to India by infectious disease specialist Dr George Lombardi, Notes on an Exorcism by Andrew Solomon about a particular experience with depression, and LOL by delightfully well-meaning father Adam Gopnik. Some were heartbreaking, like Bicycle Safety on Essex by journalist Richard Price who witnesses racism in action and Angel by Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels who finds out the truth of his identity. Still others were downright illuminating like Impeachment Day by Joe Lockhart, Elevator ER by Jon Levin and The Prince and I by Jillian Lauren.
I think like every collection of stories, there are always going to be some that speak to you more than others. While most were pretty enjoyable, interesting or illuminating there were a couple that irked me. One in particular was by a man who trained monkeys in a laboratory, and just about every single part of the premise of his story I disagreed with.
A fascinating and diverse collection of stories made all the more engaging because they are all true.
French crime thriller about three linked people
Content warning: child abuse, trafficking
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.
This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.
The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.
A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.
Retelling of Norwegian fairy tale
Our feminist fantasy book club rolled around again, and this time we were tackling a reinterpretation of a Norwegian fairy tale. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but given how cold it is in Canberra right now, it seemed a very appropriate winter choice. Our host put together a wonderful Winter Solstice feast on the night and we discussed the book in earnest.
“Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer is a fantasy novel that reimagines the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. The story follows Echo Alkaev, a young woman with a facial difference who lives with her father, a bookseller, and her brother. When her father remarries, and then disappears, Echo is heartbroken. However, when she finds him near death in the forest months later, Echo is given a choice by a talking wolf: live with him for a year in exchange for her father’s safety. Echo agrees, and soon finds herself in a strange and shifting underground castle that requires magical care. She eventually discovers the library, an enchanted room that allows her to enter books through mirrors. There, she meets new friends and begins to unravel the secrets of the castle and the wolf.
This is a creative story that borrows elements from the original fairy tale but combines them with enough new ideas to really make it a unique tale. Everyone in the book club agreed that the magical library with mirrors that allowed you to step into books was a stroke of genius and we all really, really wanted one. Meyer explored some interesting themes including the way people treat Echo because of the way she looks, friendship, honesty and perseverance. There were also some interesting twists in this story that kept it engaging.
Winter solstice feast
Where this story falls down a little is the plot. Although Meyer has lots of interesting ideas when it comes to magic and place, I felt that a lot of the narrative choices didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a lot of loose threads that I felt could have been tied together a little more neatly, like the stepmother, the witch, the north wind and Hal. I also wasn’t super happy with Echo as a character. I appreciate this is a fairy tale, but the idea that if you love someone ardently enough everything will work out really needs to be thrown into the bin. Fate hangs on whether Echo can prove her love enough, but I think that it was Echo who needed her community, her father and later her lover to prove to her that they could love her enough. I also felt that Echo was woefully unprepared for her trip north, and there was a scene where she sells her winter coat and then continues on through the snow. I didn’t believe that she would survive for a second.
An inventive story that, while enjoyable enough to read, probably needed a little reworking to tighten the plot and give poor Echo the love and survival skills she deserved to have a true adventure.