World War Z, by Max Brooks – 3 stars
This is a book that I listened to on audio to complete the ‘audiobook that had won an Audie Award’ for Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge – although I’m not an audiobook person at all, I really enjoyed the format. The story itself was fascinating. It’s essentially one long, incredibly intense and detailed, thought exercise – how would our world fare if the zombie apocalypse struck tomorrow? The main character gathers survivors’ accounts of the Zombie War – everybody from the Vice President of the United States, to some random student in Japan. It extensively explores political, social, and cultural dynamics, and imaginatively considers everything from international relations, geopolitics, history, and military strategy to governance, emergency management, and social policy. I will note that I did feel a certain kind of way about the all-white narration cast, given that the characters themselves were so diverse in race and nationality. I was also a bit annoyed at the relative lack of female characters – while there may be a bit of an excuse for the more male-dominated fields of expertise, the majority of the generic interviews were with men (some of whom, let’s be honest, weren’t even that interesting). On the whole though, it was a really interesting story and a great listening experience.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire – 5 stars
I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I have been looking to get into it a little bit more so I was excited to pick this up – both as part of the #diverseathon and for the ‘Read a book aloud to someone’ portion of the Read Harder Challenge. (My cat is a someone, and I’m sure he enjoyed it very much.) Honestly I hardly know how to talk about poetry, but I will say that this collection was a gorgeous, though often painful, reflection of the life of a young immigrant woman. She mostly explores women and girls’ most intimate moments and their resilience in the face of a cruel world and unforgiving social expectations – everything from sexual awakenings and eating disorders to domestic violence and coping with a partner’s infidelity. There is also a remarkable poem addressing the devastation of the refugee crisis in a profoundly personal voice. (This is the same poem that includes the famous line “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”) Although it’s a very short volume, it was well worth it and I look forward to returning to it again.
Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman – 5 stars
I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but this book surprised me. Thurman’s central question is ‘what is the message of Jesus to the poor and the marginalised?’ From that point, he goes through a few key emotional responses to oppression – fear, deception, hate, and love. The explores the psychological underpinnings of these responses of the marginalised to their oppression, and then uses the gospels and Jesus’ teachings to highlight a path beyond these responses to more liberating and empowering possibilities. In its emphasis on the mindset of the marginalised as a key element for transformation and liberation, this book is certainly out of step with a lot of modern day social justice thinking. But I think it offers a lot of valuable insight to those who are willing to engage with and be challenged by Thurman’s ideas.
Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi – 4 stars
Going into this book, I knew it was going to be an interesting read – regardless of whether they love it or they hate it, most people will admit that this book is kind of bonkers. The premise is that renown author Mr Fox is inspired by a muse who he is madly in love with, Mary Foxe. Out of the blue, she shows up one day – and she is sick and tired of the brutal way he kills off his female characters, claiming that they all represent her. From there, the book is a whirlwind of unreliable narration, magical realism, and all out absurdity. It alternates between the main story arc, and a range of short stories which Mr Fox and Mary Foxe are supposedly telling (read: using to manipulate) each other. Some are almost indistinguishable from the main arc until you hit a wild plot twist. Others are clearly separate stories – until a subtle reference emerges again several chapters later. Personally, my favourite parts were the short stories, especially towards the end – ‘hide, seek’, ‘my daughter the racist’, and ‘some foxes’ – they weren’t directly tied back to the main narrative arc, but they were so beautiful and often devastating. Although the conceit of the book was obviously interesting, I think the most profound and memorable moments lay in the emotional climaxes of the short stories. People’s reactions to Oyeyemi’s books are often mixed, but I’m glad I picked this up and I’m curious to check out more of her work.
The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove – 4.5 stars
I picked up this book because it was recommended by my beloved Megan Whalen Turner, and she didn’t lead me astray. (Which is a good thing, because waiting for new books from her for soon-to-be seven years now has been difficult enough as is. But I digress.)
Set in a world that has been torn apart at the hinges of time by a mysterious natural disaster, Sophia Timms is the niece of renown cartographer Shadrack who studies this new, strange world with an incredible collection of maps. After he is abducted by a dangerous shadowy sect, Sophia and her new friend Theo have to travel across this unpredictable world to rescue Shadrack and save the world. I went into this ready and raring to go on an exciting adventure, and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot and worldbuilding were remarkably imaginative. Although nothing could really hit the Harry Potter mark, the way Grove populated her world with such a fascinating history and with so many interesting characters and creatures reminded me a lot of J.K. Rowling’s boundless creativity. There were so many bits and pieces which weren’t quite necessary to the plot, but they weren’t overwrought and served to make the universe richer and more captivating. It was also interesting, given the current political climate in many developed countries, how S.E. Grove chose to foreground the story with political strife due to peoples’ anxieties about immigration and a changing world. I’m always curious about how children’s books choose to engage with political issues, and I’ll be interested to see if she takes these ideas further in the rest of the trilogy.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler – 5 stars
My first Octavia Butler! It was about time, I’ve had this one waiting on my shelves for ages, and flitting in and out of ‘I’m going to get to these SO SOON’ book piles since May. Kindred is the most famous novel of acclaimed black science fiction writer Octavia Butler. It tells the story of Dana, a black woman living in the 1970’s who is sent back in time to the era of slavery to save the life of a white boy. This book was harrowing, painful, and often overwhelming – its representation of slavery is unflinching. The characterization, especially of Rufus and his father, was confronting and remarkably nuanced. And for the record, for these slaveholders, nuance here does not mean sympathetic. Butler shows with disturbing insight how corrupting privilege is when accompanied with such absolute social power. These men are undoubtedly men, not monsters, with all the fears and insecurities that come with being human – but with this context, these fears and insecurities inevitably manifest in terrifyingly dangerous and monstrous ways. It is particularly upsetting watching Rufus grow from an ignorant but well-meaning boy into a young man who could not more vividly embody racist entitlement and violence. (And honestly, I don’t know if I have ever genuinely hated a character like I do Rufus Weylin.) Despite how challenging parts of this book are to read, I can’t recommend it highly enough.