TOP TEN TUESDAY: Books That Surprised Me

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly discussion hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl (and formerly hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), and this week’s topic is the top ten books that surprised you (in a good way or a bad way), and I’m going to go with the more positive route, because usually if books are surprisingly bad, I just stop reading them or choose to forget about them (unless they’re legitimately awful. And that’s pretty rare).

My list will focus on the top ten books that surprised me in 2017, so it’s functioning sort of as a recap for last year’s reading as well, since I was a little lazy and perturbed by the lack of functioning keyboard to have any desire to write anything. Anyway, this list is not in ranking order, but in order from when I read it in the year, from the beginning of 2017 to the end of the year.

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I think I read this many, many years ago when I was much younger and much less aware of what science fiction could do in terms of exploring humanity and culture instead of merely exploring space. Ai, the main character of this book, is at first unsettled by the sense of duality and ambisexuality on Gethen, and this unsettled feeling is a direct exploration of how gender functions in our own society (granted, in 1969, the much-broadcast definitions were a little different than the conversations we’re having today, so some of it feels outdated). However, a lot of it feels so relevant, and it made me think and it made me wonder, and I think that’s what some of the best science fiction should do. “It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.”
  • The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. Ever since I got my hands on an ARC from the table at work, I’ve been telling everyone I know to read this book. It’s relevant, it’s nuanced, it’s heart-wrenching. Though often hilarious and heartwarming at times, Thomas’s novel further reveals to us the consistent, prevalent institutional racism and broken criminal justice system in America in which so many people (without consequence!) continue to violate the civil rights of thousands because of the color of their skin. It will break your heart; it will make you angry. Read it. “Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.”
  • The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley. I read this book a year ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s sci-fi just how I like it. It’s gross, it’s visceral, and it’s an angry yell into the void of space. I mean, don’t you want to read about asexual ships that give birth to whatever the ship needs, cannibalistic women who eat their deformed young, and womb/uterus/placenta references (with all of the associated fluids) all over the place? Yes, you do. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot or the characters because half of the enjoyment of this is getting to discover that for yourself. Just read it. ASAP. “When you understand what the world is, you have two choices: Become a part of that world and perpetuate that system forever and ever, unto the next generation. Or fight it, and break it, and build something new. The former is safer, and easier. The latter is scarier, because who is to say what you build will be any better?”
  • The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu. The thing I liked most about this collection of stories, aside from Liu’s deft skill at writing and blending several different genres, is that so many of the stories focus on the idea of storytelling and what that means for us as people and as a society. In the collection, you’ll read about the ways in which species across the universe record their stories for the present and the future (“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”), the ways in which society tells us stories to keep us controlled and how difficult it is to break the illusions (“Perfect Match”), the literal power of words (“The Literomancer”), and the literal preservation of memory to be “read” and its upsides and pitfalls (“Simulacrum”).  “Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.”
  • Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Moby-Dick functions best for you, dear reader, when you are familiar with the history of the novel. I think I read this at a pertinent time in my life. Had I read it before I learned the history of the narrative, the novel, the American novel, religion and its function in the American novel, the personal life of Melville (and by extension Hawthorne), and postmodernism (and one can argue whether or not this novel is considered postmodern, but it’s different than anything else I’ve read from the time period and knowing how postmodernism works in a literary setting adds to my own consumption and enjoyment of the novel on some level because its lucidity is very much like James Joyce’s style), I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now. It’s a hefty novel, a undertaking, but it’s so incredibly worth it. It’s a love story, and you will wonder whether or not you are chasing your own white whale. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”
  • The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay Faye. I am so particular about my Sherlock Holmes pastiches. It’s so difficult to capture the essence of Doyle’s original stories while simultaneously making it new, and Faye does this with exemplary flair. All of these stories feel at once rooted in time and timeless, and Faye manages this with her effortless, captivating writing. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes in any capacity and love a good historical mystery, read this right away. Dust and Shadow, a mystery in which Holmes and Watson discover the true identity of Jack the Ripper, is just as engaging. “In the broad light of day, I could not give his tale nearly so much credence as I had granted it when sitting rapt before a midnight fireplace whilst the tempest without erased the natural world.”
  • Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those cerebral post-apocalyptic dystopian novels that will linger with you long after you finish it. This standalone novel from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy explores how humans abuse science and nature for technological or monetary gain, and Borne shows us the aftermath of that greed. The novel also explores what it means to be a person, what it means to love and then to let go of love, what it means to live and then to die, and what it means when one finds beauty in the midst of so much chaos. VanderMeer manages to pack so much description, emotion, and longing into such a short novel, and it’s a novel that will make you reread passages and sentences again and again because of their beauty and complexity. The companion novella, The Strange Bird, is just as compelling. “He was born, but I had borne him.”
  • Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen. This is a supernatural Western, and it’s AMAZING. This follows Nettie Lonesome, a half-black half-Comanche young woman, who sets out to discover herself, her identity, and her place in the world only to discover that there are monsters lurking everywhere. This is steeped in Native American folklore with a hefty dash of that Old West mythology. Nettie is resilient, disguises herself up as a man and takes on a new name or two in order to get what she wants out of life, and begins to use her skills for the betterment of herself and others once she realizes she has the capacity to do so. It’s also a fantastic story with so many twists and turns, and you won’t be able to put it down, because I certainly couldn’t. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series. “Your heart is not a rock that stands unchanging. It’s like water. It flows, it moves, it allows neither boulders nor canyons to stand in its way. It hardens and softens and expands to fill new spaces. You are still becoming yourself. And you have a lot to learn.”
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I really didn’t know what to expect from this when I received it as part of BookSparks’s summer reading challenge, but I didn’t expect to read a heartfelt story of a woman of color navigating that man’s world called Hollywood. It was such a breezy, gossipy (but deep) read, and it’s about Evelyn Hugo coming clean about her life and owning up to her flaws and essentially wanting to become real after being put on a pedestal her entire life. It’s about coming to terms with the reality that behind someone’s “perfect life” is a person who struggles with themselves and their daily lives just as much as the rest of us. I don’t really cry at books, but this one got me teary-eyed more than once, and that’s saying something. “They are just husbands. I am Evelyn Hugo. And anyway, I think once people know the truth, they will be much more interested in my wife.”
  • The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang. I have so many feelings about this book (and this series), and all of them are good. SO GOOD. If you like -punk genres, you need to read this. If you like stories exploring identity and gender and what it means to be a person, you need to read this. If you just like engaging fantasy, you need to read this. In Yang’s Protectorate, gender is chosen (or not) by the person and sexuality is fluid, and it’s such an amazing exploration on those subjects. It made me feel less alone on the subject of presentation, and I think it’s one of those books that will make other people feel less alone on so many fronts. The second part is just as moving, and I am eagerly awaiting the third. “The saying goes, ‘The black tides of heaven direct the courses of human lives’. To which a wise teacher said, ‘But as with all the waters, one can swim against the tide.'”

After compiling this, a majority of the books have a similar theme: identity, discovery, and what it means to be yourself, and for me, 2017 was a lot of that, so it’s interesting to note that the books I read last year that have stuck with me reflect that theme as well.

Little List of Reviews #7: Recent Netgalley Reads

I have been terrible at keeping up with blog reviews ever since late last year, so I am playing catch-up now and make more of an effort! I felt like I was doing really well for a while, and then a whole bunch of things happened and my brain just kind of went blah and that was that. ANYWAY, onward to these short but sweet reviews.

Little List of Reviews #7: Recent Netgalley ReadsTitle: The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear
Series: Lotus Kingdoms #1
Published by Tor Books
Published: October 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 367
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

The Stone in the Skull, the first volume in her new trilogy, takes readers over the dangerous mountain passes of the Steles of the Sky and south into the Lotus Kingdoms.

The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.

They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.

Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull is the start to a lush fantasy trilogy that felt a lot at times to be the fantasy counterpart to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness as it explores gender and identity against the backdrop of political intrigue and upheaval. I hadn’t realized it is the start to a sequel trilogy of a previous series of Bear’s. While I think that I probably could have benefited from being a little more familiar with the world before diving into this one, I don’t feel like I was alienated in any way from the enjoyment of The Stone and the Skull‘s story because this story is set several decades after the first trilogy. My only issue with the book was that it took too long for the heart of the story to really reveal itself. I was more than halfway through the book before I felt as if I could connect with almost any of the characters. My favorite characters, however, are the Gage and the Dead Man, so I’m looking forward to seeing how their story progresses in the rest of the trilogy!

Review copy provided by Netgalley/Tor; all opinions are my own!

Little List of Reviews #7: Recent Netgalley ReadsTitle: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Series: Winternight Trilogy #2
Published by Del Rey
Published: December 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 363
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

After I finished reading The Girl in the Tower, all I could think was wow, what an amazing followup, because much like The Bear and the Nightingale, Arden’s second title in the Winternight Trilogy satisfies some of the questions left at the end of the first book and leaves a lot of questions to be answered in the upcoming final book. The writing and atmosphere is both foreign and familiar, like a fairy tale you’ve only heard on the peripherals of the familiar stories we’ve grown up with. Arden expertly weaves and subverts those familiar fairy tale tropes while managing to make her tale fresh and exciting. After such a stunning followup to the already incredible The Bear and the Nightingale, I’ll certainly be picking up anything Arden writes in the future without any hesitation.

A review copy provided by Netgalley/Del Rey; all opinions are my own!

Little List of Reviews #7: Recent Netgalley ReadsTitle: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Series: The Hazel Wood #1
Published by Flatiron Books
Published: January 30th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set. Alice's only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother's tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood turned out to be everything I’ve been hoping for lately in recent YA fantasy. Dark fairy tales, believable characters, and all of those twists and turns to keep you glued to the page. This is a fairy tale about a mother-daughter bond and the strange, wild lengths one goes for family and truth. The major issue I had with this, though, was the pacing. The first half is a little slower-paced, allowing for us as the reader to get to know Alice and the world in which she leaves and the world she was told to avoid, but the last half had so much going on in it that I felt a lack of development for the Hinterlands. Knowing now that this is the first in a series, I’m hoping we get to see more of the Hinterlands in later stories because I wanted to know more! This is going to be perfect if true-to-the-source dark fairy tales are your thing and for those who enjoy a well-crafted YA fantasy.

A review copy provided by Netgalley/Flatiron Books; all opinions are my own!

BOOK REVIEW: Everless, by Sara Holland

BOOK REVIEW: Everless, by Sara HollandTitle: Everless by Sara Holland
Series: Everless #1
Published by HarperTeen
Published: January 2nd 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Book Sparks, Publisher

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself.

everless - sarah holland, ig: fairy.bookmother
everless – sarah holland, ig: fairy.bookmother

How much time, I think, must there be among us? Centuries and centuries. Ten thousand years or more. And yet every single Gerling has as much as ten of the rest of us.

I went into Sara Holland’s Everless with a little bit of hesitation because it feels like a lot of YA fantasy in the recent years (at least stuff that gets a lot of traction) is just recycled bits of previous works, but Everless caught my attention because it involves a magical use of time. Anything to do with time, time manipulation, or time travel is right up my alley, especially if done well, and my friends, Everless surprised me! I love the concept of time as something to be traded and consumed, used as a bartering tool, and wielded as a power.

Jules once lived at the Everless estate, but she and her father had to escape the estate ten years prior to the main events of the story. She returns to the estate to find work when her father is dying in an effort to save him, and she doesn’t heed any of her father’s warnings about the place. But as she spends more time at Everless and as she reacquaints herself with the surroundings, Jules begins to remember and discover things about her past and her future that she never thought possible.

Sara Holland plays around with the common tropes found in YA fantasy and subverts them. I only guessed at one of the twists, but the others surprised me! Holland’s writing felt effortlessly engaging, and I didn’t want to put the book down while I read it. The only major issue I had with the book was the immense “info dump” at the beginning that took a while to uncoil and understand. Other than that, I felt that the tension was just right, the suspense just right, and the cliffhanger!!! just right. Everless is entirely refreshing, and if you enjoy reading YA fantasy, I think you’ll enjoy this!

Many thanks to BookSparks and HarperTeen for sending me a copy to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar

BOOK REVIEW: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav KalfarTitle: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 277
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

An intergalactic odyssey of love, ambition, and self-discovery

Orphaned as a boy, raised in the Czech countryside by his doting grandparents, Jakub Procházka has risen from small-time scientist to become the country's first astronaut. When a dangerous solo mission to Venus offers him both the chance at heroism he's dreamt of, and a way to atone for his father's sins as a Communist informer, he ventures boldly into the vast unknown. But in so doing, he leaves behind his devoted wife, Lenka, whose love, he realizes too late, he has sacrificed on the altar of his ambitions.

Alone in Deep Space, Jakub discovers a possibly imaginary giant alien spider, who becomes his unlikely companion. Over philosophical conversations about the nature of love, life and death, and the deliciousness of bacon, the pair form an intense and emotional bond. Will it be enough to see Jakub through a clash with secret Russian rivals and return him safely to Earth for a second chance with Lenka?

Rich with warmth and suspense and surprise, Spaceman of Bohemia is an exuberant delight from start to finish. Very seldom has a novel this profound taken readers on a journey of such boundless entertainment and sheer fun.

 Existence runs on energy, a fluid movement forward, yet we never stop seeking the point of origin, the Big Bang that set us upon our inevitable course.

I feel like a lot of the fiction I’ve read this year as a sense of the weird to it. Something is off, something is not quite right. Spaceman of Bohemia is about an orphaned boy raised by his grandparents who grows up to become an astronaut. When the novel begins, he is going on a single-manned mission to a weird particle glow cloud in space near Venus. But this isn’t science fiction in the usual sense. I found this novel to be an exploration on what it means to be a person, what it means to recognize your past as part of your future, and a philosophical meditation on identity.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading it, and I’m glad I never read more than the cover flap on the copy that’s been on the shelves at work for a while because I think I might have been disappointed if I thought this was a space adventure story. It reminded me a lot of Foer’s Everything is Illuminated in the way in which the story moved back and forth through time, through flashes of Jakub’s memories and his present experiences.

What I loved most about this novel, surprisingly enough because I am terrified of spiders, is the hallucinatory spider-like alien who loves Nutella. We never really find out whether or not the spider-alien Jakub sees is really there, and it makes me wonder if the alien manifests itself based on the fears of the person it senses. The alien tells Jakub that it has been observing Earth for a while, absorbing everything humanity has to offer, but it’s Jakub who brings that “humanry” to the alien on a personal level. The end is both heartbreaking and triumphant, and it left me wanting to read more about Jakub and more by Jaroslav Kalfar.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by the publisher and Netgalley; all opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeer

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: April 25th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 323
Format: Hardcover
Source: Work

"Am I a person?" Borne asked me.

"Yes, you are a person," I told him. "But like a person, you can be a weapon, too." In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford. 

"He was born, but I had borne him."

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.  

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne evokes a sense of the weird and the unsettling in a probable near-future reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. In the novel, a young woman named Rachel scavenges and survives in a city ravaged by an unnamed ecological disaster. The city’s grounds are littered with the remnants of the now-defunct Company’s biotech, and the city is not-so-subtly governed by the actions of Mord, a giant flying bear. During one of her scavenging missions, Rachel finds a little lump of something not quite plant and not quite animal named Borne. Borne disrupts Rachel’s life little by little until his very existence threatens to upheave everything in Rachel’s life and in the strange ecosystem of Mord’s territory.

This standalone novel from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy explores how humans abuse science and nature for technological or monetary gain, and Borne shows us the aftermath of that greed. The novel also explores what it means to be a person, what it means to love and then to let go of love, what it means to live and then to die, and what it means when one finds beauty in the midst of so much chaos. VanderMeer manages to pack so much description, emotion, and longing into such a short novel, and it’s a novel that will make you reread passages and sentences again and again because of their beauty and complexity.

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 96
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

 The Strange Bird is a companion story to VanderMeer’s Borne, and the novella adds even more depth to the world in which VanderMeer has created in Borne. The Strange Bird is part human, part bird, and she is rejected from the world in which she lives, because she is not wholly human nor wholly animal. The timeline of this novella occurs before, during, and after the events of Borne and offers an outside view of those events. While Borne explored in its complexity what it means to be a personThe Strange Bird explores what it means to be free and know oneself when the world seems to “naturally” conspire against your very existence. It’s a highly recommended follow-up if you’ve read Borne and wanted more.