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the much-broadcast definitions were a little different than the conversations we’re having today, so some of it feels outdated).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.

BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn

BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie VaughnTitle: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Series: Bannerless Saga #1
Published by Mariner Books
Published: July 11th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

What happens when you mix a post-apocalyptic dystopian with a bit of detective fiction? You’ll get Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless. I really enjoy traditional, structural genre stories mixed with a fantastic setting, and this one didn’t disappoint. Bannerless takes place about a hundred years after a series of events destroy society. It’s a little like taking a peek into our future if we aren’t careful about our relationships with other countries and if we aren’t careful with our planet. Instead of being another post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, Vaughn uses this vision of the future as a twist in her traditional mystery and that twist adds a dimension to the story that I found really enjoyable.

In this futuristic world, the population has dwindled, birth control is mandatory, and people live in tight-knit communities in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. People group together in family units called houses, and they work together to provide enough materials for themselves and for their families, and once their quotas are met or consistently exceeded, these families can apply to get a banner which allows that household to have a baby.

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, a role that combines the roles of police, detective, and judge. Crime doesn’t really exist in this future world, and most of it ends up being bannerless pregnancies or unauthorized food and material production to try to game the system. She is called up with her partner to investigate a suspicious death of a bannerless person in a neighboring community, and she is forced to confront someone with her past as she and her partner Tomas figure out the mystery. I also really enjoyed Enid’s self-discovery as she investigates the suspicious death. She goes from being a little insecure of herself as an individual to growing more and more confident in herself, and to me, that’s entirely relatable. Told in alternating chapters of Enid’s past and present, Bannerless explores a future in which our very society is regulated on the local level and how our actions, even with good intentions, can be devastating for entire families.

If you enjoy traditional mysteries, dystopian futures as imagined in books like Station Eleven, and speculative fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one! It’s short, yet well-crafted and well-paced. And I’ve just read she’s working on another post-apocalyptic murder mystery, so I’m hoping that the next one will continue following Enid’s investigations!

This book was provided to me for review by Netgalley and Mariner Books. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab

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BOOK REVIEW: This Savage Song, by Victoria SchwabTitle: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
Series: Monsters of Verity #1
Published by Greenwillow Books
Published: July 5th 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 427
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

There’s no such thing as safe.
Kate Harker wants to be as ruthless as her father. After five years and six boarding schools, she’s finally going home to prove that she can be.
August Flynn wants to be human. But he isn’t. He’s a monster, one that can steal souls with a song. He’s one of the three most powerful monsters in a city overrun with them. His own father’s secret weapon.
Their city is divided.
Their city is crumbling.
Kate and August are the only two who see both sides, the only two who could do something.
But how do you decide to be a hero or a villain when it’s hard to tell which is which?

 You wanted to feel alive, right? It doesn’t matter if you’re monster or human. Living hurts.

I really enjoyed this book. Victoria Schwab has quickly risen to be one of those authors that I’ll auto-buy anything she writes. This Savage Song is set in a post-apocalyptic North America in which humans and monsters are separated by a literal divide. August and his siblings are monsters who use musical abilities to wreak havoc against their enemies, and Kate and her father are humans who are on the opposing side of monsters. August is sent across the border to get to know Kate, and instead of becoming enemies, the two become friends.

There are things I didn’t really enjoy but I know, in the end, are acceptable and understandable in the grand scheme of the narrative. The first fifth of this book was a little slow for me (and I wondered if I was going to even like it, but then it got unputdownable) and Kate is very similar to other main female characters in Schwab’s other novels (her snark seems almost forced and goes against her character for a bit of the novel). I think for a world that’s unfamiliar it’s good to have a little bit of a build-up with a slower beginning, and it’s perfectly understandable to have a signature sort of character.

The idea of August’s weapon music through his violin is amazing, and I can’t wait to see how that develops in the sequel. I also really enjoyed that the two main characters weren’t romantic in any way. I find that refreshing in the sense that so many books geared for YA audiences seem overly focused on romance instead of friendship, and friendship is a very important aspect of anyone’s life. The horror aspect of the monsters gave me the shivers and added a depth to the terror rising throughout.

It’s not an entirely new type of story in the world of YA fantasy, but it bends expectations and thrilled me while reading it, and it earns a solid recommendation from me.

BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

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BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray BradburyTitle: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Published by Del Rey Books
Published: October 1st 1953
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 190
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

 I reread Fahrenheit 451 this year for a discussion with students at my school, and what struck me most this time was the reliance of so many of us on technology and the media that some of us forget (or don’t think) to think about the world around us. Ray Bradbury’s novel deals with the dissolution of literacy and the saturation of media in the future. In the 1950s when it was first published, the novel deals with a future imagined by Bradbury, and through the years, the warnings the novel shows its readers still remain relevant.

I gave a little talk to incoming freshmen about the novel as it was a campus-wide reading requirement for all incoming freshmen, and I spoke a little bit about the Cold War, a little bit about Bradbury writing it, and then I contrasted it with media and literacy today. I talked about how things are different now than they were in the 1950s, especially with the rise of technology, and I compared the walls of TV in the novel to the constant companion of our phone familiars. In Bradbury’s novel, the characters sit in literal rooms of screens and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. Today, we sit with phones in our hands and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. I asked them to consider where the information is coming from, I asked them to consider a bias, and I asked them to continually seek out answers to any questions they have and to use whatever is available to them to get those answers.

After the election results, I’m astounded at how culturally relevant this book still is. Our society is so dependent upon the media for information and does not seem to value using one’s own mind and abilities to read, to research, to question what’s put before us. Our society has devalued education, and I feel as if so many students are no longer taught how to think but what to think, and this is reflected in the constant, consistent bombardment of information through our televisions, through our computers, and through our phones.

How and why are we moving away from a culture that values literacy and knowledge to a culture that places more importance on inciting fear and hatred based on superficial, bigoted information? I’ve been thinking about this for a long while now, and I’m going to continue thinking about it and writing about it and talking about it.

Let this time in America’s history be a reminder to never stop thinking, never stop questioning, because if we stop, we’re going to live in a world in which thinking about ideas rather than merely absorbing them will become a way of the past.

BOOK REVIEW: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

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BOOK REVIEW: Red Rising, by Pierce BrownTitle: Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising #1
Published by Del Rey
Published: July 15th 2014
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 382
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The Earth is dying.Darrow is a Red, a miner in the interior of Mars. His mission is to extract enough precious elements to one day tame the surface of the planet and allow humans to live on it.The Reds are humanity's last hope.
Or so it appears, until the day Darrow discovers it's all a lie.
That Mars has been habitable - and inhabited - for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds.A class of people who look down on Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought. Until the day that Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside.
But the command school is a battlefield - and Darrow isn't the only student with an agenda.
Break the chains.
Live for more.

I read this book over the summer on the way down to Florida to go on a cruise. I found it a fast, fun, engaging read, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. It draws on a lot of popular series in fiction, and that’s all right, because I think Brown does an excellent job reinventing and reimagining those tropes. If you enjoy the Hunger Games and want something deeper and like the intrigue of Game of Thrones, I’m sure you’ll like Red Rising.

Darrow, the main character, is born on Mars and mines beneath the surface. He’s of a lower caste than others, but then he’s modified, becomes perfect in the eyes of the law, and is chosen to be sent to an arena-sized game board to fight for dominance. Through his transformation from someone of a lower caste to someone in a higher caste, we get an insight into the unfairness of class treatment and the effects it has on society as it trickles down. During Darrow’s transformation, we also get political insight into why the Reds are Trojan horsing themselves into the upper castes. For freedom, mostly, and that’s what a lot of the “lesser” people in any society tend to fight for.

It’s a little unbelievable sometimes, even for science fiction, but I liked how Brown didn’t take the time to explain all of the foreign details straight away. He uses words, phrases, technology, and ideas (like headTalk, helldiver, and frysuit), and incorporates them into the story, building upon them and expanding our horizons as he does so. Not everything should be explained right away. Good exposition does that for us. Sometimes the writing seems a little melodramatic and over-the-top, but I think it’s supposed to be that way. Upper classes often puff themselves up and make themselves seem more important than they really are, using frivolous language to embellish everything.

Brown does know how to write and how to keep the pace, and his editor does him a service. There wasn’t a time while reading this that I felt bored or felt that the story dragged on. It’s brutal and engaging, and it left you wanting more. It’s got great character development, great action, and an ending that will leave you wanting more (and thankfully there is more!). Definitely pick this up if you’re in the mood for some great science fiction