Category Archives: diversity

The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Chaos

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
  • Plot summary
    • The line between external and internal battles gets blurred when a strange phenomenon makes monsters from stories and dreams come to life. The story follows Scotch, a mixed racial teenager looking for her brother while the city tries to survive The Chaos.
  • Character empathy rating
    • Have I mentioned how incredible Nalo Hopkinson is at this? Scotch is every bit as likable as Makeda from Sister Mine, and so are all the other characters. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Does “modern day Alice in Wonderland with snarky teens and Afro-Caribbean folklore” sound appealing to you? If that sounds good to you, why are you not at the library RIGHT NOW?
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Scotch calls her personal monsters “Horseless Head-men.” How awesome is that?
    • She’s actually trouble in normal teenager ways, while still being a very good and likable person. Teen trouble, like kid trouble, is one of those things were we tend to all copy each other instead of actually write young people like they are. It’s great to read a teen who actually feels like the way you were when you were in high school. 
    • There’s a dance scene, and normally those are pretty boring to read about, but this time I could see it in my head perfectly and I don’t know how Nalo Hopkinson did that but it was amazing. 
    • Baba Yaga is a character and she’s fabulous.
    • The scribble monster who might also be a puppy.
  • Content Warnings
    • Honestly, I think you’re good.
  • Quotes
    • “In the dance movies, people can dance their way out of any trouble. If some bad guy’s coming at you, just take him out with a flying roundhouse kick, right?  After all, aren’t you a capoerirista along with being able to get buck with the best of them and pick up the tango after watching someone do it for, like, five seconds?  Oh yeah, and let’s pretend that standing on one foot while you fling one leg up in the air and swing it in a circle doesn’t have you unbalanced with your crotch open to attack from someone who has the sense to just throw a quick jab at you and get out of the way.”

Blood Child, by Octavia E Butler

BloodChild

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Short Story Collection
  • Plot Summary
    • Five stories (seven in the 2005 edition) by Octavia Butler, who broke ground as one of the first Black women to publish speculative fiction and won multiple Nebula awards, including one for the title story.
  • Character Empathy
    • As I noted in my review of Kindred, I think Octavia Butler is a bit more of a setting/concept writer than a character writer. I think the short story format helps bring her characters out a lot more, though. I especially like that she’s not afraid to give her characters reactions that are hard to talk about. We all have those parts of ourselves that don’t follow the standard script. Whether we act on them or not, we all have thoughts and feelings that are bewildering, taboo, or just strange enough that we are embarrassed to share them. When you read your stories, you find yourself understanding things that you were afraid to even admit were part of you.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I love short stories, because of how easy it is to get sucked in, then pop out and meditate on the story as a whole. Her style plays to that very well. The stories are idea-dense, and each one made me think for days afterwards. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Made up sci-fi diseases that are well thought out and have terrifying, yet thought provoking consequences.
    • Dystopias that explore what it means to survive, and put marginalized  characters at the center.
    • Aliens that feel really, truly alien.
  • Content Warnings
    • Several stories explore violence and very twisted relationships
  • Quotes
    • “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
    • “Shyness is shit. It isn’t cute or feminine or appealing. It’s torment, and it’s shit.”
    • “If you work hard enough at something that doesn’t matter, you can forget for a while about the things that do.”

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah

  • Genre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Romance
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of Ifemelu, Nigerian immigrant who becomes a successful writer and returns home, and Obinze, the college boyfriend who she hopes to reunite with.
  • Character Empathy
    • Much of this book is about making you understand people. Why do some people become religious extremists, or pick up a sugar daddy, or attempt suicide? Why do people lie and steal identities? Why do people try to hide their accents? Why do people change their hairstyle? This book never preaches. You don’t get to come to conclusions as simple as “she did the wrong thing” or “she did the right thing.” You just learn to understand.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • You’re surprised at how much you laugh, given that the protagonist grows up with war and then endures poverty, sexism and racism. Ifemelu survives by her wit, both in the sense of her intelligence and her snark. Her ability to cut through bullshit is absolutely delightful. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Nearly half of the book is just Ifemelu sitting in a hair salon getting braids and reminiscing about Obinze, and I don’t even care. She makes a hair salon so vivid and funny I could have spent the whole book there. If she ever writes a spin-off about the braiders at the salon I will buy it immediately.
    • So much feminism. It’s feminist heaven.
    • Obinze and Ifemelu are so damn shippable. I’m not typically a romance reader, because I’m too picky about couples chemistry. You can’t just tell me two people are soulmates; you have to really sell it. At the end of this I was making threats to the book about what would happen to it, library copy or no, if it didn’t end well for them.
    • Relationship conflicts that aren’t contrived and do resolve in ways that make sense for the characters.
    • Speaking as a white person to other whites, I’ve learned a lot from this whole project, but nobody has schooled me like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This should be required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • One sex scene may be triggering for survivors. It also might be comforting, in a “somebody gets it” kind of way. It doesn’t dominate the story but it’s a necessary turning point, and it doesn’t sexualize the event in the slightest.
  • Quotes
    • “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
    • “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
    • “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
    • “What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
    • “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

persepolis

  • Genre
    • Non-fiction, Memoir, Autobiography, Graphic Novel
  • Plot summary
    • The life of a young punk growing up in Tehran, Iran, during an unending series of revolutions. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Autobiographies have an advantage when it comes to reader empathy, because the author already empathizes with themself. The real test is whether someone writing their memoirs can make you empathize with the people who surrounded them, even those who played the role of antagonist in their life. Marjane Satrapi passes this test perfectly. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It reminded me of another non-fiction graphic novel; Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which recounts his father’s stories surviving the Holocaust. Comics are an interesting medium for describing atrocities, because they simultaneously create distance and intimacy. Distance, because comics are allowed to sketch and suggest, without getting too graphic. Intimate, because that slight veil gives the author the safety to be brutally honest, and because the seamless mixture of written, realistic depictions and symbolic imagery feels very much like the way our brains naturally process and remember events. I think it’s a medium that more authors should use for serious stories, especially ones like these.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • It’s one thing to know about the political factions and conflicts in the Middle East. It’s another thing to live them. Stories are human’s ways of inviting each other into our heads. They are the best way we have to make each other not just know about each other, but understand. If you care about the global politics, refugees or immigration, this is required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • Violence, including references to people she knew who were tortured
  • Quotes

It only seems right to post a full panel, as the art is every bit as important to the story as the writing.  Description below for those who have trouble reading the text in the bubbles.

persepolis-quote-two

First Panel: Marjane and her parents walking. Caption reads “nonetheless, my parents were puzzled.” Father says, “So tell me, my child, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Marjane thinks, “a prophet.”

Second Panel: Marjane says out loud, “a doctor.”

Third Panel: Marjane’s mother pats her shoulder and says, “That’s fine, my love, that’s fine.”

Fourth Panel: Marjane lies in bed talking to God, who says, “you want to be a doctor? I thought that…” Caption reads “I felt guilty towards God.”

Fifth Panel: Marjane stands up and says, “No no, I will be a prophet, but they mustn’t know.”

Sixth Panel: Caption reads “I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.” Three images of Marjane in her nightgown. One holds scales, one raises her hand in a peace sign, and one brandishes a sword and shield.

Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older

long-hidden

  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

The Suffering, by Rin Chupeco

the-suffering

  • Genre
    • Horror, Supernatural Horror, Ghost Story
  • Plot summary
    • In this sequel to The Girl From the Well, Tark and Okiku learn that the miko who helped them before has gone missing in an infamous haunted forest. They journey back to Japan to help her, and along the way discover a curse that tests even Okiku’s strength. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • High once again. I noted in my review of the first book in this series that Okiku managed to be simultaneously terrifying and lovable, which is a hard combination to pull off. So it should be no surprise that the same characters I loved then continue to make this series great. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s a perfect homage to Japanese horror. Expect nightmares.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of those rare sequels that actually improves on the foundation built by the original
    • Opens with a haunted doll chase scene scarier than what most horror writers come up with for their endings. Goes on to top it easily
    • Cool use of Japanese elemental magic
    • More creepy monsters than your amygdala will know what to do with
  • Content Warnings
    • Did I mention this is a wee bit scary?
  • Quotes
    • “The air changes. Then that invisible spider crawls up my spine, tickling the hairs behind my neck.

      I have come to know this spider these last couple of years. It whispers there’s something else in the room, breathing with you, watching you, grinning at you.

      I hate that damn spider.”

Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

sister-mine

  • Genre
    • Urban Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean Fantasy
  • Plot summary
    • Makeda deals with family drama, an ailing father, and growing up. It’s a little harder to do all that when your father is a disgraced nature spirit, your twin sister is a demi-goddess, and you’re the token mundane in an extremely magical family.
  • Character empathy rating
    • The characters in this are not only empathetic, but extremely likable. Makeda in particular has an individuality that I look for in all my favorite books. So often I’ll like every character in a book except the protagonist, who is just paper. Makeda is a snarky, impulsive, pig headed hot mess who reminds me of some of my best friends, and I want to go have a coffee and craft store friends date with her.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Fun! Even though things get serious and you will worry for the characters (the last few chapters will fly by), this book feels like an extroverted childhood friend; wild and bouncy yet deeply comfortable.
    • It’s also completely original. There wasn’t a single page where I felt like I was following something that could appear in any other urban fantasy novel, which is such a relief. I love the genre in theory, but, like much of fantasy writing, it can get mired in cliche and formula, when it should showcase human imagination at it’s wildest. 
    • And while it’s light and fun, it’s not shallow. The characters have rich inner lives, and when the scenes turn towards ancient magic, it really does feel like you’re seeing something just beyond normal human ken. Makeda’s arc is well constructed, and the end of her story left me thinking, in the best way.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Jimi Hendrix’s guitar is a character. He’s great
    • Also features Death as a favorite, if somewhat stiff uncle
    • A child medium scene where the kid was actually written. Half the time even kids in realistic fiction don’t feel at all like real kids, so I’ve come to peace with the fact that fantasy-novel magical kids are going to talk like tiny Yodas. Then Nalo Hopkinson comes along and completely nails a normal child who happens to channel the voices of the most eldrich gods.
    • A nursing home that has to deal with constant invasions of deer and raccoons because it’s the personification of the primal life force in there, and he kind of can’t help calling nature to his side.
    • Bisexual representation! Nalo Hopkinson is really good in general if you’re looking for some good queer fantasy
  • Content Warnings
    • There’s some consensual incest that isn’t nearly as off-putting as it sounds. Like, you know how, in classic myths, half the gods are technically married to their siblings and then cheat on them with sexy horses and stuff? This book… plays with how that would play out in a modern era. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it totally does.
  • Quotes
    • “Beauty and ingenuity beat perfection hands down, every time.”
    • “I’m going to check the world’s best source for spawning new urban legends, the Internet. What, you thought I couldn’t even type? The Web is just another threshold between one world and another.”
    • “When your elders are millennia-old demigods, you’d best take the injunction to respect your elders seriously.”
    • “Why? Because I played god with you? Baby girl, that’s what I do. And not lightly, either.” He thought about that for a second. “Well, yes, sometimes lightly. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

I’ve taken a break from this series because I didn’t like the format I was using. I’ve been playing around with new ones and I hope you like this one. Also, I’m going to make an effort to make these a regular Monday feature, so check back next week for another recommendation!

  • the-bluest-eyeGenre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Plot summary
    • A series of vignettes, set in a Black community in a late 30s Ohio town. They center around Pecola, a neglected dark skinned girl who comes to believe that, in order to be happy, she needs blue eyes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Toni Morrison loves her characters. She loves their darkest thoughts and their most hopeless moments and the day when life strangled the will to be good right out of them. She writes them with so much gentleness and heart that you cannot help but love these ugly, broken people, even as they destroy each other.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • This book is all scenes that are hard to read, but you can’t put it down, because they are too beautiful. There are so many books that I’ve tried to read, because they are Informative and Very Important Grown Up Books That Will Change Your Life. More often than not, I leave them half finished, because they are so ugly I can’t read them and keep going through my day. Then I join the ranks of lying intellectuals who say, “oh yeah, I’ve read that. I too am cultured.” That didn’t happen with this book. It hasn’t happened with any Very Important Grown Up Book written by Toni Morrison, because she doesn’t lecture. She just loves so deeply that your heart breaks with her.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Talks about a period of Black history that often gets erased
    • Audible.com has a version that she narrates, and it’s amazing. Her lilting, smoky voice fits the novel perfectly
  • Content Warnings
    • If child abuse or sexual abuse are triggers, this might not be the book for you. 
  • Quotes
    • “All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we has a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

Book Review: Ash, by Malinda Lo

ash

What it’s about: Ash is born to a fairy-believing mother and a skeptical father, in a land where fairy tales are warnings. When her parents die and she is left with a cruel stepmother, Ash finds her broken heart pulling her to the fairies’ world. If she follows it, she might never come back.

A retelling of Cinderella, with a sapphic love interest.

Praise: This book was captivating. The fairies are constructed to have a genuinely otherworldly feel. Lots of authors try that, and most don’t succeed nearly as well as Malinda Lo does here. The worldbuilding worked very well, as did the characterization of all the characters, especially the main one. I loved the romance. I loved the suspense. I loved the way the story unfurled slowly, but didn’t drag for even a paragraph.

Criticism: It’s a fairly loose Cinderella adaptation. The conclusion departs from the fairy tale a lot, and I did find that a little disappointing when I realized there wouldn’t be a shoe scene. But I got over that fairly quickly. The ending was still beautiful and satisfying in its own right, and when I closed the book I was extremely happy.

Recommended? It’s Cinderella with lesbians. Of course I recommend it!