Tag Archives: diverse books

Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber

What It’s About

An epic bildungsroman about a young girl’s journey from fugitive to folk hero, set in a future where space is colonized by Caribbean peoples.

Why I Think You Will Like It

God, there are so many levels on which I want to recommend this, it is honestly hard to pick where to start.

First there’s the sci-fi coolness level. This is a fucking awesome world. You’ve got your androids, your nanotechnology, your pocket dimensions and your aliens, all well thought and neatly integrated into the coolest fucking neo-Caribbean culture. The dialect and carnivals and food and clothing all make for a spin on space opera that I desperately want to see more of. This was my first taste of Afrofuturism and I got hooked, in the best way.

Then there’s how it handles abuse and trauma. Tan-Tan is a fun protagonist, full of spark and wit and ferocity. She’s a perfect blend of larger-than-life enough to be thrilling, but flawed enough to be relatable. In her childhood you see the makings of a rogue on par with Han Solo or Jack Sparrow. At the same time, people don’t become that devilishly tough without surviving some absurdly scary shit first. This is a hard balance to portray; how to be honest about the pain of trauma survival without losing the fun of a thrilling adventure? Not only does Nalo Hopkinson pull this off, but she pulls it off with some subject matter that even very skilled Serious Literary Authors can fumble badly. (see content warnings for details, and some mid-book spoilers)

And then there’s just the story as a story. It starts out fascinating, takes several twists, builds to a point where you can’t see a way out and are internally bargaining for at least a bittersweet ending, and then explodes into a perfectly satisfying eucatastrophe. This book is not just science fiction at its best; it is storytelling at its best, period.

With all that, I still have not mentioned how it handles imperialist colonization tropes, or how the aliens as individuals are some of the most relatable characters but as a group feel genuinely alien, or the beauty of the prose, or how the folk tales within the novel are beautifully atmospheric… gah, just go read this book! Read! This! Book!

Content Warnings

It’s definitely a grown-up book. There are fight scenes, alcoholism, nudity, and lots of swearing. Also, by way of a trigger warning, there is child abuse, including sexual. The actual scenes are brief, but realistic and scary.

I’m almost reluctant to admit to that last, because if I had known I might have been more shy about this book, given that I picked it up wanting a fun adventure (which I got!). Sexual abuse and fun adventure stories don’t usually go together, or if they do it’s because the victims were used as cheap props to artificially up the stakes.

One in three women and more men than you’d think survive some form of sexual assault, and in the real world that does not mean their lives have to be doom and gloom forever. The problem with addressing that in fiction is that it can too easily turn into dismissing or understating the pain. But it is equally a problem to build up the expectation that a survivor of sexual assault is Ruined Forever(TM)! It’s just another thing that makes coming out as a survivor more difficult. People are genuinely baffled to meet a survivor who is not Ruined Forever(TM)!

This is one of the few books I’ve read that actually has an honest, painful, doesn’t-happen-in-one-epiphany recovery for a survivor of abuse. It does this while also giving you a fantastic fantasy romp. If sexual assault is a major trigger for you, probably don’t read this book. But if it’s not, give it a try. Books like this need to exist.

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Ugly, by Robert Hoge

Ugly

What It’s About

Robert Hoge was born with a facial tumor and deformed legs. This is his memoir of a childhood of surgeries and misadventures, bullying and friendships, growing up and ultimately learning to love his body and his face.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I’m probably supposed to write about how inspiring and moving and educational this is, but honestly, I want start off recommending it for its humor. It’s a book about surgeries and prejudice and kids being assholes, but it’s also about spitballs, sports, what happens when you cross clunky prosthetics with a bicycle and a beehive. It’s about getting stuck in the mud and rescued by a nun, and refusing to learn from that experience, because mud is fun.

And there’s sad stuff too. When he was born, his mother was terrified to look at him, overwhelmed by the prospect of raising him, and has to go through a journey before she decides to take him home. Too many stories either erase or excuse the ableist reactions of a parent who first has a disabled child. I love that this story is there, without sugar coating, and also that he can talk about his mother overcoming that reaction without excusing it. That story was part of his normal; and not, thankfully, something used to make him feel guilty or grateful. It was a story of how his mother almost made the biggest mistake of her life, and missed out on a beloved son. In that one story there’s so much to learn about ableism and societal pressures and family and how love isn’t just a feeling but also a choice. And it’s just one of many equally thought provoking stories in the book.

I think there’s a huge need for well-rounded books about disability. His story is full of sad parts and happy parts, but it’s neither a doom and gloom navel gazing memoir nor a sugary mess of Inspiration!(TM) It’s an honest book about an ordinary person being dealt a really crappy starting hand, making the best of it, and going on to have a life of his own.

Content Warnings

None; even the descriptions of the surgeries and bullying hit a good balance of honest, but not graphic or immersive. This is probably because the book is actually aimed at middle grade readers, though I recommend it for anyone of any age.

Nexus, by Ramez Naam

Nexus

What It’s About

In the near future, humans have found myriad ways to augment themselves. These new developments are both feared and anticipated, used and abused. A fragile balance of power lies between those who would explore the limits of transhumanist technologies and those who would limit and regulate it. When a new street drug gives people the ability to connect empathically and telepathically, however, the two forces are forced to come to a head.

Why I Think You’d Like It

As far as my personal tastes go, this is the gold standard for hard sci-fi. As much as I enjoy SF elements justified with “because it’s cool,” there is something special about intensely researched, maximally plausible science fiction. The only reason I don’t read more of it is that, too often, the characters aren’t people. For me personally, that’s an absolute dealbreaker.

Ramez Naam was a computer programmer and posthumanist philosopher long before he started writing fiction. He knows his stuff. But what I love most is how alive his characters are. He has an enormous cast to juggle; not quite to the George R. R. Martin level, but to the level of someone who has his picture on their vision board. Despite that, every one has their own distinct voice. He shows you who looks for the exits first when they enter a room, and who wanders over to the paintings on the wall, who defines themselves in relation to their past and who obsessively imagines the future, who spends most of their time admiring others and who calculates the best way to use others, and who barely thinks of other people at all. All of that happens so naturally that it took me a while to realize just why I had such an easy time keeping track of whose head I was in. This book gave me revelations on how to write characters.

I also love that, although he has his own thoughts on whether or not transhumanist evolution would be a good thing, he avoids simply dividing his cast into heroes and villains. There are characters who horrifically abuse technology that he clearly loves, and there are characters who have painfully sympathetic reasons for opposing it. While he successfully brings you around to his side, he does so without resorting to strawmen or other cheap narrative tricks. Or at least, he did with me; I think even if you’re not totally convinced, you’ll still enjoy the book, which is a testament to how well he explores the idea.

He also does representation exactly the way I think all authors should. The women all have goals that don’t revolve around men and relationships, and Bechdel’s Test is passed every few pages, with the natural ease that should be normal. Some people are randomly queer because the real world has random queer people. It starts out on the West Coast, and the characters come from an accurate variety of backgrounds. When they travel to Thailand, most of the new characters are Thai. That shouldn’t be remarkable, but you know what you mean. We’ve all seen the story set in a foreign country yet no important person is actually from there. I don’t know how accurate, say, the Thai culture is, but I can say that everybody was a person first, with gender/sexuality/ethnicity being just one among many pieces making up who they are.

All of this plays beautifully into the plot. He is telling a story about a fundamental reshaping of humanity, and to tell that story right, capturing humanity itself is essential. He absolutely nails it.

Content Warnings

It is a fairly intense book. Many factions are violent, and there are plenty of character deaths. Even when there is no actual fight scene, the threat of violence usually present.

He also explores the emotional and psychological abuses of this technology. This includes personality rewriting and taking over other people’s body. There are references to the technology being used for sexual abuses. It’s one case where I actually thought it was justified by the story. I hate it when rape is just treated as a requirement to make a story Gritty And Realistic(TM). But when violations of bodily autonomy and consent are an issue intregal your story, not acknowledging sexual violence would be a problematic oversight. One thing I appreciated was that these uses mostly happen offscreen. It mentioned as a reality and recalled as part of a few character’s backstories, but he never sucks you into a graphic scene.

There are also explicit sex scenes, but the only thing that’s portrayed as sexy is enthusiastic consent. There is one scene that might be triggering; a man is trying to hook up with a woman, and he has used a behavior modifying program to get over his awkwardness in flirting. A bug in the program causes him to lose control of his body. This is not portrayed as sexy, but equal parts scary and embarrassing. Neither of them suffer any long term harm, and if you want you can skip to the next line break without missing anything important.

Also there’s swearing, drugs and alcohol. Yeah, it’s definitely a grown-up book.

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene An Intimate History

What It’s About

A history of the discovery of the gene, the decoding of DNA, and all the difficult social and ethical questions that come with the science of genetics.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In general, I love the style of teaching science through it’s history. It’s a reminder that science is not a result, but a quest, and scientists not as austere demigods of knowledge, but fumbling discoverers who make no shortage of mistakes along the way.

In this book, it is an especially appropriate approach. Every scientific story has included the potential for abuse, but the science of genetics has been misused in some of the most horrific ways yet. Even the nuclear bomb can’t compete with the deaths and tortures we have justified with some misappropriated genetic jargon. By telling the history of genetic studies side by side with the cultural implications, Siddhartha Mukherjee brings home the importance of thinking hard about how we use and abuse genetics today.

He also tears apart the cultural abuses of science brilliantly. He starts with the justifications themselves; what people said in order to make segregation, forced sterilization and genocide sound not just socially acceptable, but enlightened. He puts you in the place of an ignorant citizen, easily impressed by anybody who sounds like they can tell a mitochondria from a protein. This is paired with reminders of the culture at the time, and the way certain lines of reasoning sound appealing as they justify pre-existing beliefs. Then, just as you’re beginning to worry about whose side he’s really on, he attacks. He lays out the lies, the misconceptions, the assumptions and outright biases. He exposes the reality of the lives affected by the various racist and toxic policies, and the actual moral questions we are left with. As he moves forward through history, you see the gaps close between antiquated notions and ideas we can find in any modern grocery store magazine stand. You see the common lineage of modern ableism, sexism and racism share with the eugenics movements of the past. He points out the flaws in saying, “well, they didn’t know better back then” by showing the questions that scientists could have asked, even with their resources at the time, but didn’t, and the dissenting voices that were ignored until it was too late.

But don’t think this is a downer book. It’s also full of the miracles and wonders of real science and true discover. The prose is fantastic as well. Siddhartha Mukherjee has a good sense of narrative rhythm, and hits a beautiful balance between thought provoking and fun to read. This history is fascinating and cool, but it’s not an abstract curiosity for any of us. He does a fantastic job reminding us of this.

This is an awesome book for anyone into science, history, politics, social justice, human rights, culture, or just learning for the sake of being a more informed person. It is fascinating and cool, but genetics not an abstract curiosity for any of us. It is inextricably linked to who we are, and how we view it will determine how we operate as a society.

Content Warnings

Nothing in a MPAA sense, but as you probably gathered, a good deal of the book covers arguments for oppression, and the real world consequences. Unless any of that would trigger actual PTSD symptoms, I’d encourage you to give this book a read. He is blunt, but not graphic, and the payoff is exponentially worthwhile.

Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi

Furthermore

What It’s About

Alice is a young girl, born colorless in a land where color and magic are intimately interwoven. But that doesn’t mean she can’t go on a quest to the mysterious and unpredictable country of Furthermore, with her equally mysterious and unpredictable friend Oliver.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Did you like Alice in Wonderland? The Phantom Tollbooth? The Wizard of Oz? Do you wish for more stories of dangerous adventures in beautifully bizarre otherworlds? Do you want them to be funny, heartfelt, and have little asides from the author? The kind where she admits that her characters are about to do something stupid and get into serious trouble, and you go, “noooo, I love these immature little shits, what are you doing????” because you do, you really love them? Do you like it when they grow, but not in a stupid forced aesop way, just in that natural way, where little kids get some stupid out of their system, and it gets them a little closer to being an adult? But not too close, because this is still a kids book? By which I mean a book appropriate for kids but also a delightful return to fantasy and wonder for adults?

Read Furthermore. It has all of that, plus origami foxes.

Content Warnings

Only mildly scary in a fantasy adventure way. You’ll be fine

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races

What It’s About

A lonely island, an annual race, and deadly magical horses.

Why I Think You’d Like It

First, a personal confession. I’ve wanted to read a fantasy novel about water horses for ages. If you don’t know, they are a creature, with variations throughout Celtic mythology, that approaches humans in the form of a beautiful horse in order to drag them into the water, often to eat them. I love the incongruence of an elegant horse and a vicious water monster, but it’s either a concept most authors are unaware of, or unsure what to do with.

Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my favorite authors, precisely because of how well she takes magical premises that could be a bit too bizarre and makes them not only natural, but real, raw and heartfelt. As a kid, I went through a serious horse fanatic phase. I loved the “we’ve got to win the big race to save the farm!” plot and the “I work with horses and love this particular horse so much, but alas someone else owns it” plot and of course the “look at these two protagonists who both totally deserve to win, you really want them to win but it’s got to be one or the other, I’ll torture you for the next two hundred pages mwahahahaha” plot. So, for me, I’d love this book just for mashing up all that with a tragically underused mythological creature.

But it’s so much more on top of that.

It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most frightening fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most atmospheric gothic novels I’ve ever read. It’s a book of blood and nerves and wind and salt water tears. It’s one I want to read over, and over, and over and over again, until I’ve memorized every beautiful phrase.

I think you’ll love it.

Content Warnings

The plot revolves around flesh eating magical horses, so there’s gore. It’s not even violence that you should be concerned about. There’s very little, except for a few race scenes, and then things happen so fast it’s like the prose equivalent of shaky cam (and I mean that as a compliment; she does a great job making you feel the chaos while still letting you follow the action). It’s just that if you don’t want to read weirdly poetic descriptions of viscera washed up on the beach, this isn’t the book for you.

The Universe of Us, by Lang Leav

The Universe of Us

What It’s About

A series of short poems about being in love.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because these poems made me revisit the feeling of being in love in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. Because they made me feel, viscerally, types of falling in love that I’d never experienced before. Because they made me look back on the disappointing experiences of love that I had thought of as unworthy of poetry, and see the beauty in them.

Because they’re beautiful and insightful and made me hold my breath. Not figuratively took my breath away. Sometimes, I’d hit the end of a line and stop breathing for a little bit.

Content Warnings

Not applicable

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

Flygirl

What It’s About

Ida Mae Jones, a light skinned Black woman, passes as white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in WWII.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because it’s everything historical fiction should be. The research is excellent, and Sherri L. Smith includes a cool postscript on what real world events inspired various scenes in the novel. The story is moving and emotionally real, but it isn’t just about angst and difficult choices. It’s about female friendships, fulfilling dreams, being part of a cause you believe in, and the sheer joy of flying.

I loved both Ida Mae and all the supporting characters. She bonds with a couple of other quirky misfit girls and they support each other through flight school. She also has a close relationship with her father and brothers, as well as an interesting, tense relationship with her mother, who is afraid Ida Mae will abandon them for a life of passing for white full-time. The complexity of their relationship is raw and relatable. I love how you are made to see both of their points of view. In fact, while there are a few characters who are just straightforward villains, most of the time you can see both sides of a conflict, and feel for everyone involved.

It’s also one of those stories that absolutely needed to be told from within the group. I’ve seen a lot of passing-for-privileged narratives, for all kinds of identities, written from someone of the privileged group, and they’re usually crap. I’d honestly gotten pretty sick of them, but Sherri L. Smith shows how poignant and thought provoking these stories can be when an insider chooses to tell them.

It took me to another time and place, put me through an adventure, and left me thinking about the issues and problems it raised. What more could you ask for?

Content Warnings

Racism towards some of the main characters, or witnessed by them. Otherwise it is fairly tame; the work the WASP do is dangerous, but they aren’t involved in anything gory or graphic.

Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina

What It’s About

Priyanka, daughter of an Indian single mother, uncovers the story of her past with the help of a magical pashmina.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s a beautiful, expressively illustrated graphic novel that is simultaneously simple and profound. With a fairly straightforward story, ideas about love, home, choice, family and the price of dreams were interwoven beautifully and naturally. I was carried from cover to cover in less than a day.

I liked Priyanka a lot. She was a relatable teen girl; good at heart but full of questions and insecurities that she sometimes handles poorly. Her most interesting relationships were between her and various elders, and there wasn’t a simplistic mentor/mentee relationship with any of them. They all had struggles understanding her, she had questions that none of them had perfect answers to, and they still had wisdom to offer her. I was one of those dreamy kids who got on better with adults, and her relationships felt honest on a level that not a lot of authors have captured.

Also, as a fantasy geek, I loved how seamlessly the magic integrated with the real world. It almost felt like magical realism, which I have a serious weakness for; if you liked stories like Beasts of the Southern Wild you will probably love this. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Nidhi Chanani!

Content Warnings

Traumatic events are referenced but nothing is graphic or detailed. I think you’ll be fine.

Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.