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I read The Underground Railroad in 2016. I thought it was engaging, moving, and accessible,* and I nominated it for a Hugo Award (Best Novel).

Na'amen Gobert Tilahun reviewed Underground Airlines as well as The Underground Railroad in Strange Horizons and discussed several aspects of both books. That review mentions speculative elements in Whitehead's book beyond the railroad mentioned in the title, in case you are wary of spoilers.

I have read John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, and I think at least one other Whitehead book, and am trying to reflect on how Whitehead approaches and uses the railroad, because I think it's different than the way a lot of speculative fiction authors do, and has more in common with how other mimetic fiction authors tend to use speculative premises. I want to compare The Underground Railroad to Never Let Me Go, where the story doesn't concentrate on (or, sometimes, even mention) the origin story of the big plot premise, and instead the story is entirely about the lives of people living or resisting -- just for themselves, to survive or thrive -- within that system.

* I think Whitehead deliberately works to make the book accessible to people who have not previously read slave narratives, fictional or nonfiction -- I think he spells out subtext more often than he would if he assumed the reader had more of a grounding in antebellum history or the history of anti-black racism in the US.
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Goodness, it's been a while since I posted here. I just started doing my next 50 books challenge, after a bit of a hiatus, and in so doing discovered a bunch of books I never wrote up from last time, and am slowly trying to plough through them.

I thought I'd start with two books which I think I didn't review because I'm not even sure I finished them.

'Bite Marks - A Vampire Testament' by Terrance Taylor

I think I floundered with this book purely because I couldn't quite deal with the vampire baby bad guy. I wanted to get into it. I liked loads of the characters. In fact, I think I liked all of the characters. I found Adam, the bad guy, really quite compelling and I thought Perenelle in particular really rocked. I kept getting into the book, really buying it, and then the weird creepy baby vampire would show up again and for some reason that just really really jarred with me. I don't know why - I think it is mostly that I found it hard to take the baby seriously, and I couldn't visualize it without making it cartoonish which was a shame as the rest of the novel felt really grounded.

I suspect this is purely a mental block for me and so I want to recommend it, for anyone who can read about creepy baby vampires without feeling the need to giggle.

'Atomik Aztex' by Sesshu Foster

I totally acknowledge that I failed with this book because I couldn't handle the use of language. Sesshu Foster rips up our normal reading patterns, re-arranges the language, makes us actually look again at words, at spellings...and totally broke up my ability to lose myself in this book. As a note, I, for some weird reason, am very very bad at handling odd spellings. I think it's a side effect of being mildly dyslexic - I read by the shape of words, and not by the letters. I read a chunk of this aloud to myself, and slowly plodded through the rest of it.

I gave up, after a while, mostly frustrated with myself. I think it is a really good, really interesting book. It was just a little too challenging for me in the place I was in at that place, and I think required a bit more intelligent commitment than I felt able to give, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't really work for someone else.
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Stories of Your Life & Others boasts an incredible pedigree and came to me highly recommended from a wide variety of individuals. Virtually every story in the book has been previously published by a big name literary magazine (Asimov's, Omni, etc) and have won awards. I came to the book with high expectations and was left  disappointed. 

The problem with Stories of Your Life is one that is often levelled at sci-fi writers by its detractors; the ideas are good, the writing is flat. In fact, in this case, their often isn't much of a story there at all. In Understand a man becomes hyper intelligent as a result of a clinical drug study. The story is about 40 pages long and a good 35 of those is spent simply describing the man's new found intelligence. Some conflict does eventually arise (a great conflict in fact), but is quickly dealt with in the last few pages of the story. This is pretty much the problem with the rest of the stories in the book. Chiang may be great at coming up with new worlds and interesting concepts, but he is flat out terrible at building a story. 

There are a few stories in the collection that manage to escape this tendency of Chiang's to get lost in the science of things. Tower of Babylon, based on the bible story of the Tower of Babel, is interesting and gripping and comes together in a great way. Story of Your Life is messy, but the execution is interesting, even if it's not perfect. 

One thing I did appreciate about the book is that there is a section of notes in the back where Chiang talks a little bit about the inspiration behind each story. They're never more than a few paragraphs long, but I thought they were a great addition to the book.

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Title: My Year of Meats
Author: Ruth L. Ozeki
Number of Pages: 366 pages
My Rating: 2/5

Jacket Summary: Jane Takagi-Little, by trade a documentary filmmaker, by nature a truth seeker, is "racially half", Japanese and American, and, as she tells us, "neither here nor there..." Jane is sharp-edged, desperate for a job, and determined not to fall in love again.

Akiko Ueno, a young Japanese housewife, lives with her husband in a bleack high-rise apartment complext in a suburb of Tokyo. At night she lies awake, silently turning the pages of The Pillow Book, marveling at Sei Shounagon's deft, sure prose. Akiko is so thin her bones hurt, and her husband, an ad agency salaryman who wants her to get pregnant, is insisting that she put some meat on them--literally.

Ruth L. Ozeki's exuberant, shocking, mesmerizing novel opens with two women on opposite sides of the globe, whose lives cannot be further apart. But when Jane get a job, coordinating a television series whose mission is to bring the American heartland, and American meat, into the homes of Japan, she makes some wrenching discoveries--about love, meat, honor, and a hormone called DES. When Jane and Akiko's lives converge, what is revealed taps the deepest concerns of our time--how the past informs the present and how we live and love in this "blessed, ever-shrinking world".

Review: That summary sounds pretty horrible, and let me tell you, the book is not any better. If I had read that summary, I would not have read the book. But I read a review somewhere (I poked around at places I thought it might be and can't find anything anywhere, so I really don't know) that made it sound interesting, so I picked it up based on the review (and jacked summaries often sound horrid compared to the actual book). But really, the summary accurately reflects what the book is like.

There were plenty of things that bugged me (the angelic girl in a wheelchair who makes everyone a better person just by existing, and the multiple times hormones in meat cause men to get higher voices (estrogen: it doesn't work that way!) are two that come to mind), but the two biggest problems I had were the way Japan and Japanese people were consistently exotified and stereotyped and the way the book actually turned out to be about how every women just really wants a baby and needs children to be happy. Blargh.

Title: The Intuitionist
Author: Colson Whitehead
Number of Pages: 255 pages
My Rating: 3.5/5

Jacket Summary: It is a time of calamity in a major metrolpolitan city's Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female evelator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and, it just so happens, has the highest accuracy rate in the entire department. But when an elevator in a new city building goes into total freefall on Lila Mae's watch, chaos ensues. When Lila Mae goes underground to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for the lost notebooks of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton, and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Review: So, on the jacket, it's called "sidesplittingly funny", and I don't know if I totally missed the humor or the person writing the cover copy just read it completely differently to me (or didn't read it at all), because I don't know what they're talking about. Anyway, it was definitely interesting, even if I couldn't totally get into the whole "in this universe elevators are the biggest thing ever" premise. I liked the intrigue, though was a little disappointed with the ending. I see a lot of people in reviews raving over Whitehead's prose, but I found his style really off-putting. It seems like it might be one of those love it or hate it things. Still, I'm interested in reading more by him.
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Last year I completed the [ profile] 50books_poc challenge, but I reviewed only a fraction of the books I read. So this year I'm going to make an effort to keep up, in order not to become overwhelmed by how far behind I am.

#1: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami (translated by Yuji Oniki)

The reason why you're all here today is to kill each other )
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new tags: a: joseph anthony

32. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
This is a truly excellent, very thorough introduction to Buddhism. It defines all the terms and concepts a beginner is likely to know, and then some, while giving a gentle introduction to the practice of Buddhism as well as its intellectual foundations.

I'm in awe of Thich Nhat Hanh's scholarship. His first language is Vietnamese, and he's writing here in English about sutras he's read in their original languages of Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali. And he also speaks French.

33. Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs

A short, difficult book. Well, no, I'll amend that. At 137 pages it's definitely a short book. But it might not be a difficult book for you, if all of the following conditions are met: you're very experienced at reading stream of consciousness prose or poetry; you know how to unpack science fiction; you're familiar with the rhythms of soca, calypso, reggae, and jazz; you have a passing familiarity with the history of Trinidad; you understand Caribbean speech patterns well; and you know what the author set out to say before he wrote it.

Even if you don't meet all those conditions (I didn't) you can still enjoy this book, but you'll be very confused. The prose is beautiful. The author is a poet, and it shows. The structure is intricate (according to the introduction, it was based on Dr Timothy Leary's theory that human consciousness evolved through wenty-four evolutionary niches (there are twenty-four chapters in The African Origins of UFOs.)

The novel comes with an introduction by Dr Lauri Ramey, which explains it all including things (like the precise year of the future section) that you couldn't have worked out from the text; but if you prefer muddling things out for yourself, you'll want to read the introduction after, not before, as it contains spoilers.

Edited because I forgot to say what it's about: it's slipstream SF that moves between past, present, and future, dealing with African diaspora, breast cancer, music, and food.
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5. Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Read more... )

6. Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Read more... )

7. Charisma by Steven Barnes

Read more... )

8. Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Read more... )

9. How Like a God by Brenda Clough

Read more... )

10. The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Read more... )

11. The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan by William Sanders

Contains spoilers for the ending )
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[personal profile] sanguinity
48. Steven Barnes, Lion's Blood.

It is the 1860's (Gregorian calendar), and North America is being colonized by Egypt, Ethiopia, Vikings, and China; the Azteca rule Mesoamerica. Our story follows the ever-permutating relationship between Kai, the son of an Ethiopian official in New Djibouti (near what we know as Galveston, Texas), and Aidan, his Irish slave and footboy.

People who were frustrated with Blonde Roots and Naughts and Crosses might well enjoy this one -- the historical timeline and resultant world makes sense.1 Barnes doesn't get around to actually presenting this world's history to us until a hundred pages in, but I rather liked that -- the whole first part of the book is Aidan's abduction into slavery, and our unfamiliarity of the world makes his disorientation more convincing.

In feel, Lion's Blood is a lot like those sprawling historical epics, the sort of thing they used to make TV miniseries out of. Every once in a while, Barnes seemed to hit a note a little too hard -- there's a pseudo-St. Crispin's Day speech, f'rex, that I would have enjoyed better had I no familiarity with Henry V -- but I find that true of historical epics in general. Slavery is a prominent feature of this book, and there is violence commensurate with that, but something about the book's feel makes those scenes easier to read than pretty much every other book "about" slavery that I've read for this comm.2 (Also, much in keeping with this kind of sprawling epic: Kai and Aidan are eminently shippable.)

All in all, this was a perfect bit of long-holiday reading. Nice and thick, very readable, very easy to immerse myself in. I'm looking forward to the second in the series.


1 Mostly. There's a half-page about a Jewish merchant ship that confuses me.

2 I can't decide if I believe that to be a problem or not.
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[personal profile] sanguinity
It's time for our monthly recs post! Usually I make this a space for members to ask for recs that interest them, but this time [ profile] oyceter and I want to do something different.

Dunno how many of you have been following the dustup over a certain pair of white SFF authors? (Briefest of summaries: one author wrote a "shiny" alternate-universe U.S. "frontier" story in which Indians never existed and the U.S. never had slavery; she also characterized that as a history that wouldn't be "wildly divergent". Another author made statements that, among other things, imply that POC are new to SFF.) Notice, please, that this isn't a post about the two authors: we don't write posts about white authors on this comm.

Given that we don't write posts about white authors, here's the reason I'm even bringing up that hot mess: while browsing nahrat's link round-ups, I've been noticing that now and again someone asks for recs of books that give the lie to the assumptions those two authors made. Unfortunately, the rec-making has been a bit thin, and sometimes is pretty heavily tilted toward white authors.

Happily, reccing POC authors is something this comm does really well. Let's make some recs! I'd like to see recs for the following:
  • Alternate histories or universes that are indigenous-centric and/or anti-colonialist. There is no need for the AH/AU to focus on the Americas, and I'd love to see recs that don't.
  • Books that oppose the notion of an Empty Continent -- again, books can focus on either of the Americas, Australia, Africa, or anywhere else that has had to deal with that lie.
  • Books about how indigenous peoples have been an integral part of shaping the history of the world, and aren't just optional background scenery.
  • Books which document and/or demonstrate that POC have a long history with SFF, or a history that's independent of the Verne/Heinlein/Asimov/Campbell anglophone tradition.
If you have other themes that seem appropriate to the discussion, do feel free to start a comment-thread for them.

Additionally, here are two existing POC-author rec-making posts in the discussion:Remember, please: this is not a post for discussing white authors; this is a post for reccing POC authors. Let's make some recs!

ETA: I set up some category-specific comment threads below, but if you've got something that needs to be rec'd and the categories seem to be too constraining, DO feel free to ignore the categories. The recs are the important thing here, not the categories.
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In my initial searches for books to read for this project, I came across an allusion to William M. Kelley's Dunfords Travels Everywheres as a sort of parody of Finnegans Wake. Devoted Joycian that I am, it immediately went on my to-read list. Experienced reader of Joyce that I am, I know that starting with Finnegans Wake without first going through Portrait and Ulysses would be insane folly. So Kelley's earlier novels went on my to-read list, too.

A Different Drummer tells the heavily allegoricized story of Tucker Caliban, the descendant of black slaves who, working as a sharecropper in the 1950s Deep South, decides to salt his fields, set fire to his house, and take his family and leave the state. The action spurs a revolution, as every black person in the state picks up and follows him out of the state. It's a sort of near-past alternate history, written in 1962 to alter the events of 1957.

As a novel of the civil rights era, it asks what would have happened if protesters would have taken Thoreau's actions as a model instead of his words. It's an odd and unsatisfying question, and I think it partially explains why the novel has apparently gotten mixed reviews over the years. Tucker's actions, as themselves, don't make sense beyond rationalization as the act of a man moving to the beat of a different drummer.

But as a novel of people and ideas, it is a remarkable success. The novel's fantasy could never happen, but IF IT DID, this is how it would go down. And the ability of a novel to work thought experiments through to their logical conclusion is powerfully demonstrated. It is almost enough that this happened in a novel for it to have the intended effect.

As itself, the novel does not compare to Joyce as well as it does to Faulkner, who is given his due as an inspiration in a thought-provoking introduction by David Bradley (who is now also on my to-read list). It kind of feels like Faulkner meets Pynchon, but with a lot less convoluted language. And of course, with the racism of Faulkner refashioned into something... else.

We have a host of richly drawn Southern... White characters. There are no main black characters in the novel, which makes the story even stranger and more fantastic. There's Mister Harper, who spins the novel's initial fable of The African with deep and condescending respect. There's young Mister Leland, whose parents are trying to shape into a 'passable human being' and falling short because of their ingrained prejudices. There's Dewey Willson III and the uneven friendship he maintains with Tucker without ever realizing its onesidedness. There's his sister Dymphna, who is selfish to the core and only overcomes her selfishness when she ignores communal prejudice to help Tucker's wife Bethrah. And we have the novel's central couple, David and Camille Willson, and the stunning and very intimate inner story that Tucker's disappearance unexpectedly resolves.These characters are real, and they are loveable in spite of their failings. But we cannot forgive them their failings, and we cannot ignore the depth to which their racism goes.

Tucker is... not wrong, to leave, though it's easier to say he's not wrong than it is to say he is right. But he leaves behind questions that are very troubling about the directions we are following to work through our issues with race. I think what is crucial to note about Tucker is that he is not trying to start a movement. He succeeds in changing the status quo because what he did felt right for the moment, not because he was leading the people or because they saw him as a leader.


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Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge

September 2017

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