Home Again

Home AgainHome Again by Kristin Hannah (Website, Insta)

Genre: drama/romance

Setting: Seattle 

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: a gift from a coworker

Length: 448 pp

Published by: Ballantine (30 Oct 1996)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

***Supreme spoilers below***

When she was 17, Madelaine Hillyard got pregnant. Her filthy rich father kicked her out because she besmirched his good name, whatever the fuck that means, and she had to rely on help from her best friend, Francis, the brother of her baby’s father, Angel. Angel took off when he learned Madelaine was pregnant, aided by the gift of $10,000 and a new Harley from her dad. Skip ahead about 17 years and we learn that Madelaine kept her baby, used the trust fund her mother left to her to put herself through med school and is now a highly respected cardiothoracic surgeon in Seattle. Because who doesn’t have a trust fund to help make life as a single teenage mother bearable? And of course she never got over Angel and she is a weak parent whose 16 year old daughter, Lina, hates.  

In the intervening years, Francis became a priest but of course he is also in love with Madelaine. But he helps take care of her and Lina and Lina never knows he is her uncle because Francis had asked Madelaine not to tell her who her father really is. Who the fuck knows why; that makes no sense to me. If a kid wants to know who their parents are, they ought to know. 

Meanwhile, Angel has managed to become a big movie star, but when he was young, he had an infection in his heart. Years of partying have damaged it to the point that he needs a transplant to survive. When his situation becomes critical, he is transferred to a better cardiac clinic. Of course, Madelaine is assigned as his surgeon. Cue adult angst. Eventually, Angel gets a new heart but not in any way anyone expected. He ends up with Francis’s heart when he is suddenly killed in a car accident. Cue more adult angst when Angel finds out.

If this book were on film, it would be one of those squishy, cheesy Hallmark movies. As soon as you meet all the characters, you know who will end up with whom and what will happen. Angel does away with his wicked and immature ways. Lina finds out who her dad is. Madelaine learns, finally, how to be an effective parent and it makes Lina decide she loves her mom and so she won’t be a teenage asshole anymore. And Francis gets closure because he’s a ghost and can see what happens until everything resolves nicely. 

I just can’t even. This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and if this is typical of her style, it will be the only one. I just don’t get why this genre is appealing to so many. You don’t even have to read it; you already know what will happen in, like, chapter three. But whatever, to each her own. The author is, apparently, quite popular and has made a good life for herself with her craft, so good on her. It isn’t my cup of tea at all, I just read it to check off a task for the Read Harder challenge.

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (Website, Twitter)

Genre: nonfiction/science

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Sandra Burr

Source: my own collection

Length: 10:27:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (2 Aug 2010)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mary Roach talks about Things to Learn So We Can Live on Mars, or Go to Space! I decided to listen to this right now because, in our current election cycle with 4 years of Lobotomized Hitler at the helm, packing up and moving the fuck to Mars holds more than a little appeal to me. But honestly, I think there is really nothing Mary Roach can’t write about and make interesting. And laugh out loud funny. I almost crashed my car listening to this while driving. 

Some of the things NASA thinks to test. And the acronyms. And sucking the joy out of things. And really, I might not have needed to know some of these things but they were written in such an entertaining manner that I really don’t mind knowing about how to poop in space, for example. I mean, I literally learned something new every day while listening to this, so that’s a winner in my book. 

I’ve read several of her books and now I really think Mary Roach needs to write about bees. Or the evolution of body modification/ plastic surgery. Or anything, really. I’m here for anything she wants to write about. You should be, too. If you have never read any of her books, you are missing out!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • The whole chapter on sex in zero-G
  • Hygiene in a space capsule or space station
  • Pretty much anything having to do with air ram

Educated

Educated by Tara Westover (Website, Twitter)

Genre: memoir

Setting: mostly Idaho, some in Cambridge, UK

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 334 pp

Published by: (pub date)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Also known as Holy Imposter Syndrome, Batman! This is the memoir of a woman who was raised in Idaho by Mormon extremists who are prepping for the end of the world. She was homeschooled – a term used only in the loosest possible sense because her mother gave up and figured it was good enough if she could read. Westover eventually managed to take her ACT test and get into BYU and from there went on to get her master’s and PhD. 

Westover writes a brilliant narrative that sweeps readers along with her. I think most rational people are horrified when they realize just how crazy her childhood was. Her father, super bipolar and generally violent, is on a tear about the government and socialism and conspiracies and God All. The. Time. He was up in arms, literally, when their “neighbors” were invaded by US Marshals. The horror smacks you when you realized he is talking about the people at Ruby Ridge and you think, “Holy fucking shit, THOSE are the kind of people they think are good and normal?” So yeah, an entirely fucked up childhood. 

Their father’s, and to an extent their mother’s, paranoia and religious zealotry leads them to refuse to take rational action when people get hurt. I’m not talking scrapes and bruises that they treat at home like any normal parent would. I’m talking “my leg is literally on fire and my skin is melting” or “this piece of farm equipment just cut my arm to the bone and I’m spraying blood everywhere” kind of hurt. Both of these events were depicted in the memoir. Even if you have strong beliefs against the government or whatever, no sane parent would stand by and try to fix these kinds of injuries themselves. But they do. With homeopathic cures. What the fuck? Homeopathy is basically just diluted water and doesn’t do shit. What parent doesn’t have an instinct to protect their children at all costs? I cannot believe they genuinely felt it was better to treat these at home rather than go to a hospital. There was enough uncertainty in others that it must have been something they’d considered doing in the past. So for a mother not to take her seriously injured child to the hospital is simply unforgivable. I don’t care what your religious beliefs are. There is no belief that should carry more weight than taking actual care of your kids.

Somehow, despite this utterly fucked upbringing, Westover figures out she needs an actual education. One of her brothers, Tyler, was always bookish and he left to go to college. She followed in his footsteps, studying for and taking the ACT. She has to take it twice but manages to score high enough to get into BYU. While there, she offends basically everyone when she asks what the Holocaust was in a history class. Everyone thinks she is just being a dick but she is so ignorant thanks to her parents’ “homeschooling” that she had never even heard of it. She makes it a point to learn about it, and many other things, although she starts failing many of her classes because she literally doesn’t know how to study. In an art history class, she looks at the pictures in the text but doesn’t know that “This week’s materials are pages 1-50” means she has to read the words. She manages to turn it around and does well, eventually getting to go on an exchange trip to Cambridge, England. She eventually wins the Cambridge version of the Rhodes Scholarship and gets to do her master’s at Trinity College, Cambridge, for free. The whole time she is in college, whether at BYU or Cambridge, she feels like a fake because she never went to actual school. 

Eventually, Westover finally seems to kick her imposter syndrome. I can understand why she would feel that way. By most standards, when she first started attending college, and for quite some time afterward, she was an ignorant hick. She learned and assimilated into normal society and got an awesome education overseas that I am incredibly jealous of. She should be proud of her accomplishments, and she seems to be by the end of the book. Her journey also kind of confirmed for me that ignorance and stupidity are choices and if she can overcome that revolting sort of upbringing and do something awesome with her life, then others in similar situations should be able to do the same. I don’t know if she was able to approach any of her education from a position of privilege considering how poor and uneducated she really was. She had the personal motivation to get where she wanted, which I think is not the same as privilege no matter how it might look at times.

I realize that I do not think of things the same way many others do. For example, I cannot fathom why anyone with a good education like Westover got, who can go and do many things, would continue to make an effort with a family that is so fundamentally opposed to everything she has learned and who has treated her so badly. I’ve always said you get to choose your friends because you can’t choose your family. If I had that kind of family, I genuinely think I would bail the fuck out and never worry about them again. Life is too short to be trapped with family members who hate you or who are diametrically opposed to what you have learned and believe in. I just don’t see the point of trying anymore with people who don’t approve of you or who are violent towards you. Just no.

I typically don’t read memoirs; they just aren’t my cup of tea. I read this one to check off a task on the 2020 Read Harder challenge – to read a memoir by a person from a religious tradition that is different from your own. Considering that I’m atheist, every religion is different from my own. I did enjoy this one quite a lot, though, and think it is great that Westover had the gumption to act on her own behalf and take charge of her own life. I am glad I read it.

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (Insta)

Genre: contemporary YA

Setting: New Jersey

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: library

Length: 310 pp

Published by: HMH (5 March 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is the story of a boy, James Whitman, who, like many of us, deals with anxiety and depression. Hi beloved older sister, Jorie, got expelled from school and kicked out of the house and now struggles to afford her shitty apartment, which is better than homelessness, which is still better than living at home with their abusive parents. James knows he needs therapy but his parents won’t pay for it and he can’t afford it. So he has Dr Bird, a pigeon that lives in his head who he talks to. 

At its core, this book is just another coming of age book with angsty teens front and center. Under its surface, there are layers of thought and troubles and the need to lean on others for help. When James’s friend/crush asks him to help her find some of Jorie’s poetry for the school journal, James discovers that Jorie’s pain was deeper than anyone knew. The Brute and The Banshee, as he thinks of his parents, seemed determined to blame Jorie for everything bad about their family. James feels a load of guilt for that because he knows some of the things that happened were his fault and he never stepped up to admit it. He feels he let Jorie down and didn’t protect her. He misses her and gets anxious when he doesn’t know where she’s living. The administrators at their school are fairly stereotypical boors, morons, or outwardly stern but inside fluffy and sweet and just want to help. I found them fairly irritating and largely irrelevant. 

James himself is weird, a social reject who likes to hug trees and recite poems. His favorite poet is Walt Whitman, in part because they share a surname. When I started reading this book, I was not at all sure I would like it because – and I cannot stress this strongly enough – I fucking HATE Walt Whitman. Hate him. What a weird, arrogant, self-important old man. I’m glad he’s dead so he can’t write ANY. MORE. So I started reading this with some trepidation because I just hate Walt Whitman. The only thing he wrote that I don’t mind is “Oh Captain, My Captain,” and that is literally only because of the movie Dead Poets Society. Hate him.

So I was surprised that I actually enjoyed this book as much as I did, considering that James is always rattling off Whitman quotes, or making up his own poetry that is Whitmanesque. Or yawping. He fucking yawps. Just no. But whatever gets you through the day. It worked for James and for this book, so whatever you gotta do, I guess.

I cheerfully confess that I picked this up from the library only because I read somewhere that it is supposedly becoming a movie and it has Jason Isaacs and I will watch anything with him in it, even if there’s a lot of Whitman. I couldn’t find a release date for it which makes me sad. I want to see a new Jason Isaacs movie. But it is also sadmaking since there can really be no other role in this story he could play except the abusive asshole dad. I suppose he could be one of the boorish asshole school admins, but it doesn’t seem likely. Regardless, I hope the film comes out soon. 

I would recommend this to folks who are really into YA. I liked it well enough but at the end of the day, it was just another YA book to me. Nothing really came as a surprise, though it was very nicely written.

Age of Druids

Age of Druids by Christy Nicholas (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Ireland and Faerie

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 284 pp

Published by: Tirgearr Publishing (14 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Age of Druids is the ninth and final book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series. In this instalment, readers are taken to early Christian Ireland, roughly 5th century, where Cliodhna struggles to come to terms with the new religion that is invading and pushing out her beloved old religion. She is accustomed to welcoming the day with the sun, feeling the spirit and energy of living things, and communicating a bit with the Fae who live in the woods near her roundhouse. To her dismay, not only do the new religion have no place for the things she loves, but her two eldest children, nearly grown themselves, are drawn to this religion and are changing because of it. On top of that, Cliodhna’s husband has been missing for months, adding a layer of suspicion through which the zealous abbot, Padraic, views her.

To try to hold on to her way of life, Cliodhna begins lessons with Adhna, a man of the Fae. He teaches her how to draw upon earth energy to revitalize plants and animals as well as to protect herself. Cliodhna soon finds herself drawn into Adhna’s world more deeply than she ever imagined possible. She will be forced to make a choice between the mortal world, full of strange new ideas and shifting loyalties, and the Fae world, utterly foreign and frightening. 

It was interesting to see how the various threads from the other books in this series were entwined throughout this novel. We learn how the brooch was created at last and how and why it was gifted to Cliodhna’s family line to begin with. Learning how her family became connected to the Faerie realm was satisfying after so many books preceding it that hinted but never confirmed. 

I have read many of Nicholas’s books and, while I greatly enjoyed this one, it was probably my least favorite of the Druid’s Brooch series. There were a few places, in particular scenes set in the Faerie realm, that I felt I had read before. I spent a lot of time backtracking my old reviews and copies of the other books to see where I had read it before. I couldn’t find any duplicated scenes, so I am clearly wrong. But there was a lot that read in a very familiar way which I hadn’t gotten from any of her other books. Maybe it was just a function of having read the other ones and Nicholas’s writing style has become familiar. That is not in itself a bad thing.

The descriptions were all top notch, both in the mortal realm and in Faerie. I liked the diversity of characters and how they changed over time. The Christian monks in general, and the Abbott in particular, were described in a pretty negative way since they were seen primarily from Cliodhna’s point of view. This negativity was explained in a later part of the plot, but devout readers, which I am decidedly not, may be a little put off by it. The villagers had a few bright spots in terms of character development as well. Ita in particular was an interesting figure and I wish there had been more scenes with her. She added a nice counterpoint to Cliodhna, who was all feisty; Ita was a good balance for her. 

The ending felt a little abrupt, but it makes sense because now the timeline starts to move forward, rather than backward. Readers could tackle the series in the reverse order of publication if they really wanted to and get a sweeping epic fantasy. Which, of course, it is anyway. I really loved the way the entire series moved backward through time to get to the genesis of the brooch that was central to the lives of the characters. I thought that was a really fun way to approach it.

One small quibble I had was the title. There really weren’t any Druids in the book. They were mentioned in passing. Druids are awesome, so I wish there had been more, or a Druid who played a main role. Cliodhna was not a Druid so she couldn’t have been the one the title implies.

Overall, this novel nicely done and provided a satisfactory summation to the entire series. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fantasy and Irish culture.

Big Sky

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (Website)

Genre: mystery

Setting: mostly a seaside town in the north of England

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: My own Audible collection

Length: 11:22:00

Published by: Hachette Audio (25 June 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I’m giving this 3 out of 5 stars only because Jason Isaacs’s narration was superb. The story itself was kind of boring. As with the rest of the books in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Big Sky starts with Jackson working on a case, this time staking out a couple to provide proof of their infidelity to his client. Then, showing the kind of weird luck only Jackson seems capable of, he encounters a man on a crumbling cliff and gets sucked into a ring of sex trafficking and kidnapping. Of course, the only person who can solve things and fix it is Jackson.

If he weren’t so sexy, Jackson Brodie would be really fucking annoying. The whole trope of “only I can solve this” was old to begin with, and now it has been pretty much ruined by the Lobotomized Hitler currently squatting in the White House, and it’s a pretty arrogant thing to think regardless of who is saying it. 

It was nice to see Reggie come back in this story. Last we saw of her, she was a lost and scared young lady trying to get by mostly on her own. It was fun to see her in this story and see what she’s made of herself. Other than Reggie and Jackson, sometimes, I really found not one likeable character in this story. The traffickers of course were revolting, but Julia is a shallow twit, Nathan is a typical teen and no one really likes those, and most of the others were pretty one-dimensional. The plot itself wasn’t terribly compelling to me, and Atkinson’s style of writing is so nonlinear that listening to this as opposed to eyeball reading it was a chore. I found myself not listening to it as often as not, and only kept going by pure virtue of Jason Isaacs’s sexy voice and skill in narrating. I really wish he would narrate more audiobooks. He’s one of my very favorite narrators, and it isn’t just because he’s my mega celebrity crush. He is a genuinely excellent narrator, able to do a variety of accents well, and even reading women’s voices nicely. I hate it when male narrators do a falsetto for women, or make them sound like brainless morons. Like, what women do you know who really sounds like that? Isaacs does nothing of the sort and all his voices are authentic and believable. I just really wish Audible could/would make more use of his voice talent.

Akata Witch

Akata Witch paperback cover

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: fantasy, MG

Setting: Near Abuja, Nigeria

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 349 pp

Published by: Viking Children’s (14 April 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunny is a young American girl born to Nigerian parents. Although she was born in New York, her family returned to Nigeria when she was 9 so that Sunny and her brothers could grow up knowing their culture and heritage. Sunny doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, since in America she is considered Nigerian, and in Nigeria she’s considered American. Everywhere she goes, she is albino. She can’t go in the sun and carries an umbrella with her everywhere. She can’t play soccer except sometimes at night with her brothers. And on top of it all, now she is seeing visions in candle flames. 

Her childhood friend, Orlu, and their neighbor Chichi discover that Sunny is a talented witch, for lack of a better term. So are they, and Sasha, a friend from the US who was also born to Nigerian parents. The four of them make an oha coven, a group of people whose magic and physical traits are perfectly balanced. Their mentor begins training the children and helping them to learn the extent of their juju. However, none are skilled enough to take on a brutal murderer of children who is himself a highly advanced juju man. And yet, they must confront him not only to save innocent lives, but to prevent an ancient and terrible being from being brought forth into their world.

A super fun and speedy read from Okorafor. The descriptions of Nigerian culture are evocative and rich and, even though this story is at its heart a fantasy, I feel like I was able to learn a bit about Nigerian culture by reading it. My favorite parts were where there were food descriptions. We can learn so much about a place and people through the food they serve. I absolutely am inspired now to look up some Nigerian recipes and give them a try. 

There was a strong theme of the bonds of friendship throughout this novel. Without friendship and trust, none of the kids would have survived the various magickal events and tests they endured. As they mature, I think the idea of their perfectly balanced group is that they will pair off into couples, thus strengthening the magic of the entire group as well as individually. I’ll see if I’m right when I read the sequel, Akata Warrior

So far, this is 5-0 in favor of Okorafor! I’ve read all three Binti novellas, Who Fears Death, and now this one and have really enjoyed all of them. That’s almost unheard of for me. This one is a younger book than I would typically read, but I still liked it a lot and it covers one of the Read Harder tasks. Recommended for all who enjoy fantasy, especially if you are looking to branch out and find books set somewhere other than the US or Britain, and who like to learn about various cultures.

Lightning Round: Inside Out and Back Again and Too Much and Never Enough

IInside Out and Back Againnside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Genre: MG biographical fiction

Setting: Vietnam and Alabama

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 262 pp

Published by: Scholastic (22 Feb 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This novel is the story of Ha, who flees Vietnam with her mother and brothers to escape the war. They end up in Alabama where they are hosted by a family that Ha thinks is a family of cowboys. The story tells of her challenges in adapting to life in 1970s America.

The story is written in verse and makes for a very lyrical novel. The way Lai uses imagery in her poems makes the emotions Ha and her family are feeling visceral. They are afraid to leave their home, they worry that they don’t have news about Ha’s father or where he might be, and they feel like they are abandoning him and their culture to leave and set up a new life for themselves in America. When they get there, Ha’s fears are justified because she cannot speak English, people think she is dumb because of it, and the people in general are close-minded and unwilling to accept them as part of their community. It was a bittersweet story and a very good one to use to discuss the experiences of refugees with your children.

(I refuse to put a pic of this book cover here. I don’t want to see its ugly face)

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump 

Genre: nonfiction/biography

Setting: mostly New York

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 225 pp

Published by: S&S (14 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mary Trump is Donald Trump’s niece, if anyone at all has been under a rock and didn’t learn that by now. She has a PhD in psychology and uses it to explain the excrescence that is her uncle, by diabolical fate the President of the United States. 

While this book really didn’t give any new information to those of us who have been paying attention, it is still nice to have our suspicions about the mango Mussolini confirmed by a member of the family who is an expert in the field. However, she seems to place all the blame squarely on the shoulders of his parents, in particular his dad. Yes, I am sure their horrible parenting impacted how he grew up. But doing so also takes the blame off of him – AGAIN – and makes it so he is not responsible for his actions. There are plenty of kids who had awful childhoods, far worse than Donny’s gilded negligence, and those people didn’t turn into malignant narcissists. So fuck that. He had a shitty childhood but he is the one who chooses cruelty over compassion and is a loathsome creature. 

Also, if I had a family like that, I would drop them so fucking fast you’d think I discovered warp drive. The fact that she hasn’t done so kind of seems to me like she’s sticking around in hopes of getting some money after all. That, or a scorching case of Stockholm Syndrome. Or both. #armchairpsychiatry. Whatever the case is, it rings hollow in a lot of ways.

Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Marginalized Voices in SFF

With continuing and growing protests over police brutality, racial and gender inequality, and various relevant activist groups, I am made even more aware of the disparity that still exists in the publishing world. Yes, things are getting a little better and more inclusive, ever so slowly. At times, it feels as if we take one small step forward and three or four giant steps back. But it is encouraging to see that there are more women and authors of color being published and recognized for their contributions. NK Jemisin, for example, was the first Black woman to win the Hugo in 2016, and she proceeded to win the prestigious science-fiction/ fantasy (SFF) award for the next three years in a row.

I mention that Jemisin won the Hugo for three years running not because she is an awesome writer of speculative fiction (though she is). Rather, I mention it because the Hugo Awards had been nearly taken over by an alt-right subculture that wanted to silence the rising prominence of women and other marginalized groups within the SFF (Romano. 2018). The publishing industry has been working towards creating more diversity across all genres, not just SFF. But within the SFF community, a few things happened to really help kickstart a better approach to publishing and fan communities. The first of these was “Racefail,” a year-long discussion about the lack of diversity and the overwhelming dominance of white colonialism within the SFF culture. Romano (2018) notes that “the conversations around Racefail resulted in an emerging awareness of the need to not only embrace the writing of women and people of color, but also to make the community a safer space for all writers” (para 7). Racefail led to a growth of diversity and a lessening of gatekeeping on who was allowed to participate in the SFF culture.

It is important here to note that the Hugo Awards are voted on by members of the annual World Science Fiction Society (WorldCon) rather than by a voting committee, and anyone can become a WorldCon member. Doing the voting in this way effectively makes the Hugos a crowdsourced event and it also helps to show changing trends within the SFF community. Unfortunately, it also can provide a space for people to try to game the system. Most notably within the SFF community, two subgroups have tried for years to influence the Hugo Awards by getting their followers within the WorldCon community to vote en masse for certain writers. These groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies (no, really), formed when author Theodore Beale “Vox Day” was banned from the professional Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) after he made posts referring to NK Jemisin in truly awful, racist ways. Another author, Larry Correia, made a blog post in which he whined that his book wasn’t getting any Hugo nominations and asked that all his readers vote for him. Correia went on to establish the Sad Puppies, and Vox Day followed suit and made the Rabid Puppies. Vox Day has since been recognized as a leader within the alt-right movement. The Puppies went on to get ultra-conservative voting groups to vote for authors they had approved to prevent more diverse authors from making it to the Hugo list.

The first year the Puppies were active, they got 107 out of 127 authors on the initial Hugo voting ballot. So, they were right that the Hugos could be pretty easily manipulated. However, turnabout is fair play, and it seems the SFF community in general loves a good bit of revenge. Things backfired brilliantly when, while attempting to make the Hugos into a joke, the Puppies nominated Chuck Tingle, an erotic fantasy author, to the list. Tingle was well aware of what the Puppies were trying to do, so he created a page on his website to celebrate his Hugo nomination, and then he directed his audience to the sites and books of the women the Puppies were trying to block from being nominated. Similar actions over the past few years have been the way in which the Puppies and other groups like them are being stymied. Many times, authors will simply withdraw their name from consideration if they were nominated because of actions from the Puppies. Another common practice is that voters choose “no award” instead of a “Puppy approved” nominee. For the past couple years, Sad and Rabid Puppies have seen their influence drop as the Hugos, and the SFF community as a whole, have sided with the voices of the marginalized. As Jemisin said in her acceptance speech for her third Hugo award (YES, girl!), “SFF is a microcosm of the wider world, in no way rarefied from the world’s pettiness or prejudice. …  I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the Zeitgeist: we creators are the engineers of possibility. And as this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future, so will go the world” (Cadenhead, 2018, 2:33).

Below are just a few SFF books written by a variety of marginalized voices that are all well worth the read. If you have other recommendations, whether in SFF or any other genre, for novels by marginalized individuals, please let me know!

NK Jemisin – I can’t start a list for an article like this without telling you to go read Jemisin’s Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy posthaste. You will not be disappointed! She also has a fabulous book of short stories out, When Will It Be Black Future Month?

Nalo Hopkinson – I’ve read several of her books, most recently The Salt Roads and Brown Girl in the Ring. Both are excellent works of speculative fiction that explore privilege, social status, and race in beautifully rendered narratives, heavy with Afro-Caribbean cultural influences.

Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts is set on a generational spaceship that has been divided into social classes correspondent with where one’s living quarters are situated. They have a second book, The Deep, about water-dwelling descendants of African slave women who were thrown overboard while crossing the Middle Passage. Extra diversity info: Rivers Solomon identifies as nonbinary and on the spectrum.

Octavia E. Butler – one of the queens of “traditional” SFF, Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, beginning with Dawn, is the story of Lilith, a woman cryogenically frozen by the Oankali. These aliens survive by genetically merging with other species. They wake Lilith up when Earth becomes habitable again and Lilith has to decide if she will support the Oankali’s methods of saving humanity or if she will side with humans, even if it means extinction.

Roxane Gay – OK, so she wrote Black Panther: World of Wakanda and is well respected in the SFF community. But I really want everyone to read Gay’s memoir, Hunger, which explores topics such as sex, food, body image, and health through the lens of her own personal experiences. Also, her book of essays, Bad Feminist, is a must-read for everyone, whether you identify as feminist or not.

Karen Lord – her book The Best of All Possible Worlds explores topics ranging from technology to sexuality to injustices by telling the story of the Sadiri, whose home world was obliterated by another species.

Walter Mosley – Mosley is probably best known for his Easy Rawlins hard-boiled mystery series, and that is indeed a delightful series to read. However, Futureland is a collection of nine short stories about a future society divided by technology and wealth. Kind of like society today.

Victor LaValle – LaValle’s novel The Ballad of Black Tom takes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos for a spin by narrating the tale from the perspective of a Black man working for the protagonist, Robert Suydam.

Nisi Shawl – Everfair is Victorian! Afro! Steampunk! It speculates on what the world would look like if the tribes of the Congo had developed steam power before the Belgians colonized their land.

References

Cadenhead, R.. (2018, August 19). N.K. Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel acceptance speech [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lFybhRxoVM.

Romano, A. (2018, August 21). “The Hugo Awards just made history, and defied alt-right extremists in the process.” Vox.com, retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/8/21/17763260/n-k-jemisin-hugo-awards-broken-earth-sad-puppies.