Re-Shelving: 2016

It’s well past January, and perhaps a bit belated for this post, but I’ve read too many good books this past year to not re-visit them.

I have to say that my decision to read more diversely this last year was quite effective (and made me realize how much I’d been missing out on). More than half of the books I read were by #ownvoices* authors, and the stories stem from a variety of life experiences. I only hope to increase the range of stories and authors this year.

While I enjoyed the majority of my reading picks, there were several that impacted me in significant ways. Here are the standouts:

The Book That Was Both Educational and Devastating

1In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

This memoir was an intense and harrowing read. It chronicles Yeonmi Park’s life under the North Korean regime, describing how her family struggles to survive under an iron fisted rule. While Yeonmi Park has now escaped and found freedom, the journey to achieve that is a long and treacherous one. Escaping North Korea was only the first step, and soon Yeonmi’s trapped in a tangled web of exploitation. However, her story is also one of resilience and hope. Since her escape Yeonmi has tried her best to educate the world about the dangers that she escaped, and that many North Koreans are still facing. The only thing I can recommend is that you read her story.

The Book That Was Brilliantly Entertaining, and Possessed a Unique Elegance

phoThe Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel centres around Phoenix, an “accelerated specimen” who has been has been grown by the scientists of Tower Seven. She has no idea of the reason for her creation, or about the extent of her powers. She is on the brink of discovering just how devastating and destructive they can be, however, and it hinges on a moment of betrayal. I adored Phoenix. She is, quite literally, a ball of rage at times, and I loved that the narrative let her flex that part of her character so frequently. Femal rage in this novel is justified, and has serious consequences. Okorafor’s writing has a brevity and vitality to it that I love – she never bogs you down in descriptions, and yet you can clearly envision her characters and adventures. I would highly recommend this to both sci-fi fans and newbies. I’m in the latter group, and I found it incredibly easy to sink into this story.

The Book That Stomped All Over My Heart, and Then Brought it Back to Life Again

2Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti

What can I say about this novel that I haven’t said before? Months later, it’s still hovering in my mind, and I keep mentioning it whenever and to whomever I can. It explores an aspect of New Zealand history that’s rarely touched on in fiction: that of the Morioris. The novel has forbidden love, familial love, and self-love as its main ingredients. It connects three voices: Mere’s a young Maori girl in 1700s New Zealand, Lula a modern Maori European woman in present day New Zealand and a mysterious voice that connects the two women. The mystery of the voice, of Lula’s past and Mere’s future all churn slowly to a heartwarming conclusion.

The Book With a Lovable Cast of Characters That Made Me Hug it Tight After I’d Finished It

sttcSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

This is set in Regency England when Magic is at an all time low, and the Sorcerer to the Crown, Zacharias Whythe finds his position is not as secure as he would hope. The fact that he is an African man, and the adopted son of the previous Sorcerer who happened to die in mysterious circumstances only complicates his position. Despite all this Zacharias remains a strong, stoic and noble character, who doesn’t lose sight of duty and I might have fallen a little bit in love. Thrown into the mix is orphan, Prunella Gentleman, half English, half Indian, and completely ready to find her own place in the world. She’s resourceful, smart, and a tad bit impulsive, but that makes for a lot of fun adventuring. There’s a whole cast of characters to fall in love with, and fall in love I did. I can’t wait for the sequel!

The Book That Simultaneously Made Magic Seem Real and Extraordinary

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The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Oh, Diana Wynne Jones. I have to wonder if she really was a witch, because she has a way of writing about magic that makes it seem very real. She describes it an almost tangible thing. Reading her books makes you wonder if magic isn’t just an extra element in the real world as well. In this one, Christopher Chant is determined to be the new Chrestomanci, the magician chosen to be the supervisor of all those who use magic. Christopher, however, is just like any other young boy his age, and just wants to play cricket, and only use magic for fun. Diana Wynne Jones is also great at characters – they are so lifelike and vivid that I can hear them even when I’m not reading the book. It’s a story that jumps to life so easily, and is such a fun romp. I may not have read her as a child, but she certainly makes me feel that childlike wonder every time I pick up one of her books.

Have you come across some of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what your standouts were.

*The term “own voices” authors refers to authors who write fiction or non-fiction based on marginalized experiences from their own lives.

Re-Shelving: 2015

The last year wasn’t really one of extensive reading (or reviewing) for me. However, quite a bit of what I did read ended up sticking with me so I thought I’d take this chance to reminisce about the books that refuse to leave my thoughts. I’m disappointed at the lack of diversity in my reads last year, so I’ll be changing that this time around, but for now here are the 2015 stars.

(All images are from Goodreads.)

  • The Book That Displayed the Intricacy and Complexity of Life While Managing to Hollow Out My Heart

tusk

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

This was probably the best book that I read last year. And certainly one of the best I’ve read in my life. I cannot accurately convey the absolute beauty and depth of this book. Chronicling the triple narratives of an elephant orphaned and separated from his herd, of two young boys roped into the dangerous business of ivory hunting, and of some conservationist filmmakers, this book reveals the layered complexity of conservation, the treatment of animals, and what defines that intimate bond between two entities. My favourite aspect was the narrative of the elephant. They are my favourite animals, and James does a a great job of depicting the elephant’s perspective, so much so that I may or may not have been moved to tears. The writing is poetry at times, and is as lush and vivid as the forest the story takes place in.

  • The Book That Made Me Want to Whoop With Understanding While Also Leaving Me Subdued.

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Feed by M.T. Anderson

This novel is set in a future where humans have managed to find a way to wire the internet directly into their minds, and it chronicles the predictable breakdown in communication and critical-thinking that such a step might entail. Beneath the surface, however, is an extended shrewd look at how the way technology is handled might lead to such a despairing situation. I like to think, that implied within the critique is the assertion that the way technology is put to use has enormous positive potential, if society keeps in mind its benefits and disadvantages and acts accordingly. It’s easy to interpret the story as a dismissal of technology, but Anderson’s story is far more complex and multi-faceted than that, and gives you a lot of food for thought (yeah, I had to pun).

  • The Book That Managed to Give a Comprehensive Guide to Humanity’s Past Without Being Boring

sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

It really is a comprehensive guide. Harari starts from the absolute beginning of humanity, tracking our progress on social, cultural and economic platforms, and manages to do it all without being overbearing or dry in his communication. That’s what I most appreciated about this novel, as it makes the contents easily accessible for anyone regardless of their educational background. You don’t need to have taken a biology paper, or a cultural studies class to appreciate the novel. Plus, it’s not restricted to any particular age group. I have a prickly dislike for academic books that like to clothe themselves in theory and jargon like impenetrable battlements. What’s the point of knowledge if it cannot be shared in ways that are accessible for all? This increases my apprecation for Harari two-fold.

  • The Book That Was Heartbreakingly Optimistic, yet Refused to Ignore Reality

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Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

This story takes places in the segregated South, and is told through Stella, a bright, conscientious child. When Stella spies a Ku Klux Klan meeting one night, she’s forced to come to terms with the grim realities that surround the lives of black people like her. I loved how Draper managed to convey Stella’s childlike tone while imbuing her with that intrinsic wisdom that children, especially those who undergo harsh times, possess. Stella was a wonderfully optimistic child, the likes of Anne Shirley, but the cruelty Stella experiences is in such stark contrast to the whimsy. I was impressed with the balance that Draper created – Stella’s brightness and the darkness that surrounds her. Draper does not coddle you or Stella, and that restraint is what makes this novel powerful.

  • The Book That Stared Unflinchingly Into the Lonely Landscape of an Immigrant Stranded in a Foreign Land

guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

This was such a bleak novel. And yet, I enjoyed it. It made me relate to my parents’ experiences, opening my eyes about the more temporary, but nevertheless painful, slights that they might have faced as newly arrived immigrants in a strange land. This novel takes a good look at the connections human make, though it’s a bit skewed as it only uses romantic love as a platform for this.

 

 

  • The Book That Made Me Smile Sappily and Then Sniffle Like a Baby

mebeforeyou

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Oh, this book. It’s definitely one of those heart-warming reads. A woman, Lou Clark, at the end of the line employment-wise, takes up a position as the carer for a quadriplegic man, Will Traynor. The formula is almost predictable.  The man is initially very prickly, and almost cruel, towards her, but soon starts softening, and through a series of montages they develop a friendship and eventually something more. But that’s where the formula ends. The book is not taking you along for a ride of fluffy sweetness. It’s an unabashed look at real life: I loved how Lou’s financial situation was presented with such stark honesty, her need to support her parents, while resenting having to share space with them, and her guilt at the resentment; Will’s crumbling perspective of the world, his progressive friendliness, which is still tempered by his grim realizations about his life. Also, I would like to adamantly state that it IS a romance novel, first and foremost. It’s about two people falling in love, and whatever anyone might say, it is not the lesser for being a romance story.

  • The Book That Was Truly an Experience

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This title has been making the rounds recently due to the t.v. adaptation. Set in 1800s, it’s about the revival of magic in England, primarily by the two men in the title, and their ensuing rivalry. The size of this book alone makes it an Experience. But what really makes this story world so real is the frequent (and rambling) footnotes interspersed throughout. It’s a whimsical and humorous world-building technique. I’ve heard this described as Jane Austen with magic, but honestly, it’s just a novel set in the 1800s with magic in it. It doesn’t really look at society’s idiosyncrasies or romance the way Austen did – what it DOES do is give us another way to look at fantasy. Also, it pokes fun at Lord Byron’s dramatic, so that’s always a plus.

And what were your favourite 2015 titles, reader?

 

Re-Shelving

It’s been so hot lately, and with too many people in the house, the only place that I can remotely find peace in is, unfortunately, the recesses of my mind. Fortunately, the recesses of my mind house all the books that have plagued it for most of the past year, so partake with me in some reminiscing.

This is for those books that manage to get stuck into your thoughts, no matter how many others followed it.

(All images are taken from goodreads.)

Awards for:

  • The book (or series) that made me cry like a baby deprived too long of its formula

Nabari No Ou – volumes 1 – 14 by Yukhi Kamatani

 
 

 

A manga (Japanese comic) about ninjas is certainly not a rarity, but this particular story had a great cast of characters which really increased its appeal for me. Miharu Rokujo finds himself the possessor of the Shinra Banshou (or Secret Art) which will allow him ultimate power and knowledge, and unsurprisingly finds that he is the top target of the few ninja divisions still active. He’s pursued by those who would try to protect him and the Art, and those who would use it for their own benefits.

There are only a few volumes (by manga series standards), but the manga-ka (or manga creator) managed to focus on her array of characters in a satisfying way that really made me invest in each of their stories, coming to care deeply for them in a relatively short amount of time. What makes this story especially poignant is the unlikely friendship between Miharu, one who is known for his apathy and refusal to care about all thing, and Yoite, a dangerous Kira master who has isolated himself from all relationships. It (the story and their friendship) starts off slow, gains momentum, and soon afterwards you’re just hurtling towards a resolution you know is going to leave you overwhelmed.

By the end, all the characters were shattered and enriched, and that kind of speaks for my whole reading experience.

  • The book that gave me the heebie jeebies while thrilling me at the same time

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 

I’ve already waxed lyrical about this novel on this blog, but no amount of waxing was enough to dispel it from my mind. It sunk its talons into me, refusing to let go, and I’ve been mulling over the deftly, dextrously crafted masterpiece that is this story.

It’s narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, who lives in a reclusive mansion with her sister, Constance and their uncle. The family are shunned because it hasn’t been too long since Constance was acquitted of the attempted murder of the rest of their family members. There’s an uneasy dynamic that threads the whole of this narrative, both among the remaining family members, and between the Blackwood family and the rest of the villagers . You’ll never be quite sure just who you should be trusting.

I think the word creepy was invented for Jackson, and even then it doesn’t really do her justice. She’ll make you feel uneasy, but she won’t tell you why or how and you just have to deal with it the best you can, while trying to keep up with her intricate storytelling.

  • The book that made me feel like a kid again

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein

The Hobbit sucked me in and held my attention like no other book had for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found a lot of books to obsess over and which make me ponder them for a long time, but with this one I really did feel like I was reading at the age of ten again, when nothing mattered but the story and the characters. I guess I left my critique at the door and just engaged in it, but I was swept along on this amazing adventure as if I was a vital part of it.

It was a magical thing to feel again, and all the more wonderful because I hadn’t realized how much I missed it, or that I even did in the first place. So, for that, I have to thank Tolkien. It also broke my heart a little because I realized how long I’d gone without such a feeling.

  • The book that made me realize that life is full of pain, and yes, pleasure, but that the pain is inevitable and that belonging is both over-and-under-rated

Homesick by Roshi Fernando 

 

 
This is a collection of short stories which chronicles the lives of several Sri Lankan characters who’ve left their homeland and are trying to make a new home for themselves in London. It tells of their failures and their successes, sometimes both intermingled so thoroughly that it’s hard to distinguish them.

The stories are poignant, and masterfully constructed. The writing is sharp that it cuts like a knife, straight to the point. The pain of each character is palpable, their sense of being lost and unmoored is a tragic theme that runs through all their stories.

Everyone is so eager to belong, to find something that they have in common with, and the writer brings in to focus how this journey can be filled with a blind desperation that can veer wildly out of control if we let it. As a Sri Lankan, this collection did resonate on a personal level for me, but I believe the way this writer wields her words and weaves her characters will make it a more than worthwhile reading experience for any reader.

  • The book that made me bubble over like a fountain while still managing to Keep It Real

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

 

This book kind of took the blogging world by storm and it might seem like I’m just peddling the same old stuff but let me tell you why I am. This book tells the story of the blossoming friendship between Eleanor and Park (duh), and the friendship blossoms into romance (also duh, I guess). Eleanor and Park are both outsiders. Eleanor, over-weight, red-headed, trying to hide a very troubled home life is doing her best to get on in her new school. Park, half-Korean, half-American, unable to live up to his father’s standards keeps his head down and tries his best not to be noticed.

The main thing about this book is that it felt real. I felt the pain of both these protagonists. They weren’t stereotypical cut-outs, made to fit a formulated romance. Their personalities were as real and as organic as their relationship that developed.

Probably what I appreciated the most was that it’s a story that chronicles the romance as beginning from a friendship instead of diving straight into the ‘love’ category. The connection felt more believable that way, and thus made the story more real. It made me laugh, but it also made my throat and chest ache in terrible, terrible ways.

  • The book that made me realize that just because it’s in your head doesn’t make it any less real (and no it isn’t Harry Potter)

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

 Ah yes, Jackson strikes again. This is another Gothic tale that Jackson weaves, this time with her protagonist Eleanor, leading the way. My, but Jackson does like her unreliable narrators. And Eleanor proves to be one of the most unstable out there.

Eleanor is one who has never belonged anywhere. Her whole life has been nothing but tending to her sick mother, and playing second fiddle to her elder sister and her family. So when she finds an advertisement that requests a few subjects for a supernatural experiment in a (reclusive, again, yup) mansion, she decides this is the adventure to begin her new life.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for Eleanor, Hill House has a mind of its own and it decides that it wants Eleanor, and for a girl who has never belonged anywhere, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. How could it be right? A house wants to claim you? To lock away your soul with how many thousands of others that are already sealed away within it? Surely, that’s flattering. Or maybe Eleanor’s mind is just unravelling. Who knows? Read it and you’ll find out. Or maybe you won’t. That’s Jackson for you. She’ll keep you biting your nails out of sheer frustration (and yes, some fear).