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.

English Magic Has Never Been More Fun

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Confession: I hugged this book close once I’d finished reading the last page. I wanted to absorb into my being, take it everywhere with me, show it off to everyone. Unfortunately, I sort of finished it on the day it was due so I had to give it back. But it’s one of those books that has earned my eternal love that I now have to buy my own copy. (Cos that’s the only reason to buy a book, duh).

Sorcerer to the Crown took the book blogging world by storm last year, and that’s when it caught my eye. Once I saw the words “Regency England”, “magic”, and “diverse characters” in a blog or review I had to hastily look away, because I knew that this book and I were going to become very well acquainted and I did not want to spoil a single thing for myself.

In case you couldn’t tell, the experience totally lived up to my expectations.

English magic is having a hard time of it. Magicians are struggling to perform spells, the Crown is at war with France, and is sneakingly requesting magical help, though this is technically  forbidden. Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer himself, isn’t exactly enjoying himself at the moment. Not only is he struggling to find the reason for the depletion of England’s magic, he has to also struggle with the Society’s (the community of English magicians) censure about his right to hold the Sorcerer’s staff, as the death of the previous Sorcerer (who also happened to be his adopted father) was under very mysterious circumstances.

There’s also the fact that Zacharias  is a black man. You add that into the mix, and suddenly Zacharias’s problems are two-fold. Zacharias’s position as Sorcerer is even more under threat with the Society questioning his eligibility to hold the staff, and latent racism rising rapidly to the surface.

Not only that, but since Zacharias agreed to speak at a girls’ school about magic, he’s suddenly and unexpectedly burdened with an orphan runaway by the name of Prunella Gentleman. Prunella, however, is no apathetic leech. Armed with the unhatched eggs of seven familiars (a treasure, indeed, in magically barren England) and the flimsiest of clues about her past, she concocts a plan to enlist the help of the Sorcerer Royal. Being half English and half Indian, Prunella knows the only way to secure a position in society is to marry well.

This story is described as a combination of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Georgette Heyer’s regency world. I would probably also add Diana Wynne Jones into the mix. I absolutely love the way that Cho describes the magic, and the way it’s used. It makes it seem very real and very practical, and not some unknown, inexplicable thing.

What’s more, Cho depicts the way magic is used to symbolize the complexities and inequalities of race, class and gender. Though Zacharias has the Sorcerer’s staff, his lack of a familiar sparks acidic conjecture within the Society, spurred very much by the darkness of his skin. Now that his father has passed away, he no longer has his protection against the vicious tongues of Regency society. English magic is also forbidden to women and the lower class. This, of course, makes Prunella’s position especially intriguing. Not only does she possess the magical familiars, her grasp on magic is very advanced, indeed, more so than a lot of the upperclass, male magicians. Oh, and the fact that menstruation actually strengthens her magic? Where has this book been all my life?

But it’s not all social commentary and no play. The story interweaves humour and wit beautifully. There were several instances where I found myself having a chuckle. In fact, I was pretty much grinning for the majority of this book. Seeing the various characters interact was a joy.

Prunella, though at times annoyingly impulsiveness, has resourcefulness and quick-thinking on her side to back up that impulsiveness. She’s whip smart, and I really loved that she was also allowed to take centre stage during the action. She has a lot of cunning on her side, and for an orphan, that’s always a handy characteristic to have.

Zacharias is a man after my own heart. After everything he goes through – being rescued from slavery by Sir Stephen, being grateful for this, while also resenting the fact that he never knew his own family; taking up the position of Sorcerer Royal though it is at the risk of his own happiness, well-being and peace of mind – it’s amazing that despite all of it he still manages to be composed, compassionate and kind. He has all the requisites for  being a Brooding Hero(TM) and, yet, that never stops him from being a genuinely good person. It’s just nice to see that authors are not afraid to write romantic heroes in this way.

The book is fairly brimming with memorable secondary characters. What I loved most about this novel was that Cho really exercised the extent of the “fantasy” element – it’s a world with magic, and as such, magic has the power to connect people from all over the globe. And hallelujah! FINALLY an author who makes use of that. Honourable mentions go to Prunella’s mentor, Mak Genggang, a Malaysian enchantress, whose power and withering wit will make her an immediate favourite.

Just read it. You’ll thank yourself you did.