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.

Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

*Note: this post contains major spoilers.

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The Book of Phoenix follows the story of Phoenix – an accelerated “specimen”, created from the experiments of the secretive Tower Seven. Though she has the body of a forty year old woman she has only been alive for three years. She has never questioned the reasons for her existence, nor the intentions of her carers in Tower Seven.

When her friend and lover disappears under mysterious circumstances Phoenix begins to question her surroundings and doubt the only world that she has ever known. For the first time in her life she feels the sting of betrayal. For the first time she feels anger. Her anger burns within her, quite literally. Her skin starts to overheat, and as her emotions become too much for Phoenix to handle, she catches fire, like the mythical bird she is named after.

Much of the book’s progression involves Phoenix running from her creators, all the while learning more about how and why she was created. She comes into contact with various people who help her on her journey. The book touches on many issues – exploitation, racism, scientific ethics, but through it all injustice is the main player. Phoenix constantly mulls over the terrible going on in her world. She sees the suffering of those closest to her, and she feels the pain of it deeply. Perhaps because her introduction to the cruel aspect of life is so sudden, she is acutely sensitive to the pain inflicted on her and her loved ones. She is a deeply emotional being.

Being named and created for the bird that burns itself for new life seems to seal her fate. At the apex of each significant struggle, Phoenix burns. She rages, overheats, and wipes out anything and anyone that happen to be close to her. As a reader, I couldn’t help being attuned to Phoenix’s pain and anger at the many injustices she experiences. In fact, being inside her head reminded me of when I was younger. I also raged at the world’s injustices. I wondered how there could be so much suffering, and that a lot of it went unnoticed, uncared for. There are times, even now, when I do feel like the  world needs to be wiped out in order to rid it of the bad within it. But I know, of course, that this means erasing the good that is in the world, too.

You can see where I’m going with this. In the end, Phoenix’s burning is absolute. It is complete in its destruction. She bathes the world in her flames, a fiery baptism that allows it to be born anew, apparently rid of the evils that Phoenix had witnessed. I could understand her rage, I could understand her pain. But I couldn’t understand her decision in the end. It felt hollow. As if she was giving up, as if she was refusing to see that, despite the horrible things happening to her, there had been good moments, too. There had been kindness, and love, and there could have been hope.

I know this novel is meant to be a prequel to Who Fears Death, so it may very well be the case that Phoenix’s story had to end this way. For me, however, the ending left something to be desired. Phoenix’s story was beautiful, yes, and tragic, also yes. But I didn’t expect that it would be hollow.

(P.S. Also, what was up with that commentary on women being overly emotional? I know it’s framed within the perspective of the character who reads Phoenix’s book but considering everything that had come before, it seemed considerably out of place. It seemed to render the entirety of Phoenix’s journey redundant, and invalidate her final decision.)