The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Once
again, Nalo Hopkinson breathes fresh life into a genre that too often centers
the stories of the young, the idealistic, the mainstream.  The
New Moon’s Arms
tells the story of the old, the ancient, those pushed to
the edges and forgotten by time.  After
a life spent running from her own past identity, then spending two years
nursing her father through his fatal battle with cancer, Calamity (AKA
Chastity) Lambkin hopes to be able to move on with her life.  An anonymous fling with a chance-met
funeral guest seems to be a good first step on that path.

But
before she realizes Calamity is at the edge of another significant life change:
menopause.  After a life lived
doing as she desires, chasing every pleasure, Calamity isn’t sure how to move
forward or where the path even is anymore.  One thing she is finding out though: what was once lost will
return, what is hidden will come to light, and getting old is no reason to stay
stuck in the same old ruts.

The New Moon’s Arms is based
in the West Indies on a fictional island that is part of a fictional island
nation.  Like all good fantasy
stories, it begs the reader to believe a little bit in magic, drawing on the
folklore and history of West Indian culture.  Like all of her stories, Hopkinson forces the reader to
confront the darker aspects of the world and human nature as Calamity is forced to remember the events surrounding her own mother’s disappearance, and come to
terms with the decisions that led her to her present in the novel.  Rather than being a one-dimensional
hero’s journey, however, The New Moon’s
Arms
draws together the lives and stories of people from Calamity’s family
and past life, lifting them up like a hurricane uproots entire islands,
throwing them together in a way that forces change and forces people to deal
with the aftermath.

This
novel is written on multiple levels, allowing readers to engage at a place that
is meaningful for them.  Anyone interested
in non-European folklore will enjoy the way Hopkinson blends local island lore
with a colonial history that spans oceans and has major ramifications for
hundreds of years and multiple groups of people, particularly those of Western
African descent during the Atlantic slave trade.  Readers who enjoy fantasy that treats people as the most
important part of the story are sure to be enraptured by the dynamics of
Calamity’s family and friendships. 
Fans of new weird fiction and magical realism should check out this
novel.

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Books I’m Excited to Read in 2016

So last week I posted about books being published in 2016 that I’m excited about.

Now I’m going to talk about the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2016.  This is a slightly different list, since I don’t have the money or the time to buy everything I’m excited about right when it comes out, and actually read it.  My to-read stack isn’t as big as many, but it’s big enough.  So here are a few that I’ve been working towards, and plan to get to this year.  

Of course, more will be added to this stack, and I will, of course, post review of the ones that qualify for this blog.  You can also find all my review at goodreads here

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

It’s Kate Elliott!  It’s YA, which I don’t read a ton of, but it’s Kate Elliott!  Here’s a synopsis from her website, kateelliott.com

“In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”


Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

Another YA, another author I’ve come to really enjoy, so of course I need to read more than just her adult novels.

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.Then she learns why.Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agents,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.Orlu and Chichi have been working with their teacher for years. Sunny needs a crash course in magical history, spells, juju, shape-shifting and dimensional travel. Her new world is a secret from her family, but it’s well worth all of the silence, exhaustion and sneaking around.Still, there is a dark side. After she’s found her footing, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and their American friend Sasha are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a criminal. Not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. A real-life hardcore serial killer-with abilities far stronger than theirs.Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones are Nnedi Okorafor fans. As soon as you start reading Akata Witch, you will be, too.”


Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko

I picked this one up mostly by chance at my local indie books story, Burlingham Books, in Perry, New York.  They have a small-ish collection, but it’s always varied, always thought-provoking.  I’ve only read one or two novels by Native writers in the past, and decided to fix that, so this will be my starting point.

Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website

Almanac of the Dead takes place against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America. It follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot.

The novel’s numerous characters are often separated by both time and space, and many seemingly have little to do with one another at first. A majority of these characters are involved in criminal or revolutionary organizations – the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

Driving many of these individual storylines is a general theme of total reclamation of Native American lands.”


Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

This one has been a long time coming.  I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Butler, but the lack will soon be remedied.  Here’s a synopsis from octaviabutler.org

“When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.”

Bronze Gods, by A.A. Aguirre

I read a YA by Ann Aguirre a year or so ago, and enjoyed it, and now she’s working on a steampunk series with her husband, Andres.  I’ve found that steampunk is a subgenre I really enjoy, so I bought this book (quite) a while ago,  and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.  2016 is the year it gets moved to the permanent shelves!

Here’s a synopsis from Ann’s website

Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.
Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…”

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson!  Another author I discovered because of Burlingham Books.  I’m tempted to say her fiction is a little on the outside of my taste range, but that’s not really true.  I love her work; it’s mainstream SFF that says she should be on the outside of my tastes.  She says a lot that needs to be said, which is, I think, more important than conforming.

Here’s a synopsis, in her own words, from her website nalohopkinson.com

“my novel The New Moon’s Arms was a February 2007 release from Warner/Hachette Books. It’s my fourth novel. I was thinking about Nandor Fodor’s theory that poltergeist phenomena are “caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension.” Some say that this may be why poltergeists so often manifest around young adults just going into puberty (primarily women, I think). The idea is that reaching sexual maturity in societies as sexually repressed as many of ours can be disturbing enough to some people that they begin to generate psychic phenomena.
I’m not in the business of theorizing whether that’s true or not. I was more interested in the idea. If the beginning of menstruation can be magic, I began to think about what it might be like if there were out-of-control psychic phenomena similarly associated with the ending of menstruation. Magical menopause! Enter my protagonist, who’s 53 years old and going through the Change of life, but with some changes peculiarly her own:

I was boiling. When the sun got so warm?

“…most primitive living pinnipeds,” said Hector.

God, the heat was getting worse.

“…derelict fishing nets…danger…”

Hector didn’t even seem to notice it. Me, my whole body was burning. I could feel the tips of my ears getting red, my cheeks flushing.

“…Brucella…Calamity? You all right?”

“I don’t know. Too much sun.” I wiped some perspiration from my brow. My hand came away wet.

“You sweating like you just run a marathon.”

“A lady doesn’t sweat.” But the dried salt from it was irritating my hand. I rubbed the hand against the fabric of my pants. “Jesus, it so hot!”

Hector looked worried. “That tree over there will give you some shade. Come.”

But before we could take a step, something soft and light grazed my head from above, then landed at Hector’s feet. “The hell is that?” he cried out. He bent to pick it up.

“It didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.” Much better, in fact. The heat was passing off rapidly. I was even chilly.

Hector straightened up. “Where this came from?” He looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Nothing but blue. Not even the cloud that must have just covered the sun and made me shiver.

Hector showed me the thing he was holding. I blinked the sun’s glare out of my eyes.

I grabbed her out of Hector’s hand. Bare Bear. Chastity’s Bare Bear. Held so tightly and loved so hard that her little stuffed rump was threadbare, her little gingham dress long gone. “Where this came from?”

“Look like it just fell out of the sky.”

“No, man; don’t joke. It must have washed up with the tide.”

“And landed on your head?”

“I don’t know; maybe this was on the sand already, and something else fell on my head.” Bare Bear winked her one glass eye at me. So long I hadn’t seen her. “A leaf from out a sea grape tree, something like that. Right, Bare Bear?” I hugged Lucky Bare Bear to my chest. I grinned at Hector. “She get small over the years, or I get big.” She still fit in her old place, up against my breastbone.

“You feeling sick?” He asked. “You didn’t look too good just now.”

“I feel wonderful,” I answered.

And because I sometimes like a little science with my fiction, I also resurrected the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Sort of.”


Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Because it just looks so gorgeous.  No.  Well, yes, but also because I’m a completist and she’s a great writer.  

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.”

Falling in Love with Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

Falling
In Love With Hominids
is a collection of short stories
published during an eight to ten-year span, and published in various journals
and anthologies.  The stories are
of disparate themes, but unified by a general fascination with humans and
humanity, and take many forms. 
Some stories are quite short meditations on a singular event or topic,
while others show a longer character arc. 
Hopkinson’s stories are never written in a vacuum, however, and all
feature vividly realized worlds, often with a range of flora and fauna—some
even using them as characters.

Of
the more interesting aspects of the collection are Hopkinson’s short prefaces
to each story, which tell the reader a little about when the story was written,
and what the inspiration was for it. 
Getting this rare glimpse into an author’s process is fascinating, and
speaks to Hopkinson’s genius as a writer. 
“The Easthound” is a dystopic look at what happens when a mysterious
disease begins taking all the adults. 
Teenagers and children have to look out for themselves, staving off the
loneliness and fear of their situation by playing games and singing songs.  From a simple story idea to its grim
conclusion, “The Easthound” is an eerie look at notions of safety and
civilization.

An
orchid becomes the protagonist in “A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog,” where the teller
is an underground horticulturalist and her favorite orchid takes on a life of
its own, with motivations and survival strategies far beyond the capabilities
of your average flower.  And in
“Shift,” the tale of Caliban made famous by William Shakespeare in The Tempest moves through time and
becomes a protagonist in his own right, joined by his mother and sister as he
tries to find his identity through falling in love with women in the modern
world. 

Hopkinson
thrives on subverting traditional texts and re-centering cultural focus from
traditional protagonists and traditional Western settings.  Even stories set in North America have
a foreign feel, as though the ghosts of many different people are seeping
through.  Readers not afraid to
confront, or be confronted by, uncomfortable characters or situations will
enjoy the immense imagination and wonder that Hopkinson puts into each
story.  She writes with a easy
style that keeps engaged and wondering until the end.  Readers who enjoy a bit of horror in their fantasy will be
intrigued by the way that Hopkinson doesn’t shy away from the darker side of
human nature.  And of course,
anyone who has read any of Hopkinson’s novels will love this collection.  If not, get a taste of her talent, and
then check out some of her novels!

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that it took me almost a year of seeing this book sit in the sale section of my favorite indie bookstore before I finally bought it.  Hopkinson is a compelling writer, and this is only her first novel!

I certainly recommend it to anyone looking to read more SFF that breaks away from the traditional pseudo-medieval Tolkienesque writing that centers the white Judeo-Christian narrative.  A lot of people will be quick to point out that most of fantasy does feature a Judeo-Christian worldview and religion, but I would ask, doesn’t it?  Most of the characters in fantasy are still white, the authors are white, the standards of beauty are white, and outward appearance is still used as an indicator of inherent “goodness.”  When people of color are allowed to be POV or major players in the story, they fall under categories like the “magical negro” or “model minority” and exist to further the story of the beautiful white hero who eventually learns to model Christian ideals like tolerance and love for all despite appearance as part of their “hero’s progress” journey.  

But I digress.

Sometimes I feel like when I recommend SFF by people of color and minorities, I’m going to be perceived as recommending these books because they are by people of color and minorities.  And let’s get it out on the table: partially, I am.  The more people read these books, the more they will be recommended, the more they will be reviewed, and hopefully the more in general they will be written and published and eventually having a diverse selection of books by a diverse pool of authors will be the norm.  And that will be great.

But I am also positively reviewing and recommending these books because I believe they are good.  Or even great.  

But about the book.

Brown Girl in the Ring contains elements of urban fantasy with “Afro-Caribbean spirituality” and a future dystopia setting to create a story in which the strength of an often-marginalized group of people not only has endured but is the driving force in a community living on the edge.  Literally.  

The city of Toronto has been abandoned by those who could afford to do so, leaving those who were already stuck on the margins of society to fend for themselves.  I found the instances of a community pulling together, under the guidance of strong, knowledgeable women and hardworking people both legitimate–due to Hopkinson’s narrational skill–and heart- wrenching.  Brown Girl in the Ring forces the reader to face the reality that, though the exact details may be different, the situation is the same one that too many marginalized people have already been living for decades, even centuries.  This time it’s just an evil man keeping the community under his thumb, rather than elected “authorities” using the legitimacy of government directly doing it, though there are hints of that as well.  

Through the story of Ti-Jeanne, who just wants to live her life, Hopkinson gives the reader a taste of what life is like for many marginalized people who are doing their best to survive, despite horrors they may face.  Hers is a poignant story of coming to terms with the past, in order to move forward in the present, and understanding how even good people can make bad decisions, despite their good intentions.

Each character in the story is complete, with their own set of motivations and defining features.  Dialect plays a large role in the story, not only giving each character a distinctive voice, but also illustrating differences in up-bringing and socio-political “standing.”  Politicians, doctors, lawyers, those who’ve flown to the suburbs, speak a more standard-English dialect.  The main characters–and those with whom they interact in the city–generally speak either more of an Afro-Caribbean dialect, or a form of English tinged by their non-Anglo roots or the fact they are immigrants to Toronto.  The ability to mimic one dialect or another is a factor in how well they are able to navigate their community.  Tony, who has been at least partially college-educated, sometimes plays at speaking in dialect, as though his ability to mimic it is a game he’s trying to win.  It is little wonder that he, despite his size and education, turns out to the be outcast of the story, physically and mentally weaker, and cause of much of the pain to Ti-Jeanne and her family.  He drifts through life, waiting for something good to happen to him, while Ti-Jeanne, even though she may be impatient with the things she doesn’t understand, at least remains fully immersed in her life and her reality.  She may not know what parts she wishes to play, but she does not scorn her roots, and it is through greater understanding of her heritage that she is able to do something brave and wonderful–and terrifying–in the end.

There are plenty more things I’d love to talk about in this post, but I suppose I should let people read it first, and come back to start a discussion.  Maybe at some point this will become part of post about some larger aspect of fiction of SFF specifically.

But I do heartily recommend Brown Girl in the Ring as a great, well-thought-out novel, and look forward to reading more by Nalo Hopkinson.