2017 Reading in Review

Well, 2017 was awful. And Trump’s still going to be president in 2018, so my hopes for the upcoming year are not that high. On the other hand, I’ve reached a sort of equilibrium with the family members who dumped me, so I won’t have to relitigate that whole mess in the upcoming year (said Jenny optimistically). And I’ve seen so much bravery and ferocity from people I know: Y’all stay inspiring me.

With that said, I had a pretty terrific reading year in 2017. I encountered some new instant favorites, books I loved so much I shoved them at everyone I knew and immediately requested them for birthday or Christmas. I love books and I love reading and I love y’all, so thanks all the way around for being great.

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Never shall I give up my fondness for monster girls. Monstress is a weird and wonderful comic about a girl with special powers who finds herself at war with the whole world. The art is unfathomably lovely.

Iron Cast, Destiny Soria

Two best friends create magical illusions at an illegal night club in Boston, just before Prohibition begins. Iron Cast features found family to the max, including a best-friendship that’s more central to the characters than their romances (which is rare as hell), and some genuinely cool magic. If you’re a reader on the hunt for more one-and-dones in YA, Iron Cast is for you.

Borderline and Phantom Pains, Mishell Baker

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but Borderline made me want to change that. Mishell Baker’s borderline protagonist is a double amputee and survivor of a suicide attempt, recruited to work for a mysterious organization called the Arcadia Project. Creepy fairies abound (my fave), plus lots of details about the nitty-gritty of cognitive therapy for BPD.

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso

Contrary to popular belief, I do not like books solely based on their having French flaps. But French flaps help. The Woman Next Door is a lovely, quiet exploration of the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa: the story of two women whose enmity softens into something that is not quite friendship but no longer exactly hostility. It’s also a story about complicity in oppression that doesn’t insist upon redemption. I loved it.

Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

I mean, obviously. Cordelia Fine remains brilliant, and she is so good at making complicated science accessible to a layperson. My big complaint with Testosterone Rex is that it doesn’t talk about non-cis people hardly at all. However, it makes many brilliant arguments about the role hormones like testosterone play in gender and gendered behavior. Read it, and read Delusions of Gender.

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

I said it when I read it, and I’ll say it again now: What the entire fuck. White Tears is a story about white appropriation of black culture, but it’s also a terrifying ghost story and a wild wild ride. It has one of the scariest endings I’ve ever encountered in a book. It’s brilliant and bananas. Get on it.

Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnolly

Amberlough is a secondary world fantasy (without any magic) about the performers in a cabaret confronting the rise of fascism in their country. If you can’t face that sort of a thing during the Trump presidency, it’s absolutely fair play. But if you are up to it, Amberlough is a strange and lovely book, a fantasy novel for lovers of the darkest bits of Cabaret.

Thorn, Intisar Khanani

One of the truly lovely things that happened this year was Intisar Khanani’s book deal with HarperTeen. Soon you’ll be able to get Thorn in a shiny new edition, and you should. It’s a retelling of the fairy tale “The Goose Girl,” a story that’s sad but hopeful, a story about good people trying their best. Intisar Khanani remains one of my favorite fantasy writers currently working.

Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

I admit that I was fearful of reading Ninefox Gambit, which I’d heard was a particularly dense bit of science fiction. But I’m so glad I pressed onward with it. Ninefox Gambit might be my actual favorite book of the year; I liked it so much that I ran straight out to the library to get Raven Stratagem. It’s about an imperfectly loyal soldier who has to share a brain with a famously brilliant, famously murderous general from the past. I loved it so much. I want you to love it, too.

Song of the Current, Sarah Tolcser

Such an excellent YA adventure novel. Caro takes to the river with a crateful of mystery cargo in the hopes that she can save her father from prison. But when the cargo turns out to be a boy — a snooty-as-hell boy, but good in a fight — she finds herself enmeshed in more plotting and violence than she’d bargained for. And look at that cover!

Starfish, Akemi Dawn Bowman

In YA as in adult fiction, I tend to gravitate more towards SFF stories. But Starfish won me over. It deals with sexual and emotional abuse in families in a way that I’ve encountered virtually never, and it’s exceptionally honest about the impact of growing up with an abusive parent. I loved Starfish, even more so because the author was able to take critique of some of the language in her book, and make a change for future editions.

Jane, Unlimited, Kristin Cashore

If you’d asked me what I expected as a follow-up to Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series, the last thing I’d have said would have been “Rebecca as a choose-your-own adventure, by way of Diana Wynne Jones.” But that’s what I got: Five separate stories in five separate genres, each most wonderfully stranger than the last.

I wish you strength in the New Year, and all the glorious books you can gobble up. What were some of your 2017 faves?

 

 

 

Review: Borderline, Mishell Baker

What’s that you say? Somebody wrote a book about creepy fairies and mental health treatments? YES THANK YOU, I DON’T MIND IF I DO.

Borderline has been garnering all the accolades this past year in SFF circles, most recently a well-deserved Nebula nomination. It’s about a filmmaker called Millie who has borderline personality disorder (BPD hereafter) and is a double amputee following a suicide attempt the year before. A mysterious woman named Caryl shows up at her mental hospital and offers her a job with the equally mysterious Arcadia Project. Work with us for a year, says Caryl, and at the end of it we’ll get you a job in Hollywood. Figuring it’s the only way she’ll get back into the movie biz, Millie agrees and is instantly put on a missing persons case — or to be more specific, a missing fairy case, because it turns out the Arcadia Project manages human/fairy relations. Delicately.

Borderline

I was nervous to read this book (despite the fab cover and raves from all sides), partly because depictions of mental health in SFF can be hit or miss for me (with a lotttttt of miss), and partly because borderline people are bad at boundaries and I am made up of ~95% boundaries so I was worried that if the book accurately portrayed BPD, it would put my back up and I would have a hard time enjoying it.

Borderline pooh-poohed all my concerns: It portrayed BPD in a way that was absolutely familiar to me from borderline people I have known, and gave me a ton of insight about what it’s like from the inside if you are self-aware and trying to deal with it, and got into the nitty-gritty details of cognitive behavioral therapy work1 that BPD-havers can do to lessen the impact of their symptoms, and showed how BPD both helps and hurts Millie in her work with the Arcadia Project. What a great fucking book.

The world of the fey that Mishell Baker explores here is wonderfully weird and specific. If the explanations Millie gets from her colleagues at the Arcadia Project occasionally feel like visits from the Exposition Fairy, those moments are quick and well worth the reader’s time (especially given that this is the first book in a planned series). The mystery Millie is assigned to investigate throws out an exactly correct number of clues, red herrings, and conspiracy, leaving behind a satisfying solution and some loose ends for the second book to explore. The last time I enjoyed urban fantasy this much was War for the Oaks.2

My one single gripe is that the character of Gloria bummed me out. She’s a blonde Southern bitch whose polite words have barbs behind them:

“Don’t mind Teo,” said a cloying, high-pitched Southern voice. “He’s a Grouchy Gus.” . . . . She giggled, in that cute way Southern women do instead of punching you in the teeth.

Ha ha yeah totally, we are cloying assholes down here.

Whereas with other characters at the Arcadia Project, Baker gives you a sense of what lies behind their behavior toward Millie, Gloria pretty much seems like she’s being a bitch to be a bitch. (She Does Good at points in the story, but in general she’s pointlessly shitty, passive-aggressive, and insincere to Millie.) The fake-nice blonde Southern lady is a stereotype I’d like a break from, given how closely the fakeness and the blondeness seem to be linked. While individual writers who write this type of antagonist for their heroes to clash with probably don’t intend it this way (it’s clear Baker doesn’t), the uncritical reproduction of this stereotype nevertheless reinforces a dichotomy of honest vs. deceptive gender performance that I do not love.

On the other hand, I am a blonde polite Southern woman who has spent a lot of time around people that think that list of adjectives tells them everything they need to know about me, so maybe I’m just annoyed on behalf of my people. You decide!

Overall though, I absolutely loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, talked about it to everyone, will read the sequel in a hot second when it comes out. I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites of 2017. Thanks so much for Sarah over at The Illustrated Page for putting me on to it!

  1. I love cognitive behavioral therapy so much, and it has helped so many people, and I almost never see it depicted in fiction, so that was awesome.
  2. Aha, says the perceptive reader, you must not read very much urban fantasy. Correct, I do not; it does not often tempt me.