The Reads: 2017

I am almost incapable of relaxation. My default state is one of mental excitement, and this time, Christmas to me and “The Holidays” for some, is one of the few times during the year my mind signs off on its own disorder.

Apropos of none of that, here are my top 4(!) books of 2017.

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I greatly enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge feature. For one, they let rereads qualify this year. Mostly though, the organization and data is fun and useful for me, who is naturally bad at both. For a while I met last year’s goal of 50 books read and was at the same 54/50, and then for reasons unknown to myself, decided to read Crime and Punishment, my longest book of the challenge, and surprisingly one of the better ones.

Side-note: I read enough books in 2017 that were actually released in 2017 that my arbitrary top 4 will cover those.

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

aosLikely unsurprising, given that I had an actual entire post reviewing this incredible book. But I love it because it’s not your typical “borderline fantasy eating disorder queer YA” book–you know, that tired old genre. It doesn’t sugarcoat the world, but neither does it drown the reader in bleakness. I don’t read a ton of YA, but the books that I do read follows similar, if not predictable than perhaps publishable patterns, and it is endlessly refreshing to see a book break away from that to tell its own story, and tell it aggressively and unflinchingly. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

Sam J. Miller is already a stellar talent in the short form, and I was immediately excited when I learned of this book coming out. I pulled all the strings I had to acquire a review copy of this book–I failed. (Likely because I lack the strings.) Nonetheless release day came and I have been and will continue to be a champion of this book.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
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There are some writers whose prose will continually sink a hook into you and rip you along, regardless of the story they tell. Sometimes it will be easy going, sometimes not. With Kai Ashante Wilson, it’s not always a smooth journey, but I find myself craving every word published by this author.

A Taste of Honey is a novella following up, in world and chronology but not necessarily location or characters, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which stunned a few people but may have been undersung (it won the 2016 Crawford Award.) A Taste of Honey was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, rightly so. The story follows Aqib bgm Sadiqi and his affair with the soldier Lucrio. Aqib has family expectations. He is expected to marry the right woman, not some soldier passing through. He is expected to have a family, build a life.

It’s not just this tale, familiar and spun to be heartbreaking in its own right by Wilson’s storytelling, but the fantastical elements that once again bring the novella far above and beyond what is usually seen in high and even epic fantasy. It’s hard to go on without spoiling, but I will say I’ll read a story of any length set in this world, for the prose if not the characters, for the ideas if not the richness in detail.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 7.03.01 AMIt’s a rare book to make me fall back in love with a genre. Even rarer when that genre is post-apocalyptic biotech fantasy. Then again, when you’re Jeff Vandermeer, author of Wonderbook (which I read for the second time this year), and your post-apocalyptic biotech fantasy has a psychotic flying bear, I’m basically sold.

Thing is, I have particular reading habits. I’ll go through any (legal) lengths to acquire a book on Kindle or from a library, without purchase if necessary, and if I enjoy it, purchase the nicest copy to grace my shelf that I can find. The standout books are the ones I end up buying or acquiring twice. Rereading a book physically that was first experienced digitally has a great visceral feel; Borne, also, induces intense visceral feelings. This is a story of a horror-Ghibli-esque blob of biotech, of Rachel the scavenger, of hope and survival in a brutal and terrifyingly realized world–I couldn’t put it down and cannot wait to pick it up a second time.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan
Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 6.50.18 AMIn last year’s Reads post I was hesitant to review incomplete series. To me it’s hard to give a complete opinion of a story when I’ve only read 2 out of 3, or 4 out of 5, and so I excluded Ninefox Gambit, the Craft Sequence, and a series I have quietly fallen in love with, Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which conclude in The Sanctuary of Wings.

Being the last in a five-book series, it’s hard to specify what I enjoy about this book; I will say I applaud Brennan for developing a unique Victorian-style voice for her narrator and adhering to that voice while managing to develop it across the entire series. Isabella Trent’s world is also my favorite type of fantasy: palette swap (see also: Dragon Age). Scirland  is kind-of-but-not-exactly England, while other countries are similarly comparable to, say, China or Russia; the metaphor is used to highlight specific plot problems like the sexism Isabella faces when she tries to advance in arenas dominated by men, which allows for the reader to draw the right insight to real world cultures, without necessarily appropriating them.

Beyond that, it was good to have a series to come back to each year for a while. I enjoyed watching the lore and worldbuilding develop over five books, rich with adventure (and a little action), excellent characterization, and what is perhaps hardest to accomplish the longer a series goes on: a satisfying ending. I’ll miss it, but just the right amount.

Honorable Mention: Ursula K. Le Guin
I will leave this here, extracted from Goodreads’ handy reading challenge overview. In the same way the Top 4 is in no particular order, putting Le Guin at the end is not an indication of lesser or superior quality, but a special note. It would be hard to pick just one book of hers I read this year, although I will say I enjoyed the Dispossessed far more than I expected to–and I was expecting quite a lot.
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Another year, more books, and ever more on the way! Now my mind can relax a bit, and get into yet more words. But first–holiday music.

Review: The Art of Starving

Everybody should read this book.

This gut punch of a novel, from one of the best short fiction authors writing today.

This term typically makes me roll my eyes, but very quickly as I read Sam J. Miller’The Art of Starving, I felt like this was an “important” book. And it is. But it’s not just important in the sense that it might speak to readers who might resonate with some part of Matt: bullied teens, gay, with eating disorders, struggling for their place in the world. The Art of Starving is full of well-worded lessons that don’t read as preachy or cliche. And not all of them are comforting.

She thinks I’m a child who needs to be protected from the horrors of grown-ups, because she somehow forgot that the world of children has its own horrors. And that the world of teenagers holds the horrors of both.

Miller is in top form, and fans of his short fiction will feel at home in this world: one casually indifferent to the marginalized. I was particularly reminded of his award-nominated “We Are the Cloud” and his recently-published “The Ways Out”

As to the actual story: The “Art” of Starving is like the Art of War; there are rules, and this book will lay them out. This format makes the book highly readable, a semi-diary format that also tracks Matt’s calories, because he’s not eating. He’s not eating because he believes not eating gives him powers, and those powers will help him find his sister, Maya.

That one crucial word in the synopsis, “believes,” is key. The reader, sympathizing, follows Matt through a harrowing exploration of his abilities as he gains telepathy, astral projection, insight to the universe. The reader, empathizing, watches Matt destroy himself with the delusions concomitant with mental illness. Miller straddles this line well, but it’s not about the truth of Matt’s powers: it’s about, abstractly and overtly, what they reveal about him and his world, from his town to his family to the pigs being slaughtered for their meat.

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The Art of Starving is one of my most anticipated books of the year, and it did not disappoint. This is a book everyone should read. Maybe it was written for you, because you’ve felt that sharp, painful hunger, and you know it’s bad for you, but the gifts you think it brings you are worth it. Maybe you’ve felt the illnesses Miller describes, have been in those rooms, and can appreciate the writing. Maybe none of that is true. All the more reason you might need it.

 

Over thousands of years, the little differences between bodies add up to genetic drift, the differentiation of species. Evolution. So remember this the next time you curse some knob of fat or funny-shaped thumb, or sexual predilection for something society says you shouldn’t predilect: your differences might make you miserable, but they might also make you better.

also posted on Goodreads.