Nnedi Okorafor – Broken Places & Outer Spaces

I have read many of Nnedi Okorafor’s books and loved most of them, so there was no question that I’d read her non-fiction book about how she came to be who she is today. Prior to this, I had no idea she had suffered paralysis at a young age and that it was at least partially responsible for her becoming a science fiction writer.

BROKEN PLACES & OUTER SPACES
Finding Creativity in the Unexpected

by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Simon and Schuster/TED, 2019
Ebook: 112 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First line: The beach was just the way I loved it: empty, its waters comfortable and clear, a few sand crabs dashing around.

A powerful journey from star athlete to sudden paralysis to creative awakening, award-winning science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor shows that what we think are our limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths.
Nnedi Okorafor was never supposed to be paralyzed. A college track star and budding entomologist, Nnedi’s lifelong battle with scoliosis was just a bump in her plan—something a simple operation would easily correct. But when Nnedi wakes from the surgery to find she can’t move her legs, her entire sense of self begins to waver. Confined to a hospital bed for months, unusual things begin to happen. Psychedelic bugs crawl her hospital walls; strange dreams visit her nightly. Nnedi begins to put these experiences into writing, conjuring up strange, fantastical stories. What Nnedi discovers during her confinement would prove to be the key to her life as a successful science fiction author: In science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks.
In Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Nnedi takes the reader on a journey from her hospital bed deep into her memories, from her painful first experiences with racism as a child in Chicago to her powerful visits to her parents’ hometown in Nigeria. From Frida Kahlo to Mary Shelly, she examines great artists and writers who have pushed through their limitations, using hardship to fuel their work. Through these compelling stories and her own, Nnedi reveals a universal truth: What we perceive as limitations have the potential to become our greatest strengths—far greater than when we were unbroken.
A guidebook for anyone eager to understand how their limitations might actually be used as a creative springboard, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is an inspiring look at how to open up new windows in your mind.

When I started reading this book, I felt almost embarrassed at how little I knew about an author whose work I love so much. All I’d  known about Nnedi Okorafor was that she’s from Nigeria and writes fantastic books. This memoir gives a great insight into how she became the writer of such briliant books as Who Fears Death, the Binti  Trilogy or Akata Witch.

Nnedi tells of her childhood as a star athlete with a multitude of sporty career options. She also had a curved spine which – doctors told her – could be fixed easily in an operation with only 1% chance of paralysis. So teenaged Nnedi undergoes that operation because it will spare her many years of physical problems in the future. As you may have guessed, Nnedi’s operation is that one percent and she wakes up from anesthesia and can’t move her legs. What follows is one of the most impressive tales I have ever read. Naturally, while reading, I put myself in Nnedi’s position and although I don’t know how I would react in her situation, all I could think of was utter despair. And I’m not even an athlete the way she was. I don’t think any able-bodied person can imagine what it’s like to have your world, your goals, your future plans shattered like that. But instead of falling into despair, Nnedi did something amazing. She started writing!

But this book is about much more than Nnedi’s paralysis. It tells of a childhood and adolescence in a loving family but in racist surroundings. It also shows Nnedi’s unbreakable spirit in the little stories of other people whose “brokenness” has helped them grow beyond what they could have imagined. Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s possible miscarriage and her creation of the first ever science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or Beatrix Kiddo’s tragic story in Kill Bill – these were interesting bits of information that teach you that life doesn’t have to end when bad things happen. These things can even be opportuinities.

There are also many tidbits in here that readers of Okorafor’s fiction will recognize. Whether it’s medication-induced hallucinations of giant bugs, the concept of “treeing”, or the masquerades – all of these things made it into the science fiction books I’ve read and loved. It felt like an Easter Egg hunt that let me say “Oh, so that’s when she thought of that.” every few pages. It also gives her novels some context and makes them even more meaningful than they already were. For example, it made me see Sunny’s albinism and her inability to play football  during the day (because of the sun) in a different light. Not being able to pursue your hobby because your body won’t let you is something that Nnedi experienced first-hand. So although she doesn’t outright say so in this book, I believe this may have played a part in her creation of Sunny and Sunny’s own disability that actually turns out to be a strength in Akata Witch.

Nnedi does eventually regain the use of her legs, but not like before. I learned about proprioception, which is the ability of our brains to know where our legs are, even when we can’t see them. If that sense is out of whack, walking becomes something you have to concentrate on, rather than just doing it instinctively, without looking. I hadn’t even thought about the implications of that – think about driving a car when you can’t feel the brake pedal under your foot! Or walking in darkness. So this book opened my eyes in more than one way. It taught me about conditions I had never heard of before and although I don’t know anyone who is or used to be paralysed, I hope this new information helps me understand them better.

The thing about this book that stuck with me the most was definitely the hopeful tone. Again, I believe every single person deals with these things differently, and I can only go by how I think I’d react. And although I’d like to think of myself as brave, I don’t think I would have Nnedi’s strength. It made me appreciate her as more than an author. I may not know her personally, but if I ever get the chance to meet her, I would love to shake her hand and tell her how damn impressive I think she is. Not just because she didn’t let her paralysis take her down but because she took this incident and turned it around, she made something amazing of it, she used it to fuel her creativity and wrote stories that touch people all over the world.

If there is anything about this book that wasn’t perfect, it’s probably its lack of length. It gives you the basic story of how Nnedi turns “brokenness” into something powerful, but I’m sure a lot of details were left out. The book is no less powerful for that  but I honestly would have liked to read more of it. More stories of Nnedi standing up to teenage bullies, more about her siblings and parents, more information about how she started writing and what inspired her. But that’s just my subjective wishes. This book, the way it is, is amazing and I recommend it to everyone, whether you already know and love Nnedi’s fiction or whether she’s an author you’ve never read.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

More than Nigerian Harry Potter: Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Witch

I chose the rather provocative title for this post on purpose. On the one hand, Harry Potter draws attention and I definitely want lots of people to pay attention to this book. On the other hand, Nnedi Okorafor managed to get a sort of Harry Potter vibe in this book, all while writing something completely original and her own. I read the sequel right after this book which is really something, considering how many book series I’ve started and not finished…

AKATA WITCH
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Viking Children’s, 2011
Paperback: 349 pages
Series: Akata Witch #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The moment Sunny walked into the schoolyard, people started
pointing.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

In many ways, Akata Witch is similar to Harry Potter. A young girl finds out she belongs to a hidden, magical world. She makes friends, learns about her new powers, all while taking down evil. If that were all this story was then it would still be a great story – but it so, so much more than that. The plot is just the surface layer. It keeps things moving, it keeps up the pace and makes the pages fly as you read. But it’s not why I fell so hard for this book.

Sunny Nwazue is an outsider wherever she goes. With her West African features, she looks like her Nigerian friends, But she’s albino, so her skin is white, her hair is blonde, and she can’t go in the sun because her skin burns too easily. Also, children are cruel, and because Sunny looks different from the others, she doesn’t quite fit in. Until she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha – a delightfully diverse mix of friends who all happen to be Leopard People. Leopard People is what magical folks are called in this story, while us muggles (sorry) are called lambs. However, even as a Leopard Person, Sunny is slightly special in that her magic jumped a generation and her parents are both non-magical. This makes her a “free agent” – basically someone with magic abilities who wasn’t taught from early childhood and now has to catch up on all the knowledge her friends already possess.

I could tell you all the little details of Okorafor’s magical world of Leopard People but I don’t want to take that experience away from anyone. The comparison to Harry Potter may not be entirely fair, but as I mentioned before, it is more the feeling rather than the ideas themselves that reminded me of that beloved childhood series. And if you loved the details in Harry Potter, you are sure to love these as well. The magic world is entirely different from anything I’ve read before, infused with West African mythology, with masquerades and a magical currency, with books written by and about Leopard People. It is simply delightful to discover all of this with Sunny.
My heart was especially taken with the book Sunny is given – “Fast Facts for Free Agents”  – of which a part is quoted at the end of each chapter. The narration of that fictional book was a joy to read. It is not written so much as a helpful guide (or at least not only as a helpful guide) but it has a sassy, snappy tone that made me giggle every time it came up. It also helped to flesh out the Leopard world through lore.

Another standout part were the characters. Sunny may feel like an outsider but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity, she simply takes things as they are and tries to make the best of them. When she discovers her magical abilities, she reacts very much as one would expect her to. She is bewildered and excited, eager to learn but scared to make mistakes. She is happy to finally have a place where she belongs and people who are true friends but the magical world is daunting and large and she knows almost nothing about it. In short, Sunny was easy to love.

Equally as wonderful were Sunny’s friends. Orlu, who is kind of the responsible father figure of the quartet, Chici, the excitable, talkative girl, and Sasha, who is American like Sunny. I read this book but I listened to the audiobook of the sequel, so let me tell you that the narrator does a phenomenal job of giving each character their own voice and personality. I highly recommend going for the audiobook with this duology. For the accents, for the wonderful narration of “Fast Facts for Free Agents” and for the different voices given to the characters.

Another thing I loved was the message of this book. Leopard People are often people who are considered to have “flaws” in the Lamb world. Sunny’s albinism may give her a disadvantage in our world, but in the Leopard world, it can be a strength. The same goes for people with ADHD or dyslexia, for example. Leopard society teaches you to embrace those perceived flaws because they are what makes you you. Even if the young people who read this book don’t find themselves as part of a hidden magical society, the book sends a beautiful message. Love yourself, love your flaws, don’t let the bullies get you down!

As for the plot, most of it is obivously Sunny learning about Leopard People and finding her place in this new world. But because there has to be something evil to defeat – and it wouldn’t be such a great story if there wasn’t – there is Black Hat Otokoto, a serial killer who has been roaming the area. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell you that Sunny and her friends will have to use everything they have learned to defeat him.

I really hope my comparisons to Harry Potter don’t put anyone off this book but rather make you want to pick it up. Because although there are similarities (and let’s face it, there are many other books that share the same aspects of “normal” person discovers they belong to a secret magical world), this book stands very well on its own, it has so much to say, and it is a wonderful exploration of an underrepresented kind of fantasy. Set in Nigeria, based on African mythology, this book feels like a fresh wind in the mass of YA fantasies.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home

I was far from the only one who fell in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti two years ago. Now, the long-awaited sequel has finally arrived and almost lives up to its predecessor. When I started reading it, I thought it would be a sort of standalone novella, but it’s not. In fact, it ends in the middle of the plot, which is the main reason why I didn’t love it as fiercely as I did the first book.

HOME
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Binti #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Five, five, five, five, five, five,” I whispered.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

As the title suggests, this is the story of Binti coming home after spending a year at Oomza University. This homecoming is fraught with emotion, not only for Binti herself, but for her family, her hometown, and her entire planet.

Binti and Okwu may have found a way to live together in peace, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is quite as open to change. Seeing Binti in her new life as a student was pure joy. Seeing her come home, accompanied by Okwu as the first Meduse allowed on Earth, less so. On the one hand, Binti is still dealing with PTSD from the events that led to her friendship with Okwu and the end of an age-long war. On the other hand, Binti is now confronted with her clashing wishes – being part of her culture, making her family proud, being a Himba, but also wanting to continue her studies, see more of the world, find her own place.

I was a bit surprised that the tension left by Binti’s disappearance took so long to break. At first, her family are simply happy to see their daughter again. And then the shitstorm breaks loose and all the pent-up resentment, jealousy, and condescension rain down upon Binti. And that doesn’t even take into account her new “hair” which seems to have a mind of its own because of her bond with Okwu. In fact, I both loved and hated reading about the reactions to Okwu. You can tell that most people try to be civil, keep an open mind, but that in their hearts, they are either afraid, mistrustful, or straight up hateful toward the Meduse. It made the difference between Binti’s university life and her home town all the more stark.

Home was again filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to descriptions of Binti experiencing her home. Whether it’s walking through the desert, showing Okwu the lake, or using maths for meditation – Okorafor makes the most use of her words and manages to build an entire world in less than 200 pages. Skill like that always impresses me in writers. Conjuring up pictures in your readers’ minds is one thing, but doing it in short stories or novellas is quite another and Okorafor got that skill down!

Over the course of this story, Binti has a lot on her plate. At times, I felt like she was being torn apart trying to please everyone but not losing herself in the process. She also learns new things about herself, her family, where she comes from, and where she might want to go. Her travels with her grandmother were lovely to read and expanded the world Okorafor has created for these novellas. I don’t want to give anything away here because discovering these things with Binti was so much fun and you should all experience it for yourselves.

The ending is the one thing that I didn’t love unreservedly because, unlike the first instalment, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, a part of the story is told and there is a definite arc, but just as something really exciting and dangerous happens, the book is over. Had I known this before, I would have waited for the third book to come out, so I could continue reading. But considering that my only gripe with this story is that it ended too soon and that I now have to wait for the sequel, that still leaves an amazing book which tackles big themes without sacrificing story or character. If you haven’t guessed it, I am now eagerly waiting for the third book, The Night Masquerade.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Second opinions:

#Diversiverse Review: Nnedi Okorafor – Binti

diversiverse3After a bit of a rocky start, I am now convinced that the Tor.com novella lineup is excellent and will continue to be so. Nnedi Okorafor hasn’t managed to capture me this much since Who Fears Death. Both her first contact story Lagoon and Who Fears Death’s quasi-prequel The Book of Phoenix were good books that somehow didn’t reach me emotionally. Now Binti was everything I had been missing from these two. A wonderful, wonderful story!

bintiBINTI
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 96 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer.

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.

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Binti is running away from home to follow her dream. She wants to study at the renowned Oomza University which happens to be on a different planet. So right from the start, I was invested in the story. Without knowing anything about Binti, I think everybody understands the feeling of wanting to escape your parents’ plans for you and follow your own way. Except if Binti really leaves, she knows she can never come back, so the stakes are pretty high.

On her way to Oomza University, Binti sticks out because of her appearance. The Himba people have such a rare supply of drinking water that they don’t waste it like other people do. For cleaning themselves, they use otjize, a paste made of red clay and oils – just look at the amazing book cover. The use and preparation of otjize is described beautifully, and I felt just as anxious as Binti when her pre-made supply threatened to run out. What little she has brought with her is her only real, tangible connection to her home – for the rest of the story, she will be on space ships or on a different planet. Having a piece of your home with you makes travelling a little easier.

When Binti meets the alien Meduse, she needs to act quickly and make smart decisions, not just to save her own life but also her future. I loved Binti’s character so, so much. Knowing what you want and going for it are two very different things and Binti is trying to keep her culture alive, even after being faced with things that change her world view, even her body.

My favorite part was probably the relationship that Binti builds with an essentially hostile alien race. She comes into it with prejudice – after all, the Meduse are known to have killed a lot of people – but her mind remains open enough for her to rethink and change her understanding of the Meduse and their motives. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Somebody has to make the first step, somebody has to trust the other enough to meet and talk without protection, without weapons. Binti wants to make things right and uses her mind, her kindness, and her empathy to do it. It’s not only a struggle to find common ground with the aliens, she also has to consider the cultural differences between herself and the humans in Oomza University. Binti is the only Himba to ever be accepted there, so to the people there, she may appear almost as alien as the Meduse.

binti cover art

I loved how Okorafor took a story that could have easily been a stale coming-of-age, woman-runs-away-from-home tale, and gave it a twist that puts the fate of an entire planet at risk. The language flows beautifully, the book is impossible to put down.

There is also a fair bit of world-building in these 96 pages. Binti’s people are highly skilled in mathematics, and Binti herself is the best among them (well, her and her father). This addition of maths and currents makes this an interesting science fiction world that made me want to explore it more. So maybe Nnedi Okorafor will follow in Paul Cornell’s footsteps and write us a sequel to her Tor.com novella – I’d be the first to buy it!

This is a very short novella that doesn’t waste a single word on unimportant stuff, but it packs a punch on every page. Really, everything about this was wonderful. Binti’s character, the connection she builds with the Meduse, her inner struggle about who she is and what it means when parts of her become suddenly different… Unsurprisingly, I read this in one sitting and ended up wanting more. In my opinion, this is by far the best thing Okorafor has written since Who Fears Death!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

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Nnedi Okorafor – The Book of Phoenix

Nnedi Okorafor’s wonderful Who Fears Death was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. Naturally, I jumped on most things she’s written since then. Her short story collection Kabu-Kabu was great, with one standout story that I will mention again during this review. A quasi-prequel to Who Fears Death, it was clear that I needed to get my hands on The Book of Phoenix ASAP. It wasn’t what I expected, it wasn’t as good as Onyesonwu’s story, but it had wonderful parts that made up for the messier bits.

book of phoenixTHE BOOK OF PHOENIX
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
Ebook: 240 pages
Series: Who Fears Death #0.1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I’d never known any other place.

The stunning stand-alone prequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death.
They call her many things – a research project, a test-subject, a specimen. An abomination.
But she calls herself Phoenix, an ‘accelerated woman’ – a genetic experiment grown and raised in Manhattan’s famous Tower 7, the only home she has ever known. Although she’s only two years old, Phoenix has the body and mind of an adult – and powers beyond imagining. Phoenix is an innocent, happy to live quietly in Tower 7, reading voraciously and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human.
Until the night that Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated, Phoenix begins to search for answers – only to discover that everything that she has ever known is a lie.
Tower 7 isn’t a haven. It’s a prison.
And it’s time for Phoenix to spread her wings and rise.
Spanning contents and centuries, The Book of Phoenix is an epic, incendiary work of magial realism featuring Nnedi Okorafor’s most incredible, unforgettable heroine yet.

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I have completely rewritten this review three times now and I’m still unable to properly express how I feel about the book. My reading experience sounds much more negative than it was. Yes, I had problems with the book and I didn’t adore it. But I still liked it and enjoyed the read. The Book of Phoenix is a good book that just didn’t go my way. That’s taste for you.

The first chapter was absolutely stunning. In the prologue, Nnedi Okorafor establishes the timeline and makes the connection to Who Fears Death, but the heart of the story is Phoenix’ first person narrative of her own life. Trapped in Tower 7, she is quite happy with her infinite amount of books and the company of her lover Saeed. But a few moments change her entire life and she escapes what she comes to realise has always been a prison, not a home.

Once out of Tower 7, the tight narrative of the opening chapter weathers a little. Phoenix – true to her name – burns bright throughout the novel. She is a fascinating character to follow, not only because she is so distinctly not human, but because she has to find a place for herself in a world that doesn’t want her. Finding her own identity is the one constant of the novel – as futile as her search seems. She looks African but she is the result of experiments, of genetic manipulation, she is made for one purpose alone – and she refuses to be used that way. Wherever she goes, she is made to feel different.

I had several problems with the story, mainly that it felt so haphazardly put together, especially the middle part. The beginning is fantastic, it sets up a world that intrigued me, that I wanted to learn more about. But we abandon that world quickly and don’t explore the purpose of the Towers, the experiments, and their effects on society any further. Instead, we follow Phoenix to Ghana – a part of the book that did offer good, quieter chapters, but it also felt very disconnected from the larger story arc. In fact, I have a hard time defining the larger story arc… Is it a revenge story? An exploration of identity? A science fiction, X-Men type of story? All of these questions can be answered with a “yes” but I was still missing the red thread.

The most interesting aspects for me were Phoenix’ struggle for identity, her balancing act between heroine and villainess, and the way she dealt with her heritage (or what she chooses to define as her heritage). For example, she refuses to ever set foot on a ship, especially not on one travelling from Africa to America. Although she isn’t sure of who she is, where (biologically speaking) she comes from, she feels kinship to the people she meets in Africa as well as to the other specimens from Tower 7. But Phoenix still knows that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.

The world building could have been great if more time had been invested in it. For example, I positively squeed when the robotic spiders who protect pipelines were mentioned. I know those spiders. In fact, I had read a story about a woman making a strange connection to the artificial intelligence in Kabu Kabu. Here, the story gets nothing but a fleeting mention (which is fine), but I would have enjoyed even more of these little snippets of news. We know about Phoenix and her friends, but we know very little about the state of the rest of the world. Hints are dropped every once in a while, and every time I caught myself super interested in them, but then we never get to see more. It was frustrating but it kept drawing me in.

This is a very angry book, dealing with exploitation, identity, revenge, and sacrifice. If the plot had been more focused I would have adored it. The language managed to pull me back whenever I got bored with the plot, or found myself looking for a way to fit the current chapter into the bigger story. During these boring bits, I kept reading for specific aspects only to end up disappointed that they were dropped. Phoenix has unique abilities cool enough to fill a whole different book. I wanted to see more of the winged man she frees in the beginning, I wanted more background and scenes with Phoenix’ friends. We do get information on where and when Phoenix’ story is set in relation to Who Fears Death but this, too, would have been an aspect that could have been explore even more.

So I have gripes. That’s fine. Nnedi Okorafor is a great writer, but The Book of Phoenix, much like her first contact novel Lagoon, was too meandering for my taste. The pacing was off, the things I liked best were left aside in favor of others. The beginning and the end were by far the strongest parts of the book, with a confusing unstructured middle part. But then, Okorafor throws in sentences here or there that are so perfect, that hit you right in the guts, that I can’t really be too angry about this. A bit of editing, streamlining the plot, and more in-depth treatment of world building and side characters would have made this the perfect book. To me, it really shows that this used to be a shorter story that got turned into a novel. Much of the middle feels like stuffing, rather than necessary plot. So it wasn’t a great book for me, it’s only good (what a thing to complain about, huh?). And now I’m eagerly waiting for Binti, Okorafor’s first foray into space opera.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good

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 Second opinions:

Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon

Worlds Without End has seduced me to join four (!) different challenges this year. I don’t know what possessed me during a time where my job is more time-consuming than ever before. Nnedi Okorafor goes on a few of those lists, so I was all the happier when I received an ARC from the lovely people at Hodder. *dances*

lagoonLAGOON
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 10th April 2014
Paperback: 393 pages
Standalone
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: She slices through the water, imagining herself a deadly beam of black light.

Three strangers, each isolated by their own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world-famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach outside Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.
But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.

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Nnedi Okorafor blew me utterly away with her beautiful Who Fears Death. With that in mind and this gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover in front of me, I was sure that great things would expect me in her newest novel. Hailed as an original and unusual first contact story, and as the author’s answer to the movie District 9, it paints the picture of a city during crisis.

The ostentatious protagonists – Adaora, Agu, and Anthony – were never really what the story is about. They meet on the beach just seconds before a meteor strikes (or so they believe) and an alien creature emerges from the sea. After that, chaos ensues throughout the entire city, violence rules the streets, religious zealots hunt witches and the alien “demons”, people frantically film the strange events on their phones or cameras, and the world goes completely bananas.

It is this human reaction to something new, something strange that we don’t immediately understand, that is the heart and soul of Lagoon. Every short chapter is almost a tiny short story that shows us Lagos through a myriad of people’s eyes. This may do wonders for world building and setting a scene, but the quick changes of view point disrupts the narrative in ways that make it hard to stay engaged. The moment one of the proper plot lines got interesting, it was dropped for a quick interlude. This made Lagoon a strenuous read when it should have been engaging.

Getting to spend so little time with the main characters – and leaving them during the most interesting moments of conflict – made it difficult for me to identify with them or care for them in any way. Their personalities never really rise much above what the blurb gives us. Adaora, a marine biologist… well yes, she likes the sea and knows about its inhabitants. She is also a decent person with two kids. I can’t give you anything else because I never had a chance to properly meet her. The same goes for Anthony, who gets to wear the “world-famous Ghanaian rapper” cap and nothing else. Agu, a soldier, stands out only in that he – like Adaora – is a decent human being who will defend people weaker than himself against violence.

The biggest copout of the novel are the actual aliens. I didn’t read this expecting a creature feature. I knew going in that Okorafor would paint a city and its people in all their facets. But, hey, if aliens land on the fucking planet, I’d at least like to know a little bit about them. But every. single. time. there is a scene that gets us close to the real wonders from “beyond the stars”, the scene ends and the characters conveniently don’t remember anything. I, as a reader, feel cheated. I put faith in the author to tell me a story worth reading and every time things got interesting – either with the humans in the city, or with the aliens – we fade to black and hop into a character’s head I neither know nor care about, and who will never show up again for the rest of the novel anyway.

lagoon cover

All of that said, these short chapters are beautifully written. I believe a lot of subplots could have been handled better. In the beginning of the novel, some time is invested in a religious group and their zealous leader, as well as an LGBT organization and their struggle to be themselves in a hostile environment. For the amount of set up and world building involved, these two plot lines were dropped rather unceremoniously. Nnedi Okorafor’s writing may be fantastic, but even if you describe utter chaos, structure is your friend.

A handful of moments make up for some of the novel’s failings (such as turning into a mermaid or gigantic spiders – I’ll always love reading about gigantic spiders) but all things considered, Lagoon didn’t deliver on anything I had hoped for. It may be sold as science fiction, because aliens and magic, but in reality, it is a fix-up novel that only grazes these alien life forms, and focuses more on the humans (and animals) in and around Lagos. Little vignettes, connected by the arrival of aliens off the coast that show humanity in all its ugly beauty.

As much as I loved Who Fears Death, I won’t pounce on the next Okorafor novel. I’ll wait and see what others have to say about it first. If I finish a book only because I feel I should (because it’s an ARC from the publisher) then it failed me as a reader. As it will be published in only one week, I will be on the lookout for reviews to see if I maybe just picked it up while in the wrong mood, or if other readers have the same misgivings.

MY RATING: 6/10  –  Okay

 

Monthly Wrap-Up: October 2013

This is strange… I had more time for reading in October yet I’ve read fewer books. Overall, I am very happy with my October books. They were all excellent reads and I didn’t get the feeling that I had in September, of not having time to read because work was so stressful. I did have time to read and I enjoyed every page.

Books read: 4
Pages read: 1324
Series started: Imperial Radch
Series continued:
Series finished:

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THE BEST

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice   9/10

ancillary justiceThe internet has exploded with praise for Ann Leckie and it is all justified. This amazing debut does so many things that should not work and makes them awesome. Breq – the last remnant of a formerly great AI spaceship named Justice of Toren – is looking for answers and revenge. She is joined by Seivarden – a character I fell madly in love with over the course of the novel – and shows us cultures that feel original and somehow familiar at the same time.
And don’t even get me started on what Ann Leckie does with language. She uses almost exclusively female pronouns, regardles of a character’s gender. This book makes you think, it makes you question your prejudices, and it’s a gripping story with great characters. Just read it!

Catherynne M. Valente – The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two   9/10

fairyland 3You’re not surprised about this, are you? Cat Valente is one of my current top two authors (the other one being Terry Pratchett) and I expected nothing less than perfection in  this third Fairyland volume. The beginning was a bit tough to read, mainly because it takes so long for September to reunite with her friends, Ell and Saturday. Once they are together again and have a plan to save Fairyland, everything comes together beautifully and Valente managed to rip my heart out again. Stopping a Moon Yeti from breaking the moon is not so easy, especially if time travelling friends are involved… A wonderful book, full of magic and love and beautiful language.

China Miéville – Railsea  8,5/10

railseaWhat a fun book. Miéville returns to YA fiction in this riff off Moby Dick. But it only starts that way. Sham travels the Railsea on the moler trail Medes, whose Captain obsessively hunts the great ivory mole that took her arm many years ago. But Sham stumbles into an adventure much bigger than a mere mole hunt.
Miéville plays with language in many ways. The omniscient narrator teases his readers, jumps between viewpoints, and generally adds to the pure fun of the story. I loved this book, particularly the ending. It could have gone terribly wrong but Miéville makes it work. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a Miéville book to start with.

Nnedi Okorafor – Kabu Kabu 7/10

kabu kabuA short story collection by the author of the amazing Who Fears Death. I didn’t love all the stories, but I found enjoyment in most of them. My favorite was the science fiction story “Spider the Artist” about a Nigerian woman who makes friends with a robotic spider-creature that protects the pipelines from oil robbers.
Okorafor’s style has impressive range, her stories come in all shapes and sizes. There are those that read like folktales, fairytales, historical fiction, epic fantasy and science fiction. Her characters are equally diverse. Most protagonists are Nigerian (to some extent) women, and mos stories are set directly in Nigeria. It was just beautiful how the author showed the richness of a culture and a place that is rarely shown at all in speculative fiction. Recommended.

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No THE WORST and no THE REST this month. Like I said, all my books were pretty fantastic

Plans for November:

Jeff Vandermeer – Wonderbook
I’m almost done with this massive, beautiful, inspiring work of art. It is a guide on how to write speculative fiction but it is also so much more. Articles by many established authors and gorgeous (!) artwork on every page make it a book worth having, even if you just look at the pictures.

Stephen King – The Shining
Something creepy for Halloween. I only made it halfway through when November caught up with me but it reminds me again why I like Stephen King. He paints characters that feel so real you wouldn’t be surprised if they lived next door – although if I met Jack Torrance (or worse, Danny), I would probably run and hide. Can’t wait to finish this and then, finally, watch the movie. (Yes, I am one of those people who have never seen it. But I do know key scenes, including spoilers.)

Robin Hobb – Fool’s Fate
Now that a new Fitz and Fool trilogy is planned, I need to finish the existing books. At 800 pages, I feel a little daunted, but then again, I have yet to read a Hobb book  I don’t like.

Gail Carriger – Curtsies & Conspiracies
Sophronia strikes again. Gail Carriger returned to her quick-witted, funny self with the Finishing School series and I can’t wait to read this one.

Nnedi Okorafor – Kabu-Kabu

Making a resolution to read more diversely, to discover authors from places other than Europe or North America, is one thing. Actually discovering them is another story. I didn’t think I would be this glad to read fantasy by writers from different places of the world. But Nnedi Okorafor swept me away with the amazing Who Fears Death and, while very different from that novel, the short stories in Kabu-Kabu have cemented my appreciation for her as a writer.

kabu kabuKABU-KABU
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Prime Books, October 2013
ISBN: 160701405X
ebook: 264 pages
Short story collection
review copy via NetGalley
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Lance the Brave stood on the edge of the cliff panicking, his long blond hair blowing in the breeze.

Kabu Kabu – unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis – generally get you where you need to go, but Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations. This debut short story collection by award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor includes notable previously-published short work, a new novella co-written with New York Times bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, and a brief forward by Whoopi Goldberg.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the danger of the single story still rings in my ears every time I read a book or story featuring a non-white protagonist. This collection by Nnedi Okorafor – go read the beautiful Who Fears Death – is the exact opposite of the “single story”. The range and diversity of these short stories is like a breath of fresh air. Given Okorafor’s own background, most stories feature Nigerians, but not exclusively. Some are set in Nigeria, some in America, some in completely different places. Most of her protagonists are women, but again, they are as diverse and different as they come.

But Okorafor doesn’t romanticize Nigeria either. The tales in this collection show off a range of situations and settings, many aspects of culture and character. You will find folktale-like stories without a clear setting or time, intentionally flat characters, and horrific plots, you will find others that are clearly set during modern times, showing all the wonders and horrors of Okorafor’s chosen locations. I’ve mentioned Nigeria a lot, but it isn’t the only place featured in these stories. Just the one that she keeps coming back to.

kabu kabu banner

The author’s favorite topics clearly shine through. Nigeria is one of them, windseekers another. There are not two, but three tales about windseekers, two of which tell essentially the same story. I felt a little cheated and, honestly, it gave the impression that the author’s ideas are quite limited (or that she is really obsessed with windseekers) – she also wrote a novel called Zahrah the Windseeker (which I have yet to read). In all fairness, the third of the windseeker stories, simply called “Windseekers”, did show a different side of these people, born with dada hair and the ability to fly, and I ended up liking that one best.

Of all the stories, “Spider the Artist” was easily my favorite. It is not only a great science fiction short story but would make a brilliant beginning for a novel. A young and unhappily married woman sits next to the pipeline at night and plays music. She ends up befriending one of the terrifying, robotic creatures who protect the pipeline from thieves and bond with it over their shared music. I loved every bit of this story and wouldn’t mind reading what happened after…

In “The Black Stain”, the author changes her tone to that of a cautionary tale. There is little characterisation, events happen quickly, but their repercussions leave you thinking about the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on others. It is a sort of fairy-tale like origin story of Ewu, children of mixed race, who are considered demons, and another one of Okorafor’s favorite themes, seeing as Onyesonwu, the protagonist in Who Fears Death, is Ewu.

The titular story “Kabu-Kabu” was co-written with Alan Dean Foster. It is the story of a lawyer named Ngozi trying to catch a plane to go to her sister’s wedding in Nigeria. Late as she is, she jumps into a kabu kabu, a taxi that shows up out of the blue and whose driver promises to get her where she needs to go… there are just a few errands he has to run first. This story did so many things so well. Ngozi is a wonderfully relatable protagonist who mostly just asks herself WTF? The fact that she meets curious creatures and isn’t sure if she can trust her taxi driver is just a complication in a fun story with a slightly predictable ending.

kabu kabu plate

As with any collection, not all stories were up my alley, and some I didn’t like at all. The bulk of them were great, although I do think short stories are not the author’s strength. Nnedi Okorafor is definitely trying to make a point with this collection. In the afterword she tells the origin of her story “The Magical Negro” and I understand that she wants her readers to see that being branded magical or exotic or barbaric is not something Africans enjoy – yet it still happens all too often in SFF fiction. But perhaps she is trying to get that point across too hard. By no means did this happen in every story, but every so often, I would feel like the author was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder to see if I understood what she’s telling me about race and gender. Yes yes, I get it! I’m on your side! Stop hitting me over the head with the morality hammer already!

I picked the book up because I absolutely loved Who Fears Death. It fits neatly into my Read Around the World challenge, and I honestly think that I learned tons of new things and broadened my horizons – even if a lot of the stories took place in imaginary or alternate settings, not the real world. Okorafor shows the good and the bad, both exploitation and hope, strength and evil of the people. And she adds a healthy dose of magic to the mix.

Recommended, although I personally look forward to cozying up with one of Okorafor’s novels again.

MY RATING:  7/10  – Very Good!

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Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

I am ashamed to admit that I mostly read fantasy with white protagonists, mostly written by white authors – with the occasional exception. So I thought it was time to delve into literature taking place in the rest of the world, written by non-western writers. And as it turns out, this was absolutely worth it.

WHO FEARS DEATH
by Nnedi Okorafor

publisher: DAW, 2010
ISBN: 0756406692
pages
: 387
copy: paperback

my rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: My life fell apart when I was sixteen.

Onyesonwu is born Ewu, the child of rape between a Nuru man and an Okeke woman. Born out of violence, these cursed people are said to only produce violence themselves. Onyesonwu’s life as an outcast is difficult enough. But at the age of 11, she discovers that she has certain abilities and her greatest wish is to be apprenticed by the town sorcerer. To make the constantly feuding Nurus and Okekes make peace… and take revenge on her biological father.

Ignorant as I was, I expected this book to be hard to get into. That was not the case. Onyesonwu, our first-person narrator, tells her tale an immediately grabbed my attention. The story picks up right away and is nicely paced. There are some flashbacks, action scenes, nicely alternated by calmer chapters that further the characters and their relationships.

As characters go, the whole set in this book is convicingly real. None of them are flawless, especially Onyesonwu. I enjoyed how very human they felt. Onye’s handful of friends all have their own heads – some seem to want only the attention of men, others plot their own revenge, and others may just be confused about pretty much everything. But they are each vibrant and lovable in their way. My weakness for Mwita started soon and stayed strong until the very end. Onye is a heroine whose strenght and relentlessness should be model to other modern protagonists (don’t know why I’m thinking of annoying Kvothe here…).

This story features an interesting magic system that leans more towards the spiritual, mystical than speaking incantations or waving ones hands. It was well executed and had a nice continuity to it. Technology, the second kind of magic in this book, if you want,  is employed quite strangely. If I hadn’t read reviews on this book that mentioned “post-apocalyptic Africa” and used the term science fiction, I would have simply understood it as a fantasy, a parallel Africa, if you want. But there are cell phones mentioned, with GPS, and mp3-players and computers, though they seem to be so rare that Onye has only touched a couple of them. The existence of technology in this universe didn’t bother me per se, but it did feel slightly out of place with the otherwise mystical tone. Setting this story in the far future, when our modern technology is dated and has mostly died out, was not necessary to the story or the plot. It would have worked just as well without any mention of cell phones or video recorders.

What the author probably does best is build athmosphere. The quieter passages don’t get boring because even though there isn’t much action, they are still full of life. Okorafor makes  the colours of the desert seem vibrant, the simple life in Jwahir important in its own way and the spiritual-like magic understandable. The town of Jwahir, the desert and its inhabitants, seemed utterly alive and like a quite inviting place.

The language is at times stunning and at others reads like a debut novel. The author has written YA novels so far, this being her first story aimed at an adult audience. It was not perfect throughout, but pretty damn close. A novel of such strength can be forgiven the occasional slip-up. I got this feeling during scenes that felt like they were supposed to be stronger but didn’t quite succeed. This happens about twice, maybe three times, during the story, so it’s negligible. The vast majority of Okorafor’s writing is powerful, on point and deeply moving.

I enjoyed this book as much for the characters and plot as I did for the themes explored in it. Onyesonwu, being a mixed race child, faces racism and hate very soon. Because her skin is the color of sand and not – like the Okeke, a rich darker brown or, like the Nuru, white – but she’s also a girl, which denies her many privileges granted to a male. Even an Ewu male. Already doubly cursed, Onyesonwu’s home town Jwahir, holds what is called the Eleventh rite, female circumcision. Since this ritual is supposed to take any pleasure a woman might feel during sex away, Onye has her own thoughts on the subject.

Sex is talked about very openly and naturally in this story. Chidlren as young as 11 have already had first sexual experiences and maybe even intercourse. There is no shame in admitting that you enjoy sex or want a certain man’s attention. As strange and foreign the Okeke’s culture seemed to me, as refreshing was the way this subject was treated. Especially since I get the feeling that nowadays, in literature and TV, sex is either ignored or used for shock value in its extremer forms. I thought it wonderful the way it is employed here – natural, a part of human life and while it’s still a private act between two (or more) people, nobody has to be ashamed for it or pretend it doesn’t exist.

There is also themes of war, child soldiers, fate and accepting one’s own mortality – the book and Onyesonwu are aptly named. I would recommend this book to everyone but I feel I should caution you. There are some grittier scenes of rape, female circumcision and violence that may rub more sensitive readers the wrong way. None of it is too graphic or dwelled on too long.

This unique and magical story has definitely conquered my heart, despite or maybe because of its melancholy tone, wonderful characters and vibrant setting.

THE GOOD: Outstanding characters and story-telling, exotic setting, a quite unique book.
THE BAD: Unecessary use of technology/post-apocalyptic setting, sometimes writing not perfectly on point.
THE VERDICT: A wonderful book and quite a page-turner that gave me rich and enjoyable hours spent with amazing characters.

RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent