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National Book Awards

This is probably the first year that I’ve been excited about the National Book Awards, which took place on November 15th. According to its website, its mission is “to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” This has been the focus and mission since 1950, the first year of the National Book Awards, starting with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Throughout the years, it has expanded to include Philosophy and Religion, History and Biography, Arts and Letters, Translation, Contemporary Thought, Autobiography, First Novel, Original Paperback, and Children’s Books, which led to a feeling of too many categories and minimizing the award. Once the National Book Foundation was created in 1986 to oversee the awards, it reduced the number of categories back to fiction and nonfiction. Five years later, poetry was re-added as a category, and after another five years, the young people’s book literature category was also added.

The National Book Foundation also partners with the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Urban Libraries Council and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to distribute high-quality books to areas deemed to be book deserts as their Book Rich Environment Initiative mission. They distribute over a quarter of a million books in 36 housing communities!


This year’s winners in each category are as follows:

Fiction: Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

Ward holds an MFA, is an associate professor at Tulane, and a winner of the 2011 National Book Awards and a finalist for National Book Critics Circle. This is her third novel. Set in rural Mississippi, it centers on a family of a drug-addicted African-American mother who is tormented by the loss of her brother, an imprisoned white father, and the impact of both on their parents and on their children.

Nonfiction: Masha Gessen, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, has won several fellowships, including the Guggenheim. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and she has written several books. This book examines the lives of four individuals who were born under the promise of democracy, but have ended up with a stronger totalitarian society (and mafia state) than Russia has seen before.

Poetry: Frank Bidart, Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

Bidart has written five other collections of poems and is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, among others. This collected works of his highlights the extremes of the human nature and experience, with a highly emotional connection.

Young People’s Literature: Robin Benway, Far from the Tree

Benway has won the National Book Awards before, among numerous other awards. This is her seventh young adult book. This novel tackles adoption and teen pregnancy, and how an adopted child raised as an only child starts to explore her biological family after she gives her own child up for adoption.


If you’re interested in the runners-up and longlist for each category, please go here. I personally was pleased to see that a number of runners-up were published by Graywolf Press, a Minneapolis-based publishing company.

Book Reviews

Review: Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti, first uniter of the Meduse and Humans in tentative peace, first of the Himba tribe to be accepted into the Oomza University far from Earth, has now been at university for a year in this follow-up to Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti titled Binti: Home. And it feels like a seamless transition from the first novella to this sequel, also a novella.

As a continuation of the first story, albeit a year later, we get to see the growth that Binti has made in her studies at university and that she maintains a relationship with not only the Khoush and the Meduse, but also longs to go home. As she’s able to with a Meduse, she is able to act as the bridge between it, as the first Meduse peaceful ambassador to Earth, and humans–specifically her tribe.

As much as leaving changed her in ways that she couldn’t imagine, so does going home. She is confronted by family and friends who judge her for leaving, for changing, and blame her for things she could not reasonably be blamed for. Feeling outcast yet again, she ends up going on a journey again – this time, she expects normal life as one of womanhood, but it turns out so very different than she anticipated.

She’s the one who has changed the most and we don’t see her family at all in the first novella, so we only see how they respond to her having changed so much. It’s a powerful way to show how much she is going against the grain with her family and her tribe, and how they are developed enough to respond fearfully, with distinctly human and secluded human reactions. The pain she feels is real; we are also exposed to some flashbacks that develop our understanding of how she ended up down the path she is heading, how she is different than what her father expected, how she’s had to give up so much (as her father has given up his dreams for her) to become who she is intended to be.

The exposition provided is stunning. Characters are not only well-developed, but so is the setting, the reactions everyone has, the events, and the pacing that engages the reader from beginning to end. At 168 pages, it could take fewer than two hours to complete it, but it feels like so much less and leaves us wanting for more. Binti is a very real and realized person on her journey to become more her and each journey she goes on helps immensely with that.

This story left on a pretty big cliffhanger and the next one, The Binti Masquerade, doesn’t come out until January 2018. I’ve got it on pre-order and can’t wait to review it!  This series is definitely at least a 4.5 out of 5 stars.  Also, relevant news for those who enjoy tv and movie adaptations of books, Okorafor announced the morning of July 10th, that her novel, Who Fears Death, has been contracted with HBO to be turned into a tv series.

Articles

Binti: First of a Space-Faring Peace-Bringer Series

A fellow teacher and avid reader decided to do a reading challenge last year for books that could be nominated and voted on for the Hugo Awards. It got me thinking that I should check out the (at the time) current list to get some ideas about what to read. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, which I made mention of here, immediately caught my eye. It was one of the winners the award for Best Novella in 2016, and with good reason.

Binti is the first in a series that Okorafor is working on centering on a girl of sixteen, named Binti. Set in the future where space-faring is a thing and humans still cling to traditions and prejudices and anger in the face of progress and co-existing with aliens. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – having grown up on Star Trek, the best envisioning of humans shedding money and prejudice for a peaceful society, that attitude is a bit pervasive when I approach new sci-fi books. It’s nice to see books, such as this, where humans still struggle with some of the same things we do currently – but with aliens and technology.

Binti is also the titular character. This is her story. It is, very humanly, a story of her yearning to be more than what social structures demand of her. She runs away from home at 16 to leave her tribe, the Himbi, her village, Africa, and even earth to travel to Oomza Uni to become one of only 5% humans studying at a higher level. She was able to be accepted in part because of her education regarding math and harmonizing, taught to her by her father. It’s a unique way of being able to use math and numbers to help bring harmony to any situation.

The biggest thing about her skills here is that she was the only one of her tribe to go and was surrounded by the Khoush the entire flight – the enemy tribe, the one that considers hers to be inferior and weird and way too insular. The way the characters interacted with each other given their prejudices and being forced together on a long trip gave way to a very natural development of each one of them. She utilized her skills to make the trip easier until catastrophe struck. When the ship came up against the Meduse, an enemy race, again she became utterly alone and had to, again, utilize her harmonizing training. Binti, each Khoush, and each Meduse were confronted with their anger and prejudices and having to adjust to having their worldviews altered.

It isn’t easy on Binti to have to feel utterly alone twice to drive the point home that she was meant to bring harmony and is forever changed by the experiences of leaving home and experiencing trauma. However, it certainly shows the extension of harmonizing between fellow humans, as she was trained to do, furthered to harmonizing with incredibly different, war-like aliens who look and speak and thinking nothing like humans.

That there is a blend of a female lead who is full of uncertainty, natural curiosity, brilliance, desire to do good, desire to bring harmony, and to be more than she was brought up to be, and succeeding is one hundred percent appealing. And, it’s set in the future, and there’s math, and a world where no detail is left unattended, is delightful. As a novella, it is a bit too short given how good it is. The best part is that there are sequels!  

Recipes

A Meal to Satisfy Emond’s Fielders

Wheel of Time Series

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, in all it’s 14-book glory, is one of my absolute favorite series. Some consider it to be overly detailed in certain ways, but I love the world-building and hunger for more. This sprawling fantasy series has similarities to our own world, but uses magic and has less technology than we currently do. Jordan pulls from Taoism, Arthurian legends, messianic stories, folklore, and mythologies to weave a fascinating tale of prophecy, change and good versus evil. He is incredibly detailed in building culture, history, geography, food, customs, and more.  

As a foodie and a superfan (I’ve read the series at least 10 times), I wanted to make something that could work in the setting of Randland (the name fans have given to Robert Jordan’s world). While looking for recipes to make for the week, I came across a recipe for Onion Herb Socca, Kurdish Stew with Fruit and Split Peas, and Peach Cobbler.

Onion Herb Socca

The Onion-Herb Socca I discovered in The Blender Girl by Tess Masters. Simple and easy to make, this recipe is basically a flat-bread made with chickpea flour, water, salt and pepper, olive oil, onion, thyme, parsley, and garlic. This is perfect to put chutney on, to accompany stews and chilis, or to just eat the entire thing on its own. It is super delicious and savory.

Given the nature of the cookbook, of course, a blender is used. 1 cup chickpea flour, 1 cup of water, a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and 2 tbsp of olive oil were blended and left to stand for an hour. The cookbook said to let it sit until it looked like buttermilk, a minimum of 30 minutes. While it rested, I chopped ¾ cup of an onion and sauteed it with a couple teaspoons of minced garlic and a little olive oil in a pan. Then, I mixed it with 2 tbsp of parsley and 2 tbsp of thyme, though these herbs can be changed to fit your taste.

I put the onion and herb mix at the bottom of a pie pan and poured the flour mix over it and mixed the two together. It baked for 10 minutes at 450 degrees F. The cookbook says it’s best served immediately, but I found it quite delicious even cooled a few hours later.   I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to use the blender, so next time I make it, I’ll probably do it by hand.

Kurdish Stew with Fruit and Split Peas

I discovered the stew in in The Taste of Persia cookbook by Naomi DuGuid. This combination of cumin, turmeric, ground beef (though you could use lamb or chicken instead), split peas, plums or apricots, tomato paste, potatoes, and broth. It’s an easy recipe for sure, made in under an hour.

It seems Persian recipes, based on the few I’ve done from the book, don’t use a lot of onion. I just heated some oil, added a tablespoon of cumin (the recipe called for 2 tsp cumin and 1 of either Nigella seeds or ground Nigella, a spice I didn’t have and wouldn’t use except in this recipe – it’s similar to cumin, so I just substituted that), a teaspoon of turmeric and heated a minute or two. A pound of beef was added, along with a cup of green lentils, the tablespoon of tomato paste, and ¾ cup of fresh plums. The recipe called for dried plums or apricots, but since I can’t eat sulfites, fresh had to do.

As I’d forgotten to buy split peas at the Farmers’ Market or the Co-op, I had to do a bit of research. It seemed like lentils could be a good fit – unfortunately I had only a cup instead of two as was required in the recipe. Once the beef browned, I added the potatoes and broth. The recipe called for waxy potatoes, which I don’t like, so I used small brown ones from the Farmers’ Market. It also called for up to six cups water or broth. I used four cups broth, and even that made it more like a soup instead of a stew. Substituting lentils, and utilizing only one cup lentils instead of two cups split peas, as well as using fresh instead of dried plums all could have contributed to the extra liquid, even though I used less liquid than it called for. Please take this into consideration if you try it at home!

The recipe called to serve it with herbs and flatbreads, so naturally, I ate it with the Onion-Herb Stocca. If you would want rice with it to soak up some of the juices instead of bread, I’d suggest cooking some rice with a tablespoon of olive oil and a couple strands of saffron.

I can imagine the socca and the stew being served in Altaran or, especially, Andoran inns and taverns paired with beer or cider, with the socca being much more widespread using different herbs for each nation. The Seafarers would likely pair it with a fish stew.

socca and stew.jpg

Peach Cobbler

As for the peach cobbler, which I chose in part because August is Peach Month, and peaches are considered quite poisonous in Randland, it’d be perfect for the Darkfriend to serve to an inebriated guest they would want to poison. It’s easier than peach pie but still delicious. I found it in Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and, like all of her recipes that I’ve made, it is simple. Clearly, she writes recipes for those who like good food but don’t have a lot of time to make food.

The filling is made up of 5 cups of peaches, ¾ cup brown sugar, a teaspoon ground cinnamon, two teaspoons of pure vanilla extract, and two tablespoons organic cornstarch. I used peaches that had been jarred by a local canner so it made it even easier. These get mixed together in a 9×13 baking dish. I’d recommend mixing the dry ingredients before mixing in the peaches.

In a separate bowl, I mixed a cup of flour, a teaspoon-and-a-half of baking powder, a teaspoon ground cinnamon, a half-teaspoon ground allspice, ¼ cup light brown sugar, ¼ cup canola oil, ⅔ cup flaxseed milk, and a teaspoon vanilla extract. Once these were thoroughly mixed, I used a spoon to add a dollop of the mix atop the peach mixture, leaving about an inch of space between each.

The recipe called for baking for 30 minutes at 450 degrees. However, I found that the result was that the flour mix on top looked too burned, but that could easily be fixed by adjusting the temperature, time, or even the placement in the oven next time. This was the first time I’ve made cobbler, and despite looking a bit burnt on top, my taste tester (also known as my life partner) ate most of it.

peach cobbler.jpg

Book Reviews, Diversity

Review: My City Sister by Akpa Arinzechukwu

Recently, I stumbled upon Writivism and the associated article for the 2017 Kofi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction Long List. This is an annual prize for nonfiction works. Initially specific to emerging African writers living in Ghana, it has widened to include writers born, raised, or living elsewhere in Africa. The shortlisted writers are then invited to a literary fest where the winner is chosen. My hope was to find pieces written by these shortlisted authors. Unfortunately, the only one I could find for my Kindle is a piece written by Akpa Arinzechukwu.

This short story piece is titled My City Sister and while I doubt it was the piece submitted for the prize, it was interesting to read anyway. The piece has too much of a fiction feel to it. The twelve pages of story centers on a young man entering the city where his sister lives for the first time. He’s a rural man, likely pretty young, and it is about how the city impacts him in ways he can’t imagine.

The worst thing about it is the attitude the main character has as he enters the city. It immediately made him unlikeable. The best thing about it is that it was written well enough that I was very engaged and wanted to find out what happened to this pompous character.  

It’s very much a story of how the city changes the main character, so we don’t see much character development except for his. He and his sister are prominent, but she is seen only through his eyes and is limited in interactions. Any change we see in her is really a change in how he perceives her. The thing is though – the city changes him against his will because of his experiences there. He’s still pompous, but far less judgmental than in the beginning.

Unfortunately, it feels a bit contrived for the storyline. Young man, very immature, goes to the city and is miraculously changed for the “better.” Maybe it’s because I’m not an avid short story fan but I am always wanting more. I’ve seen short story authors who are amazing at world-building. Many of the ones I’ve read are more about character development. This one is interesting to me in the sense that it’s set somewhere I’m very unfamiliar with, but uses a story that is incredibly common. The author definitely could have fleshed out certain areas better.

Yet, I’m glad I read it. It was easy to read, it was easy to understand his motivations and his transformation, and it stylistically written well. I’d be interested in seeing what else he has written.

Diversity

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit is a book which centers on The Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. In the society, set presumably in the not too distant future, women and men of a certain age are expected to have families; if not, they are taken to, colloquially, The Unit. It is essentially a compound where these adults without families are given living quarters, food, comfort and more. In exchange, they are expected to go through human experiments in search of cures for diseases and surgeries to donate their organs – all to benefit people on the outside, people with families.

The story opens with Dorrit, the female main character, who grapples with her new life inside the unit as a fifty-year-old woman. Each of the other people in the unit are also grappling with it in their own ways. Understandably, there are horrors of knowing that this is the place people go to have their biological material harvested or experimented on because they are seen as without family ties and without professional worth in the mainstream world.

Each of the characters, but especially Dorrit, seem accessible and real. Ninni Holmqvist, the author, is thoughtful to flesh out each character’s back story in such a manner that we see the diversity of people in the unit – that in this world, lots of different kinds of people are affected by this referendum. The concept of being childless, single, and in a job that isn’t deemed appropriate for contributing to society at large understandably will have an impact on people in different ways. It speaks of a society that values self-sufficiency until it doesn’t; placing more of an emphasis on taking care of others in a collective manner. The pain those in the unit feel is very real, as is the friendships they forge. As far as the friendship they build inside, which is rather understandable through shared pain and shared experiences, the one main issue I had was wishing for more background on some of the staff who worked in the unit.

The pace of the storyline worked – it isn’t about action, action, and more action the way a number of dystopian novels are these days. Perhaps this is because it centers around people 50 and older with no war to fight. It has more to do with the inner turmoil of the patients there. And even though those in charge strive to make the patients comfortable with free food, lodging, shopping, and gyms, it’s really only material comfort compared to what they go through. It’s a really interesting concept for a plot to make people materially wealthy surrounded by doctors and in a place where they know they are being collected for their biological use for science and others. That it is forced upon them makes it an interesting way to look at our psyches individually and collectively as well as pointing out flawed governmental decisions. Though Dorrit explains what happened in the government to institute such a thing, I would love to know more. The lack of further details, however, lends itself to filling out the details in our own heads regarding the political climate that could have led to this.

For the most part, I found the writing able to make me feel joy with the characters or sadness on their behalf. The only bad thing really was that it seemed to take a while to get to the climax. Everyone seems so resigned to their place there and even in anguish, it was difficult to know when the climax would take place. Holmqvist handled it really well – it seemed natural, even if slow, to give us time to build sympathy for the characters. I personally would have liked the climax to have come a little sooner, but it works for the story.

I’m an avid fan of dystopian novels, so I was happy to discover this through Words Without Borders. The ones, in my mind, that are the best are the ones that seem so plausible they are frightening. This is exactly that type of dystopian. It’s just enough like our world that it wouldn’t seem odd if it happened – only frighteningly devastating. I don’t agree with all the choices the characters made, but I am certain they are made for an impact.

 

Diversity, Diversity

Knots: A Woman’s Return to Somalia

As a teacher who works with refugees and immigrants, primarily from Burma and Somalia, I try to read up on historical and current events of my students’ respective countries. One of the challenges is finding novels written by Somali authors either about Somalis in Somalia or in their new lands.  I researched a few books to see what I could get at the library and was pleasantly surprised with a few listings. The first one I’ve read is Nuruddin Farah’s Knots. He appears to be a prolific author with Somalia-centric stories especially regarding the diaspora. This one centers on Cambara, a Somali-born woman and aspiring actress/writer who grew up first in Somalia and later, Canada, who then returns to Mogadishu to find herself.

The worst thing about this book is that the writing style takes a while to become used to. Much of the first chapter packs so much detail and information into each sentence that it was difficult to have any sustained reading. It very nearly forced me to stop reading the book entirely and return this one and his other one to the library ASAP. However, my desire to see if it could improve won out and I continued reading. Thankfully, not every sentence and certainly not every chapter is so information-dense.

The main and supporting characters start out as nearly entirely unlikeable, the whole lot of them. They are flawed people in bad situations, which definitely make their flaws more glaring. The more I read it, the more I wanted to understand how each character became the person with those particular flaws.

Farah does give glimpses here and there of character development through Cambara’s voice and memories and her suppositions of why things have happened – but little perspective from anyone else. The novel is written in first-person present-tense, so everything is shown as it is happening or Cambara remembering something because of what is currently happening. Ultimately, I found the characters to be overwhelmingly petty, selfish, and cruel. The background information gave insight but didn’t help the characters become likeable.

There is constant tension, especially between Cambara and her cousin, Zaak. They clearly despise each other but there are some awkward moments where it definitely seems like their mutual animosity is much muddier as the story goes on. The way they treat each other embroils other characters into their stories – and neither one is able to take responsibility for worsening any situation they are in.

This story has a lot of promise in it: a woman from the Somali diaspora seeks to heal personal wounds by returning to her homeland to daringly recover family property from warlords. The few glimpses into what her wounds are, her motivations, and the desire to recover from them are good, but too far and few between. Everything is lost in the long-winded, dense sentences and the character flaws that get in the way of plot development. At least the dialogue tends to be brief and illuminating – it’s unfortunate that even the dialogue is broken up by impossible sentences. Cambara’s lengthy internal reactions during dialogue will lose plenty of readers.

In all honesty, it was difficult to think of something I liked best about the novel. Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the story is that Cambara forges much-needed relationships with other women in her time of need. These relationships are the reason for whatever happiness befalls Cambara, if the reader can successfully slog through every other part of the book. This is a reading I’d recommend to people only if they seek a challenging, lofty novel. It is definitely not a light book to read in an afternoon.

Book Reviews, Diversity

A River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U

In teaching largely refugee populations, one of my top priorities is to learn more about the histories and cultures of my students. This is essential in connecting with them as the basis of any good educational system is relationship. In Minnesota, we have a large population of Somali, Karen, and Hmong refugees, whether first, second, or third generation. There are plenty of other refugee and immigrant populations from every continent. It’s really a melting pot!

When I worked in adult teaching, many of my students were from Burma and ethnically Karen. I learned a great deal about Burma and the Karen in many different and deeply personal ways. Because of this, I was excited to discover the book A River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U. As an avid history fan, I was eager to read this and learn even more about what my students were telling me about.

Thant Myint-U was raised in the US amidst Burmese political academics, which is evident in the course his life has taken. In the preface, he discusses his graduate work in modern history. His thesis focused on 19th-century history of Burma and this book is somewhat an extension of that, seeing the time period on through to more recent events and how events that occurred 200 years ago have rippled through now, both for Burma as a whole and with familial accounts.

Here is a man, an author, who very clearly cares about the country of his family and what has led up the current political climate. This book, his first, gives a great analytic overview of the history, colonialism’s effects on Burma’s development as a country, and modern perspectives. It is rather evident that it is written by an academic, which makes sense as Thant Myint-U has a Ph.D. and works in academia, and is heavily involved with humanitarian work and politics (with over two decades of experience in peacebuilding, research, and political advising). Even so, it was an easy, beautiful, intriguing read.

I doubt I could pick a favorite part of the book as I was so thoroughly engaged in his historical analysis, the way he describes people and events, and really–the learning. It’s relatable, especially for history buffs (and even if you’re not!). However, as it is an overview, there are things that are either left out or not discussed as thoroughly. I think that is only because what he could do with these items would each be an extra full-length book on their own.

If you enjoy colonial history, politics, or academic works, this is a book for you. It doesn’t read as a stuffy book in the slightest, so if you’re reading for fun (even while learning), this is also a book for you. If you’re looking to be introduced to the country, again, this book is for you. Basically, I definitely recommend it. Happy reading!

Book Reviews, Diversity, Uncategorized

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

I first picked up The Shadow Speaker because I have recently become an avid fan of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, recent Hugo award winner for her novella, Binti. Not only was I intrigued by the fact that her stories of magical realism set in Africa (whether partially or wholly) but I was also excited by her featuring girls coming of age and into their own power. The Shadow Speaker does not disappoint. This full-length novel centers on Ejii, a 14-year-old Muslim Nigerian girl living in 2070. She also happens to be able to speak to shadows, for which she receives lessons in fluency and ability.  It’s a story of her journey from a girl uncertain of her abilities and place in the world to standing up for what’s right.

I wish I knew before I started reading got most of the way through it that this is a sequel to Zahara The Windseeker. Likely, that story has certain things in it that could shed some light on this book. However, it worked well enough on its own that reading the first book will only add to it. Nothing in this book was really confusing without having read the first book.

Being what this story is, a coming-of-age story, much of the character development does occur for the main protagonist. It’s a story through her lens and her journey to tell. And it’s done really well. Her development doesn’t have any surprises that come too soon, she doesn’t grow in ways that are unnatural to her or too early for her, even as there are some missteps and her uncertainty of her role in life. At one point, she must literally journey on her own from her home to another city in order to become an apprentice.

Along the way, she meets Dikeougu, a boy about her age. After Ejii, he is the one to go through the most change. What’s believable about them is that they don’t change at the same rate or for the same reason – they are their own people with separate desires and needs and changes that must happen. The other characters in the story are there to either help Ejii (or Dikeougu), like her mom, her instructor, her friends, even her abusive half-brother, or they serve to be the counterpoint to Ejii. While we understand each of the character’s motives and they react predictably, they don’t change or grow in the way that Ejii and Dikeougu do. In a way, it makes the changes they go through more acute.

The story in of itself is very cool. It’s at once familiar and new. The familiarity is in the journey Ejii undertakes, the new is in the combination of interesting characters, changes in the world that make it different from ours, and an introduction to worlds vastly different from our own, but with people not so different from us. The crux of the story is very familiar – violence versus peace, environmentalism, anger and fear versus love, and self-acceptance all play a role in the plot. It’s what each character does in response to the events as they unfold that make it interesting and vivid.

Okorafor-Mbachu is skilled at making this relatable, which is important especially for teens who reading this. She is able to take these magical elements, explain and present them in such a way that it is utterly normal even if daunting in certain instances, and make it easy for the reader to access the story. The one major hang-up I have about this particular novel is that Ejii carries something similar to a tablet but we only see two pages as though she has written something on it as a journal entry. It pulled me right out of the story since it happened only the one time and seemed out of place. Also, as a personal preference, I would have loved more information on the races she encountered in one of the other worlds.

Overall,  

for each one, you can have more than one thing. (keep it together tho… all the good about character, then all the bad) But alternating good and bad, and ending with the best, helps soften the blow while still telling the negative parts you need to tell to be honest

Diversity

Binti: A Short SpecFic Delight

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor is, at its core, a fantastic blend of a coming-of-age story by way of scary interstellar journeys and new friendships that overcome prior prejudice. The fact that it is a short story means that there’s a lot going on in a short amount of time – which Okorafor does a really great job with, but at the same time, the reader can be left with wanting more. There are certain aspects of the story that beg questions left unanswered. For those who love reading full-length novels with plenty of world-building, this could be rather annoying. On the flip side, this kind of teasing adds little details that enrich the story and provide a means for the reader to let our imaginations run wild.

Given the shortness of the story, character development clearly has to be quick. Binti, the main character,  shows us a society rife with oppressive, prejudicial attitudes, mostly directed at her because of her tribal affiliation and, more broadly, towards humans.She is able to be the sole ambassador for both her tribe and for humanity to overturn these attitudes and this is the means through which she develops as a character. She is able to feel comfortable in her skin because of this role and because of the pride instilled in her by her family. Her confidence in her mathematical and musical skills ends up helping her gain a more thorough confidence in herself.

As lovely as it is to see her transformative experience and character development, there are only snippets of other characters’ development. This can make it more powerful to see, but also gives us such a narrow glimpse into their development. Again, this can be a positive given that it’s a short story, but a negative for those who prefer delving deep. Character development outside of Binti’s self-growth is shown only in snapshots. Most of this is seen through her eyes, including the character development of groups of people: the human oppressors of Binti’s ethnic group and the scary, nearly mythical aliens, the Meduse. Each interaction Binti has with other people, whether on a one-on-one or group level, exposes what the world is like much more than it shines a light on the character development of anyone other than Binti. If society can be treated as a character, the development of it as such is highlighted this way and is done very effectively. Okwe, one of the Meduse, is the only other character who nears the level of individual character development that Binti does, in that we see motivation and change in him for better or for worse.

The Himba, Binti’s ethnic group, are ostracized by nearly every human group, but especially the Khoush. Binti is traveling from Earth to a university a 20-day journey in space away. The Meduse are the boogeymen of the galaxy and no one intends to see one – only tell scary stories of them. The parallels of her forging friendship with first the Khoush and then the Meduse bring the personal to the global and even to the galactic levels of peacemaking over war.   

The storyline moves quite seamlessly and is engaging enough that it is difficult to put down. The story is easily read in a couple hours at most, which is rather nice. In the age of highly-detailed fantasy sagas, it is a breath of fresh air to read such an engaging, quick story. Even so, there are two or three spots that could have used a little more fleshing out, whether it’s world-building or background knowledge, for a clearer picture of the plot. It isn’t that there are any glaring holes, because there aren’t, only that there are places that could benefit from a bit of additional detail.

Overall, this is a must-read for any fan of Science Fiction. It is also great for those looking for diversity as it is a woman of color writing a story featuring a black female protagonist. The message of compassion and communication to change people’s minds, to avert bloodshed and to use one’s difference and knowledge and otherness to build bridges to cross-cultural understanding is one worth reading in this space journey.