EXPeriencing ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

Cover image via.

You know when you read a new Harry Potter book for the first time and you just couldn’t stop reading? All the way through the night, you kept turning pages because you just had to find out what happened next. Rarely did a chapter end where you thought, Yeah, I can put the bookmark in and go to sleep now. No, you read until the sun came up and then went for a walk in your neighborhood before even the golfers were awake.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

That inability to put the book down, though, and turning page after page no matter what the clock reads is exactly what happened when I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. I started the book Saturday afternoon and finished it Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 1 a.m. I. Was. Hooked.

An Ember in the Ashes is a young adult fantasy novel—like all the best books are—and is set in the fictional Martial Empire. This empire is located in the ancient desert kingdom of the Scholars who were conquered by a Roman-esque emperor 500 years before.

The story follows two protagonists: Laia, the Scholar slave, and Elias, the Martial soldier-assassin. As the back of the book says, “Elias and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.” I love these kinds of stories. Each chapter switches back and forth from Laia to Elias. Following their stories to see when they would meet and when their paths would cross again is one of the big reasons I kept turning page after page.

It helps that Laia and Elias are also really compelling characters. Laia, a free woman until her grandparents are murdered and her brother taken by a Martial Mask, seeks out the Scholar Resistance to save her brother. Elias is a Mask, the most talented one at Blackcliff Academy, and he hates it. When the Trials to choose a new emperor are called, Elias participates reluctantly, and Laia is sent as a slave to spy on Blackcliff for the Resistance. I would say “hijinks ensue,” but that casts it in way too light a tone. For instance, the Trials. Think the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but if Harry had to make sure Ron drowned faster than Hermione, Cho Chang, and Gabrielle Delacour. It is brutal.

But Laia and Elias are not the only characters, of course. All the characters, from Resistance fighters to Blackcliff students to slaves, are unique with their own motives and fears and desires, and play vital roles in Elias and Laia’s stories.

Tahir paints a brilliant world full of life and death and beauty and pain. World-building is something I love most about fantasy. Does it read true, even though there is magic or mystical creatures? Do I feel like I’m there, or just like I’m watching it on a far-away screen? How keenly do I feel the characters’ emotions? I can sum up Tahir’s Empire in a world: vibrant. I was there, it was real, and I didn’t want to leave.

I know not everyone is a YA fan. I get that it’s just not up everyone’s alley. But if you’re looking for a fantasy novel set far away from yet another rehashed England/France/Western Europe location, An Ember in the Ashes is worth the read. You’ll knock it out in a few days, have a new appreciation for diverse fantasy, and be dying to read the next one. I know I am.

EXPeriencing ‘The Graveyard Book’ by Neil Gaiman

Cover image via, which is a helluva way to open a book.

Thank you, airport bookstores.

Not much is worse than having a long layover or delay and running out of things to read. Last month, I had a several-hour layover in O’Hare before heading home to Indy. I’d finished the book I brought with me on the previous flight (Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie), so I was stuck without anything to read. (And O’Hare’s wifi is terrible, so sitting on Facebook for three hours wasn’t appealing.)

I wandered into a bookstore and navigated my suitcase through the cramped stacks. After wandering the perimeter of the stores, I headed for the sci-fi/fantasy section because I knew I’d find something interesting. I checked to see if Neil Gaiman had signed any copies of his newest book, Norse Mythology—he hadn’t—then picked up The Graveyard Book. I’d read the title a few times on Twitter, but didn’t know anything about it.

The blurb on the back starts, “In this reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book—

Whaaaaat?!

If I have any literary weakness, it’s retellings and reimaginings of classic stories. I’m pretty sure I’ve read 10 different versions of Cinderella in my life, and I devoured them all. But a reimagined Jungle Book? Where the wolves are ghosts and Mowgli is a living boy named Nobody being raised in a graveyard because an assassin—the Shere Khan of the story—failed to kill Nobody as a baby? Sign me up!

I enjoyed connecting the characters I knew from the Disney movie with Gaiman’s more macabre versions. Beyond that, though, the novel doesn’t need to be compared to Disney or Kipling. It stands on its own with compelling characters, a plot that draws you six feet deep, and a setting that’s as lovely as it is spooky.

If you haven’t read a lot of Gaiman’s work, I would highly suggest giving The Graveyard Book a read. It’s quick, fun, and will give you a healthy dose of childhood nostalgia in the process.

EXPeriencing ‘You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)’ by Felicia Day

Cover photo via.

If you’re a gamer or on the internet often, you know who Felicia Day is. If you’re not, here’s an introduction, in her own words:

Hi, I’m Felicia Day. I’m an actor. That quirky chick in that one science fiction show? You know the one I’m talking about. I’m never on the actual poster, but I always have a few good scenes that make people laugh. As a redhead, I’m a sixth-lead specialist, and I practically invented the whole “cute but offbeat hacker girl” trope on television. (Sorry. When I started doing it, it was fresh. I promise.)

Basically, if you Google her or look her up on IMDb, you’ll probably figure out something you know her from.

I first knew her from a couple of the literally hundreds of internet videos she’s made and starred in, the company she started called Geek & Sundry, and as the voice of one of the heroes in my favorite video game, Guild Wars 2. When her memoir came out, I added it to my ever-lengthening Goodreads list.

Last month when I was craving books to read, I grabbed Felicia’s memoir from the biography section of the library. I don’t go to this section of the library or bookstore often. I’ve never read a memoir that wasn’t from the 1900s or earlier and assigned to me in an English class. Ever. I haven’t read Bossypants or The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo or Furiously HappySo, intentionally grabbing a memoir was a new thing for me.

I’m glad I did, because Felicia’s memoir is a delight. From reading about her life as a home-schooled kid to her being a violin prodigy (whaaat?) to moving to LA to become an actress, I was fascinated.

What I didn’t expect (though in retrospect, I’m not surprised) was how much of Felicia’s memoir resonated with me. I dog-eared quite a few of that library book’s pages (sorry!), but there were just too many quotes to let them go without a second read.

My favorites:

On being addicted to World of Warcraft:

The thing about a computer game character is that a part of you BECOMES that character in an alternative world. That little gnome was an emotional projection of myself. A creature/person who was more powerful, more organized and living in a world where there were exact parameters to becoming successful. …
When we graduate from childhood into adulthood, we’re thrown into this confusing, Cthulu-like miasma of life, filled with social and career problems, all with branching choices and no correct answers. Sometimes gaming feels like going back to that simple kid world. Real-life Felicia wasn’t getting more successful, but I could channel my frustration into making my gnome an A-list celebrity warlock, thank you very much! (pg 115)

On writing:

Every second of writing that script felt like walking barefoot over shards of glass. I would write a bit and then I would sob, wanting desperately to erase what I’d just written. … Then I would force my fingers to type more, every word feeling like I was bleeding from every orifice. I was engulfed with fear of making mistakes, of writing something stupid, of encountering story problems I couldn’t think my way out of. I was, in short, terrified of the process. It was not fun. (pg 141-2)
If ideas flow out of you easily like a chocolate fountain, bless you, and skip to the next chapter. But if you’re someone like me, who longs to create but finds the process agonizing, here’s my advice:
  • Find a group to support you, to encourage you, to guilt you into DOING. If you can’t find one, start one yourself. Random people enjoy having pancakes.
  • Make a goal. Then strike down things that are distracting you from that goal, especially video games. (Unless it’s this book; finish reading it and THEN start.)
  • Put the fear of God into yourself. Okay, I’m not religious. Whatever spiritual ideas float your boat. Read some obituaries, watch the first fifteen minutes of Up, I don’t care. Just scare yourself good. You have a finite number of toothpaste tubes you will ever consume while on this planet. Make the most of that clean tooth time. For yourself. (pg 143)

On mental health:

Imagine saying to someone, “I have a kidney problem, and I’m having a lot of bad days lately.” Nothing but sympathy, right?
“What’s wrong?”
“My mom had that!”
“Text me a pic of the ultrasound!”
Then pretend to say, “I have severe depression and anxiety, and I’m having a lot of bad days lately.”
They just look at you like you’re broken, right? Unfixable. Inherently flawed. Maybe not someone they want to hang around as much?
Yeah, society sucks. (pg 228)

And finally, on representation:

[Nora Ephron] had made it possible for me to imagine my own future in the world of film. Her very existence showed me it could be done and allowed me to dream about following the path she laid behind her. Without her work, I doubt it would have ever occurred to me that such a path existed.
Now, I certainly am not saying that I consider myself an icon like Nora Ephron or that I should be [the] ultimate example of “GAMER FEMALE” but the idea of representation is important. And I think the world of gaming needs people from all walks of life to speak up and represent the positive side of what we love. Because, let’s be real: gaming’s reputation is NOT good in that area right now. …
I joined the world of gaming as a little girl. It was where I first discovered my voice and felt accepted. I found a community … During all that time I spent online I was never shamed for my enthusiasms. Never made to feel that I didn’t deserve to be heard because of my gender. And I wouldn’t be who I am without that community. (pg 251)

If you’re a nerd, a gamer female, or just love the internet and want to read a good memoir about an interesting person, I definitely recommend You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).

Now, to translate all the hours I spent playing Heroes of the Storm this weekend into writing hours this week….

EXPeriencing ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik

Cover image via.

Who doesn’t love a good, mindless Buzzfeed quiz? At worst it’ll eat up a few minutes as you’re waiting for your Starbucks order. At best, you’ll get a killer book suggestion.

It was through a Buzzfeed quiz that I discovered Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It was something like, “Pretend to Write a Book and We’ll Tell You What Book You Should Read Next.” (I can’t find the exact quiz, but here’s one based on a book you’ve liked, and here’s one based on your favorite emoji.) The quiz suggested Uprooted and the blurb looked interesting enough for me to look it up on Goodreads. The Goodreads rating was pretty incredible: 4.1/5 stars and more than 69,000 ratings. Anything over 3.5 is usually worth checking out, and with that many ratings, I immediately added Uprooted to my To Read list.

A quick visit to the library resulted in a stack of books, including Uprooted. After reading Maus I and Maus II, I was definitely in need of a fantasy/fairy tale to lighten things up.

I dove into Uprooted, and didn’t want to climb out until I was done with the last page. I couldn’t put this book down. It was almost to Harry Potter levels of immersion. But, not from the first page.

It actually starts out pretty generic: clumsy girl lives in small village surrounded by enchanted wood. Wizard is expected to claim perfect girl (not main character) for 10-year servitude. Doesn’t. Chooses main character. Hijinks ensue.

The important part of this generic description is the “starts” part. The above description constitutes just the first two chapters, 38 pages total. It’s worth the payoff to get through. You soon discover, if you haven’t guessed by the end of Chapter One, that the main character, Agnieszka, is a witch herself, which is why the wizard chooses her. Cue another chapter of Agnieszka not realizing she’s a witch, and you’ve gotten past all the truly “generic” content of the book.

~400 pages of the true story follow: the conflict with the Wood. This evil Wood steals people from the valley to expand its territory and corrupt the humans. And Agnieszka wants to stop it from devouring her family, her village, and everyone she’s ever known.

Cue adventure, which include a desperate prince, some court intrigue, and magic magic and more magic. The base magic is familiar if you’re the role-playing sort, but Agnieszka’s breed throws everyone for a loop. She makes magic her own, not how any of the other wizards want it to be.

The depth of the story sucks you in until you finish the last page. It spans a kingdom and 10,000 years. Novik’s writing is beautiful, particularly her simile descriptions. She describes unrelatable situations in a relatable way, while keeping Agnieszka’s personality in tact.

If you like fantasy novels and fairy tales and want to dive into a new story that treads just off the familiar track, I highly suggest Uprooted.

A Buzzfeed suggestion is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. A+, Buzzfeed. A+.

EXPeriencing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood [The Novel]

Cover image via.

I had always heard Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a disconcerting dystopian novel. Nothing encouraged me to pick it up, though. It was simply a book written before I was born about some hypothetical “What if.”

And then Donald Trump was elected president, a man who multiple women have accused of sexual assault, and yet he gets to sit in the Oval Office and enact laws (or attempt to). If anything is illustrative of white male privilege and the need for feminism, it’s this, our new reality.

“I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”

Knowing things could somehow still be worse, and having seen previews for the Hulu adaptation, I asked my sister to buy The Handmaid’s Tale for me for my birthday.

I read the book on my deck in the warm sun. I read it snuggled on my couch under cozy blankets. And yet, I couldn’t quite shake the chill that crept up my spine with every page.

Atwood thrusts you into the life in the new United States–Gilead–a nation that has been taken over by a religious right that strips women of their rights. They are no longer able to own property, make their own decisions about money, or even read. Women (the lucky ones? It’s hard to say.) are classified into three categories: Wives, Marthas (housekeepers), and Handmaids (breeders). Human reproduction has plummeted, and now Handmaids, those women with the most viable reproductive systems, are tasked with conceiving children. Not for themselves, but for the families they are tied to.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

“Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”

You almost want to read the novel at arm’s length. The main character, Offred, describes things with almost detached interest that makes you similarly want to detach yourself. But you can’t. Especially when Offred tells the reader, “I don’t want to tell this story.”

Those parts, the parts Offred doesn’t want to tell you, are where the novel gets too real. The flashes of life before Gilead are an America that looks remarkably similar to our own. There are subtle, slow changes that are easy to overlook, that everyday citizens think they’ll work through. But then it’s too late and too much is different and resistance isn’t just a hashtag or a march but a death sentence.

Offred’s tale isn’t one of information and facts, but of humanity and emotions that can’t be undone by a religious regime. It shows the dangers of a few at the top holding all the power, and how the erasure of science and reason in favor of piety can have devastating consequences for society.

The world of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t as far away as it should be. But living Offred’s story through her eyes ensures I will fight tooth and nail to keep that reality far, far away.

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”

EXPeriencing ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Cover image (and a more comprehensive review) via.

As an introduction to Zadie Smith, Swing Time may not have been the best choice. While I did enjoy the novel, Goodreads comments tell me it’s not as good as her earlier White Teeth or On Beauty.

That said, as a standalone novel without the comparison to Smith’s other works, I thought it was a fascinating coming-of-age tale of two girls—one who fancies herself a dancer, and one who truly has talent—who become women with quite different lives. From the narrator and her best friend’s childhood dance classes, to the narrator’s work and subsequent dismissal from her job as a pop star’s assistant, Smith jumps back and forth in time to paint a picture of how two similar childhoods can become very different adulthoods.

One of my favorite narrative elements of Swing Time is that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the entire novel. I find this to be a masterful storytelling technique, that 400 pages can go by, you know the entire life of a character, and yet, you never learn her name. This of course is a far cry from many of the stories I tried to write as a teenager that started with my main character examining herself in the mirror so as to perfectly describe her features before her mother calls her name telling her to come downstairs…

I also found Swing Time to be an important read simply because most of the main characters are people of color. In our new America, it’s more important than ever to read books about brown women written by brown women.

It’s taken me a while to write about Swing Time, and in the time since I read it, the characters haven’t really lived with me. I finished the book and they faded from my thoughts rather quickly. The story sucked me in, but it spit me out pretty fast.

If you like coming-of-age novels and want to read more books by and about people of color, I do recommend Swing Time, but maybe start with another one of Zadie Smith’s novels if you’re more curious about the author’s storytelling than this story’s characters.

EXPeriencing ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

Cover image via.

Banned books, particularly those by women of color, always seem to be the most beautiful.

I have a long list of books to read on my Goodreads account, and when I was making my 2017 reading challenge, I decided it was high time I made a dent on that list. As I was scrolling through, I saw The Color Purple and I knew I had to make that one of my first reads of the year.

I’m so glad I did.

My previous knowledge about The Color Purple came from watching the 1985 movie version with Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Watching it as a kid in the ’90s meant I didn’t quite understand what was happening other than Whoopi Goldberg’s character had a rough life and Danny Glover’s character wasn’t very nice.

Fast-forward 20+ years, and I’ve discovered there’s so much more to The Color Purple than I ever imagined.

The story is told in letters, mostly by Celie. The letters begin when she’s 14 and span her whole life. First they’re written to God, then to her sister Nettie. They depict an arduous life on sharecropper farms in the south. And Celie suffers. She is abused—physically, verbally, and emotionally—by her father, her husband, and the woman her husband loves. Through her letters, Celie recounts her relationships with her family and her friends in their small community, and how those relationships bloom and change throughout her life. Celie begins the novel as a down-trodden individual, but grows into a strong, confident woman. The transformation is slow over the decades, but every new letter reveals a new facet to Celie that we didn’t previously know.

I love how The Color Purple is written: in letters in Celie’s dialect. I’m sure reading dialect isn’t everyone’s favorite, but when it’s done well, as Alice Walker has done in The Color Purple, it tells a story like no one else could. It has to be Celie’s voice in her letters, and no proper grammar is going to get that job done.

The Color Purple is the second book by a black woman I have read in the past three months. In 2016, I read a whopping one book written by a black author. As an addendum to my 24-book reading challenge for 2017, I’m going to ensure that at least half of those books are written by women and men of color. Good books shouldn’t be dependent on the author’s ethnicity, but when all the books you read are by white people, it’s probably time to broaden your horizons. #WeNeedDiverseBooks isn’t just for children and young adults. Particularly as we head into this new US administration, it’s time to broaden our horizons and read books we normally wouldn’t by people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions than us.

You may learn a thing or two.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple