Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

RazorhurstI read my first Justine Larbalestier book, Liar, a million years ago and meant to read more of them, but then she didn’t write anything that seemed nearly as exciting for a while. Then I heard Larbalestier was writing a historical fiction novel, and I was like, uggggh, come on, but THEN I heard she was writing a historical fiction novel set in Sydney and involving ghosts and I was like, oh, yeah, count me in.

And that is this book! Our hero, Kelpie, is an orphan of indeterminate age who lives in a super shady Sydney suburb that is part of a larger neighborhood called Razorhurst. Razorhurst is, as the nickname might suggest, full of razor-wielding gangs and, necessarily, a lot of ghosts. Kelpie can see those ghosts. Most of them are pretty awful, but some of them have helped her survive on the streets without getting picked up by child services, so when one of the more in-the-middle ghosts points her in the direction of food, she crosses her fingers and goes to find it. Instead she finds Dymphna Campbell, “best girl” to the head of one of two competing gangs; Jimmy Palmer, the super annoying ghost of Dymphna’s dead boyfriend; and a whoooole world of trouble.

I mean, if that doesn’t intrigue you, I cannot help you become more interested in this book. There’s running and jumping and also talking in measured tones and avoiding the gaze of ghosts. There’s a little bit of romance, but not much, and there is a lot of overthinking next moves and then just going for it and hoping for the best.

I really liked the way Larbalestier handled the ghost business. On an individual ghost level, there’s Kelpie having to juggle listening to Jimmy’s advice and then figuring out how to give it without looking highly suspicious, or, alternately, how to ignore the advice completely without sending Jimmy into a tantrum. But even more interesting is how the ghosts aren’t all of one mold — some haunt people, some haunt places, some just kind of exist, some are quiet, some are loud, some are obnoxious — and how Larbalestier puts some thought into where a bunch of ghosts might hang out in 1930s Sydney. So there are ghosts, sure, but they don’t seem terribly out of place in an otherwise historically accurate (I presume) novel.

The humans, on the other hand… I just didn’t click with them that well. I didn’t quite understand how they were all interacting with each other or what emotions they were supposed to be feeling about things or what emotions I might be supposed to be feeling about things that happened to the humans. There were a few times where I could tell that I was supposed to be surprised or upset or something but it just wasn’t going to happen.

But, on the plus side, I am kind of obsessed with Australia, and was actually in Sydney for a few days last year, and so it was neat and also kind of super creepy to realize that I was not very far at all from some very ghost-filled places. I’m kind of disappointed now that we spent most of our time on the opposite side of Sydney from Surry Hills/Darlinghurst. If only this book had come out a few months sooner, I could have had some very interesting vacation photos!

Recommendation: For people who saw gangs and ghosts and 1930s Sydney and were like, tell me more.

Rating: 8/10

Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsOne thing that is alternately very useful and very pathetic in my 2015 quest to read more diversely is the fact that my Goodreads TBR is pretty much full of diverse books and authors that I could have been reading this whole time. Case in point: this almost-five-year-old book that has been on my TBR list practically since it came out.

To be fair, the fact that this is a fantasy series didn’t particularly help it top Mount TBR all these years. I love the idea of fantasy series, but I am rarely willing to commit the time to read ALL THE PAGES, even in this series of three 400-600-page books. That sounds like effort, guys.

But it turns out that, as you may have guessed, that effort was totally worth it. I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book, but I liked it a lot and found it absolutely fascinating and full of really interesting ideas and I am totally going to read the rest of this series but probably not immediately.

So there’s this chick called Yeine, and she’s the leader of a nation called Darr and also the granddaughter of the dude who rules, um, everything. All the nations. As you do. Yeine is called to Sky, the city and castle her grandfather rules from, and she quickly finds out that a) her grandfather is dying, b) there’s going to be a literal fight to the death to replace him, and c) he has thrown her name into that fight, along with her cousins Relad and Scimina. Thanks, gramps!

Now, when I say fight to the death that makes it sound like this book is going to be action-packed and full of intrigue and subterfuge and daggers and all that good stuff, and that’s certainly what I was expecting. But it turns out that this part of the story is about politics, actually, and the ways in which people can fight without even having to see each other, which is pretty darn cool in its own right. This quieter intrigue and subterfuge plays out slowly over the course of the novel, leaving lots of room for what I thought was the more interesting part of the story, namely Jemisin’s worldbuilding.

So there’s this world-encompassing government that I’ve already mentioned, and you might be like, hey, how does someone run an entire world for any length of time without, you know, being overthrown twice on Tuesday? Turns out it’s pretty easy if you’ve enslaved your gods. All the gods. As you do. The ruling family, of which Yeine is a part, has the ability to command the gods to varying degrees, with grandpa Dekarta wielding more or less full power. Throughout the novel Jemisin parcels out information about the gods in their current state and the widely held beliefs about how the gods got there and also the actually true facts about how they got there and how they might get themselves out, which of course involves Yeine.

Oh, and, meanwhile, Yeine is trying to use her limited time left in this world (she has no illusions about her chances in the fight to the death) to help her homeland of Darr and to sift through the widely held beliefs and actually true facts about her mother’s life and recent death, and whether her grandfather had anything to do with the latter.

There’s a lot to the story, and it’s almost all really well done and intricately plotted and again, absolutely fascinating. But I have to admit that the ending was absolutely baffling to me, with all of the various threads of the story getting snarled in one big mess of a climax that probably has a logical explanation if only I could understand it. I mean, I understand the results of the crazy stuff, but I don’t really get how we got to the crazy stuff in the first place. Luckily the next book, at least from the preview pages I read, is going to move away from that weird stuff and give me different weird to look forward to.

Recommendation: For fans of epic fantasy and worldbuilding and big ideas.

Rating: 8/10