free books for the summer

Thursday, April 27, 2017 | | 0 comments
I love books (obviously). You probably love books. Can we agree that free books that you get to keep forever are a good idea? Okay, great. I’ve got a couple of tips for you: there are free books out there for the taking, all summer long. Let’s go.

audiofile sync program free audiobook
AudioFile’s SYNC program allows you to download TWO audiobooks per week over the course of the summer, starting today. The program pairs a young adult book with a “classic,” and this year’s titles include the just-optioned-for-TV Shadowshaper and award-winning bestseller Between Shades of Gray, among others.

Any individual may participate by downloading the OverDrive App to their device of choice and returning to the SYNC website each Thursday after 7am Eastern Time to download the new audiobook pair for the week. Each title is available for one week only, but once downloaded they can be kept forever, so the opportunity to listen can extend well beyond the term of the summer program.

Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club allows you to download the selected ebook each month – you’ll get an email reminder to download the book when it becomes available. This offer is good for every month, not just the summer! Selections are drawn from the Tor/Macmillan list, and are a mix of adult science fiction and fantasy (usually really great SFF, at that!).

Barnes & Noble’s Summer Reading Program allows kids in grades 1-6 (ages 6-12) to claim a free book at a Barnes & Noble store between May 16th & September 5th.
Kids need to read any eight books and record them in a B&N-provided Summer Reading Journal, along with what their favorite part of each book was, and why. Once they present a completed journal at a B&N store during the claim period, they can select a free book from the list on the back of the journal.

Do you know of any other ways to claim free books? Let me know!

binti

Monday, April 24, 2017 | | 1 comments
I am not super conversant in the wider science fiction universe, but I read Tor.com regularly because they 1) have great (free) original short-form SFF content, 2) a lot of it is by diverse authors, and 3) they do a good job of reminding me to read their articles via Twitter. I saw the cover art for Nnedi Okorafor's Binti there when it was first released, and I put it on my to read list straightaway. I mean, LOOK AT THAT ART! It’s so beautiful and haunting and distinctive. I didn’t finish the novella until recently (one of my lovely secret sisters gifted me with the Kindle version, and it was the kick I needed), but guys, I can’t believe I waited to read this little book. It’s A+ feminist sci-fi entertainment.

binti by nnedi okorafor book cover
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 gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself - but first she has to make it there, alive.

Binti is a young woman from an insular and mathematically talented desert people. The Himba are known for wearing clay on their skin and in their hair, and they cherish this part of their identity, even as it marks them as different. As the heir to her family’s astrolabe-making legacy, no one expects Binti to leave home – it just isn’t done. But Binti has surprised herself by getting into the most prestigious university in the galaxy, and she longs break taboo, leave, and to meet like-minded fellow students. What Binti cannot know is that her fateful decision to step into the unknown will change her, and the course of history, forever.

This compact story (under 100 pages) packs a punch. The plot isn’t overly complex (how could it be in so few pages? especially with any attention to world-building), and neither are the descriptions of tech or mathematics (no matter that the main character is a math and tech prodigy). However, Binti has one of the best senses of place that I've read in a long while - maybe ever! Okorafor also engages the reader with visceral, immediate and vivid descriptions of her heroine and her standing in her culture, along with her sometimes-dark inner thoughts and feelings.

I’ve made an honest effort recently to note the themes in books I like, rather than just enjoy them (in hopes of refining my book taste, I suppose). What I noticed in Binti: transformation, cross-cultural understanding, racism/othering, isolation/loneliness, and bucking tradition. Okorafor also played with some standard SFF tropes: a school for the gifted in space (on another planet in this case), and reimagining "the chosen one."

While Binti is a quick read, the pace is a bit slow at the very start as the reader settles into the setting and Binti's head (there’s some repetition as she focuses/convinces herself to do something). Then it’s danger, action, and suspense to the very end. 

I loved this book to bits, and I thought it had just enough worldbuilding and character development, but I guess I’m used to over-exposition common in most science fiction and fantasy. Basically, I came away with questions about the world: What is an astrolabe? Why the Khoush are so dominant? Why did Binti’s people have to learn the history of the Meduse, even though it is not their fight? What is going on with the Meduse and how did their contact with the Khoush start? How did math become central to everything Binti's people do? With all of these unanswered questions, you can imagine how excited I was to find that there’s a whole series of Binti novellas in the works. I can’t wait to read more Nnedi Okorafor!

In all, a satisfying sci-fi novella with world class description, a healthy dose of originality, and first person characterization.

Recommended for: fans of character-driven sci-fi, anyone looking for a book with a smart, strong heroine, and fans of Sarah Beth Durst's Vessel

red rising

Friday, March 24, 2017 | | 1 comments
Talk about being late to the game! Look Ma, by the time I read book one in this series, the trilogy was already completed! (i didn't plan to read this book, tbh)(then my book club picked it!)(and i thought: YA SFF? worth a look) SoRed Rising by Pierce Brown: has a massive following and more than a passing likeness to favorites The Hunger Games and Ender's Game. It also kept me up all night reading. And then I stayed up even later to get all of my thoughts down on paper. Because this book is addictively readable and rage-inducing in equal measure. 

red rising by pierce brown cover
"I live for the dream that my children will be born free," she says. "That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them."

"I live for you," I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

The life of a lowly Red mining deep beneath the surface of Mars is harsh. Darrow holds a prestigious position in his community (and finds purpose in his work for the future of humanity), but that isn't enough to feed his family when access to resources is rigged by the higher status Colors. When Darrow is offered a chance to upset the status quo and avenge his loved ones, he takes it - and encounters a ruthlessness and a world his people cannot imagine.

What was it about Red Rising that will draw the reader in and keep them reading through the night? Brown is a talented wordsmith, and he knows his genre. He built a world and a hero’s quest on an epic fantasy scale, with high stakes. The action and dynamism of the text will keep your blood pumping and your mind engaged. There’s also a sense of generational kinship between the target readership and the main character: they have been fed lies, told that adulthood means one thing, and then find out that it means another and the rules of the game have changed completely.

Unfortunately, that readability is paired with a lack of originality and straight-up erasure. Neither are a good look in science fiction. Let’s dive in.

Ender’s Game. The Hunger Games. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. These books are mentioned as readalikes for Red Rising, in part because Brown has replicated some of their plot points wholesale. While it’s not plagiarism, it’s heavy inspiration, and if you’ve read the originals, you’ll see similarities ahead of every twist and around all corners. That lack of originality extends from the plot into the values system of Mars as well (and through the many different Color cultures on it). Honor, ritual, and sexism rule the Reds. For the privileged Golds, vanity and partying degrade their advanced humanity. Nowhere is there room for art for art’s sake. The closest you get are Red protest songs and dances, or Violet body “carving” for money and influence. One possible area of originality, the Color-coded hierarchy, is not examined at any length.

Of course, this hetero-masculine worldbuilding is nothing new, but that is THE POINT. There is nothing new. What we have instead is gratuitous, lethal violence that starts out sickening, but the reader must quickly become inured to it or put the book down. Sexual violence and attendant man-pain drive the male characters (yawn). Brown sets his epic on a distant planet, but brings the worst of the patriarchy with him into the future. CONSENT needs to file a missing persons report, because no one in this society cares that it’s not there, and that is not unpacked on the page.

Darrow at the start of Red Rising is a young man in love with no strategy except to stay under his oppressors’ radar. After losing his love, he pivots at 100 mph to a hardcore schemer and undercover fighter who catches up on a lifetime of another caste’s lived history in a matter of months. Though he supposedly goes through a set of lessons to help him “learn,” the reader doesn’t see much actual evolution on that front. Darrow had so much “natural genius” (which we know is a sexist idea, because men are overwhelmingly the ones who are labeled as natural talents/geniuses, not women) that when he makes mistakes (are they mistakes if they only grow his reputation?), he has a handy girl to help him out and recover. I firmly believe that the stereotype of a gifted boy-hero who outsmarts women or uses them only as useful arm candy or tools can be damaging to boys. It certainly doesn’t do anything to break down the story that they’re getting from contemporary society. To see this replicated 100% in a world supposedly hundreds of years in the future is decidedly depressing.

Let’s move on to erasure, and then I promise I’ll be done. Darrow is a Red, yes? Each mention of Reds is evocative of Scots-Irish miners/“Irish slave” in America myth, or of the folks who settled the Appalachian belt. Not only are the Reds literally redheaded, but they have a strong honor culture, they mine, they are poor, family is everything, they have a terrorist arm that “blow things up,” and song and dance are their escape from hunger. If you’re not seeing parallels there I recommend reading this or this.

While the Reds are “practically slaves” there is NO MENTION of African slavery (even as a historical anecdote) in Red Rising. NONE. This book describes a hierarchical society built by slave labor, but erases real Earth slavery (unless you count the Greek/Roman naming conventions as an allusion to Roman slavery). But really, the African slave trade lasted hundreds of years and enslaved nearly 13 million people. It was one of the biggest slavery systems in recorded human history. Convenient that it is missing and “Irish slavery” is not, eh? And if you’re going to come back with the excuse that there’s no room for it with the scope of the worldbuilding… why would students of the Institute be able to quote Plato and Cicero on demand, but not have had any reference to the African slave trade? The Golds might have rewritten history, but if a character can flippantly mention American presidents as an example of bad governance, it stands to reason that slavery would have been included in the curriculum. Rage = induced.

So, here’s where I’m at: friends who have read the whole series say that Brown addresses many of my issues in books 2 & 3. And I am quite curious about what happens next, but not enough to put in the hours to read those books. I don’t want to download two more books’ worth of violence into my brain if it isn’t going to make me a better person in some way or show me something new. And the first book didn’t hit enough originality points. It didn’t unpack a lot of things I thought worth unpacking. Pierce Brown has plenty of readers. While I can admire some things about his writing, I didn’t love it, and on a deeper look I found enough holes to sink the ship.

In the end, Red Rising is a flawed book that will appeal to casual fans of science fiction who want a quick, engaging read. I couldn’t like it, but I do recognize the genius of its compulsive readability.

Recommended for: occasional readers who liked The Hunger Games or Ender's Game, and fans of YA sci-fi who can't stand to leave one of the most popular books in the genre unread.

what does feminism mean to me?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 | | 3 comments
For a lot of my life, feminism was a bad word. I grew up in a conservative religious home, was homeschooled from 3rd grade until I went to a private (religious) high school, and then I went to a conservative religious college for undergrad. You see the theme, right? I know now that there are people of faith who engage with feminism, but I didn’t know that growing up. I was a living stereotype.

So, feminism. A lot of voices in my life insisted that feminism was bad, and that it didn’t honor women. BUT I had (have!) a strong mother and grandmother. They were deeply committed to my education. They encouraged me to go abroad. They encouraged me to go to grad school. They encouraged me to read whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. When I look back, I see how much that meant, and how much their support opened the world for me, and how it eventually led me to give feminism a chance (in spite of their intentions, possibly).

Giving feminism a chance meant listening to voices I wanted to dismiss out of hand. It meant reading books, meeting people from all over the world, and learning how to think critically. It meant unpacking my assumptions about how society worked, and examining my faith in a new light. I saw too often a lack of fairness, justice, and empathy from those who continued to insist that feminism was bad.

What feminism means to me now: I’ll admit that I don’t always have the words to describe my views. So I’ll steal a bit from Maya Angelou and say that I think being a feminist means embodying “qualities including strength, commitment,… and a profound understanding of gender equality.” It means understanding that inequality is a many-layered thing, and acknowledging my privilege. Feminism, for me, means that I have an obligation to fight for all people to have the right to be equally human, just as I believe that we’re all made in the image of God.



I wrote this post in conjunction with #HereWeAre. In honor of Women's History Month and in light of the ongoing need to continue talking about equality, #HereWeAre seeks to highlight the power of talking about feminism: what it means for us individually, what it means for us collectively, and why it's one of the most powerful and life-changing parties around.
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