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A More Diverse Universe: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image of The Hundred Thousand KingdomsBook bloggers were the ones who put The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit Books, 2010) on my radar, so reading it for the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour seemed like the perfect reason to move it to the top of the TBR list.

First in a trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms lays the foundation for an overarching story but also has a satisfying completeness in itself. It took me a little while to get hooked, but about halfway through, I realized why so many readers liked this book so much.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, as you might guess from the title, mentions multiple countries in the course of the story, all under the rule of the Arameri family of Amn, in the palace of Sky, in the city of Sky. The story is set many years after the Gods’ War, when one of three powerful gods vanquished the other two and the world changed for the humans living under the sway of the pale-skinned Arameri, who wield the power of the one remaining god, the Skyfather, also known as Bright Itempas.

Yeine, the main character and narrator of the story, is a nineteen-year-old warrior chieftain from the forested country of Darr, the child of a Darren father and an Amn mother, who was the exiled daughter of the ruling Arameri family. Yeine describes herself near the beginning of the book as “short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.” When she is thrust into the thick of palace intrigue and succession squabbling right at the start of the book, no one is more surprised than she is.

It doesn’t take Yeine long to get her bearings. It took me a lot longer, what with all the skillful world-building going on and the backstory of world mythology that was common knowledge to Yeine but had to be told to the reader. (I’ve never been good at geography. Or mythology, for that matter. All those gods and who does what…) Themes of race, gender, slavery, wealth, power, and religion thread through the book, but are never allowed to take over. The strong plot and the ultimate bad boy love interest move the story along quickly, once the story gets going and as Yeine starts to understand more.

I haven’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy to compare The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to, so I’m not the best reviewer of this book, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms won the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel, so judges who are very familiar with the genre have recognized its merit. Readers looking for a fantasy with a strong female main character and detailed world-building should definitely give it a try.

Read the first chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms here.

View the complete schedule for A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour hosted by Aarti at BookLust.

A Thread of Sadness: The Untelling by Tayari Jones (AUDIO)

Cover image of The Untelling audio editionIn The Untelling, an emotional roller coaster of a second novel by Tayari Jones, author of the critically acclaimed novel Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, 2011), only Aria Jackson’s prickly mother calls her by her given name, “Ariadne,” a too-grand name from Shakespeare that Aria – who already stuck out in school due to entering puberty very early – never felt comfortable with.

Aria and her sister, Hermione, along with their mother, survived the single-car accident that killed their father (the driver) and six-month-old baby sister Genevieve when Aria was only nine and the family was on the way to her dance recital. At age 25, Aria has graduated from college, gotten a job, and is sharing an apartment in an un-gentrified neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia with a friend, but she still remembers the accident vividly – how her father swerved to avoid an oncoming car, how the cake she was holding in her lap was ruined, and how “silent and impossibly bent” Genevieve looked in her mother’s arms as her mother hurried out of the front passenger seat, leaving Ariadne in the back.

This traumatic car accident left the Jackson family broken, financially and psychologically. The Untelling is the story, narrated by Aria, of how she tries to go on to have a normal life, despite being permanently branded as different from girls with whole families. Reading between the lines, the reader gathers that Aria has never felt that she really belongs, has few friends, struggles to act natural around people, and regrets not having the close-knit family she had before the accident.

The audio edition of The Untelling (AudioGo, 2005,) is narrated very well by Michelle Blackmon. It must have been hard to figure out how to pitch Aria’s voice because of her unusual personality – a mix of naivete and defensiveness; the reader can’t be sure how perceptive she is about her roommate, her boyfriend, her mother, or even herself. Other characters in the novel range from Cynthia, a neighborhood crack addict, to Lawrence, Aria’s boss at the nonprofit literacy agency she works at who wants to adopt a baby with his partner, and Michelle Blackmon differentiates the voices well, without making the male voices unnaturally gruff or deep. All of the main characters in the book are African-American – an interesting perspective for readers outside of the black community who are accustomed to reading white-centric fiction – but race isn’t a theme of the novel.

Readers who liked The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (also a first-person story of a woman with a messed-up family) or who like realistic novels about women’s lives of quiet desperation will be moved by Aria’s story in The Untelling. (Most mainstream reviews I’ve seen give away a lot of the plot, so beware of spoilers, even visiting the publisher’s Web site.)

I haven’t read Silver Sparrow yet, but plan to soon.

The Untelling
Jones, Tayari
Narrator: Blackmon, Marjorie
ISBN-13: 978-0-7927-3638-7
Length:  8 Hr 25 Min, on 7 CDs

The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate

In her fourth novel, Martha Southgate creates a narrator who is only truly happy underwater and doesn’t realize the depths of her own sadness.
As a senior scientist both black and female, Josie Henderson is an anomaly in the field of marine biology — the only one among the white, male presenters at every conference — but she had always been drawn to salt water, despite growing up in Cleveland, far from either coast.  Her love of the water spurred her on from being a scholarship prep school student to get degrees from Stanford, aquarium jobs, and then research fellowships in her research specialty, the behavior of marine mammals.
Now 36, Josie works with her husband Daniel, a white marine scientist, at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She dives when she can, reads scientific monographs, talks to her mother long-distance, postpones starting a family with Daniel, and congratulates herself on escaping her estranged father’s legacy of alcoholism that her beloved brother Tick has struggled with since he was a teenager. When she is drawn back into the messy family problems of the world she left behind and finds herself attracted to a new Woods Hole colleague (an anomaly like herself, only male), Josie’s carefully constructed defenses weaken. In her narrative of what has happened, she finally allows herself to question her own dispassionate, self-contained way of dealing with human relationships.
If you liked Michelle Huneven’s Blame for its understanding treatment of a recovering alcoholic or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout for its portrait of a woman keeping emotion strictly in check, try The Taste of Salt, or one of Martha Southgate’s earlier books, The Fall of Rome.

I received a review copy of The Taste of Salt from an Algonquin Books blog contest. The Taste of Salt will be published September 13, 2011.

Alternatives to The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Middle-aged, middle-class, white female readers in my library still rave about The Help, the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, which is now also a hit movie, but back when I read it, it disturbed me how (………….spoiler alert, for anyone still planning to read the book…………) the launching of the young white main character’s writing career seemed to be the big climax. Publishing the black maids’ stories of the racism and discrimination they suffered while working as the household help to white families benefited “Miss Skeeter” much more than the maids themselves. (…end of spoiler…)
Novelist Martha Southgate recently wrote an essay on The Help book/movie for Entertainment Weekly that has been getting a lot of comments. The essay skewers the skewed picture that The Help presents of race relations in Mississippi in 1962, lamenting the fact that novels and movies about that time period so often put white characters at the forefront of the civil rights movement instead of in a supporting role. From the essay, The Truth about the Civil Rights Era:

Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What’s more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against is simply a refusal on everyone’s part to believe that ”we’re all the same underneath” is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.

What are some suggestions for novels on the civil rights movement in addition to, or instead of The Help, that feature African-American main characters? They seem surprisingly hard to find.
I only thought of Like Trees Walking by Ravi Howard, which is set in Mississippi two decades later than The Help, but refers back to civil rights history in the 1960s. There are excellent novels about slavery (e.g. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez) and about other periods of the civil rights movement (e.g. Glorious by Bernice L. McFadden), but searching for novels about Mississippi in the ’60s centering on African-Americans, I found mostly nonfiction.
Searching online for suggestions, I found this Web site that lists titles and quotes reviews of fiction and nonfiction, a mix of adult and children’s titles, dealing with the civil rights era: Bombingham by Anthony Grooms is a possibility, dealing with the Vietnam War from the perspective of a black American male, who reflects on his childhood in the south. The Facebook page for the Callie Crossley Show suggests a mystery series featuring Blanche White, an African-American domestic worker, by Boston-area author Barbara Neely. The series is set in the 1990s, though, so isn’t exactly an alternative for those looking for an historical perspective on that time.
What about trying Freshwater Road, a debut novel by actress Denise Nicholas about a 20-year-old black female college student who travels to Mississippi to take part in Freedom Summer? Or Alice Walker’s Meridian? (Interestingly, Alice Walker posted her opinions on The Help on her blog and just reposted it recently with an update after seeing the movie; I agree with her comments about the novel, including her opinion that listening to the audiobook version of The Help is better than reading the book.)
Finding recommendations for movies to watch instead of The Help is a little easier:
Black and White Struggle with a Rosy Glow (New York Times)
Why Danny Bowes Is Not Going to See The Help

And check out this Web site for reading suggestions for books in all genres from African-American authors:
White Readers Meet Black Authors

Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard


Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard is the author’s first novel, expanded from a prize-winning short story he wrote while in college. Set in Mobile, Alabama, the novel is a fictional exploration of the repercussions of a real crime — the lynching of a 19-year-old African American teenager, Michael Donald, in 1981 — and the lack of effort by law enforcement officials to bring the guilty white men — members of the Ku Klux Klan — to justice.The narrator, Roy, is the younger of two brothers. In 1981, he’s in his last year of high school, preparing to go off to New Orleans for college the following year and trying to figure out how to tell his father that he doesn’t want to take over the family’s funeral home business, when his older brother, Paul, finds the dead body of his friend Michael hanging from a tree. Michael Donald was chosen at random and lynched on a street where known Klansmen lived. The whole African-American community is affected and mourns with Michael’s family. The last lynching in Mobile had been over sixty years before, a horrifying crime that belonged in the past, but here it had happened — in 1981 — to one of their own. Paul becomes obsessed by the fact that the known criminals go about freely while Michael is dead and buried. Roy looks on helplessly, wrestling with his lack of faith and his responsibility to his family and the larger community.
A finalist for the 2008 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, Like Trees, Walking is a short novel, quiet and reflective, that should start showing up on high school and college summer reading lists.
Check the Old Colony Library Network for availability of Like Trees, Walking.

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