If you were fortunate enough to have a vacation planned at the beginning of 2020, you’re probably unfortunate enough to have it canceled some time between then and now. Rather than let you languish in front of your TV (like you’ve been doing for the last few months), the writers at LTN have several recommendations for your summer reading. These are the books that are escapes, challenges, and agents of change for us. We want these to bring you joy, hope, and justice.
Science Fiction, Adult
What is the cost of a human life? Many human lives? What about the lives of people who have never seen Earth and have adapted to life in space so much that they don’t resemble the traditional, Earth-born humanity? Are they even human anymore?
These are the questions James Holden, Detective Miller, and the crew of the Rocinante face in James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes — the first book in their series that inspired Amazon’s The Expanse. I finished this book just before we were truly hit with COVID-19 quarantine, but I’m revisiting the themes as I watch people’s responses to a new threat to health and home. In the books, others’ lives are something for which the protagonists fight—avenging the fallen and protecting the innocent from interstellar war.
This summer’s social landscape appears to reflect a battlefield where the lives lost include those who look different from the majority (with regards to the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans) or whose lives are too much of an inconvenience (with regards to the immunocompromised or other high-risk populations). Perhaps, you want to distance yourself from this world, in which case Leviathan Wakes is probably not the best read. However, if like me, you are hungering for a sense of justice in the midst of so much injustice, then jump aboard the Roci and let Captain Holden’s unwavering pursuit of justice soothe some of the pains away.
The beauty of fantasy and science fiction is that they allow us to investigate real-world problems in a fictional space. Leviathan Wakes tackles social justice in a way that will speak to today’s social climate without preaching at it.
The Reckoners Series
Science Fiction, Young Adult
If you’re like me and want to love fantasy but also find it intimidating and would rather have a quick, easy, intriguing read, Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners Series is a great place to start. It drew me in from the first page, which, let’s be real, is the critical criteria for this new mom’s summer reading. The first book is the only one in years that I haven’t had to check out multiple times from our library just to finish. I read it that fast. It’s quick-paced and quick-witted. It has all the hallmarks of great teen lit but also? It’s kind of deep.
See, the superhero story generally follows a predictable path—an average human meets a catalytic event and is endowed with superhuman powers then goes on to save the world. But what really happens when someone gains superpowers? Do they all listen to Uncle Ben and realize that “with great power comes great responsibility?” And what if they don’t? What if they can’t? What if it’s true that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?”
These books are all about love and fear, strength and weakness, good and evil, power and corruption. They’re fun to read, but also, perhaps they can give us some insight into the current struggles in our own world.
Geek Theater: 15 Plays by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers
Science Fiction, Fantasy, Performing Arts
Theatre is a storytelling medium I lack familiarity with, despite my Bachelor’s Degree in English. In August of last year, I was inspired to branch out. Geek Theater is the first anthology of its kind (the editors claim) to present Young Adult theatre—not just plays—encompassing modern science fiction and fantasy. It showed me how fun stage plays can be. I recommend it for theatre lovers wanting something nerdier than your standard fare.
In Geek Theater, many characters seek to better the lives of others. Some make their way through comical situations. A neuroscientist works to suppress and enhance memory to cure his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Rapunzel has an amusing conversation from up in her tower with the prince, witch, and dragon. Two teenage girls battle their way through an anime cosplay convention, after arriving late, to talk to their favorite anime writer before it closes. These characters learn from their mistakes, forgive others, and open their eyes to what’s important.
In high school, I didn’t like theatre, but opening up to new storytelling mediums is refreshing. If you read Geek Theater, I hope you enjoy the settings not normally seen on stage: zombies retaining sentience, a robot created to eliminate mundane jobs, an alternate history telling of Fidel Castro’s rise in power that includes a humanoid-shaped talking clock, and much more to surprise you.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Social Justice, Nonfiction
You may be asking yourself, “Wait, isn’t that a movie? Can’t I just watch that? Why is this on a book list?” If so, then congratulations! This book review is for you. Please. Read the book. Yes, I know this is a common refrain in nerd circles: “The book is SO much better than the movie,” and most of the time that’s true. (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter.) But in this case, I think it’s not just true, but it’s also important.
While the movie does a good job of showing us how possible it is for justice to be thwarted by racism and corruption, the book communicates just how frequently it actually happens. We are introduced to more stories that humanize the people behind bars. The book gives us more details, more statistics, and we see the pattern of systemic abuses of justice like a spider web weaving its sticky strands through our entire criminal justice system. Stevenson’s story allows us to step into the shoes of people who are probably not at all like you or me: to see them as whole people, with histories that matter. He invites us to dream about how our justice system can protect and rehabilitate rather than punish and confine. He offers not only a critique of the system and stories of injustice but also evidence-based suggestions for reform and redemption.
If you haven’t thought much about the criminal justice system in America, or if you’re a voting citizen, or if you ever anticipate being called for jury duty, or if you know a person in the prison system, or if you just like a book that has both weightiness and readability … crack open the spine of Just Mercy before you press play on your streaming service.
Space Opera, Epic Fantasy
The last book I’m reading for my BookIT reading is Dune. I’m REALLY excited and not just because I’m about to get a 5th personal pan pizza. What’s that? I don’t get a pizza for this? Man, that’s no fun. Let’s talk about the non-pizza-earning book I’m going to be reading.
For many years I have heard about the universe of Dune. First-hand feedback from friends on the quality and depth of the story. Chats around the vast imaginative scope of the Dune universe. References in film and TV that I can’t fully appreciate until I baptize myself into the pages. I am hopeful and anticipating that I will fall in love with Dune. After years of peer pressure/nagging to add it to my list of books to read I bought a copy of Dune (on sale). It got to the point where I had to have Dune answer the question from the great poet Dark Man X, “What the @#$& is the deal?”
Sci-Fi has been a definitive medium of expression throughout my life. Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica are a few franchises that I frequently enjoy. I’m hoping Dune has the same level of impact as those storied franchises. Where the events in Dune become common reference points when I discuss politics, religion, family, philosophy, and psychology. In addition, there is hope that the language and dialogue syntax challenges my mind.
In 2010 speak, I’m hoping for an EPIC reading adventure!
The Door on Half-Bald Hill
Fantasy, Literary Fiction
Myths, folktales, and parables all serve similar purposes: passing down lessons from history, conveying warnings about external dangers, or to provide hope that, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, dragons can be beaten.
Helena Sorensen’s The Door on Half-Bald Hill, published just a month ago, feels like an oddly prescient myth. In Baileléan, an Irish-inspired island-nation ruled by druids, priestesses, and bards, the people have been suffering from a plague since the last Bloodmoon nearly 19 years before. The water is bitter, the land is blighted, banshees howl across the hills, and even the priestess Zinerva herself—the one who is supposed to heal the people of the village of Blackthorn—returns from a ceremonial death only to tell the people that death comes to all and they may as well embrace it.
Still, Idris the Bard cannot help but keep hope. Even as the next Bloodmoon approaches, he tends to the needs of the people and searches the cursed hills and his own memories for answers.
Right now it feels like our own world is under a Bloodmoon—plagues, murder hornets, protests and the threat of violence, and who knows what new catastrophe by the time this piece is published. If we over-saturate ourselves in the news, it can be easy to fall into pessimism or even despair. But that’s precisely why we need a book like this: to remind us that there is still a reason to fight, and that even in the face of death itself, there is still resurrection.
Red Rising Saga
Science Fiction, Dystopian
If you were a Hunger Games fan but you’ve already blazed through the recently-released prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, here is an ongoing series that will definitely scratch a similar itch. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy which concluded in 2016 is now two books into its sequel trilogy, Iron Gold, with the last book due sometime this year.
Humanity is spreading across the solar system and a poor slave boy rises up to topple a vicious and brutal caste system that dominates the working class, who live in decadence and resplendent power. In order to stay on top, the highest class, the Golds, ensure their future leaders are only the most capable and merciless warriors by pitting rising teenagers against one another in a Hunger Games-like arena to compete in a war of dominance with one another. Clever tactics, scheming betrayal, and ferocious battle are the only way to rise and Darrow, the slave boy in disguise, uses all of his tricks to climb to the top of the caste, only to cast it burning to the ground. In a time when our own society seems like a powder keg about to explode, it can be cathartic to watch in the safe space of fantasy the implications of exposing the corrupt underbelly of an opulent and complacent society. Even when the “good guys” win and take control of the government, it isn’t as easy to form an ideal society as it seemed when they were plucky revolutionaries.
This series is a stunning mix of Hunger Games (or Battle Royale if you are really in the know) and Ender’s Game with a violent, broody dash of Spartacus. Occasional profanity and repeated bouts of violent descriptions of war make this series more of a PG-13 offering, but the first book especially has a very young adult dystopian feel. Now is the time to jump in, with five books available and the conclusion soon on its way.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Bummed about not going on your summer cruise? Then how about reading a book about a cruise that goes terribly awry?! When 13-year-old Charlotte is sent on a boat heading for America in the 1830s, she never realized that she would be caught up in a tale of murder, mutiny, and mystery! The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a gripping nautical thriller for all ages. I’m sure some of you had to read it in school growing up, but I never truly appreciated this book until I re-read it as an adult.
Like many of us at that age, Charlotte doesn’t know who she is yet. When Charlotte finds herself in dark, unprecedented situations involving murder and mutiny, she is forced to make decisions that she never thought she would ever have to make. Decisions that not only affect her but affect the others around her. Will she take the route that she is more comfortable with, following the path she has been taught all her life? Or will she take the harder path, forcing herself into the unknown, and learning as she goes?
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle offers us a timeless and helpful example of how the unexpected moments in our lives are the moments that shape us into who we are. We may not always make the right choices in those moments, but it’s learning from those choices that helps to prepare us for whatever the future may hold.
The Fifth Season
Fantasy is rife with stories of oppressed mages coming into their own, and, on the surface, that is what The Fifth Season appears to be: part training-montage, part uncovering of hidden knowledge, part post-apocalyptic survival. But Jemison weaves many of my favorite types of narratives together into one heartbreaking and earth-shattering cohesion.
The Stillness, as the people of the Sanzhen empire call their continent, is kept “still” through the orogeny (magic) of those that are born with it. But the ability to pull heat and energy out of the ground and every living thing in your area causes the orogenes (that’s the polite term) to be feared and enslaved by the rest of the empire. And woe betide them if they are found in hiding.
I can’t read this book and not draw parallels to the treatment of minority groups in my own nation. The nature of slurs when used by the majority vs the described minority. Compliance enforced through violence. Burying of true motives so deeply that history is rewritten in favor of the majority. Minorities afraid to even speak to each other, for the authorities have ears everywhere. Jemison means every word of her dedication when she says, “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” Given the awful events of this year, with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd being at the forefront of my mind and heart, I cannot read The Fifth Season and ignore the justice it is calling for, the changes it asks every reader to make.
I am pleased to announce that this is the first book we are reading for a brand NEW podcast for Love Thy Nerd. Look for the first episode of LTN Book Club next month, where we’ll be discussing chapters one through twelve of The Fifth Season. I hope you’ll read along with us!