Recommended reads to quell reeling minds

ooking for a few good books? Ruth S. Taylor highly recommends these.

Every few days, news stories emerge that are unsettling at best, horrifyingly terrible at worst. After a period of pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the political turmoil since 2016, more (yes more) mass shootings, and the developments in the Middle East, I feel like I am walking around with an unaddressed case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and I do not think I am alone.

All around me people are driving angry, shopping furiously and preparing to rage vote next year. On top of all that, in the same way that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency revealed that there were deep veins of racism alive in this country, the Israel-Hamas war has pulled antisemitism to the surface of our society in expected and unexpected places.

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I confess that I have responded not by more civic engagement, or even by starting meditation. Rather, I have been asking fiction writers to simply take me away. I have consumed more science fiction and alternate world-based novels in the past year than I did in all of my adolescence. And I have been loving them, looking forward each evening to being somewhere else, where other things are happening, even if they are terrible.

I have consumed more science fiction and alternate world-based novels in the past year than I did in all of my adolescence.

It is no accident, I think, that a good number of authors I have been reading are women, and people of color. The best of this kind of fiction, no matter how escapist, finds a way to make the reader think about all of us, here on Earth. Those writers who have the capacity to look at a power structure from the outside always have the most interesting perspectives.

Here are a few of the books I have read and loved, and the authors who have provoked, inspired, and rescued me.

N.K Jemison’s various novels are absolutely without par, most specifically “The Broken Earth” trilogy, which for me is her masterpiece. (It’s all good though). In the world Jemison creates, Earth itself is sentient at its core and incandescently pissed, which would not surprise me at all right here and now.  In a universe as alien as this creation is, the characters, as they struggle with relationships, responsibilities, being parents in a dangerous world, and facing injustice, remain so relatable it is painful. G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen” is also the best of fantasy fiction. In a version of Cairo existing in a dystopian Middle Eastern state, a hacker struggles against an authoritarian government and a rigid class system. He is rescued and assisted by a series of heroic djinn and humans of good faith. Here, the things we have trouble seeing are the most important, literally and figuratively. Speaking of the djinn, “The Daevabad Trilogy” by S.A. Chakraborty is so good I was mad when I finished it. Again, what generally cannot be seen exists as a parallel world in Arabian and Muslim mythology and is the setting for this epic political thriller. Powerful magic and ancient mythological beings abound. I consoled myself for finishing it by looking to learn more about the daeva, peri, ifrit, and Sobek the crocodile god. “Translation State” by Anne Leckie. This begins so horrifically I almost put it down! But it is an incredibly thought-provoking, far future exploration of how who we are, no matter what our biology, is driven in part by who we feel ourselves to be, and by our ability to make the choices available to us. A mystery and a political drama, a Sri Lankan history lesson and a meditation on ethics, bravery and friendship, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka is an epic work with all of those threads, plus ghosts.

There are so many more – I was not kidding about how deeply I have been escaping. Here are three more to think about reading:

“Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark: I came to Clark through a djinn obsession, but this alternative American history, where the Klan are actual demons, really shines. Martha Wells’s “Witch King”: Wells has an enormous and varied oeuvre, but this was a favorite, and I want more time in this world.  “The Texicalaan” series by Arkady Martine: I do not generally love a space opera, but man, I loved the deep-space empire and first-contact politics here.

I will watch the news today, I promise, and think about our own dysfunctional, dystopian world. But I am heading to the couch with a book now…

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