Best Books of February 2023
The Outer Harbour: Stories by Wayde Compton
Highly imaginative, interlinked stories set in 2001-2025—styled as a radio transcript, journalistic reporting, real estate promotion, & a series of posters, as well as more conventional fiction narratives—that come together almost like a novel. Vancouver is a character in these stories that are mostly about biracial artists addressing racialized class conflict, anti-immigration attitudes, & police violence. Published in 2014, it still feels fresh.
Knight Owl by Christopher Denise
In this children‘s historical fantasy picture book, a small but plucky owl realizes his dream and becomes a knight. There‘s plenty of foreshadowing—dragon imagery is on almost every page—until Owl comes face to face with a massive dragon. Funny, sweet and inspiring. A Caldecott Honor recognizes the charming art, which rewards careful examination to find jokes and surprises.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus; audiobook read by Miranda Raisin
I had put off reading this because of the cover, even though it was on lots of “best of 2022” lists, including Barack Obama‘s. My mistake! Loved the main character so much! And the humour. And the early 60s setting. And the clever dog. And the fierce feminism. So good!
The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim; translated by Janet Hong
In 1950 when the war started, people fled from northern Korea in such numbers and such haste that hundreds of thousands of family members were separated. This poignant graphic novel addresses that issue, and the sustaining hope that loved ones will once again be reunited. Two timelines: a daughter‘s present-day concerns for her elderly mother‘s wellbeing, as well as the dramatic events of the past. Stark, expressive black and white art.
How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler; audiobook read by the author
Ed Yong calls Sabrina Imbler‘s queer memoir “transcendental.” I agree. I love the way this nonbinary Chinese American science journalist filters fascinating aspects of sea creatures through a personal lens. They are full of wonder for the natural world, and can also make correlations to their own issues relating to such things as body image, autonomy, adaptability, racism, street safety, and a sense of community.
How Not to Spill by Jessica Johns
I first read this in 2020 and wrote: Nêhiyaw (Cree) writer Jessica John‘s‘ first poetry collection is only 40 pages, so it didn‘t take long for me to read through it twice. And I will read through it again, because I can‘t get enough. “My ceremony is facetiming my nieces & nephew every sunday.” From badass grandmothers to dreams about MySpace, love letters, warnings and doorways: these are poems about holding on to joy and beauty no matter what.
I picked it up again before reading Johns' debut novel, Bad Cree.
A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate
Part memoir, part manifesto: Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate addresses this book mainly to youthful readers, but I found it inspiring. Courage is contagious. She shares her experiences with burnout, racism (cropped out of an AP photo when she attended a conference in Switzerland) & overcoming her own shy awkwardness. Her delivery is earnest, there‘s an impressive array of facts, and there are concrete suggestions for individual actions.
The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz; audiobook read by Emily Lawrence
A refreshing change for me: the idea that humans will still be around in 59,000 AD, working to keep all living things in balance on a terraformed planet. Very queer, anti-capitalist, uplifting solarpunk, told in three interconnected novellas over a vast timespan. Audiobook read by Emily Lawrence includes music and other sounds.
Frizzy by Claribel Ortega and Rose Bousamra
This wonderful graphic novel for children addresses systemic racist bias towards “good” hair by presenting a wholly sympathetic character, Marlene, who hates the weekly salon visits her mother deems necessary in order to straighten her wild curls. The tone of the narrative is humorous (despite serious topics), the resolution is celebratory, the characterization is relatable and the vibrant art is very appealing.
Sometimes They Sang by Helen Potrebenko
This had been sitting on my shelves unread and so I picked it up for the Read Across Canada Challenge. So glad that I did! Witty, fiercely feminist and oriented towards workers' rights. It was published in 1986 and stands up well to the test of time.
Man Made Monsters by Andrea Rogers; audiobook read by DeLanna Studi and Lane Factor
18 loosely interconnected stories touch on incidents across 200 years in a Cherokee family—beginning in 1839 and ending in 2039. Each one has a monstrous or horror element (vampire, werewolf, medical experimentation, ghosts, zombies, deer woman or other supernatural creatures). Author Andrea Rogers is queer and Cherokee. Her bracing stories have queer characters and address Indigenous issues like forced relocation, residential schools and MMIW.
The Sentimentalists by Joanna Skibsrud
“I don‘t believe in ghosts. I just think about them sometimes.” This is a haunting, lyrical, fragmented novel about history and how trauma affects subsequent generations. Napoleon is a veteran of the Vietnam war. In the final year of his life, his daughter seeks to know him better, and what happened when he was a soldier. There are no clear answers, but the emotional resonance rang through me like a bell.
Homie by Danez Smith
I reread this nonbinary poet's collection for Feminist Book Club, having previously read it in March 2020. This time I had a deeper appreciation and understanding. Smith expresses rage at the injustices in society and also celebrates the joy of being part of a Black queer community.
The Talk by Alicia Williams and Briana Mukodiri Uchendu
Jay is an African American child, telling us about his life from early childhood into pre-adolescence. One day his parents & grandparents give him ‘the talk‘ —about the dangerous realities of racism. Afterwards: “The family reassures me that I‘ve done nothing wrong & no, I‘m not to blame.” Their “eyes say that I‘m the beat of their hearts” and “the joy in their smiles.” A powerful, important picture book with warm, poignant illustrations.
Reading challenges, buddy-reads and readathons in February:
Black History Month - I read 9 books by Black authors
Book Naturalists Book Club - A Bigger Picture by Vanessa Nakate
Read Across Canada: Alberta - Sometimes They Sang by Helen Potrebenko
Buddy-read The Sentimentalists with Melissa and Sarah
Started buddy-reading Alberta Alone with Maya on Feb 9
Reading what I already own: I read 2 from my shelves; one was a gift more than 10 years ago, the other I purchased in 2022