Table of Contents
Books I read in 2020:
Books I read in 2019 [reviews in progress]:
*my personal recommendations are highlighted.
Naomi Alderman (2016)
Categories: Science Fiction, Dystopia
TL;DR: Written as a historical dramatization of the events spurred on by women suddenly manifestating the ability to produce electrical shocks from their bodies, this novel reads like pushing a snowball down a mountain: at first exciting and even cathartic, then slowly building and building until it becomes a destructive avalanche.
For me, the two most interesting aspects of The Power were the framing of the story, and the parallels of certain scenes to modern-day life. The story starts and ends five thousand years in the future in a matriarchal world with a series of letters from a male author writing to get advice to a female author. The man is a part of a male writers club, and is struggling to find an audience for his non-fiction books which proclaim that women were not always the dominant gender – a version of history that is inconvenient to those in power. It’s a thought-provoking exercise to compare their relationship, and many of the other relationships in the book, to how power dynamics play out today.
There are scenes of women standing up for themselves with their newfound power that are genuinely satisfying to read, but there is also a sense of uneasiness from the very beginning about how power can be a corrupting force. We follow four main characters: a male reporter from Nigeria who documents uprisings around the world, a young girl from America who uses her power to kill her abusive father, the daughter of a mob boss in London, and an American politician who becomes an advocate for young girls with power.
I finished the book with a strange feeling of unresolved anxiety; the entire story builds up to a climax, but the climax is implied and never actually shown. The last couple of chapters are short and sparsely detailed, and there is a lot left open to interpretation (so much so that I went back and re-read the last couple of chapters immediately after finishing). I would have liked more details at the the end, and perhaps more detail about the history that was taught five-thousand years afterwards, but overall, this was an enjoyable and engrossing read.
Winners Take All
Anand Giridharadas (2018)
Categories: Non-fiction, Politics, Business, Philanthropy
TL;DR: This book breaks down the traditional win-win narrative of business – that it’s possible to effect transformational, positive change on the world while making a profit – and offers a compelling case that real and lasting change will not come from the very wealthy.
Anand Giridharadas is a very articulate speaker; I came to this book after stumbling upon a couple of videos of his speaking engagements that I couldn’t turn away from. People like me – graduates of elite universities wondering how we can positively impact the world – are one of the subjects of his writing as he examines why we worship businesses as vehicles for change.
The book coins the term MarketWorld, which is used to represent the philosophy around business in our age that has been perpetuated by billionaires and large corporations: that the best way to bring about positive change is through the lens of business, which helps both the businesses and its customers live a better life.
Young people are flocking to jobs in consulting, technology, and finance in order to gain the tools to “change the world” that we’ve been taught from a young age to admire, and the people in charge genuinely believe that they’re making the world better. However, the book introduces us to a host of people that help deconstruct this idea, from a disillusioned employee of a consulting firm, an academic whose work has been taken out of context and adopted in lieu of actual systemic change, and the president of the Ford foundation who holds his own misgivings about how philanthropy is carried out.
Check out this longer post I wrote for a summary of the book’s main argument. I’ve included this as a recommended book because its ideas resonate with me, but to be honest, I’d recommend his speaking engagements or appearances on podcasts as a more concise, easier to digest medium of absorbing this information.
The Poppy War
R. F. Kuang (2018)
Categories: Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction
TL;DR: If you’re interested in the the brutality of war, fantasy school settings, or questionable decision making, then you’ll enjoy the story of Rin, a bright and obsessive young woman desperate to escape her abusive parents and arranged marriage who tests into the most prestigious university in the country during a time of impending danger.
The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic are the first two books of the Poppy War Trilogy, with the third book set to come out in late 2020.
I first heard about this book through an interview with the author on YouTube. During the interview, she describes the fundamental question that she wanted to explore in this series: How does someone born into a peasant family in rural China rise to power and become a megalomaniac, mass murderer like Mao Zedong?
I think that’s a profoundly interesting question, and it’s why I picked up The Poppy War. The book draws inspiration for its setting from the Song Dynasty and its events from 19th and 20th century China.
The Poppy War tells the story of a young girl named Rin who is incredibly driven. She goes to college, learns some secrets about the world, and is thrust into the middle of a war as her country is invaded. There is magic in this world, but it’s not the typical western-style Harry Potter/LOTR magic system that we normally see - it’s a spiritual connection with one of the many gods of the world that can be accessed by doing lots of drugs.
The prose is not the most beautiful that I’ve read, and there are so many characters that many come off as one-dimensional. I definitely don’t think this series is for everyone — there is a lot of tragedy and death, and our main girl Rin is an easily manipulated, morally questionable, and a pretty bad decision maker.
That being said, I found the story completely addicting to read. I could hardly put it down, and I bought the second book immediately after finishing the first.
The Dragon Republic
R. F. Kuang (2019)
Categories: Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction
TL;DR: The second book in the Poppy War Trilogy is an exciting sequel that manages to raise the stakes, improve upon the action, and dive deeper into the lore of Rin’s world as Rin finds herself at the center of a civil war between competing ideologies.
The Dragon Republic is the sequel to The Poppy War, and it’s even better than its predecessor. The story continues with Rin shortly after the conclusion of the previous book, and there’s even more fighting, betrayal, heartbreak, death, blood, and gore. The plot jumps from important event to important event as we see Rin and her allies endure massive suffering that ultimately leads to a surprising and impressively executed ending.
Both of these novels in this series don’t shy away from the atrocities committed during war and take their time dwelling on the haunting consequences of those atrocities. It gets very dark, not in the most dramatic and emotional way, but in a precise, calculating, morbid way.
Kuang does a great job of pivoting the story toward a broader scope than the first book. The shortcomings I mentioned in my review of The Poppy War – the prose and characterization – are both improved upon in this book. I’m looking forward to reading the conclusion of the trilogy later this year, which I’m sure will raise the stakes even higher. The series’ historical perspective is fascinating, and Kuang does a great job creating tense situations, high stakes, and a war story that is definitely worth following.
The Sword of Kaigen
M. L. Wang (2019)
Categories: Adult Fiction, High Fantasy, Military Fantasy
TL;DR: This is easily one of my new favorites – the characterization, world-building, and gripping action in The Sword of Kaigen feels at once both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping as we follow a warrior family through a time of great unrest in their household and their country.
This book is seriously so good!!
We follow two main protagonists: Misaki Matsuda, a wife and mother who feels oppressed and disillusioned in the traditional patriarchal village that she has married into, and her firstborn son Mamoru, who must balance the pressure to live up to the high expectations of his Matsuda bloodline and the faltering narrative of history that he has been taught.
The adult military fantasy novel is set in a country called Kaigen, and Wang does a great job seamlessly introducing Japanese-inspired cultural concepts and an elemental magic system to create a beautiful, character-driven story with two (!) climaxes and many beautiful fight scenes.
Misaki is such a strong character, and her story arc was immensely compelling and satisfying to read. At the beginning of the story, she is a housewife who has been forced into a subservient role, and we learn about her intriguing past as she struggles to come to terms with her role as a mother, a wife, and a warrior. Misaki’s old memories began to resurface as her son Mamoru begins to question the stories around him and struggles to master his family’s fighting techniques.
It only took me a couple of days to read The Sword of Kaigen because I just could not put it down. Definitely one of my favorite fantasy books of all time!
The Theonite Series
M. L. Wang (2016, 2017)
Categories: Young Adult Fantasy
TL;DR: If you loved The Sword of Kaigen and you’re looking for a casual read that provides interesting insight into the same world, then check out the first two books of the now-discontinued Theonite series, which centers around Joan, a teenager from Earth with the ability to control a variety of substances.
After reading The Sword of Kaigen and finding out that there were two more books set in the same world, I had to read them as well.
Theonite: Planet Adyn and Theonite: Orbit are the first two books in a now-discontinued young adult fantasy series. If either of those things – young adult novels or unfinished series in limbo – are not up your alley, then these aren’t the books for you.
We follow Joan, a middle-schooler who has been hiding the power to control metals, wind, water, and fire for her entire life, as she encounters Daniel and his father Robin, world-hopping crime hunters from Planet Adyn with the ability to control fire.
I did enjoy reading them and discovering interesting details about the world, but the story wasn’t as fleshed out or mature as The Sword of Kaigen. If you’re not into YA, then I wouldn’t recommend reading these unless you really want to get a deeper dive into the world in The Sword of Kaigen. While I liked reading the Theonite series, the characters and story are only a fraction as compelling as M. L. Wang’s later work in my opinion.
10 Percent Happier
Dan Harris (2014)
Categories: Non-fiction, Self Help, Memoir
TL;DR: In classic self-help fashion, a news anchor goes on a journey of self-discovery by practicing meditation and shares his learnings through this book.
This book is meant an an introduction to meditation for the skeptical observer: Dan Harris describes his journey as a stressed-out reporter who slowly comes to realize the importance of mindfulness and meditation. I listened to this as an audiobook, and quickly realized that the only way I was going to get through it was by setting the audio to 2x speed.
I’m not the biggest fan of self-help books in general. I tend to think that: 1. there is not enough content in most self-help books to merit writing an entire book about it, and 2. their greater effect in the world is to promote an unearned, self-congratulatory celebration that often replaces broader critical thinking about the complicated solutions to problems in the world, even if the author doesn’t intend it (in fact, I think Dan Harris would add the counterpoint that by bringing people into meditation, he is giving them a toolbox that allows for more critical thinking in the world. It’s a valid point, but it doesn’t change my feelings about the self-help genre as a whole).
That being said, I think this book is fine. It’s a very light read, and if you’re in a specific demographic – young tech-adjacent person living in a big city and looking for an introduction to meditation – I think you’ll enjoy it. Otherwise, there aren’t many lasting lessons that I took away from this book.
For the Love of Men
Liz Plank (2019)
Categories: Non-fiction, Psychology, Feminism
TL;DR: Journalist and prolific Tik-Tok creator Liz Plank dives deep into the the concept of masculinity in a well-researched, thought-provoking, intersectional book interspersed with stories of men from around the world.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and I found a lot of truth in the way that Plank describes the traditional rules of masculinity, how they impact men, and how we can address masculinity in a healthy way.
The book is divided into two parts. The first section addresses common addages that often surround masculinity, such as: men don’t need intimacy, manhood is never fully earned and needs to be constantly renewed, and that masculinity is under attack. The second section focuses on expanding our definitions of masculinity, noting that “while we’re comfortable with women existing outside of the bounds of femininity, we’re not comfortable with men existing beyond the bounds of masculinity.”
Plank argues that the gendered expectations holding both men and women back are born out of the same ideology, and that a mindful conversation about gender will have only winners.
Listening to this book got me thinking about the impact that traditional masculinity has had on my own life. Would recommend for anyone interested in thinking critically about masculinity!