Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

“Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it”.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is an #OwnVoices Japanese fiction novel by acclaimed author of Convenience Store Woman. The story follows a young lady named Natsuki who as a child was an outcast in the eyes of her parents and sister, and whose only friend was a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut. Piyyut explained to her that he was a visitor from a far away planet named Popinpobopia on a very special quest to help Natsuki save Earth. Shortly afterwards, Natsuki begins to ponder as to whether she could be an alien as well and thus does not belong with the family that she cannot find common ground with, musings that become a bit more clearer (and stranger) once Natsuki matures into a grown woman.

What makes Earthlings such a fascinating feat of fiction is how absolutely absurd it is whilst dissecting some vital constructs of the modern era, particularly where the concept of being “normal” is concerned, along with the various ways that the human brain copes with trauma stemming from abuse and exploitation. Couple that with a surrealistically straightforward and terse prose, readers can expect some of the most innovatively bemusing literature to hit shelves yet.

Natsuki is a kid who is faced with an intensely lonely and alienating childhood that is laced with both verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. When she makes any attempt at seeking help for what is happening to her, she is met with disbelief and more ostracization. Her method of coping involves disconnecting from everything that is happening, causing her to become further disenfranchised from “fitting in” with people around her; an aspect that follows her well into adulthood.

The first half of the novel is a slow-burn build-up of the events that will work to formulate the mind-blowing climax to arrive in the second-half, and it is done in a marvellously meticulous yet chilling manner. The compiling sense of tension that begins to envelope the reader with each new atrocious encounter or experience that Natsuki undergoes creates an almost skin-crawling sensation. It is penetratively disturbing yet phenomenally cerebral, so much so that when everything implodes later on, the reader is left feeling utterly stunned.

My favourite element of the novel, aside from the insidiously psychological examination of how the psyche develops to protect against trauma, is the precise probe into the outrageous notion of normalcy.  Individuals who reside within a perfect cookie-cutter existence are rarely able to view the many fallacies of the world, particularly if they are constantly unaffected by them. However, the outsiders and the oddballs who reside on the outskirts of this perception of perfectness—usually individuals that are neurodivergent or disabled—are the ones who truly comprehend just how awful a place the world can be; an infection to mental and emotional stability. When the grave catastrophes created by constructs such as capitalism or exploitation go unquestioned or uncontested, then the worst of consequences can occur, as depicted by the last one-third to one-fourth of the novel.

Earthlings is not for the feint-of-heart. There are some severe scenes of violence, brusque self-deprecating dialogue, on-the-page sexual molestation and rape, sexual exploitation of a child, many scenes of familial psychological and physical abuse, intense representations of anxiety and depression, social and sex-related awkwardness, and suicidal ideation, and the grotesque ways that normal able-minded and able-bodied folx perceive neurodivergent and disabled individuals. So, if you do find yourself intrigued by Earthlings, I recommend that you proceed cautiously. Even with the heavy subject matter and content, Earthlings is one brilliant novel, cementing Sayaka Murata as an up-and-rising author who has so much to offer the literary world.

Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

Top 5 Most-Anticipated Book Releases for October 2020

One of the best parts of a brand-new month is being able to visit the New Releases shelves of my local bookstores (virtually during this time of pandemic proportions) and gazing upon the latest book releases! Not only does my To-Be-Read list mutate like a virus-ridden plant (I am looking at you Plant 42), but it also helps me to keep an eye on the diverse nature of those releases. Being able to discover fabulous new POC/BIPOC/QPOC authors or freshly minted stories from old-time beloveds helps me to feel inspired and hopeful about diverse voices and representations in publishing and literature. While we still have quite a long ways to go in the realm of equality within the industry, I still love to celebrate the little victories along the way.

For October, there are five books specifically that I have been eagerly anticipating for the better part of three to four months, and I was blessed with the opportunity to read half of my most-anticipated list via ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies). These titles are truly brilliant works of creativity and human emotion, and I cannot wait to share my reviews of these fantastic upcoming releases with you all.

Until those reviews go live, here is the list of top five October book releases that you all should definitely keep an eye out for, whether at your local bookshops or libraries! At the very least, please consider adding them to your own TBRs if you have not done so yet. You can visit their respective GoodReads pages by clicking on the titles.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata: This is an #OwnVoices Japanese literature novel by the acclaimed author of Convenience Store Woman and follows a young woman named Natsuki who as a child was an outcast in the eyes of her parents and sister, and whose only friend was a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut. Piyyut explained to her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia on a special quest to help her save the Earth. Natsuki begins to wonder if she is also an alien and thus does not fit in with her family as such, ponderings that become a bit clearer once Natsuki matures into a grown woman.

Reading this book was an incredible ride. It is such a deeply psychological experience and explores a plethora of themes that concentrate on the impacts of childhood abuse and exploitation, and the various ways that people cope with their traumas and phobias. My full spoiler-free review shall go up later this week, however, if you are an avid reader of complex narratives and the beauty of  slow-burn Japanese fiction, then I highly recommend that you check out Earthlings, more so if you enjoyed the author’s previous work. The book released on October 6th.

This is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi: This young adult LGBTQIA+ contemporary via the author of Tell Me How You Really Feel, follows a trio of young ladies who put their heads, hearts, and eccentricities together to save their local bookstore and place of employment, the Wild Nights Bookstore from closing shop permanently.

This amazing story has three fierce young women, each from a different diverse background and each with a fun and unique persona that you cannot help but adore. If that were not enough to warrant glee, toss in some book-saving theatrics and a spot of sweet romance for that extra kick of pleasure. My full spoiler-free review for this title shall go live next week. In the meantime, if you are a fan of female-centric stories full of friendship and empowerment, then I highly recommend this YA contemporary to you! The book releases on October 13th.

Come On In: 15 Stories About Immigration & Finding Home edited by Adi Alsaid: This anthology of young adult stories all centre on the diverse nature of immigrant experiences, including the heartbreak of leaving behind family for a fresh start in a strange new land, trying to acclimate with clashing cultures that come with second and third generation identities, returning to a native land after a long period of time, and much more. Each story shall incite laughter, warmth, heartbreak, and the triumphs that come with being an immigrant

I had the honour of reading and reviewing this title a couple of weeks ago and I can say with one-hundred-percent certainty that it is the best young adult anthology that I have read to date. The cultural richness of each story and the multi-dimensional nature of each separate experience and identity is absolutely astounding. Fans of multi-cultural literature and readers looking to better understand the vastness of the immigrant experiences should not miss this collection! A few of the contributing authors include Nafiza Azad (The Candle and the Flame), Maurene Goo (The Way You Make Me Feel), Zoraida Córdova (Incendiary), and Sona Charaipotra (Symptoms of a Heartbreak). My full spoiler-free review can be found on my sibling blog, BiblioNyan. The book hits shelves on October 13th.

To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu: This #OwnVoices Chinese science-fiction short story collection by the brilliant author of The Three-Body Problem centres on the various ways technology helps to make and/or break the world and universe from the use of physics to prevent alien invasions to the very collapse of the universe itself. It implements visionary allegories for the intense era of change during China from 1999 to 2017 from one of the most talented writers of the modern era.

As an avid aficionado of science-fiction, Cixin Liu has become somewhat of a celebrity icon for me in terms of scientific creativity and multi-faceted storytelling with relation to cultural and political exposition. While I tend to struggle with reading short stories, every time I pick up a piece by Cixin Liu, I am enthralled from start to finish. If you are a reader of hard science-fiction, especially in translation, then this collection should not be missed. The book shall hit shelves on October 20th.

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee: An #OwnVoices Korean, #OwnVoices LGBTQIA+ adult fantasy novel following a person named Gyen Jebi who has a passion for painting. When they find themselves jobless and desperate, they are recruited by the Ministry of Armour to paint mystical symbols that animate the occupying government’s soldiers. But when Jebi learns of the government’s horrifying crimes, they know that they can no longer stay out of the politics. Instead, they become determined to steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton in order to stand up and fight.

As a Nonbinary person, I have such a deep and unrelenting appreciation for Yoon Ha Lee’s works. Being able to see Nonbinary characters who are brilliant and fierce and full of layers that make them both fallible yet relatable make my heart warm and excited. Couple that representation with fantasy works of epic proportions, then I have something tantalising and irresistible on my plate.  Phoenix Extravagant is an incredible novel full of contemplative musings on imperialism, the spirituality and nationalisation of art, as well as a supremely adorable dragon you cannot help but fawn over. If you are a fan of Asian literature, specifically Asian-inspired fantasy stories, then Phoenix Extravagant is definitely the book for you. My full spoiler-review shall go live in a couple of weeks. The book shall release on October 20th.

Those are my top five most-anticipated book releases for October and I honestly cannot wait to share reviews for them with you all over the next few weeks. If you are able to, please do visit the GoodReads pages and consider pre-ordering these titles or requesting them and/or placing them on hold at your local libraries. Let’s all uplift diverse voices together!

Until next time, happy reading to you.

Seven by Farzana Doctor

Seven by Farzana Doctor is an #OwnVoices Indian fiction literature novel about a woman named Sharifa who travels to India with her husband with the hopes of learning more about her great-great-grandfather who was an immensely successful businessman and a philanthropist. During her research, however, instead of discovering a tale of rags-to-riches, Sharifa learns that her grandfather had four wives, all of whom had been omitted from the family’s lore. As she becomes more and more engrossed in the enigma surrounding these women, Sharifa also becomes entangled in a powerful familial debate regarding khatna—an age-old ritual of female genital cutting, one that shall force her to face her own reality and choose a side.

One of the most intriguing characteristics about Seven is the subject matter of female genital cutting (FGC) as it is one that I have never seen discussed in literature before. My own personal knowledge of this ritual is extremely limited and for all intents and purposes, it has always been a topic that has existed within my own cultural circles, but one that is never openly discussed. While I was curious to learn more about FGC, I was wary of the sensitivity with which it would be broached in the book. Ms Doctor not only discusses this vital issue with accessibility and evocativeness, she also does so with great care and consideration, which is what truly makes Seven such an incredible title.

The writing style is simple and rather straight-forward, making it easy to get utterly consumed within the pages, more so when the emotions surrounding the subject matter are portrayed with authenticity and thoughtfulness. Each side of the debate is given attention and respect, and provides an insightful, educative, and captivating reading experience. The tone while discussing the roots of these rituals and why some family members still believe in the practise is never spiteful or accusatory, which is an incredibly challenging feat given the nature of this matter. Her exposition is careful and considerate from beginning to end, even when it leans a bit more towards one side versus the other.

The superb use of emotions to illustrate the tensions within Sharifa’s family as they discuss this practise draws the reader further into the complexities of olden traditional Indian culture that most would consider to be highly outdated. There are layers of complexities that go beyond simple right and wrong that create a plethora of reactions and responses as the story unfolds, making the book practically impossible to put down.

The focus on FGC plays parallel to some of the other issues that Sharifa is battling in Seven and that helps to formulate an even more elaborate narrative filled with multi-dimensional themes on gender roles (particularly where sex is concerned), self-acceptance, the intricacies of cultural identity, marriage, female relationships, and much more. Sharifa’s husband, Murtuza, was a pleasant surprise whilst reading. He was a compassionate and understanding man who always valued his wife’s thoughts and feelings, highlighting an equity in their marriage that is rarely depicted in books showcasing more culturally inflexible gender-centric functions in South Asian communities, especially with respect to her inner turmoil regarding her sexuality and mental fortitude.

While Seven is not an easy book to read, it is vastly important, and I highly recommend it to readers that are searching for a unique story with fallibly relatable characters. With writing that is supported via excellent research, a respectful approach to an intensely delicate subject matter, a sensitive exhibition of sex and romance amid rigid Indian traditions and gender roles, and beautifully sincere use of emotions, there is very little within these pages that shall disappoint.

Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Dundurn Press.