Stack of Catherynne M. Valente Books

Reading Railroad: October’s Reading

I’m late posting this because I’ve had a lot of grading to do! (SO MUCH. HELP ME.) I still have a lot of grading, but that’s probably going to be my entire November and at some point I need to stop and talk about books! Because books are more awesome than grading. Always.

Despite the grading black hole, I read a lot of books in October. 11 total! All fiction. This definitely helps me catch up on my end of the year reading goal of 100 books. I still may make it…

With so many books to review, this is a long post! I’ve tried to make it easier to find books you may want to read by labeling genre and my rating at the beginning of each review.

Novels

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. Published 2015. Adult Fantasy. Rating: 3/5

This novella has been on my kindle for a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. Wilson depicts a rich fantasy world with well-drawn characters and lyrical writing. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and would happily return to both the world and to Demane, the ‘sorcerer.’ While the story subtly centers on the romance between Demane and his Captain, it also explores themes of colonization, racism, and cultural dissonance. I could feel Demane’s frustration, anger, and empathy as the men he calls Brothers unknowingly mock his way of life. I loved the animal shape-shifting and the wilds vs. the road. Something about Wilson’s writing reminds me a bit of China Miéville.

If I were rating this just on the second half, it would easily be a 4 star rating. But the first half was slow, and I was sometimes annoyed and confused by how it skipped scenes, only to return to the skipped scene soon after.

Book cover of The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente. Published September 5th, 2017. Middle Grade Fantasy. Rating: 4/5

Much like her The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making series, Glass Town is full of whimsy. And there’s just the right amount of literary nose tapping for those of us who know our British lit, while still being approachable to middle graders not yet familiar with the Brontës, Lord Byron, or Jane Austen (all characters that appear). In Glass Town, the Brontës become sucked into their own recreation of the Napoleonic Wars, but now all their toy soldiers are real. When Anne and Branwell are kidnapped, it’s up to Charlotte and Emily to save them.

Does anyone really need anymore from a review than a synopsis of the book? If a middle grade about the young Brontë siblings transported to their created world of Glass Town doesn’t make you squeal, than this is probably a skip for you.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter. Published November 7th, 2017. Adult Apocalypse. Rating: 2.5/5

This is a unique take on the apocalypse genre. At first, I didn’t know what to do with it. Told in small segments from a single, first person perspective, with bits of poetry or quotes sprinkled regularly in, I wasn’t sure what I was reading. But the longer I read about the life of this first-time mother with her infant son, during some kind of catastrophic flood, the more engaged with the narrative I became.

This is what I came to realize: this isn’t an apocalypse novel; this is a novel (almost novel-in-verse) about motherhood. How obsessive and full of love you become when you give birth, even to the point where you forget your spouse. Or that it’s the end of the world. The apocalypse is a backdrop, easily forgotten.

And I did like that aspect of it. I mean, I’m soon to be a mother, so reading about motherhood always sucks me in! But, at the same time, I needed more depth. It only took an hour to an hour and a half to read. I’d recommend it if this review sounds interesting, but I’d also say it’s not a buy.

Thanks to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Cover of Psyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia BlockPsyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia Block. Published in 2006. Young Adult Contemporary Myth Retelling. Rating: 4/5

I wouldn’t initially think a YA poetry novel that places Greek myth in a contemporary Hollywood setting could work, but it does. I especially enjoyed the ending chapters, when daughters become mothers. There’s some really lovely moments in this.

 

 

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang. Published November 14th, 2017. Adult Fabulism. Rating: 2/5

I love the premise of this novel, but the scattered perspectives and lack of character depth made it a 2 stars.

The premise: Weylyn was raised by wolves, can manipulate the weather, and his best friend is a unicorn pig.

That’s pretty much all I needed to hear to request it on Netgalley. I love weird stuff!

The novel is stronger in the beginning, when it focuses on a couple of pov characters. But as the novel continues, more and more characters are added until it seems there are 20 povs in the novel, and none of them feel or act like real people. And the worst is when it finally enters Weylyn’s head at the end. His perspective is shallow, and mere reiterations of what other people have said about him.

Overall, I’m disappointed I didn’t enjoy this more.

Thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for The Rules of Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. Published October 10th, 2017. Adult Contemporary Fantasy.

Confession: I have not read Practical Magic, nor do I remember the movie. However, that did not stop me from enjoying this book. 3 magical siblings learning about their magic together, struggling with a curse that means whoever they fall in love with will meet a dire end, in the 1960s, all make for great reading, particularly for October. Hoffman’s prose is engaging as always, I love the characters (especially Franny), and of course I loved the magic. Will I be reading Practical Magic now? Yes, definitely. I’m on the library’s wait list for it.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan. Published 2016. Middle Grade Graphic Novel. Rating: 3/5

This is a cute, middle grade graphic novel that retells Snow White during the Great Depression. The story isn’t particularly interesting to me, but I did enjoy it. Took me about 20 minutes to ‘read’ (it’s mostly visual).

Book cover for An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat HowardAn Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard. Published September 2017. Rating: 3.5/5

I loved Kat Howard’s first book — Roses and Rot — so when I heard she had a new novel coming out, I knew I was going to read it ASAP. And check out the cover! And the title!

But An Unkindness of Magicians is a different reading experience than Roses and Rot. It’s fast-paced, with an elaborate cast of characters and an elaborate plot that sometimes gets muddied. Taking place in New York City, the Turning has begun, where Houses of Magicians (which the mundanes know nothing about) duel to see who will become head house. Sydney is the main character in a large cast of povs. The potential House Laurent chose her to be his dueling magician. But Sydney’s unknown, traumatic past is about to wreck havoc on the Houses.

Sydney is definitely a character I can get behind, and I loved much of the magic, though sometimes the duels went a tad fast for my liking. If you’re a fan of A Darker Shade of Magic and/or The Magicians, you should check this out. For me, Roses and Rot is the more artistic, meaningful reading experience, but I suspect An Unkindness of Magicians will be more popular. I look forward to her next novel!

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Published 2014. Adult Fiction. Rating: 2/5

I don’t know quite what to think about this. The first half reads like a series of writing exercises based on a similar theme — the birth of the protagonist’s daughter and her marriage. Each paragraph gives short thoughts, sometimes seemingly random thoughts, though there are connections. As the novel progresses, the connections become more apparent, and the novel becomes more engaging to me, particularly when it switches from first person to third person. But, there’s still not a whole lot for me to grab onto. This sparse style probably works better for some people.

Book cover of Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose OlderShadowshaper by Daniel José Older. Published 2015. Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy. Rating: 3.5/5

Shadowshapers can merge spirits with art, a skill Sierra has but doesn’t know it. She’s painting a dragon mural on an abandoned development in her neighborhood when she sees another mural cry. Which shouldn’t happen, right?

I really loved the magic and voice in this YA urban fantasy. Sierra is a great character, and all the characters’ voices came across as real. The magic is something I haven’t seen before. I love when art and magic converge.

But…it was also a bit boring to me. It’s dense in dialog, without a lot of inner character development, so I found I didn’t really care about any of the characters except for Sierra, and there are a lot of other characters. The dialog is perfectly written, just not enough for me to engage with a story.

I would still recommend this novel for readers looking for unique and diverse YA.

Short Story Collections

Cover for Uncanny Magazine Issue 18Uncanny Magazine Issue 18. Published September 2017. Adult Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction. Rating: 4/5

If I had to pick a favorite from this issue, it would be Fran Wilde’s circus monster sideshow short story “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand.” Overall, it’s a good issue, with 2 of my favorite SFF writers contributing fiction (Catherynne M. Valente and N.K. Jemisin) though, oddly, those were not my favorite short stories! You can see my full review of each story on Goodreads.

What good books have you read lately?

Image of an open book lying on a bed

Reading Railroad: September’s Reading

I read a lot of excellent books in September! From fairy tales to dragons to apocalypse to feminism, I read a little bit of everything, and most of it was a blast.

While still behind on my reading goal, I’m hopeful I can catch up by the end of the year. I read 7 books in September, which isn’t bad. I’ll need to up my game in October and November if I hope to catch up. Currently, I’ve read 70 books this year, and I’d like to reach 100. However, that would mean 10 a month until the end of the year. Not sure I can do that.

But hey, at least I’m reading some great books!  Here are my September reviews:

Novels

Book cover for The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillipThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. First published in 1974, this version published September 17th, 2017. Rating: 5/5!

Wow. Wow wow wow wow. I could just write ‘wow’ for this entire review.

Reasons I’m saying wow:
–badass lady wizard extraordinaire
–portrayal of trauma and the healing process that isn’t sexist
–lovely lovely prose
–all around beautiful

When the novel started, I thought I was in for something along the lines of Arthurian legend, and I think McKillip plays with that storyline trope. But it was engaging enough in the beginning that I wanted to keep reading even though I’d read similar enough fantasy before. But about halfway through something happens, which I’m not going to spoil, and I fell in love with the novel. I started highlighting large portions of the text. I read late into the night. I want and will read this again. I’ll also buy a copy so my daughter can read it.

It has similar themes to A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, but is also it’s own lovely piece of art.

McKillip is one of those authors I discovered late in life, and I’m relishing the thought of reading her works slowly for the next decade, much like I plan to do with Ursula K. Le Guin.

Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa BashardoustGirls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust. Published September 5th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

I loved this YA feminist retelling of “Snow White,” which subverts the trope that women must compete with one another.

“But then, what was the life of a queen compared to the legend people created for her after her death?”

Mina is a queen whose magician father crafted her a heart made of glass. Because of this, she believes she’s unable to love anyone. Yet that is her greatest desire.

Lynet is her step daughter, the exact image of her mother, the king’s first wife. But Lynet really wants to be like Mina, her step mother and the only mother she’s ever known, who sees Lynet as herself instead of as her mother.

Both struggle with how to make choices in a world largely defined by the men in their lives. How to choose what they want — as Nadia, a new court surgeon, tells Lynet. And Lynet is drawn to Nadia as well, who also sees Lynet as herself rather than as her mother. Or does she?

This is a novel about power struggles, agency, and finding love. Definitely one of the better Snow White retellings I’ve read.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but it reminds me of the essay “The Queen’s Looking Glass” published in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Gilbert and Gubar. It’s like Bashardoust intentionally subverts the issues Gilbert and Gubar analyze in that essay (of entrapment, beauty, female empowerment, female competition, etc.). I would love to eventually (someday, somehow) teach this novel in conjunction with that essay, along with the classic Snow White tales, of course.

Sometimes I wish YA had ‘denser’ prose, and that was the case with this one as well, but it’s still a fantastic read. Anyone who enjoys fairytales and fantasy YA should check this out.

Thanks to Flatiron Books and Goodreads for hosting this giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover of The Stone Sky by N.K. JemisinThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. Published August 15th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

I can’t imagine the series ending in any other way, even though I didn’t ‘predict’ the ending.

My pregnant brain had difficulty engaging with this last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy at first. My brain seems to be rejecting multiple pov narratives, so it was about halfway through before I finally ‘clicked’ with the novel. Which is unfortunate, because I feel like if I’d read this last year it probably would’ve blown me away. But I do plan on reading the entire trilogy at some point, back to back. I love Jemisin’s narrative style; I just didn’t have the energy to follow it!

But with its commentary on motherhood, love, and family, it made an interesting read for me.

I wish every fantasy series was so rich, nuanced, and challenging. If you haven’t read this series yet, it’s now finished, so there’s no better time to start it than now. It begins with The Fifth Season. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series.

Book cover of The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. RomeroThe Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. Published September 12th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

Reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen, The Dollmaker of Krakow depicts the horrors of the holocaust through the eyes of a doll, Karolina. But Karolina is no ordinary doll. Her own doll world has been ravaged by rats, and when she escapes with a toy soldier named Fritz, a wind ferries them to our world and into the hands of two human magicians.

Karolina’s magician is the dollmaker of krakow, a kind-hearted and shy war veteran who makes toys. With Karolina’s help, he breaks out of his introverted shell and makes friends with a violinist and his daughter. Both are Jewish. When the Germans invade Krakow, a dark magic descends on their lives, reminding Karolina of when the rats invaded her homeland.

This is a different kind of MG holocaust novel than say, Number the Stars or The Devil’s Arithmetic. Dollmaker has its roots in fairy tale and fantasy, and as such has a lightness and magic to the beginning. The world is fun, and you want to see even more magic. You want to see the dollmaker learn how to make even more toys come to life. But alas, this is not the time period for fun. It’s a bit jarring when everything goes so very dark, even when you’re expecting it the entire time because, of course, you know what’s bound to happen. Nonetheless, this is a novel that deserves its place on the shelf with other classic MG holocaust novels. The fairytale aspects make it unique to the genre. Oh, and the illustrations are quite cute!

Thanks to Delacorte Books for Young Readers and Netgalley for providing me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Short Story Collections

Book Cover for Iraq + 100 edited by Hasan BlasimIraq + 100: The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq edited by Hassan Blasim. Published September 12th, 2017. Rating: 3/5

In the introduction, editor Hassan Blasim explains that contemporary Iraqi literature typically sticks to realism and veers away from science fiction and fantasy. But he sees SFF as a way to imagine a different future, something he feels needs to happen more often. So he pitched the idea: what might your home city look like in the year 2103 — exactly 100 years after the disastrous American and British-led invasion of Iraq? And the 10 stories from these Iraqi authors are the ones he chose to compile into this collection.

If you’re interested in reading more about the philosophy behind this anthology, Tor has published several good articles that I recommend reading.

“History is a hostage, but it will bite through the gag you tie around its mouth, bite through and still be hear,” goes a slogan from “Operation Daniel.”

And in these stories history screams louder than the future. All but one or two of the stories are dystopias, depicting a government that dehumanizes, and often a populace that, even while recoiling from this dehumanization, learns to live with it. My favorite of these is the very first story, “Kahramana,” where a teen girl tries to flee Iraq after gouging out the eye of her fiance, who also happens to be the ruler.

But my other favorite story from the collection presents a future that has both frightening and hopeful aspects — “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhabody. In this story, an architect quickly descending into blindness and hallucinations due to ‘Baghdad Syndrome’ attempts to discover what the woman in his hallucinations wants, and to recreate the statue of Scheherazade. Really interesting and focused story.

My favorite SFF and dystopias create rich characters struggling within their community and society, and that’s why these two stood out as the strongest in the collection.

Some premises are more science-fictional than these, such as alien conquerors that harvest and eat people (Kuszib) and futurist, insect drugs (The Gardens of Babylon), but I preferred the ones with complex characterization over fantastical premises.

This collection is well worth reading, especially if you want to read diversely in SF (and you should want this), even though I only enjoyed a few of the stories. Some of them were so bizarre I had difficulty relating or determining what was going on, perhaps due to potential cultural and language barriers. But I would definitely enjoy reading more Iraqi SF, particularly from Anoud and Alhabody.

You can read my reviews for each story here. Thanks to Tor Books and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Nonfiction

Book cover for We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieWe Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Published in 2015. Rating: 4/5

A short, powerful essay/speech. I must admit, I mainly read it now because it’s short, to try and catch up on my yearly reading goal. However, I bought the book originally because I knew it would be a powerful essay after listening to Adichie’s TED talk, and I’m glad I read it now, when so much deals with raising daughters. Here are some of my favorite quotes, but I recommend reading it for yourself:

“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.”

“We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. But I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.”

“What struck me — with her and with many other female American friends I have — is how invested they are in being ‘liked’. … And that specific thing [likeability] does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly.”

“But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.”

“‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman.”

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

I highlighted more, but I’ll stop there! Obviously a must read. As a teacher, I kept thinking this would make a great essay for a Freshman Comp class, since she practices many of the same writing principles I teach.

Book cover for Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham AndersonFairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson. Published in 2000. Rating: 2/5

With this academic study, Anderson provides a comprehensive and at times exhausting examination of fairytale antecedents in ancient (mostly Western) mythology. It’s a thorough, well-researched study, with chapters focusing on specific fairy tales — like “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” — as well as general categories of tales. If this sounds like something you need for research purposes, you should definitely pick it up. It lacks the engaging prose style of some other fairytale academics, like Jack D. Zipes or Marina Warner, but while I won’t be reading it cover-to-cover again, I’m keeping my copy in case I need it for research. It certainly seems like it opens up a lot of research potential for other academics to explore.

 

What good books have you read lately?

A Bookshelf of Writing Books

Reading Railroad: August’s Reading

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting as much lately. With 3 jobs, a baby on the way, and wanting to finish up my novel by the end of the year, I’ve had to cut down on my blogging. But I do hope to blog more in the future, and I’ll keep posting my monthly reading updates. And of course I still write at least two posts a month for Book Riot.

I also haven’t had as much time for reading. I’ve only read 5 books this month, which isn’t bad, but it also means I’m running behind on my goal to read 100 books this year, a goal I’ve met since I started keeping track a few years ago. But I’m not so behind it’s hopeless, so I’m considering reading shorter books, and more young adult and middle grade. Maybe. Sometimes the books I crave aren’t short, and I want to read the things that make me happy! And do numbers really matter that much? What do you think?

In August, I read two books in particular that I really enjoyed, and I’ll review those first. And all but one are new releases (and the only one that isn’t was published just last year).

Novels

Book cover for The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora GossThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. Published August 10th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

This is such a fun romp through classic horror fiction. I couldn’t wait to read it, and put it on hold months ago with the library so that I could have a copy as soon as it came out. The central cast includes: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Justine Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau, and Beatrice Rappaccini (though I should not forget Mrs. Poole — the housekeeper — and Alice — a house maid). These monstrous daughters team up, with the occasional help from Sherlock Homes and Watson, to solve a series of murders that may or may not be wrapped up in their own past.

This first in what I can only hope will be a series sets up all the characters and their stories. These women are unique, outspoken, smart. Exactly my kind of mystery. Despite the grizzly theme, it maintains a lighthearted Victorian-era tone that made it a fast read. I look forward to more such books! Maybe I need to be reading more light-hearted mysteries (not typically my genre).

Book cover of When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace LinWhen the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin. Published in 2016. Rating: 4/5

Another charming middle grade novel by Grace Lin. Influenced by Chinese folklore and mythology, it’s full of fairy tales, magical creatures, and amazing characters. Pinmei, the storyteller’s grand daughter, must learn confidence in her quest to save her grandmother from an evil overlord. Stories have power, and as Pinmei retells the stories her grandmother has taught her, she starts putting pieces together of a larger story. The illustrations are lovely (Grace Lin does those as well). I’ve already read the companion novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and am looking forward to reading Starry River of the Sky. While Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the first chronologically, they can be read in any order. I did pick up connections that I otherwise would’ve missed, but then, you would pick up the same connections by reading the series backward. 🙂 I will definitely be buying these for my own shelves, and I’m looking forward to reading them to Marian! (Well, I did read bits of it to her, but I doubt she grasped all the complexities of the story.)

Book cover of A Secret History of Witches by Louisa MorganA Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan. Published September 5th, 2017. Rating: 3/5

An entertaining, generational family history of witches. Each section features one of five Orchiére daughters and their story of how their magic develops, and how they find love in their lives (or not). But witches must always hide their powers from everyone else, for a woman with that kind of power is a danger to society. The novel begins in Brittany and ends in London, and moves from early 19th century all the way to WWII. It’s at its strongest when the history comes alive and plays an integral part in the women’s lives. This happens at the beginning and the end. The middle fails to utilize the rich history of the time periods they take place in, but it’s still fun, especially if you’re looking for a light read with romance and witchcraft, and nothing too heavy. I enjoyed it overall, even if it left me craving a little more substance.

Thanks to Netgalley and Redhook for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover of The History of Bees by Maja LundeThe History of Bees: A Novel by Maja Lunde. Published August 22nd, 2017. Rating: 3/5

In The History of Bees, Maja Lunde traces the eventual extinction of bees through three story lines. William, a myopic, British biologist who eventually begins building bee hives, set in 1852; George, an American myopic (this is a general theme) beekeeper in 2007 who experiences Colony Collapse Disorder; and Tao, a Chinese pollinator in 2098, on a desperate search to find her young son.

What all three of these characters have in common is the inability to communicate basic human emotions, and seeing their children not as human beings, but as ideal versions of themselves. Tao is the most sympathetic of these characters, since she’s only allowed an hour a day with her son. With such a short amount of time, it’s impossible to really get to know your child. But George and William have no excuse, and come across as idiots much of the time. And of course they have bees in common, but the bees end up more of a set piece to these characters.

I originally picked this up expecting something more along the lines of The Bees by Laline Paull, especially with it being compared to Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go. What I found instead read more like a family drama. Which is fine, it just didn’t meet my expectations.

I also feel like the translation might have made it a clunkier read. Here’s an example: “The yellow color was completely real, nothing I was imagining. It came from the brocade tapestry my wife, Thilda, had stuck up on the walls when we moved in a few years ago. We’d had a lot of space at that time.”

Okay, there’s nothing wrong here, but it’s not very engaging or inspiring prose.

Despite these reservations, I did like the concept of weaving three stories together to tell the history of bees.

Thanks to Touchstone and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Short Story Collections

Issue cover of Uncanny Magazine Issue 17Uncanny Magazine Issue 17: July/August 2017. Published July 4th, 2017. Rating: 3/5

The two stand out stories from this edition were Children of Thorns, Children of Water by Aliette de Bodard and The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal. Both were rich in context, with complex characters. And if you like birds, then you should read A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds by Kat Howard. There were also 2 poems I would recommend: Starskin, Sealskin by Shveta Thakrar and Sara Cleto and Questions We Asked for the Girls Turned to Limbs by Chloe N. Clark. You can also read my review of every story, essay, and poem in this edition.

What have you been reading lately?

Book cover of Women Who Read are Dangerous

Reading Railroad: July’s Reading

I read 8 books in July, and so many were good!  5/8 are 2017 releases. One book made it to my favorites’ list. And dystopias are definitely in right now; 3 out of 5 of the novels were dystopian, and 2 of those came out this year. But I like a good dystopia.

Novels

Book cover of When the English Fall by David WilliamsWhen the English Fall by David Williams. Published July 11th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

There tend to be 2 kinds of apocalypse novels: 1) traveling across an apocalyptic landscape and 2) diary of survival at home. When the English Fall ‘falls’ (ahem) into the second category.

The community and religious identity of the protagonist makes this one unique from other survival diaries I’ve read. Jacob’s Amish. He and his family live in Pennsylvania in an Amish community. His daughter Sadie foretells the coming climate-driven apocalypse, which also knocks out everything  electrical. The Amish have obvious survival advantages over their ‘English’ (non-Amish) neighbors. They’ve already acclimated to the lifestyle the coming days and months require. But they’re not ready for the violence of their neighbors, nor will they condone the killing of thieves in the name of ‘justice.’

With so many ‘do whatever it takes to survive’ apocalypse novels, this one provides a breath of fresh air to the genre. It gives a different way of surviving, a way that embraces the humanity in everyone. Also, the author is Amish, and even though I know very little about their lifestyle, it felt authentic to me as I read. I could tell he knew the culture, and I felt like I learned something about that way of life.

I wonder….will there be a 2nd? I really want to know what happens to Jacob and his family, even though I realize the constraints of a ‘found’ dairy mean that’s very unlikely.

Thanks to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for Amatka by Karin TidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck. Published June 27th, 2017. Rating: 3/5

After reading Jagannath: Stories by Karin Tidbeck years ago, I knew I wanted to read anything of hers published in English. It’s still one of my favorite short story collections. I believe Amatka is the only other one of her works published in the U.S. (she’s Swedish), though I could be wrong.

Amatka is both similar and different than Tidbeck’s short stories. It has the same subtlety, the same unique world building, and the same ambiguous ending (which I loved). I missed out on the lyricism of Tidbeck’s short stories, and I never felt engaged with the main character, Vanja. But I also think Vanja isn’t the kind of person who lets others become fully engaged with her. She holds herself off with only occasional lapses into humanness, which should be more heartbreaking because of how rare they are, but I admit I didn’t find them so.

The dystopian world discourages emotional connections with others as well. I don’t want to go into more detail about the world building, because that aids in the novel’s mystery, but the culture suppresses emotion and creativity — for a reason.

What Tidbeck does really well in this novel is maintain intrigue in the seemingly mundane. Vanja has been sent to Amatka to investigate and report on sanitation habits. Several of her reports are included throughout the novel. What should be a boring investigation is actually quite interesting, and slowly develops into Vanja’s continued investigation into areas she hasn’t been hired for.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it to anyone looking for unique world building in their dystopias.

Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente. Published June 6th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

Inspired by Gail Simone’s term ‘refrigerated’ — for all the women in superhero comics who die to further a superhero’s story — and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues takes a hard feminist look at how women are defined in not only comics, but also in life. In each chapter a dead woman from a superhero universe gets her chance to speak, to tell her story. Yet no matter how different their personalities, these women all made the same mistake. They lost their identities by helping the men in their lives.

And guess what? I know a lot of women who do that. Though most of the time, I see it with their children, not their spouses. But many women struggle with the problem of ‘helping’ people to the point of no longer helping herself.

I know very little about superhero comics. I watch Arrow and Flash. I’ve watched the Batman movies, and Wonder Woman. I’ve tried others, but found them boring. I’ve attempted to read superhero graphic novels, but am inevitably disappointed. But that’s, in part, because the women are refrigerated. And also all the characters seem to lack depth, in general, to me. Because of my limited knowledge, I didn’t get all Valente’s inside clues as to who these women really are. I know they correlate to superhero characters, because I read an interview with Valente where she said that, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough about comics. However, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.

Book cover of The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Published February 28th, 2017. Rating: 4.5/5

This is such an amazing novel, receiving a lot of well-deserved attention.

In case you’ve missed all the novel’s hype, 16-year-old Starr witnesses a cop murder her friend Khalil. She’s the only witness. And when the media starts portraying Khalil as a stereotype, and her neighborhood rises to protest his death, Starr decides she needs to let the world know the Khalil she knew, and her story of the shooting.

Meanwhile, Starr is struggling with friendships as the only black girl in the school she attends as well as her relationship with a (fantastic) white boy who goes to the same school. She has one voice when she’s in Garden Heights, and another at school. And then she’s got such a rich and wonderful family; I loved them all. It’s fantastic to see a YA novel with loving, caring parents, and especially a black family (since the media often portrays black families as ‘broken.) Starr’s dad is a Black Panthers’ fanatic, and wants to rebuild Garden Heights, starting with his grocery store. Her mom is a full-time nurse and has such a wonderful sense of humor. Her little brother is a brat, as all little brothers are, and her half-brother Seven is part brat and part protector. Uncle Carl is a police officer who loves them as his own. So Starr knows not all officers see a black man and assume his life is worth less than theirs. Her uncle isn’t like that, but that doesn’t help her anger.

Angie Thomas is a stellar writer. You could really hear the characters’ voices, and the pacing is fast but also nuanced. This is one of those books I think everybody needs to read.

Book cover of Night of the Animals by Bill BrounNight of the Animals by Bill Broun. Published July 2016. Rating: 2.5/5

Well, that was weird! And I like weird. But the pacing was weird too, and while I dig weird content, it rambled in some places, and breezed over really important developments in others.

The main character, Cuthbert, is a 90-year-old addict who hears animals talking. And he’s convinced his long-dead brother Drystan is an otter. In this future dystopia, animals are rapidly becoming extinct, and to make matters worse, a pervasive suicide cult tries to kill off the remaining animals. The animals ask Cuthbert to release the animals in the London Zoo, which is the last remaining zoo.

Interspersed with Cuthbert’s story is that of Dr. Bajwa, his psychiatric doctor, and Astrid, a police inspector.

In the beginning the pace is sluggish, with flashbacks to Cuthbert’s childhood, his struggles with Flot addiction, and his visits with Dr. Bajwa. It takes FOREVER to get to the zoo breakout. And then suddenly all the plot developments happen. Astrid and her motivations are given cursory explanation, and then once she and Cuthbert start interacting it’s like reading an acid trip (I guess. Not really speaking from experience here!). But some things really needed development.

And what’s with the footnotes? I could easily understand all the footnoted terms in context.

I don’t regret reading this. I enjoyed Cuthbert as an unreliable narrator, and I actually wish the authorial voice had stepped in less often during his pov chapters, so I could fully question what was real vs. what Cuthbert imagined was real. Cuthbert is a loveable guy, and I enjoyed his character. I also love animals, so that was fun. (Though some of the philosophical discussions with Muezza the sand cat could’ve been cut.)

Short Story Collections

Book cover of The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob WeismanThe New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. Published August 8th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

An excellent collection of contemporary fantasy short stories. I’d already read 8 out of the 19 stories, but I enjoyed rereading them. I’d also already read 15 of the authors, so it’s nice to know I’m keeping up with new fantasy authors!

If you’re on the hunt for some new authors, this is a great collection to read. It’s also interesting to note that of the 19 stories, only 2 were 2nd world fantasy. The other 17 stories were rooted in this world. But what all of these stories tend to do is use fantasy as a metaphor for something about living, and I love that. There are some really powerful stories in this collection. You can also check out my reviews of each story. Many of them are excellent.

Fairytale Collections

Book cover for Italian Folktales by Italo CalvinoItalian Folktales compiled by Italo Calvino. First published in 1956. Rating: 5/5 A New Favorite!

Wow! It’s hard to even know where to begin reviewing this collection. I started reading it in 2015 for a group read, and finished about a third it then. I set it aside meaning to return to it, but never did. At the start of this year, I decided I would read 10 fairy tales from it between every print book I finished. And 7 months later, I’m finished! I enjoyed the process so much I’m going to start doing that with another fairytale collection.

And I literally read it to pieces. Both the front and back cover have torn off, and now a chunk at the beginning fell out. I’m going to have to upgrade to a hardback version!

These tales are magical. If you’re someone only familiar with the Grimms, you have to read this. Or any fairytale fan needs to read this. Or if you think you’re not a fairytale fan, then maybe you should read this.

So much fun and weirdness.

Nonfiction

Book cover of Women Who Read Are DangerousWomen Who Read Are Dangerous by Stefan Bollman. Published in 2008. Rating: 4/5

More than anything, this is an art book. The forward by Karen Joy Fowler provides a general overview of the history of women who read, while the rest of the book shows artwork that depicts women with books, and a brief commentary and interpretation of the art by, I assume, Stefan Bollmann. I did not always agree with his interpretations, but I loved looking at the art and making up my own stories about the women painted, and how the painting came to be. That’s what drew me to the book in the first place. It would make a really great coffee table book.

 

What good books did you read last month?

Wonder Woman

Books to Read if You Like Wonder Woman

This is a repost. I originally published this article for Book Riot.

My introduction to Wonder Woman was the animated Justice League TV series. She was my hero. I mean, she’s such a badass in that show, constantly swooping in and flying a grumpy Batman around. Should I confess to having dreams where I’m Wonder Woman, flying and fighting and saving the world? Oops, too late now.

If you’re wanting more badass women like Wonder Woman in your reading life (and why wouldn’t you?), here are 15 books featuring Amazonian warriors, gunslingers, and feminist fighters of many stripes, and in many genres.

Book Cover of Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh BardugoWonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo. This is the most obvious pick. The author of Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows writes the first Wonder Woman novel in the DC Icons series. To be released August 29th.

Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen. Born an Amazon, Jenna chooses the warrior’s path. Is she the one foretold in prophecy? Will she change the lives of her fellow Amazons, and if so, in what way?

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente. A gunslinging Snow White treks across the west to escape her evil stepmother.

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. A retelling of events from the Mahabharat from a female perspective, Panchaali, the wife of 5 brothers, is destined to cause a world-destroying war.

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen by Hope Nicholson. A history of women superheroes, that of course also features Wonder Woman.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Vasilisa Petrovna’s independent and adventurous spirit sets her apart in her patriarchal Russian village. But as fairy tales turn into reality, she may be their only hope.

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor. A very readable and well-researched history of badass early women rulers in England.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. A young Tan-Tan loves to pretend to be the Robber Queen, but when she’s stranded on another planet after her father commits a crime, she really becomes the Robber Queen.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Breq, a starship’s consciousness in human form, seeks revenge. But as she encounters people and memories from her past, her revenge turns into something more complicated, more like protection. This is the first in a completed trilogy.

The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis. In an apocalyptic future, Elka flees across a landscape straight out of a Western in order to escape her serial killer adoptive father and the woman who hunts him.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. After being chosen by the Dragon, a magician, Agnieszka is forced to live with him in his tower. As her own magical powers develop, corruption spreads in the woods surrounding her village. Can she protect her people?

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. A fantasy romp set in Regency era England, where two magicians — Zacharias and Prunella — try to discover why England is losing magic. But even though Zacharias is meant to be the teacher and Prunella the student, her magic far surpasses anything he’s ever seen.

 

Book Cover of Forgotten Queens of Islam by Fatima MernissiForgotten Queens of Islam by Fatema Mernissi translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. A nonfiction history of some of the awesome, powerful women in Islam.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black. Hazel has a secret only she and her brother Ben knows: she’s a knight who fights evil fae creatures. When the mysterious horned boy trapped in a glass coffin disappears, strange things start occurring, even more strange than usual in this town where the fae and humans live side by side.

Want to read a Wonder Woman graphic novel? Charles Paul Hoffman has suggestions.

What books would you add to this list?

Shelves of fairy tale books.

Reading Railroad: June’s Reading

I only read 5 books in June, wah wah wah. I read 11 in May, so maybe it evens out? I’ll have to do better in July.

Novels

Mama DayBook cover for Mama Day by Gloria Naylor by Gloria Naylor. Published 1989. A really mixed read for me. On the one hand, Naylor writes a wonderful, hilarious character in Mama Day, a 90-year-old respected healer in the small Georgia island she lives on. She and her sister Abigail carry a sorrowful history between them, but manage a productivity that rivals people half their age. And they’re very funny. And then there’s Cocoa/Ophelia, Abigail’s granddaughter, and her beau George. Cocoa and George live in New York City, and could not be more stereotyped and boring. I hated reading their chapters, and wish I could’ve just stayed with Mama Day, who had a much more interesting personality, and much more interesting things going on. Overall, I’m glad I read it for the Mama Day sections, and I enjoyed the small town island life and the unique characters that lived there. But I was truly bored and fed up with the Cocoa/George sections. I almost quit reading because of them. 2.5/5

BannerlessBook cover of Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn by Carrie Vaughn. Published July 11th, 2017. This is marketed as a dystopia, but I actually didn’t find the post-apocalyptic society particularly dystopian. In fact, it’s pretty stable and egalitarian. I would live in this future, except minus all the past deaths due to environmental collapse, of course. Enid is an investigator, and she and her friend and fellow investigator Tomas travel to what looks like an idyllic town to investigate a rare murder. The title comes from the banners awarded households who have contributed to their community enough to be able to support a child. The banners allow households to have children, but only the households who can contribute. So a household where no one works wouldn’t be awarded a banner. At the age of 12, girls are put on birth control. When a household receives a banner, an adult woman is chosen to have her birth control removed until she conceives. There are ways to spin that as dystopian, but in the world of the novel, it seems perfectly practical. The banners did make me wonder about the households with family members who are unable to contribute to earning a banner — those unable to work due to disability. However, disabled people apparently don’t exist in this world. The murder mystery was a bit unmysterious, but it still kept me reading. I enjoyed the setting and Enid’s character enough to want to know what happened next. The world building is clunky in the beginning, but once it settles into a story, it’s a fun read. Thanks to Netgalley and John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 3.5/5

Book cover of The Wood Wife by Terri WindlingThe Wood Wife by Terri Windling. Published in 2003. This is one of those wonderful, contemporary mythic novels that blurs the boundaries between reality and folklore. I went through a phase where I only wanted my folklore in vaguely historical realms — much like the stories themselves — but lately I’ve begun preferring them mixed into contemporary life and living. Maybe this mirrors my own self now, a folklore lover that also works 3 jobs, lives in a city, and wants to know there can still be some magic in my life. In The Wood Wife, writer Maggie inherits the remote Arizona home of her favorite poet Cooper, who she’s never met but has been corresponding with for a long time. She fell in love with his poetry collection The Wood Wife, and ever since the two have exchanged letters. And can I just say, I want to read all of this fictional poetry collection! Windling gives little snippets, but not enough for me. It reminded me of Songs for Ophelia by Theodora Goss, but with an underlying story to each poem. Maggie is a city-smart cosmopolitan traveler, yet she ends up falling in love with Arizona. In Cooper’s house, she finds snippets of poems, and also a room full of the magical paintings of Cooper’s long deceased wife, Anna Naverra (whose work is often compared to Leonora Carrington, one of my favorite artists). Anna’s paintings and Cooper’s poems hint at magical and folkloric creatures that haunt the Arizona wilderness. And a mystery that Maggie must solve. If you like art and folklore in your fiction, then you’re bound to enjoy this. It reminded me a lot of Charles de Lint, particularly Memory and Dream, as well as the newish novel Roses and Rot by Kat Howard. 4/5

Book cover for The Changeling by Victor LaValleThe Changeling by Victor LaValle. Published June 13, 2017. It’s difficult to review this book, because the action that propels the ‘horror’ in this novel occurs well into the plot. But you know changeling folklore, right? If you don’t, essentially, goblins steal a newborn child and leave a look-alike in the baby’s place. The parents then have to trick the baby-goblin into revealing itself. Apollo, the main character in The Changeling, knows this folklore from a book his absent father gave him before he disappeared, Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. This is my favorite Maurice Sendak children’s book. Apollo lives in New York City, and works as a book dealer. He falls in love with Emma at a library. She’s a librarian. So lots of bookish references to enjoy! While marketed as a horror novel, it’s a light one. The tone is easy, Apollo funny and relatable, and while there’s a supernatural creature and bloody scenes, I never felt scared. Or alarmed. However, if you have issues with violence against children, you may want to skip this one. Oddly, I enjoyed reading the first half more than the second, even though the main action doesn’t start until well into the novel. I enjoyed Apollo’s voice and reading about his life and his relationship with Emma, and his experience being a ‘new father,’ aka dads who actually spend time with their kids. Maybe I enjoyed reading the first half since those are things I’m looking forward to experiencing soon! I recommend this to anyone who likes folklore mixed into modern settings, and who doesn’t mind a little bit of horror. Thanks to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 4/5

Short Story Collections

Magazine cover for Uncanny Magazine Issue 16Uncanny Magazine Issue 16. Published May 2, 2017. In this issue, stories shift between talking swords, vampires, and body enhancements, but all focus on self-identity and how others perceive us. I especially enjoyed Hiromi Goto’s “Notes from Liminal Spaces,” which is liminal in many ways. Extra nonfiction essays appear in this issue — 10 total! They range from political advice to SFF commentary. My favorite of these was the very last — “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball” by DongWon Song, about food and colonization in SFF. Of the poems, Theodora Goss once again writes a lovely, perfect poem in “Seven Shoes,” a poem about the magical bargains we make, and how often life moves in such a way that we may forget them. I highly recommend these 3 in particular. My review of each story is posted on Goodreads. 4/5

What did you read in June?

Image of my Bookshelves

Best Books of the Year…So Far

Wow, halfway through the year already! I’m a little behind on my reading goal of 100 books; so far, I’ve read 45. However, that’s not a big enough gap for me to worry. I think I’ll still make my goal.

Also, I’ve only given 2 books 5 stars this year! By the end of last year, I’d given 8 books 5 stars. Hmm. Maybe that means I’m going to read some really awesome books the rest of this year?

Here are my 2 lists: my top five reads published in 2017, and my top five reads of the year so far regardless of publication date.

Top 5 Published in 2017

Book Cover of Exit West by Mohsin HamidBook Cover of The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine ArdenBook Cover of The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Refugees, war; magic doors, love. A must read for the year.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I read this last year, but it was published in January. Features fairy tales set in historical Russia, with a rebellious protagonist. Atmospheric and fun.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. Space! Except, not space. Rather, a psychological study of astronauts in a simulation to Mars. Very interesting. I preferred it to The Martian because of the character depth, but it’s supposedly a similar read.

Book Cover of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

Book Cover of Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. A collection of short stories about — you guessed it — djinn! And no, not like in Aladdin, though a few do come out of lamps. Some of these stories still haunt me, even though I read it early this year.

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages. Short stories with subtle hints of magic. Most of these feature YA characters, but can be enjoyed whatever your age.

I’ve only read 12 books published in 2017, so not that many. All but Exit West came from Netgalley. Since I work at a used bookstore, I tend to be a year or two behind recent releases. However, I have 5 queued up in Netgalley (and many more requested), and there are 3 more I know I’m going to want to buy, and I can’t wait to read. I will at least double that number by the end of the year.

Top 5 of the Year So Far, Regardless of Publication Date

Book Cover of Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner

Book Cover of A Monster Calls by Patrick NessBook Cover of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States, Enlarged Edition by Eleanor Flexner. A history of women’s suffrage in the United States. Broad in scope, and very informative. The first of my 5 star ratings.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. A YA novel that made me cry A LOT! Magical and wise, and the illustrations by Jim Kay are great. I still haven’t seen the movie, but the book’s so good I’m not really that interested in the movie. This is the 2nd of my 5 star ratings.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. A fairy tale set in 1920s Alaska. Beautifully written. Ivey is now on my ‘read everything she writes’ list.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin.

Both of these 2017 reads made this list too! But will they make the end of the year best of list???

What have been your favorite books of the year so far?