Book Review of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho


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Title and Author: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Publication Date: September 2015

Genre: Fantasy

How I got it: Originally read the eBook from the library, but recently won the OSPB copy from the Mookychick website. Thanks Mookychick!

 

Review:

Sorcerer to the Crown is an absolute blast.

Set in regency era England, Zacharias is a freed slave, and a sorcerer. His adopted father Stephen, Sorcerer Royal and member of England’s exalted group of sorcerers, freed Zacharias as a child and raised him as his own son, training him in magic. At Stephen’s death, Zacharias takes up the staff of Sorcerer Royal, but despite his obvious abilities and overwhelming kindness, many in the society despise him because of the color of his skin. Yet he is above all else noble, so even in the face of discrimination and pettiness, he acts with benevolence and generosity, which can be infuriating sometimes! His greatest strength as a human being is also his Achilles heel—nobility can be taken too far, and in a society ready to take advantage of those seen as ‘lesser beings,’ his self-sacrificing nature is abused by many.

The signed book I won from the Mookychik website. Love the little illustration!
The signed book I won from the Mookychik website. Love the illustration!

Magic has become scarce in England, and Zacharias knows that the fairy realm—where magic comes from—must be the cause. As a favor to a friend, on his way to the border between England and fairyland to investigate, he stops by a magic school for girls to give a speech. Women, especially ladies, aren’t allowed to practice magic, so at the school the girls are taught how to suppress their magical tendencies, in ways that are often dangerous. Horrified by what he sees, Zacharias decides reform is essential, and he must start a school so women can properly learn magic and take their places beside male sorcerers.

Enter Prunella, just the woman to be his first student. Of mixed heritage, she’s spunky as hell, and the smartest, most talented magician Zacharias, or England, has ever seen. When she follows him to the border of fairyland, she takes over his story and shows how women can be the masters of their own destinies, not merely the sidekick and helper. With magical familiars of her own, she’s ready to take on the world. Where Zacharias is noble, self-sacrificing, and prudish, Prunella is arrogant, driven, and a blast. She’s exactly what England and Zacharias need, and her arrogance is balanced by compassion, something both she and Zacharias share. But this is no romance. Sorcerer to the Crown is an adventure story.

It’s impossible not to make comparisons between Sorcerer and the Crown and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, since both are set in Regency England during a magic shortage. Sorcerer contains everything that’s missing from Strange—women, POC, multicultural magic. And it’s a more engaging and driven narrative. I’ve never heard anyone say of Strange, “Well, that was a lot of fun!” but it’s impossible not to say that about Sorcerer. Obviously, fun is not the end all be all of fiction; I enjoy a lot of giant, slow books. And I admire Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, but if you left Strange with reservations (like I did), then you should definitely check out Sorcerer. It doesn’t adhere as much to the language style of Regency-era England as Strange does, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it definitely makes it more approachable. Its approachability makes me think it would make a great gateway fiction between YA and adult fiction, for those teens who loved Harry Potter and the like, but are ready to venture away from the YA shelves.

But whether you’re an adult or a teen, if you love fantasy, or even less obvious fantasies like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, then you should read Sorcerer to the Crown. Because of its fast, engaging pace, it’d make a great airport or beach read, or that kind of read to get you through that hump when you haven’t been able to finish anything for a while.

On a side note, this is just the kind of fantasy I wish I saw more of on the big screen. Would make an awesome film.

 

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Review of Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman


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Title and Author: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

Publication Date: February 2015

Genre: Short Story Collection, Speculative Fiction

How I got it: Bought from Amazon when it went on a kindle daily deal

 

Review:

Trigger Warning is full of the creepy and unsettling. With a few exceptions, these short stories and poems give voice to characters who are often voiceless—children and elderly, dwarfs and statues, fairytale princesses and imaginary friends. Even with those few stories that depict an already well-voiced character—such as Sherlock Holmes in “The Case of Death and Honey”—Gaiman does so in unique ways. For instance, the aforementioned story mixes the voice of a retired Sherlock Holmes obsessed with beekeeping with that of a rural Chinese beekeeper who isn’t very popular in his village. It’s an unusual combination, that absolutely works.

Here's an illustration from the print version of this tale by Eddie Campbell.
Here’s an illustration from the stand-alone print version of this tale by Eddie Campbell.

If I had to pick a favorite in the collection, it would be “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” a heartbreaking, morally ambiguous, treasure hunting tale. This is a reprint, but despite having read 2/3rds of the stories in this collection, I had somehow missed this one. The story opens with a dwarf going to a farm, and asking a man to be his guide to the cave in the black mountains that’s filled with treasure. But what seems like a fairly straight forward treasure quest is anything but, and Gaiman’s melancholy tone sets that up from the very beginning, before the reader knows what’s going on. I’m not often surprised by twists, and I did figure out the twist before the climax, but it still made my stomach flip, in a good way. This is the kind of story you’re going to want to discuss with someone else after you’ve read it (thankfully, a coworker who’d read the collection obliged).

Apparently, Gaiman has read this story with an orchestra and illustrations. I would love to listen to that! He’s a wonderful reader. When he came to Nashville, I went and heard him read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was a stormy night, and his voice combined with the thunder and the passage he read gave me goosebumps. If you’ve never heard him read before, go listen to some YouTube videos. Here’s him reading “Click Clack the Rattlebag,” another scary story from this collection.

Many of the stories are reprints, and one I remembered quite well from the first time I read it is the super creepy “Feminine Endings,” which I originally read in Nightmare Magazine. And it’s still just a creepy. In this story, a man who works as a human statue writes a love letter to a woman he sees in the park, and boy is this one love letter I NEVER WANT TO RECEIVE. I love Gaiman’s horror because he doesn’t go for the sudden shock, but rather the gradual build-up of unease. Despite having read the story first many years ago, I still remembered practically every detail. Shiver.

Another reprint I had not yet read is “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” a fairytale retelling that turns the passive fairytale princesses Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into not so passive agents of their own futures. It’s absurd this was my first reading of it, since I’m such a fairytale fan(atic). When I got to this story in the collection, I decided to read the version illustrated by Chris Riddell, and the illustrations are lovely. The story is A+, but it’s definitely worth checking out the illustrated version. I bought it when it came out, but when I read Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, which is essentially a translation of the tale versus a short story retelling it, I assumed “The Sleeper and the Spindle” was the same. But I was quite wrong! The story is utterly original and empowering, and the art intricate and memorable.

There were many more I loved. I’ve already mentioned the Sherlock Homes story, but there’s also a Doctor Who one (oh, nerdy delight!), and I also enjoyed “Black Dog,” which features Shadow from American Gods, I loved this novelette.

Obviously, with so many favorites, Trigger Warning is an excellent collection. Even though I’d already read many of the stories, I enjoyed revisiting them. Neil Gaiman is a master at short stories. While certainly those who already appreciate Neil Gaiman’s fiction should read this, it would also make a great entry point for those unfamiliar with his writing.

Rating: 4/5

Writing from Experience, or Exploring Something New


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A path I walked at Smoky Mountains National Park

Several friends and I have recently discussed whether writers can and should write outside their experience. For me, becoming someone else, experiencing the world through different ways of perceiving, is what makes writing a joy. But my friends argue that only those who have experienced something can write truly about it, and that the best writing comes from experience.

Ultimately, I feel like every writer is different. Some writers write to discover more about themselves, and their experiences, and how those relate to the world. Other writers write to explore other people, how their minds work, how they experience the world differently. And probably most writers are somewhere in between.

This idea applies to reading as well. Do you read to understand yourself and your experiences better, or others? Do you prefer to read about characters that mirror your own ideologies and cultural backgrounds, or do you prefer characters that are quite different from you? Or somewhere in between?

All readers and writers sift things through their own unique way of perceiving, so in that way, all reading and writing comes from experience, in that our experience dictates our perception. But I do disagree with the idea that categorically writers can only write well and truly about things they’ve experienced.

An example that comes to mind of writing outside experience is Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, an incredibly disturbing novel about necrophilia. Assuming that McCarthy has no experience with necrophilia (it’s safe to assume that, right?), he creates a disturbing, spine-crawlingly necrophiliac character, from his imagination. I can’t imagine the empathy that must’ve gone into creating a character like that. Yes, empathy. To create a person, to write a person, requires sustained empathy, particularly if you’re writing outside your experience. And to read a character like that requires empathy as well, which is what makes that novel such an uncomfortable read.

To shift ideas a little, cultural appropriation can be a possible problem with writing outside of experience. When is it, for lack of a better word, colonizing other people’s lived experience, and when is it creating a diverse cast of characters? I don’t have an answer. I only know I must read and write what comes to me, and make damn sure to do my research.

Here are some other writers’ thoughts on reading or writing what we know versus venturing outside the known. 

 

–Terry Tempest Williams. From Terri Windling’s blog post “Writing from the Center” 

“The writers who touch me, who move me, are the writers who are generous not just with what they know, but also with what they don’t know….It’s that kind of honesty, that generosity of spirit that I ask of writers. And it’s difficult, because you have to be thoughtful, taking nothing for granted, and you have to be willing to risk everything, to write against your instincts.”

 

–Zoe Heller, from the New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?” 

“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.”

 

— Mohsin Hamid, from the same New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?”  

“It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know. But I also write about things I haven’t experienced. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, of a global surveillance system, of a writer who is being beheaded. I write these things because I want to transcend my experiences. I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn’t just my mirror, it’s my astral projection device. I suspect it’s like that for most of us.

In the end, what we know isn’t a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told.

A human self is made up of stories. These stories are rooted partly in experience, and partly in fantasy. The power of fiction lies in its capacity to gaze upon this odd circumstance of our existence, to allow us to play with the conundrum that we are making ourselves up as we go along.”

 

–Jim C. Hines, from his blog post “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other” 

“It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong.”

 

–Malinda Lo, from her blog post “Should white people write about people of color?” 

“This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to blithely write whatever the hell you want about a culture that isn’t yours. Writers who are writing outside of their culture do have to work extra hard to research that culture, because they have much farther to go to get to the kind of instinctual knowledge of it that allows someone to hear my Chinese name and feel that it sounds poetic.”

 

– Jennifer Finney Boylan, from a New York Times article “Bring Moral Imagination Back in Style.” The post is about politics, but seemed relevant anyway. 

“It didn’t occur to me that imagining the humanity of people other than myself was my responsibility. And yet the root cause of so much grief is our failure to do just that.

Edmund Burke called this the “moral imagination,” the idea that our ethics should transcend our own personal experience and embrace the dignity of the human race.”

 

–Jonathan Franzen, from an interview on Slate

“I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”

 

— Beryl Bainbridge, from The Guardian article “On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft”  

“The only reason I wanted to write was to write down my childhood, to write about things I knew, the people I knew . . . I don’t believe anybody makes anything up, there’s no such thing as the imagination. I mean people may say they don’t know where the story came from, but they must do . . . there’s nothing you can make up. In general, you’re recalling memories I think, and that’s the only thing that interested me about writing.”

 

–Mary Robinette Kowal, from her blog post “Bad Writing Advice explained”

Write what you know

  • What people think it means: People think this means that authors should stick to subjects they have personal experience with.
  • What it actually means: When you don’t know a subject, such as what it’s like to live on Mars, you extrapolate from your own personal experience. Never lived on Mars? No. But I have walked in a dusty place and seen the clouds of dust kick up around me. I’ve worn thick winter gloves, and know how hard it is to pick things up. I’ve been far away, without the ability to call home. When I combine what I know, with research, writing what I know can make a story more compelling.”

 

–Neil Gaiman on reading, though I think it also applies to writing. Found on Brain Pickings

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

What do you think?

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Book Review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child


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Title and Authors: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne

Publication Date: August 2016

Genre: Play

How I got it: Bought it used at the used bookstore I work at the day after publication!

 

Review:

As pretty much everyone who knows me knows, I’m a big Harry Potter fan.

My Harry Potter shrine
My Harry Potter shrine

I started reading HP as an adult. A college roommate had a small collection of books in the dorm room we shared, and since I’m such an avid reader, I read her entire library over the course of the summer. And among her library was Harry Potter, up to Goblet of Fire. After that, I bought every HP book the day it was published and read them by the following day.

Many people have written reviews for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I don’t know that I’ll add anything to the conversation that hasn’t already been said, but here it goes anyway. I’m not summarizing the play, because I assume everyone at this point knows the basic premise. Instead, I’m going to comment on the things I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy. Therefore—this review contains many spoilers! Beware!

I’ll start with the good parts.

I was immediately sucked back into the HP universe.

The trolley witch is awesome.

Yay for humanizing Slytherin! (Except, Scorpius isn’t particularly ambitious, is he?)

Scorpius is definitely my favorite character. He’s humane and interesting, and I’d read more about him. In fact, I kind of wish this play centered on him instead of Albus.

The special affects must be amazing in the theater.

Now for the bad. Here are the major spoilers, so don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t read the book yet!

Here’s a picture of me as Hermione to keep you from accidentally seeing spoilers.
Here’s a picture of me as Hermione at the bookstore I work at to keep you from accidentally seeing spoilers.

Honestly, there’s a lot that didn’t work for me. I know it’s a play, so there’s less time to develop plot and character, but there’s a lot of handy-wavy stuff going on here, and the women characters lack serious development.

Let’s start with the hand-wavy stuff. For instance, that trolley witch. The play makes her out to be a real badass, but then Albus and Scorpius immediately escape her. Why spend the time making her out to be so awesome? She just stands there while the boys escape.

And then there’s the time-turner. The entire plot depends on minor changes completely ruining people. I don’t believe for a second Cedric would turn into a death eater because of a single embarrassing moment. Or that Hermione would turn into a cruel teacher for similarly ridiculous reasons. More things would need to happen.

And speaking of Hermione, she would never be so dumb as to hide the time-turner in such an easily accessible way. This is just poor character development. I know, it’s a play, but I can think of other plays with large casts that still manage to make every character real and the plot complex.

Which brings me to the women characters. Rose is a huge problem. First, she’s presented as great friends with Albus, but then she immediately turns into a bully. In fact, in Sorcerer and the Stone, Hermione starts as a bully too. Why are the girl characters bullies? And Rose is so cowardly—she refuses to sit with Scorpius, yet she still manages to get into Gryffindor. And somehow, Scorpius loves her? Why? She has so little character development. She’s a caricature.

And once again, Ginny is relegated to the background. She’s the mother. Her relationship to her son doesn’t seem to matter at all.

There’s more issues with Hermione, too. She’s still doing Harry’s work for him, and there’s this really awkward scene where her nephew Albus uses polyjuice potion to disguise himself as Ron, and then kisses her a whole bunch to distract her. Maybe in a book this would’ve been funny, where Albus’s thoughts could’ve been presented, but it’s creepy in the play.

Yet, I still give it 3 stars, though the more I think about it, the less good it seems. It only took about 3 hours to read, and I enjoyed being back in the HP universe, so I guess that’s swaying my judgement here. But I expected better.

 

Rating: 3/5

Reading Railroad: July’s Reading


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Everything I read in July. 

Novels

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. Published in 2009. A pretty darn adorable middle grade novel that’s also illustrated by the author. It would be perfect for reading aloud to 6-10 year olds, but it’s also a lot of fun to read as an adult. It’s based on Chinese folklore, and tells of how Minli travels to find the Man on the Moon to discover how to make her family a fortune, and on her way rescues a dragon, frees a talking goldfish, and meets a king, among other adventures. Read my full review on Goodreads. 4.5/5

 

The Book of Heaven by Patricia Storace. Published in 2014. This book has a wonderful premise — feminist retellings of women in the bible, yet, if it weren’t for the synopsis, I would have no idea that these tales were from the Bible. Also, the 4 parts lack development, though there is some interesting and well written stuff. Read my full review on Goodreads. 2.5/5

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. Published in 1993. What a page-turner! It’s a post apocalyptic novel about a minister’s daughter, Lauren, who creates a religion and decides that surviving is more important than prayer. I’m surprised more people haven’t read this, with survivalism being such a hot theme. It’s such a compulsive read, both thought-provoking and energetic. Read my full review on Goodreads. 4.5/5

 

Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint. Published in 1998. According to some Native American mythology, the world began when Raven stirred his pot, pulling out the earth, the sky, and the animal people. In Newford, the animal people still walk the earth. And some humans have animal people blood running through their veins. A complex urban fantasy. Note that while this is book 5 in the Newford series, they can be read in any order. Read my full review on Goodreads. 4/5

 

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. Will be published in September 2016. What happens when the mythic intersects with the mundane? It changes everything, of course. Full review coming soon.

 

 

 

Nonfiction and Other

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey. Published in 2007. Poetry collection. The poems in this collection were hit and miss for me. They’re much more, well, modern than I’m used to, lacking the nostalgia (both in terms of form and content) of most collections I read. Obviously, given the title, that was Harvey’s intent, but honestly, a poem about ham flowers? (Look it up if you don’t know.) But there were some really intriguing poems in here as well. Harvey is certainly an inventive writer, and I’d read more from her despite feeling mostly iffy by the collection. Read my full review on Goodreads.  3/5

 

Short Stories and Collections

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. Published in 2015. Wonderful novelette that turns the passive Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into not so passive agents of their own futures. Chris Riddell does the artwork, and it is lovely. 5/5

 

 

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman. Published in 2015. Short story and poetry collection that’s full of the creepy and unsettling, but also some fantastic characters. It would make a great entry point for those unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman. For a more detailed review discussing favorite stories, check out my Goodreads review. I may post a more detailed review on this blog as well. 4/5

 

Uncanny Magazine Issue 11. Published in July 2016. Usually I notice a thread between stories in Uncanny’s issues, but I didn’t notice one this time around. My favorite pieces were: “Travels with the Snow Queen” by Kelly Link, a popular fairytale retelling I’ve read many times; “So you want to run a podcast” by Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, an essay about podcasting; and an unsettling poem about witches and neighbors by Jessica Wick called “Good neighbors”. This may be my least favorite issue, but I still enjoyed reading it. Read my full review on Goodreads. They’re also running a Kickstarter right now. I highly recommend the magazine. 3/5

 

“Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Read free online in Clarkesworld Magazine. Published April 2016. A father gives his son a paoxiao for his birthday, a creature that mimics others. The boy and his friends abuse the paoxiao, but when the boy becomes an adult he defies his father by becoming a scientist and the paoxiao becomes central to his research. 2.5/5