Book Review of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders


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Title and Author: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Publication Date: January 2016

Genre: Science fiction and fantasy

How I got it: Bought the print version off Amazon

 

Review:

All the Birds in the Sky, set in this mundane world of ours, mixes so many familiar speculative fiction ideas together in such a unique and weird way — and I mean that in the best possible way.

The Grizzly Giant in Yosemite National Park. Took this picture when we went there on our honeymoon.
Speaking of magical trees, here’s the Grizzly Giant in Yosemite National Park. I took this picture when we went there on our honeymoon, and it definitely felt like a magical tree.

The novel opens with six-year-old Patricia discovering she can talk to birds. And there’s an awesome magical tree. Birds and trees! Really, can’t score much higher than that (with me) for an opening. Fast forward and we meet Laurence, a bullied middle-schooler who has created a time-traveling wristwatch that can jump 2 seconds into the future, which is a bit of a let down but comes in handy when he sees a bully coming. He’s also working on an AI with a computer he created in his closet. He’s kind of a genius. He and Patricia go to the same school, and she’s just as much a victim of bullying as he. (WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN IN ALL MIDDLE SCHOOLS???) And she thinks she might be a witch. So we’ve got a computer genius and a witch as protagonists. When Laurence hires Patricia to convince his parents she’s his ‘hiking’ friend so they’ll get off his case about making friends, both their lives and futures take a turn.

Oh, and there’s an assassin school counselor who’s trying to take them both out because he claims they will bring about the apocalypse. Also, the assassin likes milkshakes.

Spot some common SF ideas yet? We’ve got time-travel, AI, magical trees, talking birds, witchcraft, and a possible apocalypse. Not so common when they’re all mixed together like this in an otherwise completely normal setting.

While the first 116 pages take place in this middle-school Hell, they’re adults in the rest of the novel. I’ve read reviews where readers had issues with this sudden leap in time, or it beginning with them as children, but I had no issues whatsoever with this. Sorry, but you can have kids with povs in adult novels. It’s really no big deal. We’ve all been young before, and go back thirty years in fiction and ya protagonists were absolutely normal. (I may be a bit biased since I’m working on a novel that does the same thing.) After middle school, Patricia and Laurence go their separate ways, but now, as adults, they ‘accidentally’ keep meeting, again and again, even though Patricia is a member of a witch society and Laurence is creating a machine that will transport people to another planet if the earth collapses. They shouldn’t have anything in common, yet they find each other around every corner. While their adult goals are at odds with one another, friendship re-blooms nonetheless, and maybe a bit more.

On top of mixing the apocalypse, AI, magic, and romance (calm down, it’s not too sappy), the novel is also philosophical. Take some of these lines:

“Well,” Patricia said. “A society that has to burn witches to hold itself together is a society that has already failed, and just doesn’t know it yet.” (This one probably needs to go up on my writing board)

“I don’t actually think that ethics are derived from principles. At all.” Patricia scooted a little closer again and touched his arm with a few cool fingertips. “I think that the most basic thing of ethics is being aware of how your actions affect others, and having an awareness of what they want and how they feel. And that’s always going to depend on who you’re dealing with.”

All the Birds in the Sky is an incredibly original and fun novel, and the mix of sci-fi and fantasy works really well, though I’ll admit it feels a bit messy at times, as experimental fiction often does. I like that feeling, but some might not. There are so many discussable topics. As a teacher, I would love to assign this in a university reading course, but it’d also be perfect for a book group. It’s one I plan on re-reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

The Fairy Tales behind 5 Awesome Films


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In no particular order…

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli makes many fantastic fairytale films, and I’m putting two on this list. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is written and directed by Takahata, who isn’t as well known, in the U.S. at least, as his fellow Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, I’ve only seen this film of his, though he’s directed 5 movies for the studio, and I kind of thought I’d seen most of their films. Obviously not! The Tale of the Princess Kaguya retells the fairy tale The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon-child (click PDF to read the full version), a really lovely Japanese tale I read first in Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation too, though I love some of the additions Takahata makes at the end. In this fairy tale, a bamboo cutter finds a miniature girl inside a bamboo shoot, and brings her home to his wife so they can raise her as their own daughter. The early scenes of her childhood in the film are so adorable. Wanting the best for his adopted daughter, the father decides to build a mansion for them to live in, though Kaguya would much rather stay in their little home, with her village friends. Beautiful, Kaguya attracts the attention of several suitors, but she would much rather never marry, remain with her family, and enjoy nature. This tale has a really interesting celestial twist at the end, as the title of the original suggests. The film’s lovely animation mimics Japanese silkscreen; the trailer doesn’t do it justice.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I hope you’ve already seen Howl’s Moving Castle, but if you haven’t, you need to. This was my very first Studio Ghibli film, a rental from Hastings in my undergrad, dorm-room days. I instantly fell in love with it, and the very next day went to the library and checked out the book it’s based on–Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, a middle grade novel. Both the film and novel include many fairytale tropes, but in particular they subvert Beauty and the Beast. When the main character, Sophia, is cursed by a witch, she turns into an old woman. She joins Howl in his Baba-Yaga steampunk house, and you’ll never guess it, but Howl can transform into a beast. Actually, there are a bunch of transformations, not just Sophia and Howl. Both versions are excellent, though I admit to liking the movie a bit more than the novel. The steampunk animation is awesome, and it was my first Studio Ghibli film, after all.

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is super adorable, and I find myself whistling that theme song ALL OF THE TIME. In case you don’t know, selkies are seals that can transform into humans. A lot of selkie fairy tales describe a seal transforming into a beautiful woman and a man falling in love with her and stealing her seal skin. The two have children, but the selkie wife can’t live away from the ocean, and she becomes more and more unhappy. Then one day one of her children finds her seal skin, and she returns back to the sea. Here’s one such story, though there are many. Sometimes the selkies are male, sometimes they steal humans who come too close to the water, sometimes they save the drowning. There are many, many selkie tales. I highly recommend reading The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend, if you’re interested in selkie legends. Song of the Sea takes up the story after the selkie wife presumably dies in childbirth, leaving behind two children. The eldest, Ben, misses his mother desperately and blames his little sister Saoirse for her death. But he also loves his sister. When Saoirse finds a seal skin that fits her perfectly, their grandmother rushes them to the city, trying to keep them away from the magic that killed their mother. But you can’t fight who you are. This is directed by the same person, Tomm Moore, who made The Secret of Kells, also a fantastic movie. Go watch both!

Ex Machina

All right, now for some adult movies. When I went to see Ex Machina in the theaters, I had no idea it had any fairytale connections. I love artsy sci-fi films, so that’s why I went to see it. By the time it got to the end I was so excited. Bluebeard! In a sci-fi movie! The most famous version of Bluebeard was penned by Charles Perrault in 17th century France. Lots of people tell me they’ve never heard of the tale until I give them the plot. Ever heard of that story where a girl marries this guy she knows nothing about, and she’s allowed in any room in his castle except one? And of course she opens it while he’s gone, and discovers the bodies of all his previous wives? Well, Bluebeard is that story. I also really enjoy two versions collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Fitcher’s Bird and The Robber Bridegroom. Highly recommend reading all of them. Once you’re familiar with the tale, you’ll start spotting this motif in a lot of movies and novels, particularity if you’re into horror and thrillers. I don’t want to go into too many details about how Ex Machina subverts Bluebeard (as well as the idea of a male savior sweeping in to save the princess), but it’s definitely an interesting take on the tale.

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is a classic based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story of the same name. If you’re unfamiliar with HCA, he’s a 19th century Dutch writer that infused Christian morality in his fairytale inspired short stories. Often, his tales illuminate the conditions of the poor and destitute, and many are so famous that people mistakenly believe they’re from an oral tradition, like Little Mermaid. If you haven’t read the original version of Little Mermaid, prepare yourself for one depressing read. In fact, all of HCA’s stories are depressing, but they can also be quite lovely. The Red Shoes is one of my favorites by him. It’s very simple: a little girl falls in love with pair of red shoes, and even though her grandmother tells her not to wear them to church, she does so. When she puts them on she can’t stop dancing, and eventually, well, I don’t want to ruin the story for you. It’s super short, so go read it! The movie version centers on a ballet dancer, Vicky, who eventually dances in a ballet of HCA’s The Red Shoes, so it gets all meta. She loves a composer, but she also loves dancing. How can she choose between the two? I end up rewatching this one about once a year.

What are some of your favorite fairytale films?

Book Review of Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle


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Title and Author: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Publication Date: September 6th, 2016

Genre: Mythic

How I got it: NetGalley. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review:

What happens when the mythic intersects with the mundane?

Everything changes, of course.

Summerlong takes a modern look at the Persephone and Hades myth. Most people know Peter S. Beagle from his most famous work, The Last Unicorn, but Summerlong is not the same kind of fantasy. It reminds me more of Beagle’s first novel, A Fine & Private Place, where ghosts try to remember the past in the cemetery they’ve been buried in. Both are gentle, character-driven novels, and both make you think.

Summerlong explores the relationship between two characters, Abe and Joanna. Abe is a retired professor working on a book of medieval history and Joanna is a stewardess nearing retirement. They’ve organized their relationship exactly how they want it: dating but not married, a comfortably bickering dialog, and a solid sex-life. But while everything’s as they want it, nothing adventurous ever happens.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, 1482
Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, 1482

Until Lioness arrives, a new waitress at their regular restaurant Sky-liner. Abe coins her ‘primavera’ because she looks like Botticelli’s Primavera, and they’re both immediately enraptured with her. By the end of their dinner, they’ve convinced her to move into Abe’s garage, for she has nowhere to stay and longs to be warm again. Both Joanna and Abe believe she must be hiding from someone.

Neither Abe nor Joanna notice the magic at first, but bit by bit strange things start happening: orcas come to greet Lioness and leave after she speaks to them in her own language, which Abe and Joanna believe is Greek; Abe’s homemade beer turns out perfect for the first time ever; Abe sees the little boy that lives next door pull flowers from beneath the ground to show Lioness. And summer stays on Gardner Island (in the Northwest U.S.), even as the months pass.

No one falls under Lioness’s unintentional spell more than Joanna’s daughter, Lily, a love that Lioness kindly and gently does not return. There are one or two touching scenes between them, but I do wish Lily’s character had been as well developed as Abe’s and Joanna’s, for she’s integral to the climax.

While the magic slowly builds, both Abe and Joanna find talents they were never brave enough to explore. Abe begins playing harmonica for a band, and Joanna learns how to kayak. When Mr. Mardikian, a strange man Joanna has met on the ferry, goes to Sky-liner restaurant with the couple, everything comes to a head. When Lioness sees him, she runs, and Abe runs after her. What happens next alters the relationships so carefully built between all the characters.

There’s a lot to like in Summerlong. Abe and Joanna have a rich and realistic relationship, and I love to see older couples as complex characters instead of stereotypes, and main characters at that. The changes Lioness brings to their lives is gradual and well-developed, and I love the bits of magic that gradually builds. But at key moments Beagle fails to show the magic, which undermines the gradual buildup. I’m not sure why these scenes are missing and only related in retrospect, but I was so disappointed. I wanted to experience what happened with the characters!

Readers who love quiet, mythic fiction, like Patricia McKillips’ Something Rich and Strange and Swim the Moon by Paul Brandon, will enjoy Summerlong. This is not high fantasy, like The Last Unicorn, but mythic fantasy, so if you’re picking it up to experience an entirely different world, you’ll be disappointed. But why not branch out to explore the ways fantasy can be employed in this ordinary world of ours? It’s worth it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reading Railroad: August’s Reading


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Everything I read in August.

Novels

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Published in 2013. Dragons! ROAR. Sorry, just wanted to roar right there. This book takes place in a country much like England, during a time much like the Victorian era. Lady Trent describes her beginnings as a dragon naturalist, and her first trip to study dragons in Vystrana. But she finds more to study than just dragon biology, for the dragons have mysteriously started killing people, and there are other mysteries besides. Overall, fun book. I read it for a book club, and liked it enough to eventually check out book 2. My full review is on Goodreads. 3.5/5

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord. Published in 2010. Yay, folklore I’m unfamiliar with! Paama is a marvelous cook who’s married to a glutton. When some djomba notice how deftly she deals with her husband, they give her the chaos stick, and from there magic happens. Redemption in Indigo is based on Sengalese folklore. It’s told a bit simply for my tastes, but has that oral folklore feel. 3.5/5

 

 

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. Published 1998. Post-apocalypse, book 2 in a series. Wow. So much rape. I mean, far more than book 1, Parable of the Sower, which I really liked despite the darkness. Book 2 was too much for me. And the politics were frighteningly relevant. Jarret has some disturbing parallels to Trump. Here’s one of the Parables of Earthseed from this novel, for all of us to think about during election season:

 

 

Choose your leaders
with wisdom and
forethought.
To be led by a coward
is to be controlled
by all that coward fears.
To be led by a fool
is to be led
by the opportunists
who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
is to offer up
your most precious treasures
to be stolen.
To be led by a liar
is to ask
to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant
is to sell yourself
and those you love
into slavery.

Overall, I didn’t like this one near as much as book 1, for several reasons. You can read my full review on Goodreads. 2/5

Nonfiction and Other

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling. Published in July 2016. Mainly, I enjoyed being back in that universe again. I wrote a full review right here on this blog. Check it out, but only if you’ve already read it. 3/5

 

 

 

 

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks. Published in 1994. “When we, as educators, allow our pedagogy to be radically changed by our recognition of a multicultural world, we can give students the education they desire and deserve. We can teach in ways that transform consciousness, creating a climate of free expression that is the essence of a truly liberatory liberal arts education.” An excellent discussion of teaching, that certainly got my mind revved up for the fall semester. I wrote a detailed review over on Goodreads. 4/5

Poetry and Short Story Collections

Roofwalker by Susan Power. Published in 2004. Highly recommend for anyone who enjoys short stories, magical realism, and Native American history. This collection includes seven short stories and five histories. The short stories explore how Native Americans have adapted to Anglo-European America, both in the past and the present. Power tells stories about the mythic roofwalker that eats dreams, stories of love and betrayal and death, a story about a man who finds a talking saint statue in a thrift store, another about a college student that finds unexpected friendships. They’re all really lovely, sweet and sad (but not bittersweet in any way; there’s no bitterness here, it seems to me). The histories shed light on where Power as a writer comes from, and centers around Chicago, where she was raised. Mostly, she explores how her mother gave her a voice to tell stories, and how her father circled their lives and gave her a different kind of ancestry. If you haven’t read Power before, also check out The Grass Dancer and Sacred Wilderness, her two novels. They’re both so wonderful. 4/5

Bone Swans by C.S.E. Cooney. Published in 2015. Bone Swans collects 5 novellas/novelettes by Cooney that explore storytelling and folklore in unique and lyrical ways. My favorites were the two fairy tale retellings, and the collection is worth picking up for just those two stories alone: The Bone Swans of Amandale and How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One. In fact, the milkmaid story is my favorite Rumpelstiltskin retelling I’ve read (up until now, of course). I’ve read C.S.E. Cooney before, different stories and poems than in this collection. I was unsure whether I liked her writing or not, but this collection puts her on my read list. Her style is sort of similar to Catherynne M. Valente and Maria Dahvana Headley, so if you like those authors, you should like this. I reviewed each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. Published in 2004. If I hear anyone say they don’t like poetry because it’s too inaccessible, this is the collection I will give them. These are lovely, clear and poignant nature poems. I plan on returning to this collection whenever my heart needs a little boost. Here’s the opening and title poem:

 

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

5/5

Short Stories

Terminal by Lavie Tidhar. Published in April 2016 by Tor.com (free online). Terminals are those at the end of their lives who decide to go into space, alone in their jalopies, and travel to Mars. This short story revolves around three characters: as Mei travels, she listens to earth music; Haziq decides to leave his wife and family to venture to Mars though he is not dying; and Eliza, a nurse orbiting Earth, listens to Mei’s and Haziq’s conversations as they journey on the long trip to Mars. It’s a good short story overall. 3.5/5

 

Santos de Sampaguitas by Alyssa Wong. Published in 2014 by Strange Horizons (free online). Tin’s mother is a witch that serves the dead god, but when the dead god begins visiting Tin at night while she dreams, and tries to convince her to serve him as her mother does, she has a life-changing decision to make. This short story explores sisterhood, relationships, and disability, and also includes some Filipino folkloric elements. 4/5

Happy reading in the month to come!

 

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