Reading Railroad: April’s Reading

Everything I read in April! 6 books total.

Novels

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published in 2012. A childless couple, Mable and Jack, move to Alaska after a terrible heartache, hoping to make a new life for themselves. On one wintry evening they build a snow child, and the next day a real child appears. Is this the daughter they’ve longed for? The Snow Child is a lovely fairytale retelling, and an amazing first novel. There are many variations of this fairy tale, which you can read here. I especially like the first one. Ivey writes lyrical, simple prose that sets exactly the right tone for the novel. “November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought — cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between cabin logs. But most of all, darkness. Darkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked.” Shiver. Though set in the 1920s, the writing style is modern. There’s only a little bit of magic thrown in off and on, but despite that, the novel feels perfectly magical. 4.5/5

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Published in 2016. This book, I assume, hardly needs a summary at this point. It was next on my stack when it won the Pulitzer Prize. In case you don’t know, The Underground Railroad traces the path of escaped slave Cora as she flees across the South. Each state has unique ways of treating blacks — from Georgia’s cotton-picking violence to South Carolina’s weird eugenics to North Carolina’s lynching to Tennessee’s remnants of the Trail of Tears to Indiana’s supposed utopia. And yes, Cora uses the underground railroad, but in this novel, it’s literally a railroad. Whitehead weaves hints of magical realism and absurdist horror into Cora’s narrative, and also gives other stories between each of Cora’s sections: Ridgeway, a runaway slave hunter; Ethel, a white woman with a hypocritical ‘savior’ complex; and many others. What makes this novel unique compared to other fiction about slavery is the use of the horror genre and bits of magical realism. He doesn’t go over the top with either; it’s very subtle. I had a weird reading comprehension issue with it. A ton of character names begin with C or R. I found myself struggling to keep track of all the characters, which did improve the last third of the novel. Also, sometimes the characters were introduced in weird ways, so it would take me a while to realize ‘that person’ or ‘someone’ was a named character in the next paragraph. I would then have to reread the first few pages. Keeping track of characters isn’t something I normally struggle with. It’s also more emotionally distant than I expected, but I think that was on purpose. Even as I was disgusted by some of the events unfolding in the novel, it was more an intellectual disgust versus a physical one. It’s almost like a list is being ticked off of all the horrific ways the US has treated black Americans, though if that were true the novel would be much longer. It’s definitely worth reading. 4/5

Nonfiction

The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean Matthews. Published in 2004. I’m continuing my research of the suffrage movement for a writing in progress. This book gives a broad introduction to the movement. I appreciate Jean Matthew’s attention to the disenfranchisement of black women in the movement while also highlighting important black women figures. The scope of the book is much broader than that and covers the entire movement, but every chapter highlighted black women to some extent, and in a movement that was often racist, addressing the accomplishments of POC was refreshing. It’s also very readable. 4/5

 

Myth Collections

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Published February 7th, 2017. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman collects a selection of Norse myths, adding a modern tone and some of his sense of humor to the dialogue. These are not fictionalized variations of the tales. Do not read this expecting American Gods or Odd and the Frost Giants. It’s more along the lines of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version selected by Philip Pullman. I like Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas a bit better, but Gaiman’s collection would still make a good entry point into Norse myths. Ultimately, I’m just not a fan of Thor and Loki. They seem like college frat boys in a bad comedy movie. Who also like to kill things. It’s probably not fair to judge an entire mythology on two characters. Eventually, I need to read The Prose Edda so I have a better idea of the mythology. I do really love the tree Yggdrasil, though. 3/5

Short Story Collections

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Published in 2002. The movie Arrival is based on the title story, “Story of Your Life,” which is the best piece in this collection. Better than the movie. In most of these short stories, Ted Chiang combines hard science with complicated, questing characters. Not questing in the usual fantasy sense, but questing as in lonely souls trying to find meaning in the world while struggling with a scientific concept that changes everything. The stories are weakest when they rely too heavily on a scientific concept and lack the character and plot building to support the story. But there were only a few of those. Most were complex and interesting. Oh, and Ted Chiang describes his writing process for each story at the end. I wish every author included these in their short story collections! You can read my review of each story on Goodreads. 3.5/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 15: March/April 2017 edited by Lynn M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. A wide range of stories. My favorite by far is “And Then There Were (N – One)” by Sarah Pinsker, in which Sarah Pinsker goes to a multidimensional conference of Sarah Pinskers, and then there’s a murder to solve. Very fun. All of the essays are quite good, and for the most part concern surviving and resisting in an oppressive political climate. Very timely. My individual reviews of each story, poem, and essay can be found here. 3.5/5

Several of these reviews originally appeared on Book Riot, on my Inbox/Outbox Post.

Book Review of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Title and Author: The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Publication Date: March 14th, 2017

Genre: Short Stories across the spectrum of genres

How I got it: Thanks to Netgalley and Rebellion Publishing for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review:
“When Allah created man out of clay, Allah also created the djinn out of fire.”–Mahvesh Murad, from the Introduction.

This is a really wonderful short story collection. I’d no idea so many variations of djinn existed — good or evil, mischievous or kind, religious or deviant, and everywhere in between. The sheer variation of interpretation is what makes this a superior collection, as well as, of course, the superior writing. There’s not a single poorly written piece in this collection. They’re all nuanced, well-thought, character driven stories. It’s also a great mix of authors I know and ones I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll be checking out some of the authors that were new to me to see what else they’ve written.

I had three absolute favorites. First up is the opening poem by Hermes, which gave me goosebumps: “A djinn I am. / My fetters may be broke but / still they wrap round wrist and ankle: / every djinn’s possessed.” The poem sets the tone for the anthology, though If there’s one downside to opening with it, it’s that I then expected more poems, but, alas, this is the only one.

Then there’s the wonderfully creepy “REAP” by Sami Shah. It’s going to stick with me. In “REAP,” a group of soldiers spying on a possible terrorist’s home in Afghanistan with the use of a drone see something completely unexpected and super creepy. It’s my first time reading Shah, so I’ll be seeing what else he’s written. Wait…I just looked him up, and he’s a comedian??? There’s nothing funny about this story! That’s weird.

I also love “Somewhere in America” by Neil Gaiman, an excerpt from American Gods. I still remembered it from American Gods, but it remained good. I’m actually not a huge fan of American Gods, yet, this chapter was my favorite from it, and it works perfectly as a short story.

A close runner up to my favorite’s list is the first short story — “The Congregation” by Kamila Shamsie, another author I’m unfamiliar with. This one is steeped in Islamic culture, yet very accessible to me, someone unfamiliar with the culture and religion. In fact, that’s one of the best things about this collection, it’s diversity, accessibility, and variation. Anyone should be able to find stories they like in this collection, no matter your reading taste.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves short stories, particularly if you’re looking to read a diverse collection, and like a bit of magic in your fiction.

Imam Ali Conquers Jinn, unknown artist, Ahsan-ol-Kobar (1568)

Here are my reviews of each story:

Hermes (trans. Robin Moger) — “The Djinn Falls in Love”: Ooo, lovely poem. 5/5

Kamila Shamsie — “The Congregation”: A young man visits his family’s mosque late one night, to find jinn worshiping there instead. One jinn in particular enraptures him. Loved the immersion of this one. 4.5/5

Kuzhali Manickavel — “How We Remember You”: A man remembers how as a teen he and a group of friends did something they’ll regret the rest of their lives, to another friend who’d begun growing wings on his back. 4/5

Claire North — “Hurrem and the Djinn”: Davuud is asked to discover what foul djinn Hurrem — the sultan’s favorite wife — consorts with. Things get out of hand. Men can be stupid. 🙂 This novelette is predictable, but well written. I love all these different takes on djinn. They’re so different from tale to tale — in appearance, temperament, powers, etc. 3.5/5

J.Y. Yang — “Glass Lights”: A woman whose grandmother was a djinn struggles in the contemporary world with loneliness. Good writing and character, but lacking in plot. 3/5

Monica Byrne — “Authenticity”: A young woman searches for authentic experiences, and sex is one way to find those experiences. She gets with a young man who is filming a porn movie later. But are either of them what they seem? 3/5

Helene Wecker — “Majnun”: A jinn, once the lover of a beautiful jinn ruler, has a religious crisis and becomes an exorcist. Very interesting story. 4/5

Maria Dahvana Headley — “Black Powder”: A hunter, a kid, a pawnshop owner, and a priest become entwined in a story about a jinn that lives in a rifle. Not sure I exactly understood the end, it felt like a retelling of a story I’m completely unfamiliar with, but the writing and relationships are well done. 4/5

Amal El-Mohtar — “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds”: Magicians hunt reincarnations of birds. No strong djinn connection, that I can tell. Not a big fan of this, though I usually love El-Mohtar’s fiction. 2/5

James Smythe — “The Sand in the Glass is Right”: A man tries again and again to get his wish right, but what does he lose in the process? I liked the theme of consequences. This is one that would probably be best on a second read. 4/5

Sami Shah — “REAP”: A military unit watches a group of houses in Afghanistan with the use of a drone, and see some pretty disturbing stuff. This story is excellent. It will stay with me for a while. 5/5

Catherine King — “Queen of Sheba”: A twelve-year-old girl celebrates her first Christmas with the adults, but as she’s ironing a tablecloth, she sees visions. Good story, though without a plot. I’m still buzzing from the last story, so that may have affected my read of this one. 3.5/5

E.J. Swift — “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice”: A spaceship set for Ganymede has an unexpected hiccup when it becomes infested with djinn. I would think sci-fi and djinn wouldn’t mix well, but this is a solid story. 4/5

K.J. Parker — “Message in a Bottle”: During the Middle Ages, a scholar tries to determine if a previous now dead scholar’s bottle labeled “For the plague” is a cure, or a new strain that will wipe out humanity. Well written, but couldn’t he test it on people in confinement? 3/5

Saad Hossein — “Bring Your Own Spoon”: In a post apocalypse where food is scarce, a man decides to start a restaurant with the help of a djinn. 3.5/5

Neil Gaiman — “Somewhere in America”: An excerpt from American Gods, and one of the few chapters I remember completely. It works really well on its own. A man is sent to America to sell his brother-in-laws cheap nic nacs, and finds an unexpected friend in a cab driver. 4.5/5

Jamal Mahjoub — “Duende 2077”: There’s a murder, and the detective trying to solve the case runs into some complications that herald to his past. I never understood exactly who the murderer was. 3/5

Sophia Al-Maria — “The Righteous Guide of Arabsat”: In the contemporary Middle East, a sexually repressed guy marries what his mother claims to be a ‘good girl.’ But after discovering his new wife knows more about sex than he, he decides she must be possessed by a djinn. Reminds me of Victorian era attitudes toward sex. A disturbing story. 4/5

Kirsty Logan — “The Spite House”: A half djinn/half human woman takes the leftover junk people leave in their yards, but when a woman confronts her about this and makes a wish, she feels a power overtake her. But is she the one with the power? I liked the switch in dynamics here. 4/5

Usman Malik — “Emperors of Jinn”: A group of rich children become obsessed with a spell book that calls djinn. These are some truly evil brats. 3.5/5

Nnedi Okorafor — “History”: A superstar singer prepares for a televised concert, and reflects on a childhood spent in Africa, and the magic she learned there, and the bush baby she caught that lives in her mirror. I really liked this story, but it felt like it was referring to something else — maybe a novel Okorafor has written? Felt like a small part of something much larger. 3.5/5

Rating: 4/5

 

Reading Railroad: February’s Reading


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This may be my slowest reading month ever. Due to my hospital visit in January, I became super behind on work, so I didn’t read as much as I normally do. I did finish 5 books in all; surprisingly, not a single novel.

Fairytale Collections

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh. Published in 2013. In this version of The Arabian Nights, Al-Shaykh both translates from the original while mixing in her own Arabian Nights-esque tales. At least, I think they’re her own variations, as some of the tales aren’t in the two other versions I’ve read (not that I remember, anyway). This is my third Arabian Nights translation, and while the writing is strong, I still prefer the Haddawy translation (The Arabian Nights). Haddawy combines ease of reading with the feel of an oral text, whereas this version feels designed/intentional. But also, because of that, it’s probably the most accessible version I’ve read. Certainly far more than the Burton (One Thousand and One Nights – Complete Arabian Nights Collection). 3.5/5

Poetry Collections

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. Published in 2014. This is a collection of YA poems about anorexia, beauty, and sex, using fairy tales as a backdrop. I like that it makes poetry accessible to teenagers using relevant content, but it’s not for me. There’s also photography, which didn’t show up well on my kindle, so I recommend buying this in print. If you have a teen girl, she might enjoy the collection. I just like my poetry a little more abstract, or timeless. I’m really not sure! You can read a poem from the collection on the author’s website. 2.5/5

The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright. Published in 1963. After reading The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright in grad school, I decided I wanted to read James Wright’s poetry (already being a fan of Leslie Marmon Silko). However, it’s been about four years since then, and I’m just now reading one of his collections. That’s what happens when you have hundreds of books picked up in exactly the same way. I can only read so many! I read this collection in a single sitting, and that’s with me reading each poem two or three times (which is how I read poetry). At first, I was a bit disappointed. The poems themselves are superbly crafted, but they just weren’t my kind of poems. They often reference historical figures I know very little about; for instance, there are three poems about U.S. presidents. Even his nature poems — more to my taste — in the beginning had a tendency to be a bit melodramatic. For example, he ends the poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” with the line “I have wasted my life.” That got an eye roll. I guess it’s ‘telling’ too much for me. However, about halfway through there’s a slight switch in tone. More nature poems are scattered throughout, and they’re quieter than the earlier ones. Like this one:

Milkweed

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.

This isn’t to say that this is a ‘mixed bag’ of poetry. The poems still connect in tone and theme and imagery, and I can see why it receives so many 5 star ratings, and why so many say James Wright is their favorite poet. While he won’t be vying for my favorite’s list, I did enjoy several poems in this collection, and respect his craft. 3.5/5

Short Story Collections

From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings. Published in 2016. I think people who haven’t read many fairytale short story collections would get more enjoyment out of reading this than those who read a ton of retellings (like myself). They’re fairly straight forward retellings, without many subversions or twists. My absolute favorite was “The Glass Maker” by Mckayla Eaton, a gender inversion of “Cinderella” with some cool world building. I would read more in that setting. I also quite liked “The Bear in the Forest” by Kelsie Engen, a “Snow White and Rose Red” retelling, and “The Goose and His Girl” by Lynden Wade, a unique YA “Goose Girl” short story. You can read my review of each individual short story on Goodreads. 3/5

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. Will be published March 14th, 2017. “When Allah created man out of clay, Allah also created the djinn out of fire.” — from the Introduction. This is a really wonderful collection of short stories about djinn. I had no idea there were so many variations of djinn — good or evil, mischievous or kind, religious or deviant, and everywhere in between. The sheer variation of interpretation is what makes this a superior collection, as well as the superior writing, of course. There’s not a single poorly written piece in this collection. They’re all nuanced, well-thought, character driven stories. It’s also a great mix of authors I know and ones I’m unfamiliar with, and I will be checking out some of the authors that were new to me to see what else they’ve written. I will post a full review this month, but needless to say, if you’re a short story reader, you should read this. Thanks to Netgalley and Rebellion Publishing for providing me a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

“The Key to St. Medusa’s” by Kat Howard. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, October 2016. When Agatha’s parents kick her out of the house for being a witch, she finds a home at St. Medusa’s, a school and refuge for witches in a world that hates them. But when the girls hear word of a man that marries and then murders witches, Agatha and three friends decide something must be done. I really love this “Bluebeard” retelling, and could read more set in this world! If it were a novel I’d eat it up. I did feel like the ending was rushed, which was a bit sad because I was loving it up until then. 4/5

What were your favorite reads in February?

Reading Railroad: January’s Reading


At the beginning of the year, I decided I would cut down on my reading so I could write more. And then I read 10 books in January — oops! Oh well. Professional writers are always saying writers needs to read a lot. 🙂

Novels

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Published in 2012. Adult Urban Fantasy. Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy award, Alif the Unseen is a fun mix of tech and magic, hacking and djinn. I loved the setting — contemporary Middle East — and wish there were more fantasies set there published in English. The plot’s a little hand-wavy, and I didn’t always believe character arcs, but it was a solid read.  3.5/5

 

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. Published in 1996. Adult Fantasy. I read this during Christmas, though I finished it in January. Discworld is one of my favorite fantasy series, and I definitely recommend reading it if you haven’t before, but this isn’t the book I’d recommend starting with (check out Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, or The Wee Free Men instead). For those of you already familiar with Discworld, Death is the Hogfather — Discworld’s version of Santa Klaus. Awesome, right? And definitely my favorite scenes in Hogfather featured Death handing out presents to all the kiddos of Discworld. However, the numerous side stories weren’t as interesting or funny as Pratchett usually is. Still, it’s a good seasonal read, as those go. 3/5

In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle. To be published February 14th, 2017. Adult Contemporary Fantasy. Another new book by the famous Peter S. Beagle, famous for writing The Last UnicornClaudio Bianchi owns a farm in the small Italian village of Calabria. He’s grumpy, likes his privacy, and writes poems he shares with no one. In his late forties, his only friend is a young postman who comes a few times a week to deliver the mail. Oh, and his goat. Two things converge to break his comforting privacy: a pregnant unicorn appears on his farm, and the postman’s younger sister starts delivering the mail on Friday. Suddenly, his comfortable, isolated existence crumbles. Word spreads of the unicorn on his property, and soon the media begins to hound him, and then a mafia-type group — the ‘Ndrangheta — shows up, wanting the farm. The unicorn scenes are the most powerful. It’s Bianchi’s romantic relationship with Giovanna, the young postmistress, that gives me pause. I read Summerlong last year (full review here), where a similar middle-aged man and a just out of teen years woman form a romantic relationship. I was more receptive to the relationship in Summerlong because the girl ends up being a goddess. But…another book with this relationship dynamic? Um. And Bianchi constantly bemoans how he doesn’t deserve such a young girl, how she should leave him, and how it’s her that instigates the relationship, not him. Uh huh. ‘Sure.’ I hear you. The ending also felt…wrong for the novel. It felt like the novel was trying to be longer than it was meant to be, so the ‘Ndrangheta were added to create length and a more thrilling plot. But I enjoyed the quiet moments, and for me, the main plot was about Bianchi trying to rediscover who he is, and how he can interact with the world and rejoin society. I would’ve loved to see him publish some of those poems! Thanks to Netgalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. 2.5/5

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Published in 2011. YA Contemporary Fantasy. Get the tissues ready, because you are going to cry a lot, unless you’re an unfeeling weirdo. Seriously, this book is so good. It’s a modern infusion of the green man (in the form of a yew tree), the power of stories, and modern pre-adolescence. I love this book.  I want to reread it just by writing up this synopsis. It’s the 2nd book I’ve read by Ness, and the 2nd one to make me cry (the first was The Crane Wife, though it did not make me cry as much as A Monster Calls). Guess I’m going to have to test a third. Will his power over my tear ducts hold???? P.S. The illustrations are great. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but even if it’s only half as good as the book, I’m going to need the tissues again. 5/5

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in 2015. Middle Grade Fantasy. This is book #4 of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. For the first time, the main character isn’t September. Hawthorn the troll is whisked from Fairyland by a cheeky wind, and brought to Chicago and switched out for Thomas Rood, a very human child. Hawthorn eventually makes it back into Fairyland with the help of another changeling child and an adorable, magically-sentient yarn wombat. Though I love Fairyland, I actually enjoyed Hawthorn’s time struggling being human in Chicago over the Fairyland scenes. This is one of my favorites of the series. 4.5/5

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in 2016. Middle Grade Fantasy. This is book #5 and the final book in the Fairyland series. Valente returns to September, who is now Queen of Fairyland (well, she actually chooses the title of Engineer). But in order to hold on to her title, if she even wants to, she has to compete in a race with the previous rulers of Fairyland. It’s a fun close to the series, though not my favorite. I’ll miss September, but it ended perfectly. 4/5

 

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra. Published in 2013. Young Adult. After a boating accident in Tasmania, 2 young girls — Hannah and Becky — are stranded in the bush. But they’re soon rescued by tigers. For the next four years they live with two tigers, learning how to hunt and speak the tiger language. Meanwhile, they forget much of what it means to be human. Hannah narrates this experience of being raised by tigers from the future, in dialect. Overall, it’s a good read, though it just didn’t move me overmuch. Not for any particular reason, though. 3/5

Nonfiction

Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan by Richard Hittleman. Published in 1969. This was my first attempt at yoga. Exercises are sectioned into 4 day increments, with a review every 4th day. After each day is a section called “Thoughts for the Day,” which were often quite funny, as they assumed I was a housewife. Though the written sections are dated, this is a solid primer on yoga, it seemed to me. While I will not be continuing with yoga — it exacerbated my heart problem — I did learn some stretches that I’ll incorporate into my exercise routine. Overall, the moves were easy though enough of a stretch to feel it. A few of them I never could do, and I think would be better with a partner. 4/5

Short Story Collections

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien. Published in 2016. Speculative Fiction Short Stories. In the introduction, editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe express their desire to revisit the wonderful, strange, and alien of fairy tales. “In keeping with that original model of composite storytelling,” they say, “we decided to run fairy tales through a prism, to challenge our authors to look at stories from an unusual angle, to bring them back into different genres and traditions, to — if you will — return them to their cross-genre roots.” And they’ve certainly done that in this collection. Genres range from Western, to Science Fiction, to Romance, to Fantasy, to Postmodern, and each tale takes an unusual look at a single fairy tale. My favorite stories were “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar and “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, with close runner-ups in “The Briar and the Rose” by Marjorie M. Liu and “Reflected” by Kat Howard. Three of these are perhaps the least innovative, since they use the fantasy genre for their fairy tale settings (the closest to the original settings); however, these stories are innovative in other ways, combining tales, reconstituting romance, and especially in reinterpreting happily-ever-afters. “Reflected” is the only non-fantasy of my favorites, and is a science fiction retelling of “The Snow Queen.” This is a great short story collection for fairytale and speculative fiction fans. I’d already read stories from every single one of these authors, so I knew I was likely to enjoy this collection, and I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed! You can see my review of each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 13: November/December 2016 edited by Lynne M. and Michael Damian Thomas. I think this is my favorite issue of Uncanny Magazine as a whole. All the pieces have strong social justice themes or center around voices that rarely have a chance to speak in fiction. That’s what makes this magazine so special. My favorites were “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander, a flash fiction piece about whose stories are told; “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El–Mohtar, which was also in A Starlit Wood; and “Rose Child” by Theodora Goss, a lovely fairytale poem. But there were no misses in this issue. You can read my review of each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. Published in 1890. During the Civil War, a man stands on a bridge about to be hanged. And that’s all I can say without spoilers. 🙂 This is the first time I’ve read Ambrose Bierce, and apparently I should amend that. This is a fantastically written short story. If I taught a creative writing class, I would use this story as an example of how to write thick, evocative descriptions that are still fast-paced and full of tension. So good! 5/5

“Fable” by Charles Yu. Published in The New Yorker, May 2016. A therapist asks a man to retell his life story as a fable. This short story explores how stories shape a life, and how if we’re able to tell our stories — allow ourselves to tell them — then we can find a path to living. 4/5

“See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016. A woman and a cat live on the outskirts of society, escaping something. And then circus flyers fall from the sky, and her name’s on them. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand what was happening in this one. Oh well, happens sometimes. I do enjoy the author’s fiction usually. 2.5/5

“Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Published in Nightmare Magazine, September 2016. 3 sisters who were in a cult live in a small town after their cult commits suicide. And then a circus comes to town with a pterodactyl. I mean, this is weird, but I liked it. 3.5/5

“Hungry” by Shveta Thakrar. Published in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, 2016. After centuries of being a statue, a rakshasi awakens in the contemporary world, and she’s hungry. 3.5/5

Did you read anything good in January?

Happy reading in the month to come!

 

Book Review of The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden


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Title and Author: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publication Date: January 10th, 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairytale Inspired

How I got it: Thanks to Netgalley and Random House/Del Rey for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review:

The Bear and the Nightingale begins with a fairy tale, told on a cold Russian night around the warmth of an oven’s fire, to a little girl named Vasilisa and her brothers.

Some fairy tales can become reality.

Illustration by Ivin Bilibin in the illustrated “Vasilisa the Beautiful”

Born in the heart of winter, from the day Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya, is born, her family knows she’s different, though they still love her with a fierce devotion. Vasya’s mother Marina dies during childbirth, bequeathing Vasya her mystical powers. Wanting a mother for his children, Vasya’s father travels to Moscow where he finds a new wife, Anna, a relative of Marina’s. Anna, like Vasya and Marina, has the sight. They can see the chyerti and domovoi — guardian spirits and creatures from Russian folklore — that grace the Russian landscape, though when Anna sees them she believes them to be demons, while Vasya sees them for what they truly are.

Illustration by Boris Zabirokhin

When Father Konstantin becomes their village priest, Anna confesses to him that she sees demons everywhere, and the Father knows what he’s meant to do in this backward village — abolish the demons and bring the people back to God. The best way to do this, he believes, is through fear. Threatening God’s wrath, he convinces the villagers to stop leaving food out for the domovoi. However, instead of saving the village, he gives power to the evil bear god. Only the god Winter and Vasya can save the village.

Another one from Ivin Bilibin, from the illustrated “Morozko”

The Bear and the Nightingale blends a variety of Russian folklore with history from the Middle Ages. While I’m no expert at Russian folklore, I did pick up on a few fairytale references, like the fairy tales “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and “The Death of Koschei the Deathless“. In an interview, Arden also mentions the firebird, “The Twelve Months,” and “Morozko.”

Vasya is a fun perspective to read from. She’s impulsive and independent, and her interactions with the chyerti and domovoi are the most engaging aspects of the novel. Many reviewers have issues with the portrayal of the Christian priest as a villain. I didn’t necessarily have issues with that aspect, though all the characters would’ve benefited from a bit more nuance. While I like and dislike the characters I’m supposed to, a part of me feels like no one is all villain or all hero. However, that’s a legitimate way to tell stories, and keeps with the fairytale tradition.

Another minor quibble, I wouldn’t want to count the number of times Vasya is compared to a horse (this is especially annoying when her father does it. I understand it when she’s being objectified, but he’s supposed to be different, more of an ideal father).

However, overall The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical and fun read.  If you enjoyed Uprooted by Naomi Novik or Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (both Eastern European, historical fairytale novels), or The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, you’re likely to enjoy this as well. It lacks the darkness of Valente and the romance of Novik and is faster paced than The Golem and the Jinni, but it’s along the same lines.

I wonder if this is going to be a series? I would definitely be willing to pick up where we left off with Vasya. She’s got to have some more adventures, and I want to read about them.

Rating: 4/5

Reading Railroad: December’s Reading


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Here’s everything I read in December: 4 novels, 1 memoir, 1 short story collection, and 10 individual short stories.

Novels

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. Published in 1666. Feminist Utopian. This is considered the first science fiction novel written by a woman. As such, I expected it to be a little more exciting, but I forgot that most Restoration literature is steeped in its political context, thus making it a bit boring for those of us not living in the 17th century. An English lady travels to another dimension. There, she finds that each animal is its own cognizant, speaking society. Thus, there are Bear-men, Worm-men, Bird-men, etc. All these societies are ruled by a single ruler, and soon the lady becomes their empress. As Empress, she investigates scientific, philosophical, and religious thought, and each of the animal species specializes in individual areas of investigation. Ultimately, Cavendish argues that it’s better to have a single head and a single entity making decisions for the whole, so there won’t be any strife. I guess she doesn’t believe in tyrants. My full review is on Goodreads. 3/5

Thorn by Intisar Khanani. Published in 2012. Fantasy fairy tale, could be YA as well. A retelling of “The Goose Girl,” Thorn examines abuse against women in its many forms. The beginning is immediately engaging; Princess Alyrra is stranded in both an emotionally and a physically abusive family and I desperately wanted to see her get out of her situation. However, once Alyrra is in a new city (I’m trying not to give any spoilers here), the plot really slows down, and it feels like a lot of nothing particularly important happens. It picks up again here and there, but overall, the pacing felt off. However, if you enjoy fairy tale retellings, particularly of “The Goose Girl,” then you should check this out. 3/5

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer. Published in 2003. Argentinian Fantasy, translated by Ursula Le Guin. Kalpa Imperial is a history of a fictional empire as told by a storyteller. The storyteller takes different periods of history and moves from broad descriptions to personal histories. Each chapter describes an entirely different period of history with all new characters. Certainly, this is a unique way of telling a story, but typically characters are what keep me engaged, and the second I finally became engrossed in a character’s story, it was a new chapter and a whole new part of the empire’s history. I never sank into the reading. But I also see that’s the whole point of the novel: how the individual stories intersect into the broader history of the empire, and how it’s made up of many singular identities, and each identity contributes to the character that is the empire. Maybe if I’d read this when I wasn’t so busy I would’ve enjoyed it more. 3/5

Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Published in 1815. Middle Grade. A cute Christmas classic. The ballet cuts much of the plot, which has a story within a story. Like many fairytale inspired fiction of its time, it can be weird. Some people in the group I read it in found it too disturbing to be a children’s classic, but it didn’t seem too dark to me. I really enjoyed Maurice Sendak’s illustrations. 3/5

Nonfiction

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. Published 1975. The Woman Warrior combines Kingston’s memoir of growing up in the U.S. the daughter of Chinese immigrants with her mother’s story and Chinese folklore and history. My favorite chapter, “Shaman,” tells the story of how her mother became a doctor of midwifery in China and battled ghosts in a women’s dormitory. It was hard to relate this independent ghost-fighting doctor with the mother Kingston describes, who belittles her daughters, though she’s a warrior throughout. Both Kingston and her mother are warriors in very similar ways, though they never see the similarities in one another. A unique memoir. You can read my full review on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Story Collections

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham. Published in 2015. Adult fairytale short stories. This collection modernizes eleven fairy tales. These retellings circle around love and relationships: what it means to have someone that’s always by your side, that ‘happily ever after,’ for better and for worse. But these are not romanticized versions. The first story — “Dis. Enchant” — gives a clue as to how Cunningham approaches fairy tales — he disenchants the romanticized notion of happily ever after. Excellent endings to all of these, and the illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are gorgeous. It’s a super fast read; I read this in a single sitting. You can read my more detailed review on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Stories

I read a lot of individual short stories in December. I’ve briefly summarized all of them, and every single one is free to read online, so click and read away.

“Cottage Country” by David K. Yeh. Published in Apex Magazine, May 2016. Alternates between when a man’s dog goes missing and he suspects the sidhe, to the same man as a child learning about the sidhe while playing chess with his father. 3.5/5

“Left Foot, Right” by Nalo Hopkinson. Published in Strange Horizons, May 2016. After a car accident that killed her sister, a teen girl struggles with grief, and part of that process involves buying shoes for her sister and chugging them into the water where her sister died. Then she meets a faceless child by the water. 3/5

“The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery” by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2016. This one almost defies description. Master Peek is born a girl, but poses as a boy to run the family glassblowing business. And then, as Master Peek, starts making glass eyes. This is written in 19th century style prose, highly stylized and very unique. Novelette in length, I believe. 4.5/5

“The Consultant” by Catherynne M. Valente. Reprinted in The Center for Fiction, originally published in The Bread We Eat in Dreams. A noir detective tells the story of her practice serving fairytale women. Love it. 5/5

“Her Mother’s Ghosts” by Theodora Goss. Reprinted in Mithila Review, originally published in The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories. A piece about Goss’s mother told through a fictional character. 3.5/5

“Four and Twenty Blackbirds” by JY Yang. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016. This story describes an earth where bird aliens pass a virus to women that impregnates them with birds. 3.5/5

“The Men from Narrow Houses” by A.C. Wise. Published in Liminal Stories, 2016. A great, weird fox shapeshifter story. 4/5

“The Red Thread” by Sofia Samatar. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016. Sahra writes letters to Fox (one of her mother’s students) as she and her mother wander across a post-apocalyptic land, from settlement to settlement. 4/5

“Cookie Jar” by Stephen King. Published in VQR, Spring 2016. A 13-yr-old interviews his 90 yr. old great grandfather, and hears a strange story about another dimension, and an endless supply of cookies. 4.5/5

“Songbird” by Shveta Thakrar. Published in Flash Fiction Online, April 2016. A girl is told to give up singing and become a good lady, but no one can be someone they’re not forever. 4/5

Happy reading in the month to come!

Favorite Short Stories of 2016


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This almost seems impossible, but I read around 150 short stories in 2016. It’s my first year keeping track, and I was really surprised by how many I read! I read short stories in a variety of formats: in collections by individual authors; in edited collections with multiple authors; I have a subscription to Uncanny Magazine; and I read random stories recommended on Twitter published in a variety of free, online platforms. I switch back and forth between recently released short stories and older stories, and keep two separate folders to keep track of the ones I want to read.

So here are the top 10 short stories I read in 2016. Just like last week in my best novels of 2016 post, these are in no particular order. I’ve linked to the stories whenever they’re free to read online, so happy reading!

  1. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Published in 1998 in Stories of Your Life and Others. This novelette asks, In what ways can language shape cognitive functions? Oh, the tears snuck up on me in this one. This is what the movie Arrival is based on, which I will eventually see, especially after loving the story so much.

 

 

  1. The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman. The illustrated edition I read first was published in 2014, but it’s been published multiple times. It’s a wonderful novelette that turns the passive Snow White and Sleeping Beauty princesses into not so passive agents of their own futures. And the illustrations are so lovely — definitely worth buying the special edition.

 

  1. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman. Okay, so I really love Gaiman’s short stories, so he has 2 on this list. The edition I read of this one is in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (full review) published in 2015 (“Sleeper in the Spindle” appears in this collection as well), but it’s also been published multiple times. In this novelette, a dwarf asks a farmer to show him the way to a cave in the mountains that holds gold, gold that comes at a price. I broke out in goosebumps when I realized what was going on.

 

  1. “Midnight Hour” by Mary Robinette Kowal. Published in 2015 in Uncanny Magazine Issue 5. The kingdom is cursed, but some curses are ultimately good. Can a nameless queen distract a questing prince in order to keep her kingdom’s curse? Mary Robinette Kowal always writes great short stories, and this is my favorite of hers (so far).

 

 

  1. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” by Patricia McKillip. Read in Dreams of Distant Shores (full review), published in 2016 though the novelette is a reprint. A painter struggles with his craft and obsesses over another painter’s model when one day he paints the model’s lips on an unfinished painting of another model, a model who earlier disappeared and he’s been searching for ever since. And the painted lips speak. A lovely story reminiscent of Charles De Lint.

 

  1. “Tear Tracks” Malka Older. Published on Tor.com in 2015. Flur is chosen as an ambassador to Earth’s first alien contact on another planet. She has only a few hours to convince the aliens to sign a treaty, but the lack of similar social cues throws her off. Yep, you guessed it, I cried. This was the first thing I’d ever read by this author, but since then she’s published her first novel — Infomocracy — which I hope to read soon.

 

  1. The Creeping Women” by Christopher Barzak. Published in Uncanny Magazine Issue 8 in 2016. A retelling of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman! I’m pretty sure I don’t need to say anything else.

 

 

 

  1. “Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss. Published on Tor.com in 2016. A kitchen maid dreams of being in a fairy tale, and when one night a woman collapses at the kitchen door, she knows a princess has come in disguise. Such a perfect short story.

 

 

  1. “The Animal Women” by Alix E. Harrow. Published in Strange Horizons in 2015. A little girl in the 1960s south makes friends with a group of mostly ‘colored’ women that live near her home — and occasionally she captures pictures of them that show something more than human about them. Also a lovely novelette.

 

  1. “Cookie Jar” by Stephen King. Published in VQR in 2016. A 13-year-old goes to interview his 90-year-old great grandfather, who tells him a strange story about another dimension and an endless supply of cookies. While I no longer keep up with Stephen King’s books, I still read his short stories periodically. He really is an excellent writer.

Runners up

What were your favorite short stories?