Margaret Kingsbury

Writer, Editor, Teacher

Category: Reading Railroad (Page 1 of 2)

Stack of Catherynne M. Valente Books

Reading Railroad: October’s Reading

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

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

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

Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story Collections

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

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

What good books have you read lately?

Image of an open book lying on a bed

Reading Railroad: September’s Reading

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

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

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

Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story Collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What good books have you read lately?

A Bookshelf of Writing Books

Reading Railroad: August’s Reading

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

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

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

Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story Collections

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

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

What have you been reading lately?

Shelves of fairy tale books.

Reading Railroad: June’s Reading

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

Novels

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

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

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

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

Short Story Collections

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

What did you read in June?

Collection of books read in May 2017

Reading Railroad: May’s Reading

I read 11 books in May! That’s a ton for me. And 5 of them were released in 2017.

Novels

Book cover for Exit West by Mohsin HamidExit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published March 7th 2017.  Wow. This is such an amazing book. It will probably end up on my end of the year favorites. In an undisclosed war torn country (I pictured Syria, especially after watching this mini-doc about the Syrian refugee crisis), Saeed and Nadia fall in love. Both are students at a local college, and even as war and in-fighting threaten to tear their city apart, they’re drawn to one another — Nadia, independent and alone; Saeed, religious and familial. And then doors begin leading to other places. A door to a closet might suddenly open to Australia instead, or London, or Greece. With their city no longer recognizable as theirs — and losing friends and family — Saeed and Nadia decide to enter one of these doors, and become refugees. This is such a bittersweet, human story. I recommend reading it in 1-2 sittings. It’s a fast read, and it’s easy to become swept into Hamid’s lyrical prose. Despite the war, loss, and grief the characters experience, it’s still a hopeful read. It makes me think that maybe the world can be a better place; that we can learn to all be human together. 4.5/5

Book cover for Little Nothing by Marisa SilverLittle Nothing by Marisa Silver. Published in 2016. A couple finally conceives with the help of gypsies, but their daughter isn’t what they wanted. Pavla is a dwarf. After several years both parents finally learn to love their daughter, but not enough to love her as she is. They want to change her into ‘normal.’ What follows is a series of transformations and forced exile as Pavla moves from a traveling circus to a pack of wolves to a prison. Along the way her story becomes entwined with Danilo, or rather, his story becomes entwined in hers. When Danilo’s twin brother dies, his parents force him to leave, and like Pavla, his exile leads him to wonder aimlessly from place to place. The first 2/3rds of the novel were enthralling, but part of the problem with a novel like this is every time I became wrapped up in the story, something would change and I was in an entirely new story. Thus, by the end of the novel, I was experiencing readerly jet lag. I just want to discover more about each part, not have the story start all over again. And the first three settings/transformations were far more interesting than the final one, to me. I would still recommend this to those who enjoy weird novels. Definitely worth the read. 3.5/5

Book cover for Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini TaylorDaughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor. Published in 2011. Karou was raised by Brimstone, a chimaera who looks like a devil, in his magic shop that opens between worlds. Some doors open into the human world, where Karou goes to art school in Prague and also collects teeth for Brimstone. Another door opens into Brimstone’s world, and she’s not allowed to enter. Karou’s life changes when angels descend to her world, and begin marking the doors with black handprints. When she spars with the angel Akiva, sparks fly–both from anger and from love. Daughter of Smoke and Bone reads fast; each chapter kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s also not a black/white, good vs. evil narrative, which is refreshing for YA. The ‘love at first sight’ and ‘our love can save our kingdoms’ plot lines are a little silly to me, but I’m sure appeal to a lot of people. I’m just the kind of person who likes more nuance in love. It ends on a cliffhanger, so I’ll eventually have to read the next one in the trilogy. But it’s not high on my priorities. 4/5

Book cover for House of Names by Colm ToibinHouse of Names by Colm Tóibín. Published May 18th 2017. A re-imagining of the events that follow Agamemnon’s return home, the novel rotates perspectives as each player contemplates their rage, grief, and revenge — from Clytemnestra to Orestes to Electra. Tóibín’s strongest voice is, unsurprisingly, Clytemnestra’s. Her grief and rage is the strongest, after all. The other characters fall flat in comparison, their personalities pale shadows to their mother’s. They lack motivation, drive, any kind of desires. Tóibín modernizes the myth by taking the gods out of it. They’re mentioned, but only in terms of this being a time when the gods have passed; they no longer participate in human lives. An interesting choice, though it takes a little bit of the magic away from the story, which I think was the point. What you have left are characters delegated to the periphery of events , trying to find meaning in the absurd violence that surrounds them. It’s a good retelling, and my first book by Tóibín. Thanks to Netgalley and Scribner for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 3.5/5

Book cover for Sealskin by Su BristowSealskin by Su Bristow. Published May 1st 2017. The most popular selkie legend goes like this: A man finds a group of women dancing by the sea, with sealskins beside them. They flee when they see him, slipping into their skins and swimming away, but he keeps one skin, and brings home a selkie wife. Without her skin, she cannot leave. She bears him children, and when they’re older the children find where he’s hidden the skin and show it to their mother. She takes the skin and returns to the sea in her true form as a seal, abandoning her husband and children. Bristow’s retelling focuses on the man who steals the skin, Donald, a Scottish fisherman. It’s easy to hate the men in selkie legends, but Bristow humanizes Donald, showing his struggles with guilt, his history of being bullied, his deep regret. Donald and his sealwife’s building relationship is well-written, and it’s a very atmospheric read. I sank into the world. But while I like redemption stories, I have issues with this particular type, and you can read my spoilery review of that on Goodreads. Thanks to Netgalley and Orenda Books for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 3.5/5

Book cover for Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey RatnerMusic of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner. Published April 11th 2017. This is one melancholy book, as it would have to be. Almost 40 years have passed since the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Teera, who escaped with her aunt to the U.S. as a child, now returns to Cambodia, haunted by her past and struggling with grief after her aunt’s death. A man called The Old Musician claims to have several instruments of her father’s, and wants to return them. The novel weaves between their perspectives as both grapple with the past while trying to find hope and meaning in the present. While this is a melancholy novel, it’s not a hopeless one. In her afterward, Ratner says that if In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story of survival, than this is a story of surviving. I did enjoy In the Shadow of the Banyan more because of how it weaved mythology into the narrative, but Music of the Ghosts is a strong follow up, and many will enjoy it more than her first. Thanks to Touchstone and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 3.5/5

Short Story Collections

Book cover of Wicked Wonders by Ellen KLagesWicked Wonders by Ellen Klages. Published May 16th 2017 (my birthday!). I’ve never read Ellen Klages before, but the short stories collected here are so good! I’m surprised I haven’t come across her before. The stories I liked best captured what it feels like to be a child. My favorite of these is the very first piece — “The Education of a Witch” — about a little girl who identifies with Maleficent more than Sleeping Beauty. I also enjoyed “Woodsmoke,” about two girls at summer camp. Overall, Klages stories are grounded in realism, with hints of the weird or strange. They’re sweet and powerful and fun, and I’ll be seeking out more of her work. I’m thankful to Netgalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review. You can read my take on each story here. 4/5

Nonfiction

Book cover for Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca SolnitMen Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. Published 2014. I didn’t mean to read this immediately after buying it. I often read the first paragraphs of new books as I place them on the bookshelf, but this time I didn’t stop reading. Her prose style is mesmerizing. It’s a powerful collection of feminist essays, and I highly recommend reading it. You can read my longer review on Goodreads. 4/5

 

 

 

Book cover for Expecting Better by Emily OsterExpecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong–and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster. Published in 2013. I picked this up after reading several reviews describe at as ‘if you read a single pregnancy book, this should be the one.’ And I completely agree. THERE ARE SOURCES! I swear, it never occurred to me that the vast majority of pregnancy books would cite no sources whatsoever. I don’t care if you’re a doctor. Lots of people call themselves doctors and I’m not going to take their advice. On top of that, pregnancy books often say things like “Ask your doctor.” I’m reading this so I can go to my doctor’s appointments informed. Don’t just tell me to talk to my doctor. Why bother reading a book then? Anyway, Expecting Better is written by an economist. She was similarly frustrated by the lack of evidence given in pregnancy books, or even by her doctors. She decided to research the main questions so she could make informed decisions. In each chapter she presents multiple case studies and weighs all the different decisions new parents can make. She doesn’t tell you whether you should or shouldn’t get on epidural, or drink coffee, etc, but rather what research shows so parents can make their own decision. So far, this is the only pregnancy book I’ve read worth reading. 4.5/5

Book cover for Expectant Father by Armin A. BrottThe Expectant Father by Armin A. Brott and Jennifer Ash. Published in 2001. I bought this book for Ryan as we’re expecting our first baby. We both read it. I found it generic, he found it insulting and humorous. Here are some of his favorite tips for dads:

  • If you need a break because you’re overwhelmed by your wife’s pregnancy and emotional state, take a vacation on your own. Go to the beach. (This will probably become one of the many in-jokes in our pregnancy.)
  • You’re a hero if you go to the doctor’s appointments with her. (When we went to our first appointment, every pregnant woman had their SO with them.)
  • Your pain can be just as difficult as hers, because you can experience the same difficulties as she due to empathy. (More belly laughs from him about this one, especially after I throw up!)

Frankly, Ryan found the book insulting. He doesn’t need lame platitudes and the casual sexism that says ‘you’re a male hero for doing the things that you should be doing.’ When I asked for his review, he said “terrible.” I also read this book, and found the information to be generic and easily found online. I agree that it’d be nice if there were a book for dads, but it needs to be researched and informed and to treat parents with respect. 1/5

Book cover for Your Pregnancy and ChildbirthYour Pregnancy and Childbirth: Month to Month by The American College of Ob/Gyn. Published in 2010.  You can find the exact same information in this book on websites. My favorite websites so far are Baby Center and The Bump. The book contains generic, easily found basics. No need to read it. 2/5

 

What were your favorite reads in May?

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.

Reading Railroad: March’s Reading

Everything I read in March! 7 books total.

Novels

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Published in 2000. A Caribbean, carnival, multi-dimensional space travel science fiction novel that deals with abuse, rape, marginalization, colonization, and othering. Seem like a lot? It really is. A young Tan-Tan pretends she’s the Robber Queen — a carnival rogue — on a planet colonized by Caribbean immigrants. But when her father, the mayor, is arrested, both of them are forced into exile on a multidimensional ship that takes them to a place very different than the one Tan-Tan knows. I love the dialect and Caribbean culture, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last third or fourth of the novel. But it takes forever for the plot to get going. The first chunk could’ve been half as long. I did really like the end, though. This is my first Nalo Hopkinson, and despite the 3 stars, I will try more of her novels. I haven’t read anything like it before, and that’s reason enough to try out another. 3/5

Speak by Louisa Hall. Published in 2015. Multiple narrative threads rotate around contemplations of memory, love, loss, and the need for human communication and contact. Stephen Chinn writes a memoir about falling in love and building a true AI doll. Transcripts between Gaby and Mary3, an AI, are presented at Stephen’s trial. Ruth and Carl Dettman write letters to one another about memory and Carl’s computer Mary, without ever sending the letters. Ruth reads the diary of Mary, a 17th century US settler, to Mary the computer. Alan Turing writes to his dead best friend Chris’ mother as he struggles with Chris’ death and his own spirituality. Speak is a meditative novel, not one that gives closure to any of the characters. I liked that about it, but I also wanted to delve deeper into each character. Still, I would recommend it to people who enjoy AI and/or science-based novels. 3.5/5

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. Published March 14th, 2017.  Another science-based novel, this one dealing with space travel. It’s also quite introspective, though I liked this one more than Speak, primarily because it reached a depth of character development I tend to really enjoy. Read my full review here! Definitely recommend. 4/5

 

 

 

Nonfiction

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay. Published in 2014. A friend and I attempted to read this together, but she kept losing her book, so I read ahead. I just couldn’t leave it unfinished any longer! Obviously, I’m a bad feminist friend. 🙂 We did have a couple of meetups before she lost the book, and you can read our discussions on my Goodreads review. I finished the book mostly thinking about how much I like Roxane Gay. She seems like an awesome person to know, and I would love to be in one of her classes. I don’t always connect with all her pop culture examples (my pop culture knowledge tends to be exclusively SF based), but I love her meandering approach and the things she said even if I didn’t fully understand the context. I could easily apply her thoughts to my own experiences. Definitely a must-read for feminists, or anyone unsure if they’re a feminist. 4/5

Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States by Eleanor Flexner. First published in 1959. Century of Struggle chronicles the woman’s suffrage movement in the US from pre-Seneca Falls to when women finally won the vote, more than 70 years after the first woman’s suffrage convention at Seneca Falls. Just to illustrate why books like this need to be read, I mentioned Seneca Falls to three or four people who had asked what I was reading, and they had no idea why Seneca Falls was significant. They’d never heard of it. And it’s no surprise. I’ve spent twenty years in the education system and minored in history, but I don’t recall the woman’s suffrage movement being discussed in a single class. While I did know about Seneca Falls before reading this (I learned about it on my own), there was so much about the movement I didn’t know, far more than what I did. I mean, I learned A LOT. The history of how women won the vote in the US is fraught with struggle and amazing women. It’s absolutely fascinating, and people need to know this history! 5/5

Poetry

Black Zodiac: Poems by Charles Wright. Published in 1998. Continuing my poetry reading from February. As with Chickamauga: Poems (the only other collection by him I’ve read), Charles Wright explores connections between spirituality, landscape, and art. He’s a master at the long line; his poems sprawl across the page, full of ellipses and dashes, beginning left and then right, utilizing the entire page. I kind of have to work at his poems, which is a good thing. 4/5

 

 

Short Story Collections

Uncanny Magazine Issue 14. Published in January 2017. I feel like with every issue of Uncanny I begin my review with — Another strong issue — but here it is again: another strong issue. The story that stands out the most is Maria Dahvana Headley’s novelette The Thule Stowaway, a chronicle of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe as told by Mrs. McFarlane, who has a creature trapped in her body. It’s very atmospheric, and there’s also a fantastic interview with the author. The essays also stand out as being quite good, with my favorite being an analysis of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You can read my review of all the stories on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

I did read 2 short stories this month — part of Tor.com’s Nevertheless She Persisted series — but I’m going to wait until I’ve read all of them before I give a review. So stay tuned to April’s Reading Railroad!

What did you read in March?

Shelves of fairy tale books.

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!

 

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!

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