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?

Shorts on a Theme: The End of the World

I’m not sure why I enjoy reading end of the world scenarios so much, but they’re one of my favorite sub-genres. I mean, I just took an hour walk outside admiring the springtime green, my neighborhood’s lovely flowers, the birds singing, and what do I do when I get home? Decide to write a post recommending end of the world short stories and poems. Because, of course.

So if you only have 10-20 minutes to read, here are 10 online short stories and poems about the end of the world. Afterward, remember to take a breather and admire nature…while it’s still here.

Short Stories

From Tor.com Illustration by Yuko ShimizuAs Good as New by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders just won a Nebula for her end of the world novel All the Birds in the Sky, one of my favorite novels from 2016. But that wasn’t her first time writing about the end of the world. In “As Good as New,” Marisol — a washed-up playwright who managed to survive the apocalypse — finds a jinni in a bottle. Can her 3 wishes save the world?

So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer

A mom’s food blog chronicles her struggles to feed her growing pack of children as H5N1 spreads, causing massive food shortages. A really creative way to write about the apocalypse!

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

Originally written in 1909, this short story feels like it could’ve been written yesterday. A highly technological human settlement, run by The Machine, lives in an air-ship after some kind of apocalypse. Vashti’s life changes when her son starts questioning The Machine.

From Lightspeed Magazine by Melanie UjimoriThe Red Thread by Sofia Samatar

Sahra records her travels with her mom in letters to her disappeared friend Fox. She and her mom are traveling between human settlements, teaching the remaining children and trying to convince the settlements to live safely. But is Fox receiving Sahra’s letters? And why did he abandon them? This short story is also recently published in Sofia Samatar’s first short story collection — Tender: Stories.

Don’t You Worry, You Aliens by Paul Cornell

An elderly librarian maintains his library even when no one is around to enjoy it. And there’s a dog but he doesn’t die!

Poems

when the end is near by Amber Atiya

“i will miss
the woman-lined walls
of tony’s pizza

jewel-tone mouths
ordering zeppoles extra
sweet, will miss the urge

to fry bacon in my vegan
lover’s favorite pan”

Gloves by Lisa Rosinsky

“When I dreamed of the apocalypse, the end
came like a liquefying of the sky, the sunrise
and sunset palettes swirling all together”

The Future of Terror / 5 by Matthea Harvey

“In the lantern-light, the lawn speckled
with lead looked lovely. We would live this
down by living it up. My pile of looseleaf
was getting smaller—I wrote in margins,
through marmalade stains, on the backs of maps.”

A Song on the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz

“On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.”

How it Ends: Three Cities by Catherine Pierce

“This morning we woke to the grackles. Their mouths open, tails oil-black against the blacker pavement. Some had closed their eyes; others had died staring. Cars stopped on Congress and were left, hunched like boulders. The elms, always bright with cries, were still.”

 

What are some of your favorite end of the world shorts?

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?

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!