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?

Reading Railroad: October’s Reading


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Everything I read in October. I made up for the slow reading in September last month!

Novels

Except the Queen by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder. Published in 2010. Adult fantasy. Two fae sisters, Meteora and Serana, happen upon the Fairy Queen with a mortal man and their child tucked away safe in the grass. They flee the queen’s wrath, but when one makes a gossipy mistake, the queen finds them and curses them to live apart in the mortal realm as two old women. For those who love fae and fairy. My full review is on Goodreads. 4/5

 

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter. Published in September 2016. YA fantasy. It’s current day Brooklyn, but not quite the same Brooklyn we know, for the nights feel endless and stretch on and on and on, and there’s a convenience store chain called Babs Yagg, if you dare to go in it. Anyone ‘caught’ stealing has their head cut off. Vassa’s not a normal 16-yr-old. She carries with her a secret magical doll, Erg, that her mother gave her. Arriving at the store, Vassa is tricked by Babs Yaggs into working there for 3 nights. She knows she’s doomed to have her head cut off, but maybe with Erg’s help she can make it out. I didn’t quite believe the characters, though it’s a creative idea. My full review is on Goodreads. Thanks to Tor/Forge and Goodreads First Reads for the free copy in exchange for an honest review. 3/5

Faithful by Alice Hoffman. Published in November 2016. Contemporary fiction. It’s release day for this one! You can read my full review on this blog. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review. 4/5

 

 

Rumpled by Lacey Louwagie. Published in 2014. Fantasy. A quick read — novella-length — that explores an alternate version of Rumpelstiltskin. I’m in a Goodreads book group with Lacey, so I wanted to give her retelling a read. 4/5

 

 

Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter. Published in 2015. Historical fiction. Mouse lives in a convent, but she’s not allowed to attend church or to be baptized. People whisper she’s a witch, but her surrogate father Father Lucas assures her she’s a child of God. But she knows she’s different. She can see people’s souls, and when she looks for her own, she sees nothing. She also has unusual healing powers, which come in handy when the young King Ottakar winds up at the abbey after being shot by an arrow. She saves him, and in return he makes her his ward, and takes her with him to Prague. Those who love historical fiction and magic should give this a try. I work with Dana, so I’m so glad I enjoyed this. My full review is on Goodreads. I may post it on this blog at some point. 4/5

Lilith by George MacDonald. Published in 1895. Fantasy. While I was expecting a Christian fantasy, I wasn’t expecting it to be an allegory. Some people may love religious allegories; I’m not a fan. I can definitely see how MacDonald inspired C.S. Lewis. 2/5

 

 

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Published in 1972. MG light horror. Through the eyes of a group of trick-or-treating boys, Bradbury explores the Halloween traditions of several cultures, and the ending is perfect. While written for middle grade readers, it was fun for me to read too. Bradbury’s descriptions of Fall and Halloween are evocative; you can really tell he loved this time of year. This is my favorite Ray Bradbury so far! Perfect Halloween read. 4/5

Short Story Collections

The Rose and The Beast: Fairy Tales Retold by Francesca Lia Block. Published in 2001. YA short stories. While most of these stories are terribly depressing (dealing with sexual violence), they also have a jerky, happy quality — a tone that resembles teenage girl talk. It reminded me a bit of Kate Bernheimer. If you like your fairytale retellings to add details and turn archetypes into 3 dimensional characters, this isn’t a collection you’ll enjoy. But if you like retellings that keep the peculiar flatness of the originals, coupled with a modern setting and disturbing content, then this is right up your alley. I read this in a single sitting, so it’s a fast read. My full review is on Goodreads. 3.5/5

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. Published in 1989. MG horror stories. I listened to this on youtube the day before Halloween, and remembered almost all of the stories! Brought me right back to childhood. Can you believe that no one in one of my college classes had ever heard of it!? 4/5

 

Nonfiction

Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. Published in 1998. 10 craft exercises in 10 chapters. These craft exercises help break down the elements of writing so the writer is more conscious of these elements as they’re writing. I did all 10 exercises, and feel more conscious of the physicality of my writing than I did before. Another plus to these exercises are that they can be done again and again. While you won’t have a short story ready for submission after reading this, you will have the skills (or improved skills) to write one. My full review is on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Stories

These are all free to read online by clicking on the links.

The Pigeon Summer by Brit Mandelo. Published in May 2016 by Tor.com. J.’s best friend and soulmate has died, and si doesn’t know how to continue. Plus, si believes si’s being haunted. Interesting use of gender-queer pronouns. I liked that about it, and J.’s struggle with grief felt very real. I wish the speculative element had been emphasized more. 3.5/5

 

The Cleverest Daughter by Sarah Marshall. Published in 2016 by One Throne Magazine. A story of abuse combined with a lovely retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It took a few readings of the beginning for me to figure out who was saying what, but I enjoyed it. 4/5

The Magician and Laplace’s Demon by Tom Crosshill. Published in 2014 by Clarkesworld Magazine. An AI meets its match in a magician, but it’s not going to let a magician outsmart it. Interesting concept and well-written. 4/5

 

 

Wine by Yoon Ha Lee. Published in 2014 by Clarkesworld Magazine. To save their planet a decision is made, but the cost is too much for some. Interesting character development — would like to read more in this world. 4/5

 

 

Happy reading in the month to come!

Book Review of Faithful by Alice Hoffman


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Title and Author: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Publication Date: November 1st, 2016

Genre: Contemporary Fiction. New Adult?

How I got it: Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review:

Shelby Richmond lives a typical teenage life, until one night she and her best friend Helene get into a car wreck. Shelby, the driver, survives. Helene is comatose the rest of her life.

Shelby falls into a deep depression, especially after a counselor at a psychiatric hospital rapes her multiple times. (If you can’t stand to read about rape, you want to pass on this novel. While it’s only a small part, a page or two, it is a traumatic read.) Despite the support of her mother, Shelby can’t rise out of her depression. The person who finally gets Shelby to return to a semblance of living is Ben Mink, the local teen pot dealer. Eventually, Ben and Shelby move to New York City together, where Shelby starts rescuing dogs. She also starts working at a local pet store. More than anything, animals help her to begin finding a purpose to life once more, though she still doubts herself and struggles with depression.

Throughout it all, she receives mysterious, anonymous postcards that encourage her to keep living, to keep trying, to find a reason to be happy.

I recently read an article about bibliotherapy, a type of therapy where counselors give clients books to help them work through their own problems. Disappointingly, to me, the therapists assign self-help books to their clients, not fiction. If I was a bibliotherapist, I would give my clients fiction. (I’ve since found several articles about bibliotherapists that do prescribe fiction, such as this one from The New Yorker. This article from Book Riot is also interesting.) Faithful would be a great book to give people who suffer from depression, or to their families. Maybe especially to their families. It’s so hard to understand where someone who’s depressed is coming from. Shelby’s constant self doubt — “Why would anyone be nice to me? I don’t deserve it.” “I don’t deserve him.” “I’m worthless. Why would they promote me?” — can be hard to understand for anyone on the outside. As someone with close family members who are clinically depressed, reading Faithful helped me to better understand their point of view.

One of the main points I think this novel makes is that you don’t owe the people who help you out of depression — or, for family members, the person you help doesn’t owe you anything. Your goal as a loved one is to help them be productive and find self-worth, not to make them stay with you, or be kind to you, or to be the person you wish they would be. I think that’s a difficult reality to face for people helping a clinically depressed loved one who finally finds a way out of that depression. You feel like you’ve given up a part of yourself in helping that person, and when they move on from you, or become someone different than you imagined, that can be really tough. That’s one reason I love Shelby’s mom. She loves Shelby unconditionally. No judgement. No disappointment.

This isn’t the kind of book I typically read, and I admit, I thought about quitting at the beginning. I like books with speculative elements: science fiction, fantasy, magical realism. The only other Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read had some magical realism elements (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Faithful verges on a romance (though thankfully steers clear of a Nicholas Spark ending — which I was worried about for a bit), not my typical read. But right when I thought I’d stop reading, she rescues two dogs. And then I was hooked. I fell in love with Shelby. I no longer cared that there was no magic. Apparently, a character that loves animals is enough for me. (Okay, minor nitpick here, but all the dogs she rescues off the street are purebred. Um, street dogs are almost always mutts. Falling into the Lady and the Tramp trap there.)  Then she makes friends with a coworker and her kids, even though she claims to hate children, and I fell even more in love with her.

It’s weird; this novel has no discernible plot (unless you count discovering who is writing her those postcards, but Shelby doesn’t seem to really care to uncover that mystery until the end), yet once I got past the beginning, I didn’t want to stop reading. I also can’t tell if it’s adult or YA. New adult, maybe? The prose reads like YA, yet Shelby’s an adult for most of the novel. I just don’t know! Regardless, I enjoyed it, and I plan to buy it as a Christmas present for a fellow animal lover. Those who enjoy contemporary fiction and young adult will like Faithful, especially if they’re animal lovers!

Rating: 4/5