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?

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?

Book Review of Roses and Rot by Kat Howard


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Title and Author: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Publication Date: May 2016

Genre: Fantasy, fairytale novel

How I got it: Bought the print book from Amazon

 

Review:

“Once upon a time, there were two sisters, and there was a forest. The forest was, in the way of these things, full of secrets.

Not just the secrets of leaves and trees, of fur and feathers, of shadowed spaces. Certainly it had all of those, but it had other secrets as well.”

Two sisters:

Imogen, the eldest. A writer of fairy tales.

Marin, the youngest. A ballet dancer.

Both are invited to Melete, a prestigious artist retreat, for nine blissful months of full concentration on their art. They’re excited about not only improving their art, but also getting to know each other better, for after an abusive childhood Imogen fled to a boarding school, and the two haven’t been close since.

A fairy tale often begins with abuse.

“You always tell yourself that there’s someone who has it worse, and if you lived through the abuse, there almost certainly was. There’s a horrible sort of comfort in reassuring yourself in that fashion—maybe you were hungry some nights, but you had food. Maybe you got slapped, but at least you didn’t get beaten. Maybe you got beaten, but at least you never had broken bones. You think of the worst thing that happened to you, and then you think of something even worse than that. If you survived, you always can, and so by pained, contorted logic, what happened to you wasn’t really that bad. . . . This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.”

But Melete isn’t the safe haven for Imogen’s and Marin’s art they hoped it would be. The Fae run Melete and every seven years claim an artist as their 7-year tithe. This year is tithe year, and the first time there’s been two sisters at the retreat. Of course the Fae, with their darkly mischievous personalities, love the idea of sisters competing to be their tithe. Who will the Fae choose? Imogen, who is quickly falling for the last tithe and desperately wants to protect her younger sister, or Marin, who’s lover is the Fae king?

Here’s a video of the Mythra variation from the ballet Giselle, which Marin dances at one point in the novel:

Roses and Rot explores how far one would go for their art, the bond of sisters, and what happens when magic and reality collide. As a creative person, a sister, and someone who can’t quite not believe in magic, I loved it. It’s one I plan to reread, especially with someone else in the creative arts. Plenty of discussable ideas! I’m currently finishing a third draft of a fairytale novel, so I kept putting myself in Imogen’s shoes and asking myself what choices I would’ve made in the same situation. (For those of you who’ve read it, I’m on Ariel’s side. Also, I WANT ARIEL AS A FRIEND PLEASE!)

Neil Gaiman recommends the novel on the front cover, and the two writers are similar in some respects. Both have deceptively simple prose, so when an achingly truthful line appears, it hits you right in the gut. I read Roses and Rot in 3 sittings, yet despite the fast pace it’s a thoughtful novel that I highly recommend to any fan of fairy tales or of fiction about creativity. I’ve been reading Kat Howard’s short stories for several years, and was so excited when I heard she had a first novel coming out. I’m even happier now to find that it’s good. So glad I splurged on it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommendation List! Favorite Animal Transformation Fiction


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Metamorphosis by Christian Schloe. You can buy her work at Society 6.

Last week, I wrote about Beauty and the Beast and animal transformation fairy tales, so for this week I’ve gathered a list of my favorite fiction featuring animal transformations. These are in no particular order. Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments.

 

Novels

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness: About half of the Goodreads group I read this with loved it, the other half hated it. I loved it. Inspired by the fairy tale The Grateful Crane, George is awakened one night by a keening, and discovers a crane that’s been shot by an arrow in his backyard. He helps free the arrow from the crane’s wing and watches it fly away. The next day, while cutting out shapes from old books in his graphic design shop, a woman, Kumiko, walks in and asks for help on her own art—feather cuttings. Guess who’s the crane wife? This is a really lovely, humane novel.

 

The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson: Some kitsune, the Japanese word for foxes, have magic and can shape-shift into human beings. But that choice has costs. The Fox Woman weaves three diaries into a story about a kitsune who falls in love with a human. First, there’s the fox woman herself, whose love of Yoshifuji drives her to become human. She forces her family to become human with her and creates an entirely magical world in order to seduce Yoshifuji. Yoshifuji’s diary entries describe his growing fascination with the foxes, and also the frustrations of his marriage to Shikujo. Shikujo is the ideal 11th century Japanese wife, but that ideal means she’s rarely free to act out her own desires, or to even know what those desires are. Shikujo’s entries show her perfection, but also how that perfection inhibits her relationships with everyone. A complex historical novel that makes me really glad I was born in the nineteen eighties.

 

The Brides of Rollrock Island  by Margo Lanagan: Another divisive read in my Goodreads group that depicts a small island’s history of capturing seal brides. I love selkie legends, and this one’s visceral and dark. The story haphazardly follows the life of Misskaella, the witch of Rollrock Island, though only the second chapter is in her perspective. The other chapters follow a family through the generations, and the personal toll the magic that causes seals to turn into brides takes on both the islanders and the selkies. It’s a psychologically intense novel, each chapter immediately dropping into a very close 1st person with little back story, which is jarring but also completely effective. I see this listed as a teen book on Amazon, but it’s adult to me. 

 

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier: First in a Celtic fantasy series based on “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christen Andersen. Sorcha is the 7th child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. He remarries an enchantress, who curses Sorcha’s brothers by turning them into swans. To turn them back into their human form, Sorcha must remain mute for seven years and weave the brothers shirts made from nettles. There’s no way a summary can do this novel justice. Fae, danger, magic, romance, it’s everything I want in a fantasy. Despite the main character remaining mute most of the novel, it’s detailed and surprisingly fast-paced. I’ve reread this several times, yet I’ve never read the rest of the series!

 

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: This is a classic, and probably needs no introduction. Whenever I think of animal transformations, I think of this. Most animal transformation novels are tinged with sadness, and this is a perfect example. If you’ve only watched the movie, read the book. They’re both equally good, but Beagle’s prose reads like poetry.

 

Short Stories and Poems

“The Tiger’s Bride” by Angela Carter: A classic, chilling take on “Beauty and the Beast” that opens, “My father lost me to the Beast at cards.” You can find it in her excellent collection The Bloody Chamber.

“The Animal Women” by Alix E. Harrow: A little girl in the 1960s South makes friends with a group of mostly ‘colored’ women that live near her home—and occasionally she captures pictures that show them as something more than human. Examines both racial and gender discrimination. Powerful read.

“Ambergris, or The Sea-Sacrifice” by Rhonda Eikamp: A dolphin girl and colonization. Yep. Awesome story.

“The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney: Novella. The shapeshifting swans of Amandale are being hunted and killed and their bones made into instruments beneath the juniper tree at the bidding of ogre mayor Ulia Gol. But shapeshifting rat Maurice has an idea to save his lady love Dora Rose, one of the swans, with the help of his good friend the pied piper Nicholas. Super creative.

“Painted Birds and Shivered Bones” by Kat Howard: Birds and madness and art. My cuppa tea. Also, deceptively simple and atmospheric writing.

“The Girls with Two Skins” by Catherynne M. Valente: A poem about what a fox will do for love.

Theodora Goss: Goss often explores animal transformations in her short stories and poetry, so instead of picking just one, I decided to pick my three favorites:

Happy reading!