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!