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: 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!