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Reading Railroad: September’s Reading

I read a lot of excellent books in September! From fairy tales to dragons to apocalypse to feminism, I read a little bit of everything, and most of it was a blast.

While still behind on my reading goal, I’m hopeful I can catch up by the end of the year. I read 7 books in September, which isn’t bad. I’ll need to up my game in October and November if I hope to catch up. Currently, I’ve read 70 books this year, and I’d like to reach 100. However, that would mean 10 a month until the end of the year. Not sure I can do that.

But hey, at least I’m reading some great books!  Here are my September reviews:

Novels

Book cover for The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillipThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. First published in 1974, this version published September 17th, 2017. Rating: 5/5!

Wow. Wow wow wow wow. I could just write ‘wow’ for this entire review.

Reasons I’m saying wow:
–badass lady wizard extraordinaire
–portrayal of trauma and the healing process that isn’t sexist
–lovely lovely prose
–all around beautiful

When the novel started, I thought I was in for something along the lines of Arthurian legend, and I think McKillip plays with that storyline trope. But it was engaging enough in the beginning that I wanted to keep reading even though I’d read similar enough fantasy before. But about halfway through something happens, which I’m not going to spoil, and I fell in love with the novel. I started highlighting large portions of the text. I read late into the night. I want and will read this again. I’ll also buy a copy so my daughter can read it.

It has similar themes to A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, but is also it’s own lovely piece of art.

McKillip is one of those authors I discovered late in life, and I’m relishing the thought of reading her works slowly for the next decade, much like I plan to do with Ursula K. Le Guin.

Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa BashardoustGirls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust. Published September 5th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

I loved this YA feminist retelling of “Snow White,” which subverts the trope that women must compete with one another.

“But then, what was the life of a queen compared to the legend people created for her after her death?”

Mina is a queen whose magician father crafted her a heart made of glass. Because of this, she believes she’s unable to love anyone. Yet that is her greatest desire.

Lynet is her step daughter, the exact image of her mother, the king’s first wife. But Lynet really wants to be like Mina, her step mother and the only mother she’s ever known, who sees Lynet as herself instead of as her mother.

Both struggle with how to make choices in a world largely defined by the men in their lives. How to choose what they want — as Nadia, a new court surgeon, tells Lynet. And Lynet is drawn to Nadia as well, who also sees Lynet as herself rather than as her mother. Or does she?

This is a novel about power struggles, agency, and finding love. Definitely one of the better Snow White retellings I’ve read.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but it reminds me of the essay “The Queen’s Looking Glass” published in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Gilbert and Gubar. It’s like Bashardoust intentionally subverts the issues Gilbert and Gubar analyze in that essay (of entrapment, beauty, female empowerment, female competition, etc.). I would love to eventually (someday, somehow) teach this novel in conjunction with that essay, along with the classic Snow White tales, of course.

Sometimes I wish YA had ‘denser’ prose, and that was the case with this one as well, but it’s still a fantastic read. Anyone who enjoys fairytales and fantasy YA should check this out.

Thanks to Flatiron Books and Goodreads for hosting this giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover of The Stone Sky by N.K. JemisinThe Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. Published August 15th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

I can’t imagine the series ending in any other way, even though I didn’t ‘predict’ the ending.

My pregnant brain had difficulty engaging with this last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy at first. My brain seems to be rejecting multiple pov narratives, so it was about halfway through before I finally ‘clicked’ with the novel. Which is unfortunate, because I feel like if I’d read this last year it probably would’ve blown me away. But I do plan on reading the entire trilogy at some point, back to back. I love Jemisin’s narrative style; I just didn’t have the energy to follow it!

But with its commentary on motherhood, love, and family, it made an interesting read for me.

I wish every fantasy series was so rich, nuanced, and challenging. If you haven’t read this series yet, it’s now finished, so there’s no better time to start it than now. It begins with The Fifth Season. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series.

Book cover of The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. RomeroThe Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. Published September 12th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

Reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen, The Dollmaker of Krakow depicts the horrors of the holocaust through the eyes of a doll, Karolina. But Karolina is no ordinary doll. Her own doll world has been ravaged by rats, and when she escapes with a toy soldier named Fritz, a wind ferries them to our world and into the hands of two human magicians.

Karolina’s magician is the dollmaker of krakow, a kind-hearted and shy war veteran who makes toys. With Karolina’s help, he breaks out of his introverted shell and makes friends with a violinist and his daughter. Both are Jewish. When the Germans invade Krakow, a dark magic descends on their lives, reminding Karolina of when the rats invaded her homeland.

This is a different kind of MG holocaust novel than say, Number the Stars or The Devil’s Arithmetic. Dollmaker has its roots in fairy tale and fantasy, and as such has a lightness and magic to the beginning. The world is fun, and you want to see even more magic. You want to see the dollmaker learn how to make even more toys come to life. But alas, this is not the time period for fun. It’s a bit jarring when everything goes so very dark, even when you’re expecting it the entire time because, of course, you know what’s bound to happen. Nonetheless, this is a novel that deserves its place on the shelf with other classic MG holocaust novels. The fairytale aspects make it unique to the genre. Oh, and the illustrations are quite cute!

Thanks to Delacorte Books for Young Readers and Netgalley for providing me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Short Story Collections

Book Cover for Iraq + 100 edited by Hasan BlasimIraq + 100: The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq edited by Hassan Blasim. Published September 12th, 2017. Rating: 3/5

In the introduction, editor Hassan Blasim explains that contemporary Iraqi literature typically sticks to realism and veers away from science fiction and fantasy. But he sees SFF as a way to imagine a different future, something he feels needs to happen more often. So he pitched the idea: what might your home city look like in the year 2103 — exactly 100 years after the disastrous American and British-led invasion of Iraq? And the 10 stories from these Iraqi authors are the ones he chose to compile into this collection.

If you’re interested in reading more about the philosophy behind this anthology, Tor has published several good articles that I recommend reading.

“History is a hostage, but it will bite through the gag you tie around its mouth, bite through and still be hear,” goes a slogan from “Operation Daniel.”

And in these stories history screams louder than the future. All but one or two of the stories are dystopias, depicting a government that dehumanizes, and often a populace that, even while recoiling from this dehumanization, learns to live with it. My favorite of these is the very first story, “Kahramana,” where a teen girl tries to flee Iraq after gouging out the eye of her fiance, who also happens to be the ruler.

But my other favorite story from the collection presents a future that has both frightening and hopeful aspects — “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhabody. In this story, an architect quickly descending into blindness and hallucinations due to ‘Baghdad Syndrome’ attempts to discover what the woman in his hallucinations wants, and to recreate the statue of Scheherazade. Really interesting and focused story.

My favorite SFF and dystopias create rich characters struggling within their community and society, and that’s why these two stood out as the strongest in the collection.

Some premises are more science-fictional than these, such as alien conquerors that harvest and eat people (Kuszib) and futurist, insect drugs (The Gardens of Babylon), but I preferred the ones with complex characterization over fantastical premises.

This collection is well worth reading, especially if you want to read diversely in SF (and you should want this), even though I only enjoyed a few of the stories. Some of them were so bizarre I had difficulty relating or determining what was going on, perhaps due to potential cultural and language barriers. But I would definitely enjoy reading more Iraqi SF, particularly from Anoud and Alhabody.

You can read my reviews for each story here. Thanks to Tor Books and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Nonfiction

Book cover for We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieWe Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Published in 2015. Rating: 4/5

A short, powerful essay/speech. I must admit, I mainly read it now because it’s short, to try and catch up on my yearly reading goal. However, I bought the book originally because I knew it would be a powerful essay after listening to Adichie’s TED talk, and I’m glad I read it now, when so much deals with raising daughters. Here are some of my favorite quotes, but I recommend reading it for yourself:

“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.”

“We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. But I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.”

“What struck me — with her and with many other female American friends I have — is how invested they are in being ‘liked’. … And that specific thing [likeability] does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly.”

“But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.”

“‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman.”

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

I highlighted more, but I’ll stop there! Obviously a must read. As a teacher, I kept thinking this would make a great essay for a Freshman Comp class, since she practices many of the same writing principles I teach.

Book cover for Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham AndersonFairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson. Published in 2000. Rating: 2/5

With this academic study, Anderson provides a comprehensive and at times exhausting examination of fairytale antecedents in ancient (mostly Western) mythology. It’s a thorough, well-researched study, with chapters focusing on specific fairy tales — like “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” — as well as general categories of tales. If this sounds like something you need for research purposes, you should definitely pick it up. It lacks the engaging prose style of some other fairytale academics, like Jack D. Zipes or Marina Warner, but while I won’t be reading it cover-to-cover again, I’m keeping my copy in case I need it for research. It certainly seems like it opens up a lot of research potential for other academics to explore.

 

What good books have you read lately?

2016 Favorite Novels and Reading Stats


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I exceeded my expectations in 2016 and read a total of 105 books (goal was 100). Yay! Before I list my favorites, here are some stats, for those interested:

  • 70% women writers, 35% men writers (overlap due to some collections having multiple editors)
  • 25% people of color writers (aiming for 33%)
  • Longest book Middlemarch by George Eliot at 904 pages
  • 20 the Library of Congress labels as nonfiction
  • 15 Young Adult and Middle Grade
  • 24 published in 2016
  • 9 published before 1950

Without further ado, here’s my top 10 list of favorite books I read in 2016, in no particular order. I’ll list my favorite short stories next week.

Books

  1. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Published in 2015. Adult Fantasy and Apocalypse. If I had to pick one favorite book of the year, this is it. It won the Hugo award, so I’m not the only person who feels this way. The magic in this world is orogeny, the ability to manipulate geologic formations, and the ‘fifth season’ occurs when a massive upheaval of the earth causes an apocalypse by wiping out most of humanity until the survivors rebuild once more. It’s book one of The Broken Earth trilogy, and book 2 — The Obelisk Gate — was released earlier this year (I enjoyed it though not quite as much as Book 2), and book 3 is forthcoming in August of 2017.

 

  1. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. Published in 2015. Adult Fantasy. This one’s a super fun read. I wrote a full review on this blog. While book 1 of a series, it stands on its own well. Two magicians try to save England’s magic, but they both have very different ways of going about it. Zacharias, a freed slave and now a Sorcerer Royal, likes to follow the rules, but Prunella, his magician-in-training, chooses efficiency over obedience, especially since the ‘rules’ have never included her anyway. A lot of fun ensues. Book 2 is slated to be published in 2017, though I couldn’t find an exact date for release.

 

  1. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Published in 1993. Adult Apocalypse (though could be read by teens). This is such a page-turner. I’ve been remiss for a while in failing to read Octavia Butler, so this year I finally sat down and read 3 of her novels, and this is my favorite of the 3. Lauren Olamina is not your normal teenager, even compared to the other teens in the gated community she lives in during an economic and social apocalypse. After the community fails, Lauren starts a new religion and collects followers as she travels. A must read, especially in the current political climate. I didn’t like book 2 as much — Parable of the Talents — but notably in book 2 a presidential candidate emerges whose campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again” (seriously), and though he never admits to being racist and bigoted, his followers commit hate crimes with his support. Super scary.

 

  1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Published in 2015. Adult Nonfiction. I wrote a joint review of this and Kindred by Octavia Butler earlier this year. Written as a letter to his 15-year old son, it explores what it means to be a black man in America, where your body can be taken, beaten, and killed without repercussions. It’s a powerful and essential read.

 

  1. Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World edited by Heidi Anne Heiner. Published in 2013. Fairytale Collection. I wrote a full review earlier this year. Any fairytale lover needs to read this, and especially “Beauty and the Beast” fans. But even if you’re not a B&B fan, there are versions collected here that I like much better than the most popular tale.

 

 

  1. Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. Published in 2005. Poetry. Mary Oliver may be my favorite contemporary poet (I really hate picking favorites), and this collection is excellent. If I hear anyone say they don’t like poetry because it’s too inaccessible, this is the collection I will give them. These are lovely, clear and poignant nature poems.

 

 

  1. Roses and Rot by Kat Howard. Published in 2016. Adult Fantasy. This debut novel explores sisterhood and art with the fae as a backdrop, and it’s a rare stand-alone fantasy. I wrote a full review of this one on this blog too.

 

 

 

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Published in 2016. Adult Genre-mashup. I wrote a full review on this blog — but for the low-down: AI + witchcraft + apocalypse + 2 quirky nerds = super original read.

 

 

 

  1. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black. Published in 2015. YA Fantasy. Hazel and Ben, sister and brother, live in what would be an ordinary small town — except that the faeries live there too. Another fun, fast read, and a stand-alone fantasy.

 

 

  1. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. Published in 2009. MG fantasy. This is an adorable mix of Chinese folktales, with fantastic illustrations. It’s book 1, but it stands alone fine, and the entire series is now complete.

 

 

 

Runners up

What were your favorite reads this year?

 

A Formula for Epic Fantasy


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The Black Gate Closed by Alan Lee
The Black Gate Closed by Alan Lee

Recently, I’ve been mulling over a 3-part formula for epic fantasy. It focuses on broad plotting in fantasy series versus micro plotting. Here’s the formula:

  1. Individual
  2. Community
  3. Globe

Book 1, or the beginning of the fantasy series, focuses on the individual hero(ine) and their conflict. The hero(ine) discovers they’re different, or they’re given a task, or they’re suddenly alone (or all of the above). They must learn something about themselves, be trained, leave the only home they’ve ever known. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo leaves Hobbiton and chooses to be the ring-bearer. In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Kvothe discovers he’s a genius, loses his family, and goes to the university to train in magic. In the Valdemar trilogies by Mercedes Lackey, book one often if not always begins with a teenager discovering they have magic, their horse appearing, and leaving home to train in magic. In The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Rand leaves home and discovers he’s special; the same happens to both Kaladin and Shallan in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I could name many more examples, but that’s probably enough.

Books 2+ explore community conflicts. This isn’t to say individual conflicts are no longer explored, but that by helping communities overcome conflict, the hero(ine) learns something about themselves. In The Two Towers, the hero(in)es face community conflicts in Rohan, Helms Deep, Isengard, and more. I haven’t read The Wise Man’s Fear yet, but I bet Kvothe leaves the university and travels into the wider world, visits communities that are undergoing conflicts, and helps (or fails to help) those communities. In the Valdemar trilogies, book 2 has the newly trained Herald being given an assignment that requires them to travel to outlying communities, and of course everything isn’t as it should be in those communities. These community-level conflicts can take up more than 1 book. The Wheel of Time series, for instance, has many community-level conflicts happening over many books. Words of Radiance is interesting because it focuses on a single area/community of conflict, but Sanderson gives the reader brief glimpses into community conflicts happening around the world, though the main characters are centrally located.

Finally, the fantasy series explores global-level conflict. Often, the possibility for global conflict has been there the entire time, and the smaller, individual and community conflicts have been a product or leading towards the larger, global conflict. The stakes are much higher in these conflicts. The world might end, humanity be destroyed, evil overtake the world, etc. The hero(ine) faces the ultimate villain(s) that threaten to destroy everything, not just the hero(ine). In The Return of the King, Sauron’s defeated, the ring thrown into the aptly named Fires of Mount Doom. If the heroes had failed, evil would’ve ruled the land. Though unfinished, I’m betting in The Kingkiller Chronicle a threat that imperils everything Kvothe knows and loves and the fabric of magic itself occurs to bring him out of exile (or, he tells about this conflict which then forced him into exile). For Valdemar, in book 3 the country itself is imperiled, and the Herald must save the day or else the entire country be destroyed. I haven’t finished The Wheel of Time series (stopped at book 10 about a decade ago and I don’t want to reread the entire thing to finally finish it), but the global conflict is apparent early on: The Dragon Reborn must face the Dark One, as the prophecy foretells. This is both an individual conflict and a global conflict, as many final books are. Unless the hero(ine) can conquer their inner demons and fears, the world will end, or everything good will be destroyed.

Many epic fantasies follow this formula. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin moves through the formula slowly, focusing on different hero(in)es at different times, and often the hero(in)es fail at saving a community, which is what makes the series a dark fantasy. And while all these communities face danger, Westeros itself is threatened to be destroyed by the white walkers (global). The Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin masterfully uses the formula to show that individual, community, and global conflict are all one and the same. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series moves in and out of all 3 parts simultaneously in both the books published so far — The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate — though it still seems to follow the basic formula, and is also obviously leading to a larger, global conflict. I could go on and on.

The formula is intuitively logical. It plays a part even in the real world, often in education and morality. First, an individual learns how to be a good human being (ideally), then they take their skills and help those around them in the community, and by helping those around them, the world improves. Individual-Community-Globe. The formula also aligns with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, though more simplified and broader in scope — focusing less on the individual and more on overarching plot structure. But if I were to map out the possible plot points in each of these 3 parts, I bet it would look very similar to Campbell’s hero’s journey.

I can think of several science fiction series that follow this formula as well, but it doesn’t seem as consistent as in epic fantasy. My theory is that global-level conflict can be addressed in fantasy in ways that seem forced or trite in other genres, but individual and community-level conflict is often seen regardless of genre. Also, the idea of ‘training’ seems to hold more importance in fantasy than other genres, though again, I can think of exceptions, especially in science fiction.

And not all fantasy series follow this formula. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy stands out as an exception. Conflict is thrown upon the characters with no training, the characters are not ‘special’ in any unique way, the city faces conflict but often the hero is a byproduct of the conflict. The world is never imperiled. I’m sure there are other epic fantasies that do not follow the formula.

I may explore this idea more at some point. It seems that fantasy offers a unique way of looking at how individuals can affect the world, but that idea is nothing new to anyone who’s already obsessed with the genre. Nonetheless, I’m always fascinated by how the craft of writing aids in message and theme.