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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?

Favorite Short Stories of 2016


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This almost seems impossible, but I read around 150 short stories in 2016. It’s my first year keeping track, and I was really surprised by how many I read! I read short stories in a variety of formats: in collections by individual authors; in edited collections with multiple authors; I have a subscription to Uncanny Magazine; and I read random stories recommended on Twitter published in a variety of free, online platforms. I switch back and forth between recently released short stories and older stories, and keep two separate folders to keep track of the ones I want to read.

So here are the top 10 short stories I read in 2016. Just like last week in my best novels of 2016 post, these are in no particular order. I’ve linked to the stories whenever they’re free to read online, so happy reading!

  1. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Published in 1998 in Stories of Your Life and Others. This novelette asks, In what ways can language shape cognitive functions? Oh, the tears snuck up on me in this one. This is what the movie Arrival is based on, which I will eventually see, especially after loving the story so much.

 

 

  1. The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman. The illustrated edition I read first was published in 2014, but it’s been published multiple times. It’s a wonderful novelette that turns the passive Snow White and Sleeping Beauty princesses into not so passive agents of their own futures. And the illustrations are so lovely — definitely worth buying the special edition.

 

  1. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman. Okay, so I really love Gaiman’s short stories, so he has 2 on this list. The edition I read of this one is in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (full review) published in 2015 (“Sleeper in the Spindle” appears in this collection as well), but it’s also been published multiple times. In this novelette, a dwarf asks a farmer to show him the way to a cave in the mountains that holds gold, gold that comes at a price. I broke out in goosebumps when I realized what was going on.

 

  1. “Midnight Hour” by Mary Robinette Kowal. Published in 2015 in Uncanny Magazine Issue 5. The kingdom is cursed, but some curses are ultimately good. Can a nameless queen distract a questing prince in order to keep her kingdom’s curse? Mary Robinette Kowal always writes great short stories, and this is my favorite of hers (so far).

 

 

  1. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” by Patricia McKillip. Read in Dreams of Distant Shores (full review), published in 2016 though the novelette is a reprint. A painter struggles with his craft and obsesses over another painter’s model when one day he paints the model’s lips on an unfinished painting of another model, a model who earlier disappeared and he’s been searching for ever since. And the painted lips speak. A lovely story reminiscent of Charles De Lint.

 

  1. “Tear Tracks” Malka Older. Published on Tor.com in 2015. Flur is chosen as an ambassador to Earth’s first alien contact on another planet. She has only a few hours to convince the aliens to sign a treaty, but the lack of similar social cues throws her off. Yep, you guessed it, I cried. This was the first thing I’d ever read by this author, but since then she’s published her first novel — Infomocracy — which I hope to read soon.

 

  1. The Creeping Women” by Christopher Barzak. Published in Uncanny Magazine Issue 8 in 2016. A retelling of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman! I’m pretty sure I don’t need to say anything else.

 

 

 

  1. “Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss. Published on Tor.com in 2016. A kitchen maid dreams of being in a fairy tale, and when one night a woman collapses at the kitchen door, she knows a princess has come in disguise. Such a perfect short story.

 

 

  1. “The Animal Women” by Alix E. Harrow. Published in Strange Horizons in 2015. 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 of them that show something more than human about them. Also a lovely novelette.

 

  1. “Cookie Jar” by Stephen King. Published in VQR in 2016. A 13-year-old goes to interview his 90-year-old great grandfather, who tells him a strange story about another dimension and an endless supply of cookies. While I no longer keep up with Stephen King’s books, I still read his short stories periodically. He really is an excellent writer.

Runners up

What were your favorite short stories?

Book Gift Ideas for Reading Fiends


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Last week I wrote about non-book gift ideas for book lovers, so this week I’ll give some book ideas, because what else is there to want? But if they read a ton, it can be difficult to know which books to buy. Here are some ideas.

New Releases.

Do they buy most of their books used? Then it’s quite possible they’ve missed out on some of the great books 2016 has offered. The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis is a post-apocalyptic thriller about a girl who finds out her adopted father is a serial killer and sets out across the wilderness to escape him (reads like a Quentin Tarantino movie). This Census-Taker by China Miéville is another post-apocalyptic novel about a young boy who has witnessed a murder. All the Birds in the Sky (full review) by Charlie Jane Anders mixes witchcraft and AI in a quirky and, um, apocalyptic novel (I’ve apparently read a lot of good apocalypse novels this year). In the fantasy/magical realism department, I really enjoyed Roses and Rot (full review) by Kat Howard, about 2 sister artists at an exclusive artist’s retreat that turns out to be run by the fae. Peter S. Beagle also released a new novel this year, Summerlong (full review), about a middle-aged couple who takes in a young girl that’s something more than she seems. In the non-speculative department, Faithful (full review) by Alice Hoffman is about recovering from trauma by finding love in animals.

Under the Radar.

Not all great books get the attention they deserve. These are all books with less than a thousand ratings on Goodreads, but really deserve to be read. Bohemian Gospel by Dana Carpenter takes place in 13th century Bohemia about a girl who has special powers, but they may not be powers for the good. Songs for Ophelia by Theodora Goss is a lovely fairytale poetry collection. The Native American magical realism novel Sacred Wilderness by Susan Power switches between the modern day and the 17th century US in a mystical examination of what it means to be Native American (everything by Susan Power is amazing). Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente collects her first four, mythic novels. The Poets’ Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales is another great fairytale poetry anthology by various authors.

Short Story Collections. 

A lot of readers mainly read novels and miss out on all the fantastic short story collections out there.  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a famous Russian author of absurdist fairy tales  who’s rarely read in the US. I recommend There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Bone Swans: Stories by C.S.E. Cooney collects fairy tale retellings and fantastical short stories. Roofwalker by Susan Power is a combination of short stories about the modern Native American experience and autobiographical essays. Of course Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman is great, but he’s one of the rare authors that can sell short story collections, so the reader on your list may have already read this one. Dreams of Distant Shores (full review) by Patricia McKillip is a lovely, fantastical collection released earlier this year. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu mixes sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism in a literary, somber collection of stories.

Young Adult and Middle Grade.  

In MG, Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is so fantastic and cute, and I think the series is now complete (Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver). Catherynne M. Valente’s fantastical Fairyland series is also complete. Charles de Lint has 2 cute, connected middle grade novels–The Cats of Tanglewood Forest and Seven Wild Sisters: A Modern Fairy Tale. All of these have great illustrations as well.

For YA, Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia has space pirates(!!), and she released the second and last in the series, Aerie, earlier this year, though I’ve yet to read it. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black is a stand-alone YA about two teen siblings who share a town with the Fae, and both have a crush on the soon-to-be-awakened horned boy that lies in a glass coffin. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire explores what happens to teens after they go through magical doors and are thrown back into the real world, and is the first in a trilogy (the others have yet to be released).

Collectible Books. 

Another possibility is to buy the reader on your list books you know they love in pretty editions. Folio Society has some really lovely books, as does Easton Press. You could also go with the fancy Barnes and Noble editions, which are a less expensive but still pretty option.

Books on My Christmas List

This is the book list I gave my husband: The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin (because she’s the best); The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (short story anthology); A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (YA, coming to theaters); The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente (because I still haven’t finished this series); Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (I always put at least 1 nonfiction on my list and this one looks really interesting); and Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold edited by Paula Guran (another recent short story anthology. I try to read all fairytale short stories.).

I could honestly go on and on recommending books! But I’ll stop here.

 

Book Review of Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle


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Title and Author: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Publication Date: September 6th, 2016

Genre: Mythic

How I got it: NetGalley. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review:

What happens when the mythic intersects with the mundane?

Everything changes, of course.

Summerlong takes a modern look at the Persephone and Hades myth. Most people know Peter S. Beagle from his most famous work, The Last Unicorn, but Summerlong is not the same kind of fantasy. It reminds me more of Beagle’s first novel, A Fine & Private Place, where ghosts try to remember the past in the cemetery they’ve been buried in. Both are gentle, character-driven novels, and both make you think.

Summerlong explores the relationship between two characters, Abe and Joanna. Abe is a retired professor working on a book of medieval history and Joanna is a stewardess nearing retirement. They’ve organized their relationship exactly how they want it: dating but not married, a comfortably bickering dialog, and a solid sex-life. But while everything’s as they want it, nothing adventurous ever happens.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, 1482
Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, 1482

Until Lioness arrives, a new waitress at their regular restaurant Sky-liner. Abe coins her ‘primavera’ because she looks like Botticelli’s Primavera, and they’re both immediately enraptured with her. By the end of their dinner, they’ve convinced her to move into Abe’s garage, for she has nowhere to stay and longs to be warm again. Both Joanna and Abe believe she must be hiding from someone.

Neither Abe nor Joanna notice the magic at first, but bit by bit strange things start happening: orcas come to greet Lioness and leave after she speaks to them in her own language, which Abe and Joanna believe is Greek; Abe’s homemade beer turns out perfect for the first time ever; Abe sees the little boy that lives next door pull flowers from beneath the ground to show Lioness. And summer stays on Gardner Island (in the Northwest U.S.), even as the months pass.

No one falls under Lioness’s unintentional spell more than Joanna’s daughter, Lily, a love that Lioness kindly and gently does not return. There are one or two touching scenes between them, but I do wish Lily’s character had been as well developed as Abe’s and Joanna’s, for she’s integral to the climax.

While the magic slowly builds, both Abe and Joanna find talents they were never brave enough to explore. Abe begins playing harmonica for a band, and Joanna learns how to kayak. When Mr. Mardikian, a strange man Joanna has met on the ferry, goes to Sky-liner restaurant with the couple, everything comes to a head. When Lioness sees him, she runs, and Abe runs after her. What happens next alters the relationships so carefully built between all the characters.

There’s a lot to like in Summerlong. Abe and Joanna have a rich and realistic relationship, and I love to see older couples as complex characters instead of stereotypes, and main characters at that. The changes Lioness brings to their lives is gradual and well-developed, and I love the bits of magic that gradually builds. But at key moments Beagle fails to show the magic, which undermines the gradual buildup. I’m not sure why these scenes are missing and only related in retrospect, but I was so disappointed. I wanted to experience what happened with the characters!

Readers who love quiet, mythic fiction, like Patricia McKillips’ Something Rich and Strange and Swim the Moon by Paul Brandon, will enjoy Summerlong. This is not high fantasy, like The Last Unicorn, but mythic fantasy, so if you’re picking it up to experience an entirely different world, you’ll be disappointed. But why not branch out to explore the ways fantasy can be employed in this ordinary world of ours? It’s worth it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review of Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip

Title and Author: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip

Publication Date: June 14th, 2016

Genre: Fantasy, short stories

How I got it: NetGalley. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review:

At the recent International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, I went to a panel called “Putting the Epic in Fantasy,” and Patricia McKillip was one of the panelists, along with Stephen R. Donaldson, Matt Oliver, and Alethea Kontis. I fangirled at McKillip a bit later in the day, in the bathroom of all places, holding the bathroom door open for her as I sang her praises. Could there be a more awkward place to fangirl than a bathroom?

Anyway, I was reading Dreams from Distant Shores at the same time I attended the conference, so it was impossible not to relate her theories and ideas concerning fantasy from the panel with the short stories in the collection.

For example, when the discussion turned to the essentialism of fantasy settings, McKillip asserted that “Landscape is the human condition.” While all of the stories in Dreams from Distant Shores deal with how humans and landscape are inextricably linked—even the title suggests such—nowhere is that theme more prevalent than in the novella “Something Rich and Strange.” “Something Rich and Strange” is a reprint, but this was my first time reading it. In this novella, the ocean enraptures couple Jonah and Megan with its seen and unseen wonders, which are rich and strange. It begins when Megan, an artist, realizes she’s capturing odd moments in her paintings of the sea, moments she didn’t realize were there until she looks at the finished painting. Then two sibling newcomers come to their small coastal town and Jonah, Megan’s husband and an antique shop owner, becomes ensnared by one of their voices, which sounds just like the sea’s song. Meanwhile, Megan is drawn to the singer’s brother, who brings beautiful, sea-inspired jewelry to sell in the antique shop. A fairytale quest follows, venturing deep into the ocean’s depths. This novella is an atmospheric, ecological-themed treatise on the ocean and its magic.

Random: Here’s a picture of a turtle sunbathing in a pond outside the conference hotel. No, it’s not relevant to this book review in any way, but if landscape is the human condition, than this landscape was part of mine while attending the conference. And it’s cute.


Moving on, McKillip also said during the panel that “Language speaks more than what the words say.” As any reader knows, the right rhythms, patterns, and words can be visceral, emotional, almost like a spell, a spell McKillip has most certainly mastered. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” my favorite story in the collection, is a lovely example of the power, both spoken and unspoken, of language. In this short story, a painter struggles with his craft. He’s developed an obsession with another painter’s model, and one day paints that model’s lips on his unfinished painting of a gorgon. The model he’d been using for the gorgon has disappeared, and he’s been searching for her for months. Once he finishes painting the lips, the gorgon in the painting opens her mouth and speaks. Magic follows. With its artistic themes, this short story reminded me of Charles De Lint’s Memory and Dream. It’s definitely going to stick with me.

My favorite quote from the panel came near the end: “As a fantasy writer, I have to believe that there’s hope in the end.” Her short story “Alien,” my 2nd favorite in the collection, uses hope of the impossible as the impetus for plot. In this story, a grandmother believes she’s being visited by aliens, but her family at a family reunion uses this belief as an impetus for gossip. But some hang on to that hope, including the grandmother. “Alien” is a fantastic story about belief, and original to this collection. If I decide to renew my Hugo membership, I’ll definitely consider nominating it.

While these three are my favorite stories in the collection, there are many more to enjoy. In “Mer,” another original to this collection, a witch awakens after a 100 year nap to find a goddess who wants her body. The two switch shapes, and the witch becomes a wooden mermaid. This is a lovely story of switched identities and small magics in a small town. In another fun story, “Which Witch,” a young witch finally finds a familiar—a crow—but the problem is neither can understand a word the other’s saying, and something dangerous lurks at her rock concert that night.

My two least favorite stories were also the weirdest: “Weird” and “Edith and Henry Go Motoring.” “Weird,” the very first story, makes more sense as an introduction to the entire collection. In “Weird,” a couple lies on the bathroom floor while terrible noises echo around them. The man asks, “What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?”, and the woman answers him with increasingly weird anecdotes amidst the noise. In context of the entire collection, all of the stories that follow could be a response to “What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?” The weirdness in “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” occurs when Edith, Henry, and their driver travel to a small town right out of a fairy tale, and find a house that appears empty, until they step inside. It’s a story of confronting repressed hope, and letting your dreams go, but lacked the cohesion of the other pieces in the collection.

The collection ends on the essay “Writing High Fantasy,” where McKillip gives a short description of fantasy, using The Riddle-Master Trilogy as examples. Unfortunately, I have not read the Riddle-Master books, but I’m sure the essay would be an interesting read for those who have. (I know, I know, I really need to read the trilogy!)

McKillip’s writing is sharp and lyrical, full of humanity, myth, and hope. If you haven’t read McKillip before, this is a great collection to start with and see if you like her style. If you’re already a McKillip fan, then you should definitely pick this up, if you haven’t already.

Rating: 4/5