February Reading Round Up

I’ll never understand how anyone could claim that April is the cruelest month, when February is sitting right there, a cold eternity condensed into 28 miserable days. I feel like I had to hike all the way to Mordor to get to March, but at least I read some lovely books on the way.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

I was not a huge fan of Uprooted, Novik’s previous fairy tale book, so I let this loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin languish on my TBR pile for months. Big mistake, as I absolutely adored this one! The kingdom (a sort of fantasy Poland) has always been plagued by magical beings of winter. But this winter is worse than most. We start off following the character of Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a money lender, in a sort of fantasy Poland suffering through a terrible winter, plagued by terrifying magical beings. The story rapidly branches out to include other points of view, most of them young women who are refusing to lay down and die under challenging circumstances. This is a fairly lengthy tome, but the pace never wavered. The plots intersected and diverged at regular intervals, carrying me along on their tide, but the real stars are the characters and relationships. This is a book about people, not action, so the pacing might feel slow to some, but I found myself thoroughly immersed in the world and in the lives of these stubborn women.

You Can’t Play in Our Woods, by Cat Scully

I quite enjoyed this southern gothic about college students doing things they should not have done, and suffering the consequences. This is a chapbook, so a short story in a lovely binding, and not nearly the length of a novel, or even a novella. I don’t have the constitution to read an entire horror novel – I think my nerves would after a couple of chapters – so this bite-sized story was just right for me, personally.

A Witch’s Kitchen, by Dianna Sanchez

This middle grade novel about a young witch who doesn’t think she can do magic brought me so much joy. As a grown woman, I’m not exactly the target audience for this one, but reading about Millie’s journey of self-discovery provided a welcome distraction when I was stressed out and exhausted. The story follows her as she enrolls in school for the first time (witches are traditionally home schooled in this setting), and gets to know the rest of the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest – trolls and dragons and pixies and so much more! – while also learning more about her own family and abilities. Millie’s love of cooking (a passion which her mother does everything possible to discourage) infuses every page, and proves to be more than just flavoring – it proves crucial to her self-discovery.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin

I have no chill when it comes to the work of N.K. Jemisin, so you know that I adored this collection of short stories. She includes all of my favorite genres, from near-future SF to steampunk to alternate versions of our contemporary world, to outright fantasy. I especially enjoyed the stories that were clear precursors to her novels. The story set in the world of the Dreamblood duology was particularly telling, and deepened my appreciation for those novels. Also of note is her response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” amazed me from the title, and does not pull its punches.

The Between, by L.J. Cohen

Lydia discovered that the family she has lived with for 17 years is not her real family, that she is really a fairy, hidden away in the human world. This lovely YA novel employs the usual fairy tropes – the fairy courts come right from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Oberon and Titania fighting for power in the wake of their falling out – but it does a really solid job bringing them to life. Lydia is every teenager – surly, defensive, but full of potential and genuinely trying her best. She constantly alludes to the Wizard of Oz in order to make sense of what is happening to her, which is all the more endearing because the comparison really doesn’t work for this situation. It’s an adorable bit of persistent characterization that made me smile every time it came up. While this is technically the first in a duology, it stands very well on its own.

That’s it for February. I hope that February was gentle with you all!

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January Reading Round-Up

This is my least favorite time of the year. Any novelty that winter might once have possessed wore off long ago, but the cold and the dark are nowhere near over. At least I have books and tea to keep me going!

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri

I picked up this anthology specifically because I’ve been wanting to read more solarpunk – stories about humanity using green technologies to cope with ecological disaster, or just build a new and different future. I firmly believe that, in these trying time, we need more visions of a better future, and of different ways to live. If we can’t even imagine living without fossil fuels in our fiction, how are we ever going to face up to global warming? I feel like I got a real taste of all the possibilities of the genre from this anthology, which is exactly what I was looking for. Most of the stories are relatively brief, so this would be an ideal book to grab in short moments, for just a sip of a new world or engaging possibility.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick (read by Paul Giamatti)

I’ve been trying to read more classic sci-fi, so when a friend recommended this audiobook, I got it out from library ASAP. In retrospect, I think I should have stuck with my original plan, and read The Man in the High Castle as my introduction to Philip K. Dick. A Scanner Darkly takes a close look at 1970’s drug culture, and the ways in which drug users are basically reviled and taken advantage of. It’s based on Dick’s real life experience, and most of the characters are based off his friends. The main character is a narc, but also a drug user, and is slowly growing more and more distant from reality. I felt like the vast majority of the novel consists of him using drugs and then having spaced out, paranoid conversations with his friends, or else wandering off on lengthy internal tangents and monologues. It’s all really well done, and comes together at the end to a poignant conclusion, but it just was not for me. The narration is excellent, and helped me to stick with the story until the end.

Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys (read by Gabra Zackman)

I absolutely adored the first book in this series, Winter Tide, so I was eager to get my hands on this, the second volume. If anything, I enjoyed Deep Roots even more! Having introduced us to the world and the main characters in Winter Tide, Emrys was free to go deeper this time, even giving us glimpses into other points of view. This time around, Aphra and her entourage go to New York City in search of distant relatives in an effort to rebuild Innsmouth. On the way, she encounters yet more cosmic horrors, and has to distinguish between ancient prejudice, and the truth. The series continues to explore themes of duty versus freedom, found family, and the complexities of trust. Gabra Zackman does a fantastic job making Aphra and the other characters come alive in her narration.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde

I’ve had this book lurking in my Goodreads queue since the last Hugo award nominees were announced, but finally got it out of the library after taking a brief workshop on worldbuilding with the author. Then I read it in one evening (the book is less than 100 pages long, so I didn’t even miss sleep!). I loved the world. The Jewel of the title is a member of the royal family, and the Lapidary is a servant bound to her, who has the ability to command the magical games that are the source of the kingdom’s power. The main text is interspersed with excerpts from a guidebook to the region, ostensibly written far in the future. The contrast between those diverging accounts brought a real depth to the story, and also some humor. I look forward to seeing how the characters develop if there is a sequel – I did not feel like there was quite enough space in this book to get to know them as well as I could like, but that’s a risk with a shorter novella. I think that I went into this story expecting a more novel-like experience, where there’s more space for character, plot, and world to all be developed at leisure, but the pacing is more like a short story, which has to be tighter and more focused. That was a problem with my expectations, and not the story, though!

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

It almost seems disingenuous to list this as a January read, considering I started it back in November, but it took me that long to finish it. As you might have gathered from the three months I spent reading it, this is not a book to rush through, but is instead a weighty tome, best savored. I feel like this book needs no introduction – it spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list when it first came out – but that was decades ago. Women Who Run With the Wolves uses fairy tales and Jungian analysis to discuss the trials and struggles of a woman’s life, and how she can find her way back to wholeness. It’s not exactly a how-to guide – there are no easy answers or clear directions herein – more of a map to the territory. Not every chapter felt relevant to my life, but that’s to be expected. Other chapters absolutely stunned me. I never expected anyone could describe my personal pain with such a deft hand. If you’re a women feeling lost or trapped, I’d recommend checking it out. If the writing and general approach resonate with you, stick it out even if the first few stories don’t smack you over the head – the section written just for you may be coming.

That’s it for me this month. Did you read anything noteworthy in January? I’d love to hear about it!

December Reading Round-up

The last month of 2018 is nearly at an end! I feel like I should do some sort of an end of year review, but I don’t recommend holding your breath waiting for it – between a nasty cold and Christmas, I’m pretty wiped out. But stress and coughing means that I did plenty of reading this month, so onwards to the reviews!

Sin du Jour: The First Course, by Matt Wallace

I started listening to this audio book – a compilation of the first three novellas in the Sin du Jour series – back in September. When I got to the end of the first novella, I was not impressed, and moved on to other things. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, the story just didn’t hook me. But a couple months later I decided to circle back around to it, and I’m glad that I did! I don’t know if the series got better, or if I just wasn’t in the right mood for a bit of light fun in September, but I raced through the last two books. Sin du Jour is about a catering company that cooks for demons, goblins, centaurs, and other beings generally considered supernatural. The main characters are new line chefs brought in for a one-time event, but the point-of-view wanders to almost everyone in the kitchen, to the crew of brawlers who procure the rare ingredients the chefs need, to the various magic workers kept on staff for emergencies. It’s possible that the first book was not long enough for me to get invested in so many characters, which might be why the second and third felt stronger to me. Once I got into the story, I found it to be light, frothy fun.

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

I was so excited when this book came out over the summer! Native American legends pop up in a lot of fantasy, and I always worry about appropriation. Finally, a Native American author has arrived to tackle those themes (or at least, has achieved enough public awareness that I know about it – I’m sure Roanhorse is not the first to try), and I can enjoy the story knowing that the culture will be presented accurately. I was originally familiar with Roanhorse from her short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Native American Experience,” but this novel has a very different tone. It’s less serious, more pulpy, but still eminently enjoyable. The story follows the adventures of a Navajo monster slayer in a world where most of North America is suffering from a terrible drought brought on by climate change, while the Navajo nation has been spared, and even experienced a resurgence in magic. Maggie is in many ways a typical urban fantasy lead – violent, isolated, distrustful, but ultimately a good person – but that’s okay. I suspect she will gain depth as the series goes on, and I really came for the world-building, which did not disappoint.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire

Another audio book, because I had a terrible cold and a lot of crafting to do for Christmas. This is the sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, which introduced us to the ghost Rose Marshall. She died on her way to the prom in the 1950’s, and has been roaming the ghost roads ever since. Rose is resourceful, impetuous, and a bit whiny, and I love her unconditionally. This sequel did not go in the direction that I expected. A major plot point isolates her from the truly delightful extended cast that we met in the first book. However, the ground it did tread was fascinating and well-done, and will have profound implications for whatever comes next, so it’s really my own fault if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I shall await the third installment (I assume there will be a third installment?) with baited breath.

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland

This is a story about the power of stories, which gives it an unfair advantage in winning my heart. The main character and delightfully unreliable narrator is Chant, a traveling storyteller who has been accused of a variety of crimes that he is pretty sure he never committed. He’s kind of an asshole, yet thanks to Rowland’s writing, he’s just likable enough to be an enjoyable companion. Chant is an unusual narrator, in that he is in jail for the entire book, so a lot of the bigger world events are told second and even third hand, as he summarizes thing that he learns things from his visitors and even his jailers. Despite that, he manages to have an active impact on the larger plot, through the stories he tells, and his ability to improvise. Highly recommended for anyone who believes in the power of stories, or who enjoys a rascally first person point-of-view.

The Descent of Monsters, by J.Y. Yang

The third novella in the Tensorate series is a bit of a departure from the previous two (which you definitely need to read before this one). Most of the characters we’ve met before are only tangentially involved, and the story is told mostly through correspondence and journal entries. That’s a story telling device that I generally love, but I guess it did not fulfill my expectations, based on the prior stories. Still, it’s an interesting story that reveals more information about the world, and that’s not nothing. This is the only fantasy series that has ever made me long for more background information then it gives me. The world is amazing, but details are only made explicit when they are in service to the plot (a necessary bit of restraint when writing novellas!), which means that I have lots of unanswered questions. While this installment might not have given me the characters I wanted, it did give me new information about the world, and for that I am deeply grateful.

I hope you are all taking a moment to rest up in preparation for the new year. Take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you in 2019!

November Reading Round-up

The holidays are upon us, and I am still not reading as much I usually do. My progress through Women Who Run with the Wolves was slowed by an inconvenient library due date, but I liked what I read enough to order a used copy online, so I should be picking that up again soon. In the meantime, I did read two novels and a collection of short stories.

Dietland, by Sarai Walker

Three different people recommended this book to me, so I finally gave it a try. I’m very glad that I did! This mainstream novel answers the question, “What if women started fighting back against the violence and oppression directed at them by Western culture?” There’s a lot of violence, but also a lot of humor. The narrative is particularly focused on the violence of diet culture, and the associated pressure to achieve what one character calls “fuckability.” The main character, Plum, has a habit of silently reciting the caloric content of any food she eats, or even sees, which is a bit painful to read, but more painful to realize that most of us do it, on some level or another, whether we are on a diet or not. The feminism in this book is not particularly intersectional – as I recall, all of the main characters are white and of middle to upper class backgrounds, though one notable background character is Latina.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

I listened to this as an audio book, narrated by the author. Normally, that can be a bit of a gamble, but Kowal is also a professional audio book narrator, so in this case, it’s a fantastic choice. This is the first in a series, and at this point, it’s more alt history than science fiction, per se, though I expect that to change in the following installments. In this reality, a meteorite strikes Washington DC in the early 1950’s. In addition to obliterating the city and causing massive tidal waves, it also kicks of the Greenhouse Effect and will eventually render the earth uninhabitable. Thus, building space stations and colonies becomes of the utmost importance. The narrative follows one Alma York, a math genius and professional computer for the newly formed international space effort, in her quest to become a lady astronaut. The story hews pretty closely to the culture of the 1950’s, which is to say that we see a lot of sexism and racism, as well as some antisemitism. Fortunately, most of the actual characters are basically good people, which keeps it tolerable, at least for me (for comparison and so you can make good choices for yourself, I couldn’t tolerate the TV show Mad Men, but this is fine)

Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say, edited by Rhonda Parrish

Yes, this seems more like an appropriate choice for December than November, but I recently saw a call for submissions for one of Parrish’s upcoming anthologies, and I was curious about her tastes. This a surprisingly varied anthology, with much of the adventuresome light fantasy fare I expected, but she includes a handful of horror and science fiction, as well. More than one story showed Mrs. Claus as some sort of warrior, a conceit which I appreciated. Not all the stories focus on Mrs. Claus directly, but most are in her point-of-view. I can’t say that I loved every story in the anthology (does anybody ever, for any anthology?), but I thoroughly enjoyed the collection on the whole.

Now that it is December, I imagine I will have less time for reading, but who knows? Maybe I’ll be so stressed out by the holidays that I need to take tons of time to read for recovery purposes. Wishing everyone the best, whatever holidays you celebrate this winter! I hope you are able to find some time to turn inwards as we slide into the cold, dark time of the year in Northern Hemisphere.

October Reading Round-up

Checking my Goodreads account, it looks like I did not finish many books this month, probably because I have been mired in a long nonfiction read and a long audiobook. I look forward to telling you all about them next month!

Shadow Rising, by Dianne Sylvan

This is book seven in a series. They are some of my favorite pleasure reads, full of nerdy vampires, angst, and sexy fun times in Austin, TX. As the books go on, a group of anti-vampire zealots make themselves known, prophecies are fulfilled, and a goddess of vampires even makes an appearance. As the penultimate book of the series, you might expect this to end on a cliffhanger, but it does not. Things are wrapped up, if not neatly, at least sufficiently for me to wait patiently for the final installment. I highly recommend picking up the first in the series (Queen of Shadows), for a bit of fun reading.

An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

This is a book for our times, a contemporary fantasy about overthrowing a corrupt system bent on maintaining power for those who already have it. I would classify this as hopepunk – the situation may be dire, the opposition terrifying, but a small group of idealists are taking action anyway. This is a wonderfully socially aware book. It’s also a delight to read. The narrative flits between several points of view, but always comes back to rest on Sydney, a glorious main character. I hesitate to call her strong, because The Strong Female Character has become such a ubiquitous phrase that it really doesn’t mean anything any more. But she is strong – literally, her magic is immensely powerful, but also in the more important sense: she is richly characterized, with clear motivations, nuance, and all the shading you would expect of a real person.

That’s it for me this month. Happy Halloween, everyone!

September Reading Round-up

Where did the time go? I feel like September just arrived, and now it’s leaving already. Probably because I had oral surgery on the first, and it’s taken me this long to get myself put back together again. I won’t bore you with the details – suffice it to say, I am fine. So that is good. On to the books!

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys

I was skeptical of this book. I’ve never been a huge Lovecraft fan, but I do tend to enjoy other people riffing on his ideas, particularly if they are doing it with an eye towards poking at his racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. People told me this book was a good example of that, so I figured I’d give it a read. Damn, did that recommendation sell this book short! Yes, Emrys manages to use the stories, characters, and themes of a profoundly xenophobic man to tell a story about a found community of misfits, but this is also just a breathtakingly gorgeous book. It is unrepentantly introspective, with lots of space given to the main character’s philosophical musings and memories, without once letting the forward momentum dissipate. This is a gloriously thoughtful, introverted book with big themes and rich characters, and I love it so much. For what it’s worth, I listened to this as an audiobook, and thought the narrator did a fantastic job with it.

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

I did not read this whole book in September. According to Goodreads, I started it in February, but this is not a book to be read straight through. One should leave time to let Le Guin’s short works percolate, never rushing through them like so many potato chips (also, most of these stories are far too long to be potato chips). The volume is roughly divided into two sections: stories that take place on earth, and stories that take place in space. I’d say my favorites are evenly divided between the two. Le Guin’s spare, beautiful language is a gift no matter what kind of story she is telling. Several of the space stories are part of her Hainish cycle, and might be a bit confusing if you aren’t familiar with that world.

Anger is a Gift, by Mark Oshiro

I don’t even know what to say about this book. It is perfect and beautiful and it made me cry more than once and it broke me open in the best possible way. The thing is, this book isn’t really for me. This book is for the teenagers who don’t see their lives reflected in YA books about white, suburban kids. This is a book for those who can’t trust that the authorities have their best interests at heart, because they never have. That being said, I am glad that I get to read this book anyway. Moss and his friends are such real characters, with strong, varied relationships and wants. Since I’m an adult, they may have triggered a stronger protective instinct than they would in the intended YA audience, but there were times reading this when I would have sworn I would take a bullet for them.

Wild Earth, Wild Soul: a Manual for Ecstatic Culture, by Bill Pfeiffer

I was hoping to get some insights into how to live a life more in tune with the earth, but it turns out that most of this book is actually a guide for running Pfeiffer’s Wild Earth Intensives, and extensive information of various exercises one could employ. Nonetheless, I found much of the book at least inspiring. It covered a lot of territory that I’m already familiar with – spending quiet time outside, connecting to our authentic feelings, learning to exist in healthy community with other humans and how to listen to both human and nonhuman beings. It might not have been what I was looking for, but it wasn’t a bad book.

The Knife’s Daughter, by Andrew Coletti

This is a slender novella, an experimental story about gender, family, responsibility, and fairy tales, set in a world of Korean folklore. I met the author at a Kaffeklatsch we both attended at Readercon this year, and the premise was too intriguing for me not to pick up a copy. I’m glad I did. This isn’t the sort of book I would normally pick up, but I thoroughly enjoyed the quiet prose and the main character’s surprisingly straightforward journey. I liked that the conclusion did not offer any easy answers, while still ending on an optimist, confident note. It’s hard to pull that off, and in a second person point-of-view to boot!

I’m excited to move into October and the fall proper. We’ve had some solidly autumnal weather, but I’m ready for pumpkins and witches and the season of magic. I find the early moments, when the night has only just begun to overtake the day, to be downright energizing. I know that the cold will eventually wear me down, but right now, chill winds and rain just make me want to read and sip tea, or meditate and journal and think.

Happy fall, everyone!

August Reading Round-up

Here’s some of what I’ve been reading:

Heroine Worship, by Sarah Kuhn

I’ve been reading this series slowly, as you might have noticed, since I reviewed the first one in a it’s own blog post over a year ago. But I’m pleased to report that the second book in the trilogy (yes, the third is already out and I sincerely intend to get to it in less than another year) is just as delightful as the first. It’s so refreshing to see female friendships that are as conflicted and intense on the page as in real life, and of course, we need more super-heroine’s of color! This one is from Annie’s point-of-view, as she tries to repair her friendship with Evie, having realized in the first book that she had perhaps not been as good a friend as she wanted to be in the past few years. Her growth arc is very different from Evie’s, but no less poignant, and the romance is fun and sexy and inevitable.

The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor

Another trilogy that it took me far too long to complete. I can’t believe that I almost didn’t finish the first book – in retrospect, I must have just had trouble connecting with the narrator (I read Binti as an audiobook), because I enjoyed the second, and now the third. It’s hard to write about the last book in a series without any spoilers, but I will say that this is an emotionally realistic conclusion to Binti’s youthful adventures. Things don’t all wrap up neatly, and there are scars, but I thought it worked.

Strange Universe: The Weird and Wild Science of Everyday Life – on Earth and Beyond, by Bob Berman

I’ve been trying to read one nonfiction book a month in 2018, in order to broaden my knowledge base, both for myself and to inspire my writing. This book of physics and astronomy trivia, broken into brief thematic chapters, could make a good start on researching a space story. Sadly, I have no plans to write about outer space or aliens at this time, but don’t blame the book. This was even more superficial than I expected it to be, and the light tone became grating after awhile (picture page upon page of bad science teacher jokes – they started off funny, but after the first 100 pages I was done), but I don’t regret having read it. Did you know that astronauts experience weightlessness, not because they have left earth’s gravity, but because they are in free fall? I did not.

And those are my top reads for August! Hopefully I’ll have a more to say next month.