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.

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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.

Good Lunar Tidings

July 30 started like any other day. I brewed a cup of tea and checked my email on my phone, skimming through newsletters and staring out the window. I saw a response to a story I’d submitted. “Ah, another entry for my folder of story rejections,” I thought, as I clicked the link.

Gentle readers, it was not rejection. It was an acceptance. And thus, my short story, “Tell the Moon Your Troubles,” was published at Enchanted Conversation Magazine this month.

It makes sense that this, of all the possibilities, is my first published work of fiction. I’ve always felt an emotional connection to the moon. Looking up at her in the sky fills me with peace and a sense of companionship that has helped me through some rough moments in my life, and of course forms the emotional core of this brief story, even if Leah’s problems are very different from my own. I hope this story will inspire someone else to look up at night and feel less alone, too.

Broken Promises

I said that I was going to review a piece of short fiction every week until the end of 2017, but have not updated this blog since September. What gives?

Technically, I did not break my promise. I am now reviewing Apex Magazine for the new short fiction review site, SFF Reviews. Due to their scheduling backlog, only one of those reviews has gone live as of today, but I’ve written one every week. It turns out that’s as many reviews as I can write on a regular basis now, on top of my other commitments and my own writing. I’ve been brainstorming other good uses for this blog, but have not yet come to any firm decisions. In the meantime, you can find my reviews of Apex Magazine here, and you can follow my general thoughts and rambling on Twitter.

“Seer’s Salad” by Barbara A. Barnett

Sometimes, I am not very good at keeping up with my podcasts. Thus I have only now listened to “Seer’s Salad” by Barbara A. Barnett, published on Cast of Wonders. And that is a damn shame, because this story deconstructs one of my favorite tropes: the manic pixie dream girl.

Tamsin is a 20-something with an unpublished web comic and an inferiority complex. Her good friend, Diya, is a glitter-loving girl with a loud personality and louder fashion sense. The action of the story follows their falling out and reconciliation, and along the way, Tamsin learns an important lesson about valuing herself.

The question, suggested by the text and posed outright by the host, is whether Diya a manic pixie dream girl. I think the answer is a clear no.

Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term manic pixie dream girl to describe an exciting, quirky girl who livened up a male main characters boring life and has no goals or purpose of her own. Now the term is used to disparage a certain personality type – the silly, the girly, the flamboyant, the irresponsible, and the whimsical. It’s not fair. And it’s not fair to Diya. Yes, her role in the story is to help Tamsin learn something about herself. But when you read the story, you’ll see that she’s not bringing in something her friend lacks, but suggesting that her friend is just fine as she is.

I love this story because I think it is a somewhat deliberate take down of the misuse of the manic pixie dream girl label. Diya is genuinely hurt when Tamsin accuses her of playing the role of “Princess Whimsy Pants,” accusing her of having a deliberately crafted persona, instead of just being herself. She is who she is, not for someone else, but for herself. It’s not an act, and it’s not for anyone else’s benefit.

The original intent of the label was to criticize lazy story-telling and the creation of one-dimensional female characters. It was never meant to skewer an entire personality type, or to lump all quirky women (and yes, I’ve seen this term applied to real, living women) into one category and dump them in the trash. Thus, Diya isn’t a manic pixie dream girl – she’s a simply a girl.

Rant aside, this is a great story and one that I highly recommend for your listening pleasure!