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!

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!

“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!

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn, is quite simply one of the most fun books I have had the pleasure to read. I’ve waited a week to write this review, to decide whether the initial infatuation would last (I’ll admit to sometimes being a tad hyperbolic about books I’ve just finished), but that first flush of joy has blossomed into an enduring admiration. This book is a winner, not just because it brings some much needed diversity to the world of superheroes, but because it is effortlessly fun and light. This is prime vacation reading, people!

The premise of the book is delightful. Some years ago, demons tried to invade San Francisco. It didn’t work, but the event gave low-level superpowers to a thousand or so locals. The invaders haven’t been back, but portals continue to open, and decidedly less menacing demons (referred to at one point as “puppy dog demons”) show up on a regular basis. Aveda Jupiter (real name: Annie) is the world’s first superhero, protecting San Francisco from these low-level demonic hordes, not with her own superpower, but through a lot of physical training and fight practice. She is aided by her childhood best friend, Evie, who hates the spotlight and fears her own superpower. The cast is rounded out by Lucy, Avedra’s bodyguard/personal trainer, plus Evie’s little sister, a cute demonologist, a nosy blogger, and the blogger’s sycophantic best friend.

The very first scene features a swarm of demons who have taken the form of cupcakes (their portal formed in a fancy bakery, and they imprinted on the first baked food they saw). This is featured on the cover, in all of it’s sharp-toothed, pink-frosting-ed glory. The style is over-the-top and a tad cartoonish, but that is clearly a deliberate choice. This book is a classic superhero cartoon, not a gritty urban fantasy. If you’re looking for something more grounded, then this book is likely to feel silly and cliched. That’s not how I experienced it, but I can understand how some people might feel that way.

The pacing is divine. The plot moves forward with gusto, never making us wait too long for what we know is coming. Then, with masterful strokes, Kuhn introduces something else for us to anticipate, and before too long, we get that, too. Repeat until the end of book. It’s a delightful change from real life, where patience is so frequently required from us. The plot doesn’t feel rushed – every battle, social media incident, and interpersonal conflict is given exactly as much time as it requires, but not a sentence more.

The world needs more women of color in the role of superheroes, which is why Chinese Aveda and half-Japanese Evie are so important. The author, Sarah Kuhn, is Asian herself, so we can trust that she has handled this from a place of knowledge and experience. This sort of #ownvoices writing is extra important as Hollywood keeps casting white women to play Asian characters.

It does my heart good to see a superhero story with so many strong friendships between women. It’s the most realistic part of the book, the backbone that makes the frosted-demons believable. Aveda and Evie have been best friends since they were six years old, and while they have some serious baggage, all twenty years of their friendship sing through the page. Evie and Lucy (the bodyguard and personal trainer) have known each other for far less time, but have an easy camraderie that feels no less authentic. There’s not a ton of character background and history, but they feel authentic to me.

My favorite part of this book? Knowing that the sequel, Heroine Worship, is coming out in July!