This Week’s Reads

Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers
Magical Realism, Finished
For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

First of all, I’m adding Anna-Marie McLemore to my list of favorite authors. Second of all, if what you want is to devour everything McLemore has written, go read this book. It’s great. If, however, you are limited in time and and only want the best, go read McLemore’s second novel, When the Moon was Ours. The books tell similar stories, with similar themes, ideas, obstacles, and even the occasional plot point. But When the Moon was Ours has the benefit of being a second novel and it is much, much better. It’s tighter, more imaginative, cleaner, and the emotional weight hits a lot harder.

So, yeah, The Weight of Feathers is, unsurprisingly, a beautifully written book with amazing imagery and a great premise, even if the payoff is lukewarm and comes a little bit out of nowhere. But seriously, just go read When the Moon was Ours.

Short story of the week: Lyndsie Manusos’s The Bells
Science Ficion, Finished
Read it here.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this one. It’s a straightforward tale of the horrors women’s bodies are put through by and for men. The idea is very solidly crystallized in the protagonist, who has been literally turned into a puppet for men’s amusement. It’s harsh and disturbing and leaves us with only more pain and horror.

This Week’s Reads

Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine and Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns
Historical Fantasy/Urban Fantasy, Not completing
Alas, I have picked up and put down two books this week. Viper Wine is set in 1632 during the reign of Charles I. In the pursuit of beauty, many women are taking a mysterious potion with concerning side effects. Between Two Thorns is about a young woman who lives in the Nether, a reflection of England rules by the Fae. At the same time, something is amiss among the Arbiters and Max is the only one who can find out.

Neither of these books really did it for me. While the writing of Viper Wine felt overly stuffy, the writing of Between Two Thorns felt overly formal. I couldn’t really get into either of the worlds because they felt sort of floppy to me, treading territory that I’ve already read about dozens of times. I think ultimately that’s what bothered me the most. I’ve seen the fairies in London many times and no one will ever do it better than Susanna Clarke did it with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I’ve also read a lot of historical fantasy solidly grounded in the real world written a quasi-Enlightenment style and it’s really hard not to make that feel wooden. Viper Wine felt like, given enough time, it would dip into some really bizarre ideas, but I couldn’t get past the writing style.

Short story of the week: Sabrina Vourvoulias’s The Way of Walls and Words
Historical Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
Another absolutely beautiful short story. This is about two girls, who stand opposite sides. One languishes in a prison while the other sweeps the prison halls. One is of a faith that is seen to be blasphemous and the other is not (although she hasn’t been as converted as the monks thinks she has been). This is a wonderful, short exploration of what religion means to a person; what practices are important, what does it mean to, and why do they hold onto it. The characters are both willing and unwilling to participate in the other’s religion, curious about somethings and horrified by others. It’s especially interesting when the characters begin interacting with that religion’s rituals and what exactly that means.

This Week’s Reads

‘Twas a week of non-fiction too dull to even consider summarizing, so I leave you with my closing thoughts on Every Mountain Made Low.

Alex White’s Every Mountain Made Low
Alternative History Fantasy, Finished
Loxley Fiddleback can see the dead,but the problem is… the dead can see her. Living in the bottom of the cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis hasn’t helped much either. When she discovers the body of her best friend, she realizes she’s the only one will do anything about it.

Let me start by making a quick edit to the genre. This is actually alternate history, not secondary world. It looks like the timeline diverged during the Industrial Revolution, resulting in stronger and more damaging monopolies than in our current timeline.

Although character is always in the forefront of Every Mountain Made Low, as the story goes on the plot definitely takes a front seat. By the end we were solidly in a revenge story, with much blood and dashing around various locales. Still, Loxley’s emotional peaks and valleys was amazingly done. The struggle to fit into society and to be kind to those who are important is wonderfully balanced with a desire to be accepted for her way with interacting with the world and allowed to be mean sometimes. The story never tries to suggest that this is a struggle with simply pop out of existence with the happy ending. Loxley’s life is a struggle, but she’s doing what she can to enjoy it and be okay with it for what it is.

This Week’s Reads

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti
Science fiction, Finished
Binti is the first of the Himba people to be offered a place at Oomza University. But what begins as a simple journey to overcome the fear and loneliness of leaving her home behind quickly becomes terrifying when the Meduse attack the ship, killing nearly everyone except for Binti.

Binti manages to take the large issue of two warring peoples and distill it into a wonderfully simple story of a young woman struggling first with the decision to leave her family and her home and then with the need to survive those who are only interested in killing her. Plot-wise very little happens. The story is all about Binti, her worries about leaving her family, her determination to follow through, and the absolute terror of watching hundreds die. There’s very little she can physically do to rectify the situation, so we spent a lot of time with her waiting, trying to keep herself together and then trying to figure out what to say to the Meduse so they won’t hurt her.

Science fiction is not my genre and I can’t say Binti has won me over to the genre, but Binti’s character arc is such a lovely journey of a woman who must rise to a trying occasion.

Alex White’s Every Mountain Made Low
Secondary World Fantasy, In Progress
Loxley Fiddleback can see the dead,but the problem is… the dead can see her. Living in the bottom of the cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis hasn’t helped much either.

I’m not very far in yet, but Lox is a great character. She’s specific and developed and wonderfully detailed. I know what she wants and enjoys and the small minutia of how she navigates the world. I know what she likes and what she doesn’t like and I absolutely feel her struggle, even in mundane moments. It’s not a fast start, but I’ve always rather enjoyed spending some time in the world before the plot kicks in.

Short story of the week: Margaret Killjoy’s Men of the Ashen Morrow
Secondary World Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
This is a story about a woman who is so tired. After spending years and years and years expending so much of her energy to raise their god so that winter can come, she’s done. She’s lost too many people to this ritual and she simply can’t handle doing it again. Men of the Ashen Morrow is really about that feeling of loss and exhaustion. Sal is an old woman at the end story, yet she has to keep pushing on, making hard choices when she just wants to stop and lay down her head.

This Week’s Reads

Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz*
Retelling/Fantasy, In Progress
That’s right, I’m at it again! I’m taking on the final book in Gregory Maguire’s Oz series. Loyal Oz is still attempting to reannex Munchinkinland and Glinda finds herself caught in the middle. Deprived of her staff and (increasingly) her manor house, she struggles to discover what General Cherrystone’s plan is, all while slowly uncovering the secrets of the Grimorie.

I have to say, Out of Oz isn’t nearly as exciting as I have made it out to be. The Oz series is about dialogue. It is about characters prowling around each and trying to get in the first nip, clever jab, or what have you. Out of Oz is no different. I’m so happy that Glinda got another shot to be on the page. I think she got shortchanged in Wicked, coming off as something of a cliched and air-headed schoolgirl. What I love so much about this older Glinda is how she manages to be both very clever and very inattentive. She manages to suck at domestic life without coming off as a snooty rich toff. It is oddly easy to sympathize with her as she is pushed further and further into a single room in her house – even though she still has it pretty good. I love how subtly she is able to get information out of Cherrystone, while still always being a little too far behind. She was, of course, once a Throne Minister of Oz and Maguire doesn’t shy away from political and military discourse between the two characters. But, I intend to do longer pieces on this book, so let’s move on.

*I am increasingly impressed at how few people realize there are four books in the Oz series. I myself wouldn’t have known about it had I not ended up in the bedroom of a girl who I never met, perusing her bookshelves. But there is and it’s just as wonderful as the rest of the series. It deals with all of Maguire’s favorite subjects – sex, gender, and mysterious families.

Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion edited by Piyali Bhattacharya
Non-fiction, Finished
In this collection of autobiographical short stories, immigrant women talk about navigating their relationships with their families and figuring out how they fit into this strange world of western culture.

In one of his books on Mogul Indian, Abraham Early talks about how we approach other cultures. It is very common to look at how a culture is different from our own, rather than recognizing the many similarities that exist. What impressed me most about Good Girls Marry Doctors was its reliability. These were stories of teenagers rebelling against their parents, drinking, smoking, having sex with boys. It was about women struggling with the gender norms society had set for them, about what it means to be a mother or a daughter. It was about trying to fit into their parent’s world while also realizing it was important to have their own identities – sometimes creating unfixable rifts. For that universality alone I would say that this was a wonderful read.

That being said, I do wish these women had been given a little more room to expound upon their stories. Each story was perhaps 5 to 8 pages, which was enough to create an intriguing story, but not enough to really dig deep. I got the sense of the story without really getting a sense of the authors. Marriage was a common theme and I would have liked to get a better sense of how the various authors thought about it – beyond the pain of being pressured to marry simply for the sake of marriage. Some of them were more detailed. One story discussed the economic unfairness of elevating legally married couples over those who have decided to live together as a couple without marrying. The length of the stories similarly didn’t allow me to dig into the richness of Indian and Pakistani culture as I might have liked.

I’m getting over a cold still so the short story will have to be forgone once again. Until next week!

This Week’s Reads

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows
Secondary World Fantasy, Finished
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone.

In the end, what this all comes down to is that Six of Crows was a fun romp. The consequences are few and although several characters have several strong journeys and arcs (Inej especially), there’s not much to the learn about the characters after the first 100 pages. This is a high-soaring story about a bunch of misfits and outcasts who crash through the world with their wit and fineness and no one can stop them. I was never particularly concerned for the characters and I was pretty darn sure they were going to succeed the whole way through, which is in part due to the genre and heist-plot we’re working with, but the storytelling certainly never did anything to convince me otherwise. So I can’t call this the most nuanced or exquisitely crafted book, but it wasn’t really meant to be that. It was meant to be a fun story with clever characters and blossoming romances and I would say if that’s what you’re looking for, then this book is perfect.

I’m at Boskone this weekend and it is rather late, so I find myself without the time to fully talk about the short story of the week, but I do want to share it with you anyway because it was a great, tragic story:

Short story of the week: Kay Chronister’s The Lights We Carried Home
Modern Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.

This Week’s Reads

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows
Secondary World Fantasy, In Progress
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone.

It is fairly inevitable, in my opinion, to compare this book to Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series. Both are centered around an impossible heist and are extremely clever, both in the obstacles the characters have to face and the character’s themselves. Though Six of Crows is more invested in group dynamics and a variety of perspectives, jumping between character POVs throughout the book, while Locke is unarguably the shining star of Gentleman Bastards.

Six of Crows is well-written, face-paced, and has a variety of great characters. While I wouldn’t say the opening is unengaging, it took me some time to really feel the story. I started getting invested when some of the character’s more problematic flaws came to light – like what exactly is up with Kaz’s obsession with gloves and Nina and Matthias’s shared history. Bardugo is also brilliant at group conversations, which are often incredibly difficult, and the first time all six members of the group are together does so much work in establishing character dynamics and tension. I can only hope it will get more clever and emotional as we get closer to the heist itself.

The Woman’s Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women’s Writing edited by Janet Walker and Paul Gordon Schalow
Non-fiction, Finished
In this collection of essays, a variety of writers analyze writing by women and about women, consider who female authors have been situated in the main market, and how they have navigated a society often unfriendly to ambitious women.

I absolutely loved this collection. The arguments were carefully thought out and stated and covered a wide range of texts. My three favorite essays were Oba Minako’s “Special Address: Without Beginning, Without End,” Lynne Miyake’s “The Tosa Diary: In Interstices of Gender and Criticism,” and Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “The Body in Contemporary Japanese Women’s Fiction.” Oba Minako is a wonderful, wonderful author, whose writing is beautiful and fluid. Her text doesn’t so much give answers as it does asks questions and ask you to look beyond any basic assumption you might have. An excerpt from her novel Long Ago, There was a Woman, which is a surreal, perfectly stated, semi-autobiographical work of art. Lynne Miyake’s essay considers the tricky issue of The Tosa Diary, which is written by a man in a format that is generally reserved for women. Miyake does a great job of carefully balancing how the gender dichotomy is used, not as a gimmick or simply a way to be more emotive, but to serve each other and question the standards by which we measure works written by men vs. women. Sharalyn Orbaugh summarizes several short texts and then provides analysis, focusing on how body is used to criticize a patriarchal society. The pain Orbaugh manages to convey in her analysis is amazing. No detail is too small to comment on, allowing Orbaugh to create fully realized and painfully deep deconstructions of the works of fiction she is considering.

Short story of the week: Story Boyle’s The Herb Wife’s Apprentice
Fairy tale/modern Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
The Herb Wife’s Apprentice is a retelling of sorts, pulling on ideas from a variety of folk tales, like Bluebeard’s forbidden room and the idea of a veil between worlds. Kerria is drawn in by a handsome stranger, only to realize as she literally gets deeper into his world, that is just the sort of dangerous character she’d been warned of in fairy tales. Kerria’s tenacity and persistence in the face of this stranger’s increasingly horrifying actions is phenomenal. The writing was lovely and I especially loved the interaction between Kerria and the herb wife, since it seems that this idea that you can only watch people get hurt for so long before you have to step in is at the heart of the story.

This Week’s Reads

DK Mok’s Squid’s Grief
Cyberpunk, Finished
Squid is a low-level lackey in mob-boos Pearce’s empire. But more than anything she wants to get out. She wants a normal life where she isn’t constantly questioning her morality and wondering who she’s hurt. Her whole world gets turned upside down when she finds a man in the trunk of a car, unable to remember even the slightest detail about himself.

The punk genre is for some reason very hard to do well. It often gets bogged down in its gimmicks and poorly thought out spins on history. Fortunately, Squid’s Grief does not have these problems and has the honor of being one of the better cyberpunk stories I’ve red. Squid and Grief (Get it? GET IT?) are great characters with very strong conflicts that are clearly painted from start to finish. I’m a sucker for characters caught in the dichotomy of being a villain, unsure which side they want to land on. Squid and Grief also had great chemistry, which provided for a lot of great comedy and ridiculous situations.

While the style is certainly strong and very present, it isn’t the poetic grandeur I’ve found myself looking for recently. For that reason I have to say that while I enjoyed it, the pacing was stellar, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys cyberpunk, noir, or fast-action mysteries, it was a little outside my preferred genre. Still, worth a look if you’ve been looking for some good cyberpunk.

Harima Fudoki edited by Edwina Palmer
Non-fiction, In Progress
A fudoki was a report given to the Japanese monarchs by the various provinces, detailing culture, geography, folklore, etc. Harima was a province in southern Japan. Thus you get the Harima Fudoki.

I’m reading a heavily annotated version of Harima Fudoki, which is incredibly helpful because it gives detailed definitions of the various place names, historical background, and geographical notes. The notes do sometimes become so extensive that it can be difficult to remember what the actual text is about. But nonetheless, the history of the area is interesting and I love the little details, like some of the burial rituals of waving a scarf or burying someone with a comb box. The overarching idea that by revealing the secret names of these landmarks to the presiding monarchs the locals are basically submitting to the monarchs’ rule is also very poignant and lends a lot of weight to the text.

Short story of the week: A. Merc Rustad’s Monster Girls Don’t Cry
Urban Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
Monster Girls Don’t Cry is about two sisters, who have monstrous attributes. While the protagonist files down her horns and cuts out her wings in order to look normal, her sister would rather just be herself. Unfortunately, this means she can’t really go out into the world and is subject to the bigotry of others. Once again, I can’t not talk about prose. The first paragraph absolutely dragged head-first into the story. Zaria’s discomfort with her sister’s monstrousness is terrible and painful and understandable. It immediately provides a point of conflict between Zaria and Phoebe that takes us all the way to the end of the story. I do have to say, the end of the story felt a little easy. I love the dialogue between Zaria and the doctor and how she very much comes into her own at the end, but in the end she basically gets everything she wants and neither her nor Phoebe have to deal with the emotional scars of the doctor’s choices. I admit, this may be because I find sad endings more interesting than happy ones out of simple bias, but I do feel like there could have been more consequences.

This Week’s Reads

Michiko Y. Aoki’s Ancient Myths and Early History of Japan
Non-fiction, Finished
I did not read this entire book. The book covers roughly the beginning of civilization in Japan to the 8th century AD. It ends by exploring how various migration movements and cultural exchanges in the 8th century morphed Japanese culture, specifically how it changed from a matriarchal, decentralized, polyandry, fishing society to a patriarchal society with a centralized government that was strongly influenced by China and to a certain extent Korea. The majority of the book unfortunately is dry to the point of being unreadable. While it is certainly stuffed with facts about the comings and goings of various ruling families, it didn’t provide enough analysis to hold my attention.

However, the last chapter s myths, creed, and life style, which is my bread and butter. The creation myths, various folklore, and how that folklore began to change with the influence of China and the Iron Age was incredibly fascinating. Apparently these stories are given in more detail in the Harima Fudoki, which I intend to look up. Aoki is a little caught up with all these stories having a real-world parallel – such that they interpret the story of Izanagi and Izanami as two rival tribes. While I’m sure there are instances where this is true, I’m not fond of these kinds of interpretations because they tend to ignore the fact that the reason the stories stuck around is because they are good stories that resonate with people and reflect their culture, not because they were true events. Aoki also describes the courtship rituals, which were very loose and often resulted in casual sex and women with multiple husbands. I think this is additionally interesting because even though these kind of practices fell out of favor in the 8th century, those kind of relationships are still very prominent in the Heian period.

I’m not sure this was really worth the read, but I am very glad I skimmed forward to the last chapter, because it provided a bunch of great cultural insights.

In lieu of the short story of the week, I want to share some folklore instead. One of my favorite types of folklore is star lore. For many years the Greek zodiac was the only interpretation of the constellations I’d ever heard, so I was absolutely hooked when I learned that among the Sami the entire sky is one big story (you can read more about that and other Scandinavian star lore here).

This week, I’ve been looking at different interpretations of the Ursa Major constellation (known most commonly in the west as The Big Dipper). Among the Mi’kmaq of the Nova Scotia area, the constellation was a bear, running from three hunters. What I love most about this story is that it changes over the course of the seasons, including the bear dying in the winter and becoming a skeleton. You can read a fuller version of the story here. In that same link, you can also find a story told by Arab (more specifically Persian) people, who see the constellation as a coffin.

This Week’s Reads

Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon was Ours
Contemporary(ish) Fantasy, Finished
As the secrets build up and Miel and Sam struggle to define where their relationship stands, the Bonner sisters find themselves losing their own power over the town. In an attempt to regain that power, they tell Miel she must give the roses that grow out of her wrist to them or they’ll reveal everything she’s trying to keep hidden.

This book was so good. Seriously, stop reading this and go read When the Moon was Ours. I mentioned last week that I loved how secrets were handled in the book. I love even more how every single out of those secrets are important to the characters and how they relate to themselves. It is all about people hiding who they are and suffering for it. It’s about finding that thing that is yours, which no one else can have, and owning it, even if other people disprove. At no point does the story pretend that’s easy, but it was so amazing watching all these characters struggle through who they are – hurting each other and themselves along the way – before they realize how to be comfortable with their own identities. I love that so, so much.

And on top of that the details are ridiculously amazing. There are three major images in the book: pumpkins, the moon, and the Bonner girls’ hair. These are described over and over again and they are lush and wonderful every single time. I had no idea the spots on the moon had names and they’re absolutely beautiful. I also didn’t know there were so many types and beautiful colors of pumpkins. The descriptions create such a fantastic, crisp world with beautiful sweeping colors that are light and thick and viscous.

Also she has a book called Wild Beauty coming out and I can’t wait to read it.

Short story of the week: Lavie Tidhar’s The Red Flower
Secondary World Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
This is a weird little piece of fiction and I think it went over my head. It’s about the Stranger traveling through a world filled with clowns (who may or may not be evil and deserving of scalping) and symbol storms that melt ears and turn your knees into jars of bees and sink clocks into your belly. (Also this is very Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest.) I guess a lot of the story for me was trying to decide if the Stranger was chasing the scalpers because he agreed or disagreed with their decision to scalp the clowns. If you wanted to pull this out into the real world, I would say it’s an interesting commentary on a thing that people have all decided are terrifying, for reasons I’ve never fully understood. The clowns are ultimately a very small part of the story so we don’t get a sense of who they actually are. And even though the Stranger is rather upset at these men for scalping the clowns, he expresses some similar fears about clowns. So we aren’t exactly provided with clear-cut answers on the issue either.

Also, the main character has no name. He is literally unknown, the Stranger, and we get very little about him. Stories are about knowing people, about seeing their interiority and empathizing, so we’re sort of thrown out of the story when it’s told from a stranger’s perspective because you can’t know a stranger. They’re no longer a stranger once you get to know them. But it’s also appropriate because we still don’t know very much at the end of the story. This is a weird, strange land and we’re never really invited in. So I suppose it creates a sense of distance and unknowability, just as the clown issue is never fully explained.