This Week’s Reads

Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon was Ours
Contemporary(ish) Fantasy, In Progress
When Miel comes out of the water from the old water tower, no one knows what to do but a young boy named Sam. The two form a quick bond, wrapped up in their many secrets. They find peace in the moons Sam paints and hangs between their homes and Miel’s quiet understanding. But their little peace is threatened by the beautiful Bonner sisters.

The imagery in When the Moon was Ours is really, really beautiful. Anna-Marie uses a very clean, simple style to create beautiful, fairy-tale imagery. The opening pages are so lovely. The idea of Miel coming out of the water tower is beautiful and Sam’s calm and his immediate decision to help her by painting moons is so specific and sweet and wonderful. There are also a lot of descriptions of the Bonner sisters, but they never fail to be poignant examinations of the characters. I love the fact that the Bonner sisters stand on the line of being villains without quite crossing over. Much of the uneasiness that surrounds them comes from how much they’d rather spend time with each other than anyone else, which is a great example of how introversion gets demonized. And even when they do start pushing, their motivations are very understandable: they want to retain control of the town because that means they’re important and powerful and strong.

I also love the way secrets are handled in the book. It becomes obvious very quickly that Miel and Sam are hiding some pretty big secrets, but what exactly their hiding comes out only little by little. Yet, it never feels like the secrets are being dangled in front of us. Just as we have to with real people, we have to get to know Sam and Miel before they’ll tell us their secrets, especially because the secrets are painful and hard to admit.

Heian Japan, Centers and Peripheries edited by Mikael Adolphson, Edward Kamens, and Stacie Matsumoto
Non-fiction, In Progress
This is a collection of essays discussing Heian Japan (794–1185 AD) and how society shifted between the center and the peripheries. It discusses the issues of society, government, art, and power from a variety of perspectives.

Alas, we have come upon another rather dry piece of non-fiction. Each essay is written by a different author, so perhaps there will be something more interesting down the line. Thus far the essays I have read have focused on the specific actions of people in power and how their decisions shaped the way Japanese government functioned, both within the confines of the palace and across the rest of the country. I unfortunately don’t have more to say on the matter now, but hopefully I will find more interesting articles down the line.

Short story of the week: Rachel Swirsky’s All That Fairy Tale Crap
Urban Fantasy, Finished
Read it here.
It’s rather ironic to talk about what this story is about because it’s about a character who’s trying to avoid being read into a story. As a Cinderella character in a retelling of sorts, she wants to avoid being an archetype or labeled with a set of characteristics. Giving the story a single meaning would be to ignore one of its central ideas. Nonetheless, I will give some of my interpretations and hope you go looking for more. I would say it is about a woman who doesn’t want to be suppressed by her society, a woman who doesn’t want to fit any mold, a woman who wants to have power over herself and everything else, and also the story of a woman just trying to get by in life by whatever means she can. It’s also shucks off the ideals of a demure princess and dismisses the possibility of a fairy tale prince. It calls out the reader’s assumptions and requires you to second-guess whether the story has any meaning at all. Whatever you can find it, I recommend giving it a read because the language is crafted so amazingly and the ideas are phenomenal.

This Week’s Reads

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon
Secondary World Fantasy, Finished
Doctor Adoulla is tired, but a powerful threat faces his city and as the last ghul hunter, he must lead his friends against the greatest threat he’s ever known.

The pacing and gripping action that began to emerge in the middle of the book provided a thoroughly satisfying climax. It had a grand scope and it tied all the characters and their conflicting interests together, forcing them to chose whether to go against their morals or fight. Saladin also did a very good job of making sure every character had a reason to be in the climax. None of them were damsels in distress or suddenly forgot how to use their talents effectively. The ending was a little more bittersweet than I expected, which I think works considering the tone of the book. The characters’ interests ultimately didn’t all align, so not everyone got exactly what they wanted. I like this because often conclusions feel too simple and happy because suddenly everyone wants the same thing and therefore everything is perfect. But here, even though Adoulla loves his friends and his friends love him, there are other things that are more important. So while not the most uplifting ending, it was certainly one I could get behind. The last paragraph also did a great job of acknowledging both Adoulla’s happiness at his success and also how emotionally draining the whole experience has been.

Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives
Non-fiction, Not completing
Incarnations explores Indian history through brief biographies of fifty of its most famous citizens. I love the concept of this book and Sunil does a great job tying each of the fifty lives back into modern Indian society. Looking at some of the more influential actions of some of the most influential people in a country’s history is a great way to explore how a society ebbs and flows. Unfortunately the style is very dry, to the point where I wasn’t that far in when I started skimming. The stories at the beginning of each chapter are entertaining, but the rest just didn’t hold my interest. So if the concept is enough for you, I would say check it out, but I don’t think I’ll be finishing this one.

Short story of the week: Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Shard of Glass
Urban Fantasy, Finished
Read part 1 here and part 2 here.
Leah doesn’t know what to think when her mother says they’re going on a long trip and not coming back. Soon she’s on the run, her most precious possession a shard of glass that shows her things that aren’t there.

That description makes this story sound much more action-packed then it is. Really this is a story about a daughter and mother who live as outsiders, never able to settle comfortably in a place or feel quite like they fit in. Even when they begin to blend into society, they have to flee again to avoid capture. The story’s also about the pain of memory and how it continues to haunt the characters on their long trek across the world, both emotionally and physically. The writing in this story is really lovely and the details, especially in that killer first paragraph, keep the story well grounded. I was especially impressed at the amount of detail given to every single country they visited, from Japan to Germany to Nepal. And by the end of the story, we’ve watched Leah grow into a strong and determined woman who knows how to control the people she once feared.

This Week’s Reads

It’s a holiday week, so I’ve just one book for you today before I sneak off to eat pie.

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon
Secondary World Fantasy, In Progress
Doctor Adoulla is an old man, but as the last real ghul hunter in Dhamsawaat, he’s honor bound to continue his work. With the rising threat of a powerful ghul-raiser, Adoulla must gather the energy to survive and lead forward his devout apprentice and a vengeful orphan.

Throne of the Crescent Moon‘s style isn’t engaging my interest as much as I would like. It does paint a clear picture of Adoulla’s brass nature, Raseed’s unwavering and sometimes stupid devotion, and Zamia’s beast-like nature. The descriptions of the city are also frequent and detailed, but it doesn’t have the poetic grace that I have become so attached to in other works. The book does take some time to get going, which I think stems from the fact that it want to ensure that you are well settled into the world, it’s language, and its politics first. That said, once the pacing picks up about a third of the way in, the story rolls along very smoothly. The middle isn’t particularly rife with action, but what action there is well balanced with Adoulla’s battle between giving up and struggling onward until he figures out how to beat what appears to be an unbeatable opponent (not to mention the emotional stress created by the danger poised against the city he loves so dearly).

This Week’s Reads

Gregory Maguire’s A Lion Among Men
Fantasy Retelling, Finished
That’s right, I finally finished my re-read of the third book in the Wicked series (one more to go). For those who don’t know, the third book is about Brrr, the Cowardly Lion, who goes searching for Liir, only to end up reliving his past when he meets the elderly Yackle. I will keep this brief since I have every intention of doing two more posts on this book, but I will say it’s still amazing. With the exception of the climax, the end is honestly very slow. The characters spend a lot of time sitting around and chatting. And it’s brilliant. The dialogue is witty, interesting, and dripping with character. It also has a surprisingly happy ending, especially compared to the other books. For more thoughts, look out for my future posts on the book.

Catherynne Valente’s The Girl who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
Portal Fantasy, Finished
I may have cried a little bit. Just a little. Mostly because the narrator’s final speech was the most heart-wrenching, sincere, and loving thing ever. Despite some meh moments in book three and four, September’s final adventures through Fairyland as she attempts to hold onto her crown was amazing. The book in many ways centers around the fear that September will get badly hurt in the Cantankerous Derby (the race for the crown, where the contestants must reach the finish line AND find the heart of Fairyland). I wasn’t really afraid for September, even if I wasn’t sure if she’d get the crown. But Cat still managed to create tension. The push and pull between whether September wants to go home, her fear of losing Fairyland, the temporary emotional loss of Saturday, that bloody brilliant ending where September figures out what the heart of Fairyland is. Cat is so good at ideas. I spent the whole book wondering what the heart of Fairyland could possibly be and the answer is perfect and clever and wonderful and obvious. I think it could be read as sort of cheesy that September gets such a happy ending – her family arrives, she gets to stay forever, she gets the most amazing job. But it also feels very true. Fairyland of course is all about subverting tropes, but it’s also born out of those ideas and if Dorothy ends up with her whole family living in Oz, why shouldn’t September get that too? Also, September and Saturday as two winds is just the most adorable and brilliant thing ever.

Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered America
Historical Non-Fiction, In Progress
1421 makes the argument that China reached America in 1421, several decades before Christopher Columbus. I don’t find this particularly hard to believe, but there is plenty of detail for those who need more convincing. It’s certainly an interesting read and Menzies takes a good deal of time to detail exactly how he did his research, which makes for some fun storytelling. That said, the book is very dry and very long. I don’t expect to reach the end without some skimming (for a variety of reasons, I also won’t have a hold of it for a month). I do like that Menzies spends the first chunk of the book giving you necessary background on China and the Ming dynasty. He sticks pretty exclusively to the emperors, but then it was the emperors who send out the fleet, so I can’t fault him on that. I’m interested to see what the rest of the book will be about.

This Week’s Reads

T. Kingfisher’s The Raven and the Reindeer
Fairy Tale retelling, Finished
The Raven and the Reindeer is a retelling of The Snow Queen and I was very impressed with how the story was retold. This is a story about a girl who desperately loves a boy, only to slowly realize that he has never been interested in her and it’s not her who’s pathetic for loving him, but him who’s always been something of a jerk. One of my favorite changes is that the princess who’s dreams appear on the wall is cut out and those dreams are given to Gerta. Throughout the whole story, Gerta has tons of really beautiful dreams, all from the plants she’s sleeping near. These dreams are also tied really well into the ending, which wasn’t necessary but provided a unique way to end the story. All the animals in this story are also great fun. Mousebones the raven is delightfully conceited and proud, which he/she/they uses to hide up his/her/their real affection for Gerta. The otters although only briefly on the page are ridiculous and funny and their dialogue is so bizarre and enjoyable. I also really appreciate that Kingfisher took the time to research the Sámi and talk with Sámi people, rather than sticking with the awkward and uncomfortable portrayal in the original.

Angela Slatter’s A Feast of Sorrows
Original Fairy Tales, Finished
I am a particular lover of all things fairy tale, so I was quite excited to get a hold of one of Angela Slatter’s short story collections. I intended to pick up The Girl with No Hands, but I couldn’t find it, so I ended up with this one instead. For those reasons, I think I should have enjoyed it more than I did. The language is very crisp and clear and she’s definitely nailed that fairy tale voice. Her stories have great detail and she manages to give long-winded descriptions of buildings without being dull. I’m also impressed at her ability to create so many original fairy tales, relying on old ideas like the jilted lover and animals that transform into men, while also bringing new twists and ideas. I did really enjoy the first several stories, alas by the end of the collection I started to find the characters repetitive and the stories a drag. The characters and their pain just wasn’t quite gripping me anymore. Although, I would still recommend checking out some of her short stories if you like fairy tales. The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter in particular is very interesting.

This Week’s Reads

Here goes, kicking out what will hopefully be a weekly post where I talk about what I read in the last week. I started a whole jumble of books at once, so I’ve made an effort to slim that pile down.

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book
Historical Non-fiction, Finished
A diary of sorts, The Pillow Book was written during the Heian period in Japan. Sei Shonagon was essentially the equivalent of a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, who asked Sei to write down just about anything that came to her.

I’m a fiction person, so even though I love myself some non-fiction, non-fiction always feels a little dry. Nonetheless, this book is amazing. Sei gives us such a beautiful taste of her culture – the love of poetry, the enclosed spaces where women lived, the fear of being seen by men, and the importance of and attention to weather and nature. Sei is also incredibly witty and her ability to use poetry in any situation is phenomenal. She’s also so human, so uncertain of herself despite her great talent. What I loved most was this idea of communicating so extensively through poetry. It’s in many ways a very roundabout way of speaking and I imagine there are some fascinating examples of people interpreting a poem differently. But I am also so intrigued by the idea of speaking in phrases that were beautifully and carefully constructed. Sei often takes a great deal of time to respond to someone, measuring her words and their meaning.

Catherynne Valente’s Speak Easy
Historical fantasy, Finished
A novella set during the roaring 20s, Speak Easy is about Zelda Fair, who lives in a grand hotel where every day is a party and the alcohol flows freely. Everything seems good and happy until a little door shows up in her closet.

Catherynne Valente is my absolute favorite author and she will pop up on this list quite frequently. As is true of most of her books, Speak Easy is about the suppression of women. Specifically, it is about how women are told they need to be perfect and pretty and sweet and just scrubbed up nice as a pearl. It’s also about how women aren’t allowed to own their own creativity or their own ideas. When Zelda Fair makes her way into the basement, she finds an upside-down world where she is allowed to be anyone she wants to be and she can cook up a good novel or painting or dance as easily as walking. Although of course it all goes pear shaped in the end. It’s sort of like Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway, where the characters find a place that accepts them just the way they are, but then have to go back where they are put into boxes and packed up tight.

My favorite part was the first half, where we’re just running around the hotel and exploring how wild and beautiful the language can be. Cat is also wonderful when it comes to creating something that feels very much of its time while also being unique. The upside-down world is very 20s, but I can’t say I’ve seen anything precisely like it before. I also adore the idea that in the upside-down world art is literally being turned into alcohol because alcohol is tied very hard into creativity in a lot of cultures (the Norse specifically).

Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
Portal fantasy, In Progress
Look, here she is again. This is the last book in the Fairyland series, wherein September finds herself crowned Queen of Fairyland and threatened by the arrival of every King, Queen, Duke, and Princess who ever ruled Fairyland in the past. To prevent bloodshed, a cantankerous derby is arranged and whoever wins will rule Fairyland.

The first book in this series has always stood out to me as the best, but this one might be better. September has spent the entire series struggling with whether she belongs in Fairyland or the real world. And while it’s always been a theme, something has to be decided by the end of this book. Her struggle with the wonder of Fairyland and her ache for home has such weight and pain behind it. And it is so beautiful. The series has also spent a lot of time pointing out that even the best rulers do terrible things, but now September finds herself in that position – and you know Cat isn’t going to let her get off easy. I will also always be amazed by Cat’s worlds. This is not a long book, but she has created an entire ocean filled with tattooing cuddlefish and riddling monkfish and dangerous octopuses, a library with mean time and Agatha Christie and patient desks, and a foggy town with card bridges and a rotten sense of humor.

Back to Manderley
Literary Essays, Finished
In the internet world, I have been reading essays over at Back to Manderley. The essays analyze characters and symbolism in Sleep No More, which is a long-running immersive play based on Macbeth. I haven’t read such insightful and well-researched essays in quite some time. Even though the symbolism of eggs and birds and mirrors is very well established at this point, by using the play as a catalyst, they are able to come up with all sorts of fascinating angles I never would have thought of (for example, the idea that mirrors are a passage to the otherworld, which is absolutely terrifying for mortals, but a great tease for the supernatural). Without having been to the show, I’m afraid much of it will be very confusing, but if you’re looking for some information on Scottish and English witchcraft, Two Birds with One Bone; To the Crack of Doom; and What, You Egg! are worth a read.