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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.

The Neon Demon

I watched The Neon Demon a couple weeks ago, which I really enjoyed, and I want to talk about some of its stylistic choices. (Also thanks to everyone who spent time discussing the movie with me. I am definitely stealing your ideas for this post.)

Before I begin, I want to make two disclaimers. 1) Spoilers. 2) I think this movie suffers if over analyzed, but it’s also very easy to over analyze because of how symbolic it gets. I’ve read some articles that take the interpretation that Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby are witches. It’s a really interesting interpretation and I’m glad someone made it because it points out how ritualistic the movie is, but I think that makes the movie too literal. (Although if that’s your jam, you can read that interpretation here.) As soon as you assume everything you saw actually happened like that or try to map the characters too hard onto an idea or symbol, the power and atmosphere of the imagery starts to fade.

Some summary for those who haven’t seen it (skip this paragraph if you have). Jesse has recently moved to LA to join the modeling industry. She quickly falls in with Gigi (a model), Sarah (a model), and Ruby (a make-up artist for both models and corpses). Ruby is worried about how Jesse might be spoiled by the industry and offers help on several occasions (later we learn Ruby is in love with Jesse, or at least the fact that she’s a virgin, calling her earlier actions into question). The modeling industry quickly laps Jesse up, leaving Gigi and Sarah feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy. After Jesse hears her landlord rape a woman one room over, she flees to Ruby, only to find she has to reject Ruby’s advances. Later that night, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah kill Jesse and eat her. Ruby buries Jesse and later gives birth, has a very heavy menstrual cycle, something? Sarah finds herself advancing in the modeling industry while Gigi is unable to handle the cannibalism and vomits up Jesse’s eye before killing herself.

Such death

What is up with the mirrors in this movie?
I’m glad you asked. Almost the entire movie is shot through mirrors (for example, most of the bathroom scene, we’re seeing the characters’ faces reflected in the mirrors. Jesse’s hotel room also has a mirror and it’s very tricky figuring out if we’re looking at her or the mirror). What I absolutely love is that there are several scenes where it looks like we’re just watching a scene normally and then it turns out it’s in a mirror or the whole scene goes by and it’s unclear if we were looking at mirror or not. Of course the whole movie is about body image and comparing ourselves to others and seeing a fake image of ourselves. I think the mirrors also create an otherworldly atmosphere and it calls into question the truth of the story.

Food? Sex? Danger? Innocence?
Yes, those things. All those ideas are strong motifs in the movie. Ruby asks Jesse if she’s food or sex. Ruby is driven by sex. She wants to have sex with Jesse because she’s an innocent. Ruby also has sex with a corpse. Gigi calls Jesse dessert and at the end of the movie they eat her. One way to interpret these ideas is that food is innocence because it is passive and submissive. Food is eaten. It’s often sweet or cute or pretty. Sex is dangerous because it’s a taboo and it’s active and it can be scary and violent and about ownership (rape is brought up). But, interestingly, food is often sexy. The mouth is intimate in a similar way to sex and feeding other people is often portrayed as sexy. And I think considering how those two images combine and are kind of the same thing does a lot to bring out the movie’s tone.

So, we could consider Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby as dangerous and sexy because they are mean and worldly and all about creating sexy bodies (and also murderers, I guess). Jesse is then innocent because she’s the opposite of that. I think this is how the movie presents itself on first blush, but similar to the food-sex motif, the lines between dangerous and innocent are blurry. Personally, I think Jesse is not as innocent as she’s pretending to me. I was first convinced of this because of her reaction to finding a cougar in her room. On the one hand, this foreshadows her landlord, who later tries to break into her room and rape her. But, Jesse is also totally unafraid. I think it’s because she’s just as dangerous as that cat. She also tells a story about her mother calling her a dangerous girl, which feels to me like more than Jesse just being arrogant. And, finally, in the end Gigi can’t handle her. She’s too dangerous. (Another interpretation of that final scene I like is that Gigi has had so much plastic surgery that she can’t handle a real body being inside her.)

Also there’s this image of Jesse that sort of labels her as wicked?

What about that Gothic house?
Yes, what is up with that house? After running away from her hotel room, Jesse goes to Ruby, who claims she’s house-sitting. The way she says it makes me really question if that’s true. Possible other options: she broke in, it’s hers, it’s Jack’s (the creepy photographer). This is also where Jesse rejects Ruby, Ruby kills her, and the three women eat her/bathe in her blood. If it is Jack’s house, it almost gives him a part in the murder. Personally, as much as that dynamic is interesting, I don’t like it very much. I think the movie is about these four women and how they chose to interact with each other. Jack doesn’t have a place in the murder.

The whole movie beautiful, but many of the locations are kind of gritty and very modern. The house is more grand and opulent. Again, why? I do think it makes the ending a little more surreal because we’re off-kilter in this grand world. It also makes the murder feel more like a fairy tale, which makes it easier to see the cannibalism as magical realism.

Necrophilia?!
I think a lot of people had problems with the sex scene between Ruby and the corpse. I understand that. I once put down a book with a necrophilia scene because it felt disrespectful and mostly like it was just there to be gross. Oddly enough, I think it worked here really well. It’s pretty obvious Ruby is thinking about Jesse during this scene, which goes along with this idea of creating fake images of people. Ruby uses the corpse (also, foreshadowing) to create a version of Jesse she likes better. I think it also ties together the death and sex motifs, which we see again later when Ruby buries whatever’s left of Jesse and lies on her grave. Also an interesting scene because she seems so content doing that. I’m going to be honest, I don’t fully understand Ruby’s ending. The bleeding feels very ritualistic, very witchy, very female empowerment. I think I find it confusing because it’s the only really magical thing we see on camera. Yes eating Jesse gets Sarah a gig, but that isn’t inherently magical. Ruby’s last scene feels and looks like magic, so I struggle a little to find its place in the story.

If you have additional thoughts or topics, I’d love to talk them out because this movie has a lot more to offer than just what I’ve pointed out here.

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.

Fairy Tale Closing Sentences

In conjecture with the post I made two weeks ago about opening sentences in fairy tales, here’s some thoughts on closing sentences from those exact same fairy tales.

But it was the breaking of the other bands from faithful Henry’s heart, because he was so relieved and happy.
-The Frog Prince

This is a weird ending because it isn’t about the main characters. After the frog retrieves the princess’s golden ball from the water, she eventually agrees to bring him home. Increasingly frustrated by his disgusting appearance, she throws him at a wall, at which point he turns into a prince. Henry, a former servant of the prince’s, was so distraught by the prince’s disappearance that he put three bands around his heart. As the couple rides off, the bands break.

Henry is introduced three paragraphs from the end, which is not generally considered good narrative form. He certainly doesn’t add much as a character. However, this is the story that starts with a personified sun looking down on the princess. It certainly isn’t trying to be tightest narrative, but rather is creating moods and a world with a variety of strange details. So the story finishes on a rather sappy and blissful note as a faithful servant becomes so delighted at his master’s return that the bands on his heart break (loud enough for the prince to notice and think the carriage is breaking down). Having the bands physically break means that we get hit very hard with Henry’s building happiness.

And so the tailor remained a King all his lifetime.
-The Gallant Tailor

The ‘and so’ ending is about as popular in fairy tales as the ‘once upon a time’ opening. It’s a way of creating the sense that the story is over, everything has been resolved, and the rest of a character’s life will go ‘happily ever after.’

The Gallant Tailor is a typical quest of cleverness, wherein he tricks giants and thieves and others into thinking he is much stronger than he is, eventually winning the hand of a princess. Thus by the end of the story he has tricked his way into power and is rewarded with the summary statement that he will be king for the rest of his life.

So perished all the proprietors of the village, and the Little Farmer, as sole heir, became a rich man.
-The Little Farmer

The opening and closing sentences of The Little Farmer almost perfectly frame a rags-to-riches story, very clearly establishing the arc we’ve been taken us on. The Little Farmer starts poor and disrespected and ends rich, having gotten back at his enemies. These two sentences are the whole story. All the rest is details and specifics about how that happened. I’m not sure I’d recommend this for a whole book because it does make the story pretty simplistic, but fairy tales are often about their blunt, clear statements and their well-defined plot arcs.

And they gave him something to eat and drink, and a new suit of clothes, as his old ones were soiled with travel.
-Tom Thumb

Tom Thumb finds himself rather far from home and must be clever enough to escape many dangerous situations. Eventually he finds his way home and his parents are delighted to see him.

Tom Thumb ultimately has a very straightforward, simple ending. The falling action is comprised of Tom summarizing his adventures and then being cleaned up. We’re told he gets a new set of clothes and that’s it. In some ways it’s a rather abrupt ending, but after you know his parents are happy to see him, there’s very little else to say. Without reading in too much, I do think the fact that we end on his clothes is reflective of the fact that the story is all about Tom traveling and it’s a nice detail that applauds Tom’s persistence.

And he called out to him to stop, but the guest made as if he did not hear him; then he ran after him, the knife still in his hand, crying out, “Only one! only one!” meaning that the guest should let him have one of the fowls and not take both; but the guest thought he meant to have only one of his ears, and he ran so much the faster that he might get home with both of them safe.
-Clever Gretel

Clever Gretel borders on a long joke. Gretel is tasked with cooking two fowls for her master and his guest. However the guest takes so long to arrive that she eats both of the birds. When he finally does arrive, Gretel tells him that her master means to cut off his ears and then tells her master the guest has run off with the fowl. As a joke, it essentially ends on the punch-line, with a few more details to wrap up the story part.

Fairy tales also love their misinterpreted dialogue. Most of The Gallant Tailor relies on a similar misinterpretation of the statement ‘seven with one blow.’ The fact that Gretel is a servant also makes it funnier, because she managed to trick both her master and his guest into making themelves look like fools.

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.

Fairy Tale Opening Sentences

The importance of first sentences in fiction is well established. It sets tone, reader expectations, and is quite literally what gets a story going. In my own writing, I have found that a good first sentence also helps create a tantalizing mix of intriguing imagery and consistency of tone. Without it, my stories often loses focus and wander off to have adventures without me. So, as someone who is endlessly stripping fairy tales for material, today I’m going to examine some first sentences from Grimms’ Complete Fairy Tales.

Long ago, when wishes came true, there lived a King whose daughters were all handsome, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun himself, who has everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty.
–The Frog Prince

A lot of fairy tales open with some variation on ‘long ago’ or ‘far away’ (back, far back; before the beginning of time; before the world became as it is today; far beyond the edge of the world). Timelessness and wonder are some of fairy tales’ most defining features. Being ‘long ago’ puts the story out of time, both allowing for the story to be told in the exact same way years down the line and creating that wonder. Much of this sentence is fashioned to create wonder. Neither wishes nor an anthropomorphized sun are reoccurring ideas in the story, but they provide a greater sense of the world as one that is full of magical happenings.

One summer morning a little tailor was sitting on his board near the window, and working carefully with all his might, when an old woman came down the street crying, “Good jelly to sell!”
–The Gallant Tailor

It is also common to have a defining trait of the main character and the inciting incident in the first sentence of a fairy tale. In some instances the narrator explicitly labels the characters as good or kind or wicked or lazy. Here it’s a little more subtle, but the key words of ‘careful’ and ‘might’ are still given to us very directly. Fairy tales do love presenting personalities and emotions with very clear strokes. The tailor’s decision to purchase the jelly is what causes all the rest of the story to happen, so by the end of the first sentence the plot has started.

There was a certain village where lived many rich farmers and only one poor one, whom they called the Little Farmer.
–The Little Farmer

Other than beauty, the dichotomy between rich and poor is a favorite topic of fairy tales. Here the Little Farmer is not only poor, but the only poor farmer among a group of rich farmers, which immediately puts him under the power of others. The fact that he is given the belittling title of ‘little’ furthers that point. This immediately tell us what obstacles he must overcome and gets him our sympathies.

There was once a poor countryman who used to sit in the chimney-corner all evening and poke the fire, while wife sat at her spinning-wheel.
–Tom Thumb

This is very similar to the last sentence, but the conflict is more of an emotional depression rather than the cruelty of others. Although it takes another sentence to establish what exactly that conflict is, we see here how listless the characters are. The countryman is sequestered into a corner and he spends all evening doing nothing but poke at the fire. Although his wife is sitting at her spinning-wheel, she’s not given any action so we don’t even know if she is spinning. Rather it seems she’s just as depressed as he is.

There was once a cook called Gretel, who wore shoes with red heels, and when she went out in them she gave herself great airs, and thought herself very fine indeed.
–Clever Gretel

This sentence sets-up the character in a similar way to the gallant tailor’s firs sentence, but I mostly want to include it because of the great detail of red heels. Fairy tales tend to shy away from overly specific details because that would take away from their timeless quality. This sentence is, in many ways, very vague. We know Gretel puts on airs, but we don’t get a scene or dialogue that would give specific examples of how she does that. But in the middle of this is the crisp detail of the red heels, marking out their importance as well as providing a grounding detail in something that otherwise lacks a good deal of setting.

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.