Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer is a YA fantasy novel following Tarisai, a girl born in the Swana region of the Arit Empire, as she is sent to court by her secretive, powerful mother to become one of the prince’s closest advisors… and maybe also kill him. If you’ve read a lot of YA fantasy, you’ve already read or heard of many stories with the same hook, and you might think you know where this is going. But do you? Raybearer is never quite what it seems at first sight.

This is a difficult book to talk about without spoilers. We first follow Tarisai when she’s just a child who is starved for affection, then we see her grow into her role at court and outside of it, always ready to question the rules and what she has been sold as the truth. At the beginning of the story, she knows nothing – not about how the world works, not about the costs of an empire, not even about herself. Between discoveries, developments, and actual plot twists, I feel like I’ve read a trilogy’s worth of material – and yet I never felt like I was being taken through things too quickly. Because of this, this novel may take a little to grow on readers, but among the many reasons I think you should keep reading, it’s worth it just to witness Tarisai’s growth.
So much her early decisions are shaped by wanting to be loved, and I deeply appreciated how this book flipped a common YA trope on its head – it has a realistic portrayal of the long-term repercussions of isolation and parental neglect while also not having the parental figure be completely absent. [If you don’t read a lot of YA: parents are often noticeably absent and that’s just not dealt with, which is… unrealistic and unoriginal.]

Raybearer is a very unusual book. I don’t mean that in the sense of “strange” (you know I love those, but I wouldn’t say this one is), more for how it frames its own story. It spans years, when most YA doesn’t; it draws inspiration from many different places, folktales and traditions while centering West African culture; it’s a story about an empire that doesn’t shy away from talking about the inherent violence of imperial assimilation and the differences between justice and order. And while Raybearer is not lacking in romantic elements, friendship is even more of a driving force for Tarisai, and the prince’s council was the most intriguing part of the book for me. A group of kids who grow up extremely close and then have their minds linked together by their love for each other and for the prince? That was a lot.

Another thing about Raybearer I loved was how alive it felt – and the audiobook really helped with that, Joniece Abbott-Pratt is an amazing narrator and made the story come to life. Even the rhymes! (This book has many of them – there’s so much attention to developing the cultures here.) Unlike most audiobooks I’ve listened to so far, this one doesn’t just read them to you in a dull tone. Then there are the descriptions, that are as vivid and colorful and unforgettable as the cover of this book would make you think.

A list of things I didn’t like as much:
🌟 The main one is that the climax felt underwhelming, and I think that’s because there are some truly… explosive development around 80% (the scenes set on right before and then on Heaven, if you know what I mean) and what followed just couldn’t match how much all of that made me feel. The epilogue, however? Perfect.
🌟 I didn’t feel strongly about the romance, but this dynamic with the love interest being the protector isn’t really my type, so that’s probably on me – I did think it was sweet. Also, what this book does in its portrayal of toxic vs. non-toxic masculinity with the character of Sanjeet is important;
🌟 I’m not a fan of stories that don’t question the divine and magical right to rule in general; I also know I wouldn’t have noticed it and/or minded it as much when I was a teen. I think this is one of the cases in which the conflict between “I want this fantasy trope and the implications of it I find morally abhorrent to die” and “no trope is truly dead until marginalized authors get to use it, and non-ownvoices readers shouldn’t demand from marginalized authors a subversion that is palatable to them” is at its strongest for me.

This was a truly remarkable read and I’d recommend it to all readers of YA fantasy who want something that feels new in a landscape that feels somewhat same-y. It’s also the kind of story that is perfect for a reader who doesn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to reading, as I was in these months, because listening to it in small bites over the course of a few months didn’t impact my enjoyment at all.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Fantasy

Déjà Vu: When Two Strange Books Are Strange in the Same Way

There are books so strange that they will make you think I have never read anything similar and there’s no way I ever will. Maybe they have such a weirdness to them that you can’t imagine experiencing it again with the same feel, or maybe they have an underlying thread of meaning that can’t be put into words but that you know to be true, one inexplicable and unique to them.

What happens, then, when another books proves you wrong?


Back[ground]!, maybe

Welcome back! Today I’m going to talk, as I said I maybe would in my last post, about my recent experience with Catherine House both as a well-known dark academia hater and as someone who read Vita Nostra in 2018 and hasn’t fully recovered since.

What is Catherine House: an American 2020 novel by author Elisabeth Thomas, following a young woman entering an elite, reclusive school that might or might not be a highly unethical cult preying on the most vulnerable. With its meandering nature and deep dedication to the eerie, alienating atmosphere, it seems to have disappointed most of its readership, at least on Goodreads. There have been discussions about whether this fits any of the genres it has been said to be – mystery (ehh), thriller (lmao no), horror (one could argue), dark academia (I’d argue). My interpretation of this is that we’re talking about something that is also a critique of predatory college culture, so dark academia could work.

What is Vita Nostra: a novel by Ukrainian authors Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, of which I read the 2018 English translation by Julia Meitov Hersey. Unlike Catherine House, I wouldn’t describe it as dark academia, even though it has some characteristics in common: despite it being set in a cruel Institute of Special Technologies, I doubt it was talking about school at all, for how much I could understand it – and I mostly didn’t. This both has to do with 2018!me being less experienced in looking at things sideways and with the fact that I’m not forced to know the cultural touchstones of this book the way I am with everything American. I imagine Catherine House would be just as unintelligible had I known nothing about the American college system.

To get one thing out of the way: few things annoy me as much as people who cry plagiarism the moment they encounter similarities between two pieces of media. I’m going to assume that everyone here is familiar with the concept of convergent evolution, or, at least, of artistic influence (even though that’s not necessarily what happened here). I’m more interested in wondering why these two books, which have in theory very little in common, ended up being so similar to me – and why, also, I really like them both.


Why I’m generally not interested in dark academia

halfway to off-topic? yes, and you can skip it, but I feel it provides context

It all boils down to several layers of being an outsider to its culture. Let’s start with the most obvious one: I’m not American, and the culture & aesthetic that dark academia is at the same time fascinated by and critiquing is a very American one – or, at most, deeply Anglo. That’s not to say academic elitism doesn’t exist in my country, but the differences between college and especially Ivy League culture in America and what university means to the average Italian student (often doesn’t leave home, which makes university less significant both as stage of life and economically) make it irrelevant to my negative experiences with Italian universities.
Then there’s how pretentious it is: while I don’t find that the dark academia books I’ve read or tried embraced that uncritically, I still found it grating and fundamentally uninteresting – this time also because I do know the kind of people who get that pretentious about literature, and they’re not very interesting to me. (They usually, as elitist Italians, very much make fun of the English and their Shakespeare. Yes, If We Were Villains was an interesting experience [only] in that.) But what matters the most is that I’m a natural sciences student. The difference between a professor having a decades-long obsession with Ancient Greek and one having a decades-long obsession with slime mold is that the casual cruelty and unrealistic pressure put on students is more of the “completely unhinged” kind rather than “stiff and pretentious”, which is way funnier than anything these books I’ve tried so far came up with. As usual, I’m only wishing you’d be weirder, as my reality is.

You know what these two books, incidentally, are not lacking in?


Déjà Vu

Let’s start with the cover of Vita Nostra.

I can’t tell you what its illustration means, if it means anything at all; I can only tell you that it captures the feeling of reading this book perfectly. I don’t know if it was meant that way, but to me, the person on the cover is the reader. This is one of the first things I noticed about both Vita Nostra and Catherine House: I couldn’t look at anything directly. So much of them is symbolism, so much of them is subtext, so much of them is a distant, unhurried reflection with an urgent undercurrent – something is very, very wrong.

To read these books, you have to get out of your usual framework for understanding most of speculative fiction. Both novels have something that could be described as a sci-fantasy twist, but it doesn’t work as either science or a magic system, nor it is a clear-cut metaphor as it could be in straightforward fabulism – no, one could see it as weirdness for the sake of it, unexplained, but to me, it’s an emotion made literal. In both books, we’re dealing with unrealistic academic pressure and what might be nonconsensual experimentation, though obtaining real answers on that is always a challenge; the two things end up overlapping. There’s this sense of isolation, too: the setting is remote, the characters can’t talk to their families and reality might not be such. Everything about these stories feels so empty in the way their pages are sometimes filled with unsettingly mundane events, in the distance they add by telling and never showing, by introducing you to way too many characters you never get to really know – recreating the feeling of alone in a crowd.

And maybe it’s in Ines’ assignment about a painting that is almost a blank canvas, and maybe it’s Sasha’s impossible mental exercises, but there’s this feeling of trying to break through reality into another dimension with only the effort of your own brain, of trying to juggle incompatible truths (which sometimes are physically so) because you have to, you can’t be anything different, and you don’t know what is happening to you anymore (Where are you? When was the last time you felt?) – all of it mirrored by the effort it takes to follow the book without letting all of it run through your brain meaninglessly. The writing is deceptively simple, all the sentences make sense on their own. Together, however? It’s not so different from a feeling I get while studying sometimes.

By which I mean that Vita Nostra and Catherine House are more a portrayal of a feeling than a story, and by “feeling”, I mean depression compounded by unrealistic pressure and a deep alienation from reality. I think that at heart they are talking about two different situations in two very different contexts (I wish I could be more sure about Vita Nostra) but this is the running thread, and both their conclusions manage to be very ambiguous while maintaining an ominous, inevitable feeling to them. I know this feeling! I’ve been this feeling several times and I always have a stream of it running somewhere; I know many who have felt in similar ways. These books have the removed universality I wasn’t getting from the more painfully American, less strange side of this genre. It is, yet again, another case of non-white and non-western writers coming up with some of the most universal stories, even though that may not translate to “commercial appeal”. (On my opinion on that, see my previous post.)

These two novels read like having a depressive episode while in school, and I mean that as praise.


Have you read or want to read any of these? What are your thoughts on dark academia? What has been your most unexpected case of bookish déjà vu?

Personal

The Advertising Machine, the World, and the Future of the Blog

I started blogging because I loved writing reviews and wanted a platform to post them on that was better than Goodreads. What if that – unlike the general state of Goodreads – has changed?


The Current State of Things

Something that has always been important to me as a reviewer is to never leave a review waiting. If I choose not to review something, or if I choose to delete my review, it’s one thing; however, you’ll never find a “RTC” from last year on anything I post. That’s because I always have thoughts! Often too many to fit into a single review. They’re not necessarily good ones (the only thing that matches a teenager’s energy is their lack of perspective: please don’t look at what I wrote in 2017), but I always have something to share and usually don’t choose to keep it to myself.

That may have changed. I finished Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas a few days ago, and I still have a lot to say about it as always – it is… an experience – but I’m not doing anything about that. And I can’t say that I don’t feel like writing at all, because clearly I am writing right now, and there is another post waiting in the drafts I wrote this week. (Will I ever post it? I don’t know. Everything feels so trivial right now.)

I just don’t feel like writing a review at all, and this is new. What does this mean for my blog, which is a book blog composed mostly of reviews? At the moment, a pause I didn’t plan for; in the long term, I’m not sure. But, mostly, why is this happening?


The Advertisting Machine

The space in which we talk about books overlaps with the space publishers use to market books, so much that (usually unpaid) bloggers are often part of a book’s marketing plan. I understand this is inevitable to a degree, and that talking about a book helps it reach its audience independently from the blogger’s intention. I know that; I’ve bought books because of other bloggers so many times, sometimes even because of negative reviews.

It stands that advertisting has never been the point of what I do nor is it how I wish to spend my free time. I’m not participating in blog tours and probably requesting ARCs again, but even with that out of the way – I’m annoyed with how the language of advertising is everywhere. Maybe a tradpub book isn’t well-known not because we aren’t “promoting” it enough but because the publisher isn’t doing its job and that isn’t my problem really (even though depending on the situation I may wish things were different & act accordingly), and maybe reviews aren’t a tool for the consumer to decide whether to buy a product but they’re a way for me to connect with other people over books. My blog isn’t the “review” section of an online marketplace and just because we’re people on the internet it doesn’t mean we’re all trying to be influencers.

Whenever the discourse about whether reviews should be more professional is around again (discourse will be always around again) I get more annoyed with the world. Professional? They’re lucky they don’t have to talk to me because I don’t even speak this language, half the words I know I learned on a page. Me being bad at what I do with my own time isn’t any publisher’s or author’s problem, and if you want professionals writing reviews: they should be paid. I’m not saying I should be because I’m plainly not qualified for this. Professional this, promotional tool that… I want to feel like an actual person having a hobby.

So yes, I’m annoyed by how things are in the online book world and surprised by how much better I feel whenever I take several days completely away from [book] twitter especially; I’m less online and I feel better.

I still love books, and still have way too many opinions – I may not be here to promote Catherine House, but I’d love to talk about how it and Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko ended up being eerily similar despite having completely different influences and aims! If someone buys those books because they saw me talk about them, good for them. It’s still not why I’m doing this.


The General State of the World

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

You get a cat picture, because I say so. Isn’t she the cutest?

Yes, that’s still the cat friend I talked about in my August Wrap-Up, and the main upside to my city’s serious free-roaming cat problem. This is one of the very few good pictures of her I have from this month; most of them are blurred because she’s too busy trying to rub her face against my legs, phone, and sometimes purse out of Friendship. I love her. (Also this is better than the long-haired black cat who just started to lick my hand once she decided I wasn’t Dangerous. I get that we take hand-washing very seriously and I appreciate the thought but believe me this is not helping)

If you want to see another not blurred & recent picture of her, go here! I’m not going to talk about the state of the world, for that you can read/watch the news at your own pace. Still, it is a significant factor in why I have been around less.


What Does This Mean for the Blog?

I don’t know. I clearly have the energy to write things and also ideas for content, but the main problem I’m dealing with is that this doesn’t feel like a hobby anymore while pretty much everything feels pointless. The last time this kind of thing happened to one of my hobbies, I left without even really meaning to and haven’t been back since ~2016. I don’t want to disappear and not talk to any of you ever again! Trying to find a balance between “too online, doesn’t feel like a hobby” and “not here at all” has been harder than I thought it would be.

I’d also love not to end this post with I have no idea what I’m doing ever, even though that’s arguably always been true about this blog and it’s definitely true now. I don’t know what I’m going to do; I guess that the answer to will this blog continue to be active will probably be given by whether I’ll ever end up posting the Catherine House & Vita Nostra post or the one about homophobic trends in book reviews that has been sitting in the drafts. We’ll see?


Thoughts? Cats? Better news? I hope to come back with bookish content instead of existential dread someday!

Book review · Young adult

Review: Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

The writing in this book? Amazing. The rest had… a point, and pretty much nothing else.

Burn Our Bodies Down is a contemporary-set horror novel following 17-year-old Margot as she tries to reconnect with what’s left of her family in the reclusive town of Phalene, after being isolated and lied to by her abusive mother all her life.
As it turns out, her mother learned her ways from someone else, and the darkness that follows Margot could have deeper roots than she could ever imagine.

It is, at its heart, about the cyclical nature of interpersonal violence and the price of ignoring its effects for generations. I really appreciated what it said, and the path it offered to Margot in understanding her family’s history – without ever shying away from all the complicated feelings that come with that. I also appreciated that it’s a book about a lesbian that doesn’t have a romance, because queer people exist outside of romantic plotlines, and yes, queerness is part of our lives even when we aren’t in love.
If this had been a straightforward dark contemporary about cycles of violence, I would stop here; unfortunately, it’s not, and having a strong message doesn’t erase that it was a complete mess of a horror novel.

I don’t think horror needs to be scary necessarily – this isn’t – but I expect something like suspense at the very least, and Burn Our Bodies Down was lacking in that. When your horror novel relies on missing answers, on the unknown, there should be at least a sense of what the consequences might be for the main character if she doesn’t find out. As we know nothing, most of this novel just felt like following Margot around as she interacts with very lackluster characters – seriously, anyone who isn’t a Nielsen is as flat as a piece of paper, and the Nielsen who aren’t Margot are… alike – without any sense of urgency. It isn’t that she’s safe, or that there isn’t a sense of unease running through everything, but it’s all so unspecific and not enough to carry a whole novel, not – again – when the characters are like that.

Then came the reveals. They were all at the same time in the last pages, and even if it weren’t for my dislike of this pacing choice when the rest of the book had been so empty, I wouldn’t have liked them, because they were just… cheap. Instead of leaving the supernatural-metaphorical aspect be, the book tries to explain it too much, and even throws fake science in it to make it feel more grounded. Which is the last thing one should do, and also a pattern, as Wilder Girls had the exact same problem. The result is that both books end with an embarrassingly bad twist related to environmental topics, the kind I’d expect in a cli-fi parody.

I’ll admit, I am sensitive to anything that doesn’t treat topics like climate change or pollution with the weight and research they deserve, but aside from that – this is just the coward’s choice. Don’t justify yourself at every step; let the weirdness speak on its own.

My rating: ★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?

Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.

The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?

And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!

And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.

About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.

Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.

Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.

My rating: ★★★★½

CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

woodward

Over the Woodward Wall is on one side a very straightforward children’s books, on the other a very meta experiment in mirroring.
This is A. Deborah Baker’s first book, which in our world means “the first novella Seanan McGuire wrote under this pseudonym”, but if you’ve read Middlegame, it means something completely different. And that’s where my main doubt comes in: would someone who hasn’t read Middlegame get much out of this at all? Because I’m not sure.

This is the story of Avery and Zib, two children who couldn’t be more different but have tied fates, as they stumble in a different world on their way to school. If you’ve read Middlegame, you also know that twins Roger and Dodger were as different as twins can possibly be while still being close in a way no one else can ever be, therefore encompassing the rest of reality between them – like two letters at opposite ends of the alphabet. This similarity has plot relevance in Middlegame, as Over the Woodward Wall sits inside it, but not here; here noticing the parallels is something that enriches the reading experience, but even if you can’t, you’ll be perfectly fine.
Because, if it weren’t for the existence of Middlegame, this wouldn’t be anything but perfectly fine in the most forgettable way possible.

This isn’t a children’s book, the same way Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children isn’t YA but an adult response to the YA portal fantasy genre – one that imitates its structure and some of its characteristics. By which I mean, Over the Woodward Wall is a cuckoo and doesn’t even really make for a good children’s book; I know that if I had read it in middle school, I would have found it bland, boring, and way too interested in its own cleverness. I would have found the Crow Girl bits very compelling, as I found them interesting and cool to read now, especially the tiny spin on gender and being fragmented it took – I wanted more of that, and less of the rest.

And is it preachy. Every single character in the Up-and-Under is interested in giving the main ones life lessons, only disguised in a quirky way – that is, when the narration isn’t already trying to do that to the reader. While this is clearly a stylistic choice more than a flaw, it’s one I don’t really get along with: it’s tedious, and I would have felt talked down to had I been a kid. Now I know that books written like this are soothing to listen to while doing chores, but don’t work for me on ebook at all. And that’s a shame, I feel like this book is (even more) full of easter eggs and meta commentary that I could find while I constantly felt like skimming all of it.
I hope there’s going to be an audiobook of Over the Woodward Wall, because it’s the format I would recommend it in, and even then, almost only to Middlegame fans.

TBR & Goals

October Try-A-Chapter TBR for the Uncanny & Scary Season!

Hi! Today’s post will be a TBR – one different from what I usually do.
It’s October, and I see October as a chance to explore genres I wouldn’t normally reach for, genres I have a complicated relationship with: horror and thrillers. I tried something of the sort last year and it didn’t pan out very well, but I think I would have been able to tell that those books weren’t actually my thing at all had I bothered to read a preview instead of jumping into them because of recommendations.

So, today, I’m combining the Try A Chapter tag with my TBR: I’ll try out most creepy and mysterious books I’ve marked as interesting on goodreads and choose what to read.


What I’m Trying

These Women by Ivy Pochoda: I first became interested in this purely because of the cover, then it stayed on my mind because it has been described as standing at the intersection between literary fiction and thriller, more a character study than something you’re supposed to “solve”, and maybe that’s more of my thing? Maybe the answer to being chronically disappointed by mystery reveals is to read books in which it’s not at all the point. Let’s try.
The preview: the first chapter is from the point of view of a sex worker, and I think she’s talking to someone in the hospital? I do like how this whole book seems to be about taking a completely different angle from most of the genre and centering the sex worker instead of making her a disposable victim (you don’t even have to have read or watched a lot of mysteries or thrillers to know that it’s a common thing because it is That Common). I think I like it, but I don’t know if it’s something I would reach for outside an “out of my comfort zone” challenge as this one. The writing is very unusual and deliberately choppy.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan: this is backlist and a favorite on US trans twitter, and I’m not sure I get what it is exactly, but hearing that is something both semi-autobiographical and with horror elements makes me really interested in it, given that the only other book I’ve read that walked the line between fiction and nonfiction is the masterpiece that was Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I’m sure this will be completely different – books that can’t be pinned down in one genre tend to be! – but the point is that it sounds like it will be an Experience. Also, there’s very little I like as much as reading about haunted people. The main criticisms I saw of this one were that it’s pretentious (might be a problem depending on execution) and that it wanders a lot (I don’t think I’ll mind).
The preview: one thing I really like about this is that it doesn’t shy away from words like “crazy” and “insane”, deliberately. (If you’ve ever seen “ableist slur” discourse play out, well, you know why I’m saying this.) These are words I mostly avoid to not make others uncomfortable, but the thing is – living as the crazy one is much more than uncomfortable. Apart from that, this is thematically heavy but easily readable despite it not being in any hurry to make a point, possibly the best kind of combination. I still don’t have a clear idea of what this is going to be, but again, that is deliberate. I may never have one. It literally starts with “This is the book it is, which means it may not be the book you expect it to be.”

Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power: let’s see if this is just like Wilder Girls, both in the sense that I thought it shouldn’t have been a YA book at all and in the sense that it’s not going to work for me. I hope I’m at least wrong about the second, and as I said once before, I want to see how the concept of “creepy cornfield” is executed. My opinion is that any huge monoculture is inherently creepy and so are a great number of plants if they get tall enough, but I don’t get why corn specifically is The Creepy Field in American culture.
The preview: I still don’t know about the corn, but the writing is breathtaking – even more than in Wilder Girls. The hints of “complicated mother-daughter relationship” are drawing me in already. I don’t know how credible my premise “I’m not into thrillers or horror” sounds now that I haven’t been able to exclude even one book yet, but that’s good news I guess? (Not necessarily, as many of them fail for me in the ending, but at least it won’t be like last year’s picks)

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson: this has one of the most striking covers I’ve ever set my eyes on, and it was the main reason this ended up on my TBR even though mysteries are not my genre at all. However, it’s high time I try something by this author, and the premise of this one sounds interesting – it’s about a Black girl who is accused of a murder she doesn’t remember committing, and I’ve heard its explores themes of misogynoir, abuse, and famous adult men exploiting teenage girls (don’t know the details because I want to avoid spoilers).
The preview: there are content warnings at the beginning, which is very considerate and that I really appreciate. As far as the story goes, it’s already setting up the tension effectively – only a few chapters into the flashback and I would be already worried for the main character even if I didn’t know the outcome. I think it’s going to be told mostly in flashbacks, though I’m not sure yet; I hope we gets more glimpses into the future timeline as well. The very short chapter make it feel like a tense, unputdownable read. If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t actually own this yet I’d be tempted to skim forward. The other thing that is holding me back is that this is going to be a necessarily heavy read – the kind I could only deal with on a day in which I’m not already doing badly, I think.

The Damned by Renée Ahdieh: I just want to go back to the decadent underworld of New Orleans and its secret societies in which the paranormal dwells (and marginalized people are accepted)! I’ve been seeing mostly negative reviews, but that was also true for the first book – slow-burn atmospheric paranormal isn’t for everyone nor is it trendy right now either – so I’m not that worried. Also this is one of my favorite covers to ever exist.
The preview: this is so dramatic, I love it already. I don’t know if I’ll like Bastien’s PoV as much as I liked Celine’s in the first book, but I hope so. Also Odette is there and it’s my obligation as a lesbian to read about her, if not now, at least soon. (I hope she gets a girlfriend…) My main worry at this point is that I won’t be able to remember all the names because the cast of characters only in the Court is neverending, but at least I have my e-copy of The Beautiful to search things in.

Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall: a YA horror that apparently also has queer elements that was really hyped for being extremely creepy (at least by YA standards) last fall. It has to do with disappearances, a road that requires a toll, and it’s told in a mixed media format.
The preview: this isn’t bad – at all, at least from what I can tell – but it suffers here because it’s by far the book with the plainest writing on the list so far, and if there’s one thing I don’t like about writing it’s “plain”. Be weirder! I know many people’s idea of good writing is “writing that isn’t intrusive and gets the job done” but I don’t agree at all, I want to sink my teeth in it. I’m interested – the mixed media format is really intriguing – but it’s low priority.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas: since I’m a fool, I’m going to give yet another chance to something that has been marketed as Dark Academia, and not even one that is getting good reviews. (Maybe that means I’ll like it? Who knows.) However: I recently saw Kayla/booksandlala liken its weirdness to some of my favorite weird & underrated books in one of her recent videosThe Gallery of Unfinished Girls, A Room Away from the Wolves, and even A Like in the Dark. I want to know why.
The preview: …the chapters in this one are neverending. Like, the preview ends and we’re not even finished with chapter one. I still think it seems easily readable, or maybe I just think that about everything this evening. I don’t know. The writing isn’t horribly pretentious and no one is quoting Shakespeare at me, which is already a significant improvement from the last time I tried this genre. Also, the feeling of being lost is already coming through and giving me vague A Room Away from the Wolves vibes. (That book is also set in a place named “Catherine House”. How.) I don’t have a definite impression yet but I’m curious.

She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard: queer book twitter made so much noise when the cover of this YA thriller was released, and for good reasons! It looks so fascinating, and as it has been described as “an electric romance that sparks lethal danger”, inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray… of course I want to try it. I have an ARC and I’m going to read it for sure, all this trying a chapter is going to accomplish is deciding whether I want to read it right now.
The first chapter: so, this is compelling enough and something I would have absolutely loved at 16, which is a good sign for a YA book but not necessarily for my current enjoyment – though it’s too soon to say for sure. I will say that I really like the writing and that it’s already setting the tone very well, even though I’m not yet sold on the characters.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour: haunting stories! I think including this one on this list is more of a stretch, as I’ve heard it’s more “introspective contemporary with magical elements” than anything remotely horror, but it has ghosts in it and I say it counts.
The preview: this is very… muted? Faded? I expected a quiet book from Nina LaCour, and this has again that feeling of isolation and loss, but in a completely different way from We Are Okay. I think it would take me more time than a brief preview to truly get into it, as it’s intentionally removed. I appreciate the already ominous tone. Maybe it’s a little more creepy than I thought? We’ll see.

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford: this is another weird genre-defying novel that has been described as “haunted” and compared to some of my favorite contemporary fantasy books; I have no idea what it is about but given this and the cover I don’t need much more to want to try it. I feel like it’s going to be way more ~literary than I’m used to but let’s see.
The preview: this is… really interesting and weird and the writing is gorgeous. I have no idea where it’s going but that’s both a good thing and something I imagine I’ll also feel after having finished the novel if I actually end up reading it (also not necessarily a bad thing? It depends). For something that is about taking body parts out of people, it isn’t even that gory, and I’m not yet sure about whether that’s a good thing or not.


Results!

I’ve been struggling with TBRs lately, so I’m not going to define one clearly; I’m going to give myself space to choose which books I’ll read as the month goes on instead of choosing them all now, which also gives me the chance to check out some that aren’t out yet (queer thriller They Never Learn by Layne Fargo) and even some self-published stuff that looks interesting if I have time.

For now, I will say that my priorities are:

  • Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power, which is the one that impressed me the most with its writing – Rory Power got even better in this aspect since Wilder Girls;
  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, because of the possible parallels with some of my favorite books, and because of how difficult to pin down and yet so… effective in setting the mood that beginning was;
  • The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan, because the preview was promising and I’ve seen this recommended so many times by now that I can’t just drop it without going further;
  • I also really hope I’ll be able to fit The Damned by Renée Ahdieh in there, I just want to get back in this world.

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

Tag · Wrap-Up

Half a Wrap-Up, but Also Not, and Half an Award Post

What is today’s post? I don’t know either, and in any case, categories are overrated.


Rules? On my blog?

In theory, this started out as a Liebster Award post, which has its own rules, but you know what? I don’t feel like coming up with facts about myself or questions to tag other people for, but I do feel like writing something and this is what you get.

The good news is, a review of Over the Woodward Wall should be here this week, because yes, I finally started something again after taking another unintentional break during September’s exam season. However, there won’t be a specific wrap-up post coming this month, because I read exactly two novellas and nothing else. No, the wrap-up will be right here because no one can stop me.

September was mostly a month of me using every opportunity to get out of the house as often as possible, because getting some practice in existing outside is a good idea when you had to spend the first months of the year leaning into your agoraphobia due to pandemic reasons. Also, I’m still making friends with the cats, and the outside in itself is a really beautiful place sometimes:

After exam season ended, (online) lessons have started again, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do this in the next months. Another unrelated things that has changed is that I’m learning how to cook fish more by myself now! I’m now the designated fish buyer and cleaner in the house (can do both completely on my own), because that’s what a marine ecology course is good for, and the shark dissection we did in class back in January means that certain things don’t faze me much anymore.

As far as books, I read two novellas, Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling and Over the Woodward Wall by Seanan McGuire. Of the first, I already have a review up, and I mostly thought it was fine but not that memorable – maybe I didn’t understand it fully – but I did appreciate how messed up it was. About the second one, I was again not sure of what it was trying to achieve or what it was even trying to be target audience-wise, but finding the parallels between it and Middlegame was a fun experience.


The Liebster Award Questions and Their Answers

I was tagged by laurel @ the suspected bibliophile. Thank you!

What is your favorite carbonated drink?

Water, I guess? That’s pretty much all I drink, and sparkling water doesn’t bother me – which on the US-dominated internet seems to be an unpopular opinion. At least, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about it as if it were Water From Hell, when to me it’s perfectly fine; I just won’t seek it out deliberately.
(Well, we also make banana + cocoa smoothies after dinner sometimes here, but that’s more of a dessert than a drink. Now that would be a nightmare if carbonated.)

How has the pandemic affected your coping skills?

There would be a lot to say, but I don’t feel like writing it down. Something relevant to this blog is that I find it more difficult to get into books, which was one of the reasons I had to put down Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston earlier this week even though I was liking it – I’m finding it difficult to read adult SFF at all. I hope that changes soon.

Do you have a library card? And do you use it?

No. Local libraries’ concept of a “fantasy section” is made up of three beaten up copies of an Italian fantasy series from around 2005, the entirety of Twilight, and either an old edition of The Lord of the Rings or a random A Song of Ice and Fire novel (probably not the first one, you won’t be that lucky). It’s not very useful.

What are the top five books you’ve read so far in 2020?

I don’t feel like ranking them, so I’m going to say them in the order I read them: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (I don’t think I’ve ever annotated a book this much), The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (the way this was written just Gets Me), The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (unforgettable, rightly monstrous), the short story Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (well-intentioned body horror… best romance), and Night Shine by Tessa Gratton (also unforgettable and rightly monstrous, because I have a type). Only two of them are novels, because I don’t want to spoil the whole “favorite novel of the year” post! That’s my favorite post to write.

What are the five books you cannot stop recommending to people?

I think I’ve recommended Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong to all people asking me about queer short fiction over the years and I stand by it – it’s about murderous Asian vampire-like creatures in a messed up F/F/F love triangle and it’s one of the most memorable short stories I’ve ever read.

Other than that, I can’t really think of anything I’ve recommended to many people? I know several people have read Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee and Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter because of me, but I wasn’t actively recommending these books to them – it’s just that I talked about both a lot on my blog. Also, I convinced people IRL to read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (and back when I was in high school, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo and Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente), and not much else…

Do you write? If so, what’s your current work in progress?

No. But I’d like to – I have a work in progress which will most definitely never get written. So far, it exists as a prologue (I think they’re nice actually) and a piece of a first chapter. As for what it is about: what happens when the quintessential magical YA heroine, after completing the quintessential girl power YA novel arc (minus the romance) and defeating evil, decides that she and her devout following have to create an all-girl utopia in the woods? Yes, this is about cults. (And religious trauma, and reactionary conformist thought masquerading as “feminism”, but let’s not get too into that yet.)

The YA-heroine-type character isn’t the PoV character, that would be boring, and I wouldn’t describe this idea as YA – they’re already older and I didn’t make it up with teens as a main audience in mind. I love this story and where it goes, but I don’t think that of my English, so I don’t know if I’ll ever actually finish even a first draft.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled? Was it for yourself or someone else?

Sometimes I look up unusual or even straight up cursed-sounding food combinations to see if there’s anyone who has ever actually tried that, or if it isn’t even as unusual or cursed-sounding of a combination as it actually seems to me. One of my favorites can be translated as (I look them up in Italian) “clam profiterole“. I didn’t find a result for that, but I did find recipes by looking up the variant “clam chowder cream puffs“, so!

The clam cream puffs from the recipe I found weren’t meant to be sweets, but my idea of “clam profiterole”, or to be an Italian, “bignè alle vongole”, was absolutely meant to be a sweet pastry – what if you bit into a regular cream puff and there was a whole clam inside the cream? Without the shell, because of course I’m not a monster 🙂

What is your favorite fall (or spring) activity?

Last year it was impulse-buying cacti, the year before it was [depressive episode static noise], who knows what this year will bring?

the only one of my cacti that has ever bloomed

What is your most paranormal experience?

There’s no experience that stands out. However, being surrounded by [phobia trigger] can do really weird things to my perception of reality. I wouldn’t call it paranormal but it sure feels like it.

Besides reading/blogging, what are your hobbies?

Before the pandemic it was “underwater photography” – by which I mean snorkeling with a waterproof camera near underwater rocks; I can’t scuba dive, but there’s a surprising amount of interesting stuff one can find near the surface, including morays. This year, I haven’t been able to go to the beach at all. Now, it’s… Pokémon Go. Which is fun but also makes me sad because real fish were better.

Serranus scriba (“painted comber”), one of my favorites to photograph – it turns to stare at you instead of fleeing when followed. Also, look at the patterns on its head!

Which Chris is the best Chris?

The actors? I don’t know anything about their personalities or what they do, because I… watch approximately one movie a year and usually don’t even know the names of the actors in it. One of the many ways I live under a rock! As far as looks, I don’t find them interesting.


How was this month for you? Have you read any of these books? Do you also have an Overly Specific Role if you live together with other people? And, most importantly, would you eat the clam profiterole?

TBR & Goals

5 YA Books I’d Like to Reread

To exist in the online book world is to always hear about the new books coming out. Deep down, I’m also always looking for something new, because isn’t a significant part of the drive to read born from curiosity? And while I can find “something new” in backlist books if I distract myself from new release hype for a moment, finding the motivation to reread books isn’t as easy.

I find this harder to do with YA books specifically. Maybe I’m afraid that the books I liked at 16 will be ruined for me if I read them now, despite having some evidence of the contrary from the few times I actually got through with those rereads – I still like most of them, just for different reasons. Or maybe it’s that I’m constantly being inundated with news about all the latest YA books, which means I’m more likely to reach for a new one when I just don’t have the energy to deal with the level of worldbuilding and complexity I want adult SFF to have. I don’t know.

But the thing is, from past rereads I know that every reread brings with itself something new. There are YA books I consider “favorites” that I liked without understanding why, because I read them at a time I didn’t have the tools to get into the reasons under “this made me feel a lot”. There are books that changed my life, and I want to know how that change will shape the experience of reading them. There are, on the opposite side, books I read at the worst possible time, but I only realized that in hindsight and now want to give them a fairer chance.

Today, I’m going to talk about five YA books I want to reread. Maybe that will help me motivate myself… at least, I hope.


Mirage by Somaiya Daud

I should probably add a disclaimer to this blog, “don’t trust anything that was written in 2018 too much”, but that’s especially true for everything I wrote in the fall of that year. I remember that my thoughts on Mirage were “this is great and one of the most original YA books I’ve ever read setting-wise, but something is missing and I’m not sure what”; now I know what was missing, and it was not about the book (for details, look for the Empire of Sand section). Two years later, I want to give this Moroccan-inspired sci-fantasy about colonization another chance, especially given how many amazing things I’ve been hearing about its sequel Court of Lions.

The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

While I believe in the importance of representation of marginalized groups in fiction, I’ve never really understood why so many of the conversations around it focused on “seeing yourself”, or “being seen” by a book. Then it happened to me once, and I agree, while it’s still far from the main reason I read diverse books, it is life-changing if you’ve never experienced that before. The Dark Beneath the Ice is a horror novel that uses a haunting as a metaphor for the most painful aspects of anxiety, while featuring a textually mentally ill character – it’s not a it was ghosts all along story nor a it was mental illness all along story. The two are one and the same, and it makes so much sense. The thing about “anxiety disorders” is that their very name feels like a dismissal. “She has anxiety” feels so much like a slightly heavier version of “oh, she’s just shy“, and I hate it so much – it feels completely inappropriate for the life-ruining well of isolation it actually is to me. This book gets it; I also feel haunted sometimes. I want to know how it feels to go into it knowing what it’s trying to do from the beginning. Also, horror season is incoming!

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

I don’t know why I liked this book so much! Or, I do, superficially – the whimsically strange writing coupled with beautiful, macabre imagery means I will never forget certain scenes, and the gay subtext with the literal manifestation of Night helped, but I know that there was more to it. I know. I’ve read Never-Contented Things by the same author last year, and what was on the surface a nonsensical, at times grotesque story about escaping the faery realm was actually about cycles of abuse and recognizing actual love from codependency or neglect. I strongly suspect that Vassa in the Night also has a similar thematic core – maybe about parental neglect specifically? I’m not sure – but at 16 I… didn’t exactly miss it, I absorbed it without recognizing what it was. After all, at the time I thought that a book having some sort of message had to mean that it was preachy. I’m glad 16-year-old me didn’t actually have a platform?

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

This is a corollary to an upcoming post about my next step in the journey of “trying to figure out what I like in the mystery/thriller genre”. I read A Line in the Dark in 2017, and since then, it has been the only book in the mystery genre I’ve actually ever given five stars. I remember loving the lesbian love triangle, and I remember loving how flawed and… horny the main character Jess was allowed to be, in a way that I just couldn’t find back then. I remember the cold, lost atmosphere; the complicated feelings the Jess had in regards to gender presentation in her Chinese-American family, and how this book grappled with the racism, subtle and not, Jess gets from her crush’s white friends. I don’t remember what I liked about the mystery. I should find out!

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

Another book I read in 2018! This is also a YA fantasy inspired by Southeast Asia during French colonialism, featuring a main character with bipolar disorder who is trying to survive being mentally ill and magical when her magic is tied to necromancy. This book has a portrayal of mental illness that really spoke to me back when I was going through one of my worst moments with it, despite it not being something I actually “related” to (different illness). Also, it’s a gorgeous mixed media fantasy (how rare is that as a format?) that includes plays and sheet music. I just want to go back to it & get to the sequels.


Do you reread books often, or do you also get distracted by newer things?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

this book: this mysterious, possibly evil character is known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls
Acqua, immediately: 👀

Night Shine is, more than anything, a story about the importance of having a choice.
It follows a girl known as Nothing as she goes on a quest to rescue Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and her closest friend, after he has been kidnapped by a Sorceress.
Hearing this premise, one might think they already know this story. They don’t.

The first thing you should know about Night Shine is that it is, from the surface to its heart, a very queer story. I’m not only talking about the characters, though of course that’s a major factor; I’m talking about what it prioritizes as well. Night Shine is a story that says, you should get to choose. Your name, over the one that was given to you. Your relationships, over what has been forced on you either through magic or norms. The way you define yourself, over an assigned gender or other kinds of restrictive roles.
For a story, having this kind of priorities means trope subversion, and this book is full of it.

Maybe the girl and the prince love each other, but not the way one would think, and maybe the girl is going to rescue the prince with the help of the prince’s secret boyfriend, his bodyguard Sky, and maybe the prince is charming, genderfluid, and also the most beautiful maiden of the realm, and maybe the sorceress is hot in a very gay way. Consider!

I always love to find new books to recommend to other gay villain romance fans, and Night Shine might be my favorite F/F example so far. The tension between the main character and the Sorceress… to give you an idea, I had to pause many times because I felt like spontaneously combusting, and that’s why this took me five days.

That’s far from the only reason this book deeply appealed to me, however. Another, maybe the most personal one, is that the main character’s arc is about understanding who she is and can be, and the first step in that is learning to want things. I was drawn to “Nothing” from the moment I met her, because I know the appeal of being functionally invisible and haunting the place you live in, unpredictable and unseen but more than anything unassuming, never-bothering, never really even occupying space if you can. And maybe that’s what you think you want, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism because the world is cruel, and it’s not all there is to you.

Then there’s the portrayal of intimacy. Back in 2018, Gratton’s Strange Grace was described by many as “full of kissing”, and I can say that it applies to Night Shine even more – people kiss! A lot! For different reasons and with different results! Like most binaries, the line between platonic and romantic isn’t a concern to this book, and this is particularly clear in the dynamic between the main character, Sky, and Kirin, which was so fascinating to read. They all love each other, it’s clear, but there are power imbalances and things turn sour – the relationship between Kirin and the main character takes a clear controlling bent, especially when contrasted with how she and Sky grow close without forcing any expectations on each other, allowing themselves to be surprised.

About Kirin specifically, I loved how he was portrayed. I know I’ve talked many times about the importance of portrayals of queer villainy, and queer flawed characters, from queer authors – and just like we get to have a sorceress who eats girls’ hearts and is a lesbian and a love interest, we get to have a genderfluid prince who is charming but also entitled and jealous, and portrayed sympathetically. We understand the reasons for his actions, and that’s why they hurt even more to read. I’m always here for books that understand that good and evil exist in shadows.
(Kirin is also not the only non-binary character who appears. The narration also uses he/him pronouns for Kirin, so that’s what I did, while it uses they/them for the other n-b character who appears.)

Another fascinating part of Night Shine are the names. Every character has a full name which almost reads like poetry; for example, Sky is The Day the Sky Opened, and another example is Sudden Spring Frost – and since we were on the topic of Kirin, it’s said that the main character starts using different full names depending on what he says about his gender that day, among which “Neither Kirin”, which is… so cool of a name. Then there’s the matter of “Nothing”‘s name, which is… plot-relevant and I’m not going to say more.

The writing was dreamlike, and yet I could see the setting so clearly – because this book knows the balance between giving enough descriptions to make everything feel real and bright but not too much to still leave some mystery and distance. In a world of sorcerers, demons, spirits and dragons, it only feels right – and the meticulous attention to detail helped, as usual for Tessa Gratton’s works.

I loved Night Shine a lot, even more than I loved Strange Grace in 2018; I think it might be a new favorite book of all time. I will know that for sure in a few months, but for now, I can say that there’s a good chance.

My rating: ★★★★★