Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

40815235._sy475_I almost didn’t read The City of the Middle of the Night because my previous experiences with Charlie Jane Anders – both with short fiction and with her novel All the Birds in the Sky – weren’t positive. Then I decided to challenge myself to read all the Hugo Award finalists in the Best Novel category, and I’m so glad I did; this book has some of the most interesting worldbuilding I’ve read in a while, character dynamics that deeply appeal to me, and writing so beautiful I could cry.

At its heart, this is a story about a toxic relationship between two women, the kind of toxic relationship queer women in a heteronormative society are intimately familiar with: the love for the popular, Straight best friend who claims to love you (though how is always left to interpretation, deliberately) but actually sees you as a pawn, as means to an end more than anything. It’s not a case that this book ended where it did, and the final confrontation wasn’t about the revolution or what will happen to Xiosphant. The City in the Middle of the Night is about Sophie and Bianca, what they feel for each other, why they are drawn to each other and why they chafe, always chafe in the end.
It’s a story about the importance of open-mindedness and acceptance, about how for some fighting for change is a way to help people thrive, while for others is only important as far as it gives them privilege, attention, power over others. It’s the negative of a love story, and yet there’s so much love in its pages, in the questions it raises, in the ending it chose.

Sophie and Bianca aren’t the only main characters. Half of this book is told in Mouth’s PoV, and I found those parts to be less compelling for a variety of reasons, the main one being how the supporting characters in it weren’t as well-drawn. Mouth’s and Alyssa’s relationship was an interesting foil to Sophie and Bianca’s, strained for different reasons but born from similarities between the two characters (though again, I didn’t feel it was as well-developed), and Mouth’s arc was a foil to Sophie’s. Sophie’s story is about knowledge as a bridge over misunderstanding, the importance of learning about the past, while Mouth’s was about knowledge as something that drags you down, and the need to let go of the past. I live for foils, and I thought this was really clever, because it’s true that a core part of being human is wondering how much of the past one can forgive or understand or let go. It’s often not easy to understand which between forgetting or deepening one’s understanding would help.
And, of course, Gelet society is a foil to humanity in that! It only makes sense for a book set on a tidally locked planet, half day and half night, to exist in mirrors and explore the gray between the ends of binaries, after all.

Now, let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Setting a book on a tidally locked planet is an incredibly cool concept to begin with, and the details made it even better, made it feel real, while never making anything difficult to grasp. We start the story in Xiosphant, the city in which Time has become a way to control the people through the idea of Circadianism: everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Everything is designed to make you feel like you’re running out of time, to make not wonder about the past so that you can’t talk about privilege and power being concentrated in certain groups, to make you not talk about what’s outside because the solutions that work for other countries could never work for Xiosphant, Xiosphant is special (this has a quote that is basically a parody American exceptionalism and that was my favorite moment). This book isn’t exactly subtle, but sometimes one needs to go for the throat. And this might be a horrible place, but the details about the many different kinds of currency, the shutters and the farmwheels… it was so fascinating to read.

Xiosphant’s foil is Argelo, the city that never sleeps, in which there’s always some kind of party going on, some kind of battle, sometimes both things at the same time, and everything is based on “freedom”, the freedom to do as one pleases, which usually includes trampling others and forming gangs to survive. The descriptions of the parties and locals in Argelo were breathtaking in all their extravagant details, and yet there was always that atmosphere of emptiness to it.
Both cities are dying, and have a lot in common – the violence, the lack of care and sense of community, the aversion to meaningful change – and the climate is going to destroy them in not much time, if everyone on the planet doesn’t start cooperating in some way. While reading this, especially the Argelo part, I kept thinking about how in a book that doesn’t grasp the dynamics of privilege, what privilege does to people (like, uh, most YA dystopians) Bianca would have been the heroine. I’m glad this is not that kind of book.

Argelo, Xiosphant and the City in the Middle of the Night (where the alien Gelet live) aren’t the only societies explored. We also get to know about the people in Mouth’s past, the Nomads, and their storyline had some really interesting parts, but again, like everything in Mouth’s storyline, I didn’t feel like the full implications of them were explored. When we have a storyline as well-rounded as Sophie’s, with a in-depth exploration of PTSD, of a toxic relationship and of an entire alien society, Mouth’s story just feels faded, even though I get why it was there.

I couldn’t end this review without talking about the writing, which I loved. For the descriptions, for how effective it was, for how much of this I highlighted. I understand why it’s polarizing, it keeps you at arm’s length from the characters. But, once you settle into it, it carries you in its flow like the visions of the Gilet, and it’s breathtaking.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: 3 Recent Fantasy Reads

I’m reading a lot more fantasy than in the last few months! Considering that I thought I was tired of the genre, this is a really good sign. Today I’m going to review:

  • my first five star novel of the year (!!) that wasn’t a reread
  • a really unexpected and disappointing DNF
  • something light and fun I surprised myself with thanks to scribd.

39855052…and this is how you write a sequel.

As a general rule, I tend not to like sequels, and maybe I didn’t love The Kingdom of Copper quite as much as The City of Brass (hard to say for sure, though; I didn’t love The City of Brass as much as I do now the first time I read it) but in this situation “almost as good as the first book” means “still stunning”, so I’ll take it.

The Kingdom of Copper is The City of Brass‘s less romantic, more murderous sibling. It has less of a focus on setting up the world and more on delving into the connections between the characters, their divided loyalties, and a city built on suffering that seems lost in endless cycles of violence.
As a whole, it felt like a meditation on how powerful people exploit the existence of others’ suffering and trauma to prop their own agenda; a warning that nothing good can come from violence. It can do all that and still make you cheer when a certain character dies, because if there’s one thing this series is good at, it’s balancing on difficult lines and never dealing in absolutes. (The other is being hilarious even when so many characters seem to lack a sense of humor.)

One of the things I didn’t love about The City of Brass was how pretty much every relevant character but Nahri was a man. This isn’t as true for The Kingdom of Copper, as Zaynab gets some much-needed development (and now I love her), we get to know Queen Hatset (I love her too and her priorities) and we see a lot of Manizheh (I love when the scary charismatic character is a woman). We also see Nahri mature but never lose the best part of herself, about which I say, Nahri conning people >>> everything else.

35839460And the ending? Explosive. It was a particularly fun time and also the moment many characters redeemed themselves in my eyes.

Spoilery thoughts on the ending, because wow, was that an ending, and are these spoilers

I spent the whole book wanting to shake Dara because he never learns from his mistakes, and then in the ending I had… so many feelings about the scene in which Nahri makes a hallway collapse on him? Like, yes, this is the kind of relationships I like to read about! Keep going! Even Munthadhir redeemed himself for me – after I spent the book annoyed at him – in the scene in which he tries to trick Dara into killing him (was it supposed to be as funny as I found it?). Even Ghassan lol no Ghassan is dead and we love that

I’m also glad this book told us more about the Marid, the Ifrit and past enslaved Djinn. I feel like there are going to be more surprises in store for us still – the Ayaanle/Marid relationship: something is wrong; also, what’s going on with Ali now – and all I’m going to say is that things are certainly not going to end well for a lot of people and I hope to have a lot of fun reading about it.

My rating: ★★★★¾

41951626The problem with Crier’s War by Nina Varela is the problem I’ve had this year with four out of five of the F/F fantasy books I’ve read (the only exception being The Winged Histories): they all have the same trope.

In every single one of them, at least one of the two girls is being pressured to marry a man.
I hate this trope now, I hate how prevalent it is, I hate how in this kind of situation most straight main characters get to have a fun-if-kitschy love triangle to create tension but we get blackmail (Crier’s War), sexual harassment (The Winter Duke), and a lesbian being forced to sleep with a man and get pregnant (The Priory of the Orange Tree). [The other book I’ve read this year that has done this was Stormsong by C.L. Polk, which did make it look more like a triangle you already knew the answer to.]

Authors: is this really the only way you can think of to stir up conflict in an F/F book? Would it break you to do something original for once? The world of Crier’s War doesn’t even have homophobia and there’s no need to birth a heir since Automae can’t reproduce anyway, so it’s the most annoying iteration of this trope I’ve read yet.

Why couldn’t Scyre Kinok be a woman? Then you’d have an interesting evil woman and the reader wouldn’t know which character would be the endgame F/F couple from the first page, which would have made this book 100% more interesting (also, we could have had a tense love triangle! Blackmail inside a love triangle > blackmail from a character the reader is meant to hate without a doubt from page 1). But authors are either scared to write evil women or forget the idea that women can be evil, so we can’t have nice things. It didn’t help that I tried reading all of this while reading the masterpiece in moral ambiguity that is The Kingdom of Copper, and here it was glaring which characters the author wanted you to love or to hate. The result felt manipulative, flat, and afraid of any grey space.

I also couldn’t get over how one of the plot points in this book was the character named Crier could cry despite not being technically human, and I DNFed this around halfway through, something I should have already done 20% in. And here I state again that one can never trust a hyped YA fantasy. I’m glad I decided to try it on scribd and didn’t buy the 9€ ebook or the 20€ (seriously) audiobook.

52369824._sx318_sy475_I then saw that Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher, which I discovered because it had been nominated for the Lodestar Award, was on scribd. It turned out to be a delightful middle grade novella following a young not-very-good mage and his familiar, an armadillo, on a trip to retrieve the rain and bring it back to their village. It drew inspiration from creepy folktales and dedicated attention to the importance of environmental knowledge (and environmental magic). I really appreciate books that explore the kind of magic that would realistically be used for everyday life and the, uh, more creative applications of it.
The spinning spiders scene was my favorite, definitely a highlight, and I also really liked what this said about mobs and assorted irrational group behavior, but overall I didn’t feel strongly about Minor Mage and I don’t think this kind of very light, fairytale-like fantasy is for me (something confirmed by my failed attempt at getting through The Raven and the Reindeer the following day).

By the way, this is apparently the author’s adult pen name? And the editor of this thought this wasn’t suitable for children? It might be that I’m young and not a parent but this is very much a children’s book. (If I were to rate it by adult fantasy standards, it would get two stars or less. There’s not much to get here if not “I would have had a lot of fun with this in middle school”.)

My rating: ★★★

Have you read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Recent Fantasy Reads

I read two adult fantasy novels in March! (Well, three, but that third was a reread.) Given how my reading has looked like lately – very few novels and relatively little fantasy – this is almost surprising. Here’s the reviews.

29774026When I started The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thought that the most remarkable thing about it was its length. Now that I’ve finished it, that hasn’t changed.

I think that’s where the problem sits. When I write reviews, the first thing I think about is what sets this book or reading experience apart, in a good or bad way? And here, apart from how long this was, I really can’t tell! This book felt like an amalgamation of tropes and ideas I’ve already read elsewhere, where they were done in far more interesting ways. And it has a lot of tropes I love, from dragon rider school (by the way, the “powerful” dragon Naymathun spent most of the book being a damsel in distress, it was kind of ridiculous) to plant-based magic and a forbidden f/f romance.
The book managed to do nothing interesting with them, which is an achievement.

The Priory of the Orange Tree was marketed as a new, diverse spin on traditional fantasy tropes, and while I appreciate the intent, I don’t think that was done particularly well. When I say that I love reading fantasy stories in which queer characters don’t experience homophobia, I don’t mean that you can build a society with rigid gender roles, a serious religious fundamentalism problem, and puritanical attitudes towards sex, and expect me to believe that somehow there’s no homophobia. Fantasy authors, please explore the consequences of the worldbuilding you lay down. Please.
(Also, again, unless I missed something, this is one of the most rigidly cis and gender-conforming fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long while, which wouldn’t have been so glaring if not for a) how much symbolism based on wombs there was here and b) how much of the marketing focused on this being feminist and all about women. Considering all that… it really stood out in a bad way.)

And really, if you mostly read queer SFF to begin with, the only thing that will stand out to you is how long this book is and how some of the plotlines (like Tané’s, which was my favorite character) still manage to feel underdeveloped despite that.
This is one of those books in which it’s clear that, despite the multiple PoVs, there’s a main character (Ead, who was as bland as one can possibly get with superpowers) and the others are less relevant. The book didn’t even seem to try to make me care about Loth, who was a walking plot device, even blander than Ead. And I appreciated the idea of having a main character who for once didn’t have the supreme good as a motivation – Niclays – but he too had the personality of a dishrag.
Add the painfully predictable political intrigue to that and you get a very long story in which all interpersonal dynamics are deeply uninteresting, and as a result, I never felt strongly about anything.

I think my disconnect between this and the story also had a lot to do with the fact that this book tried to be a modern version of fantasy classics, which made me realize just how much I don’t miss that kind of fantasy.
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, this very much relies on coincidences to push the story along, which today feels lazy, and it just doesn’t live up in any way to the standards I have for plotting in adult fantasy, when it had all the space it needed to do so and more;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it portrays a conflict between good people and a clearly irredeemable evil that exists just to be evil, which has never made for an interesting story and today feels flat and uninspired;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it has such a stiff writing style that I gave up on the English version and decided to read it physically in Italian, despite how uncomfortable it is to read a physical copy of this, because tone doesn’t translate well and for once that was a good thing;
🍊 Unlike most of the older fantasy I read (though I don’t doubt there were many, many exceptions to this), it has sex scenes, still written in that stiff, incredibly uncomfortable writing style, which means this has what’s probably the worst f/f sex scene I’ve ever had to read in my life. Rosebuds at the tips of her breasts?? really?

I did enjoy my time with this for the most part: I had many problems (…I’ve spent most of this review complaining), but the majority of them were background annoyances. For something in which I only cared about one character out of four, it wasn’t a bad reading experience, and I did really like the settings (the Inysh castle, the Priory, Tané’s school…). I will also forget most of it over the next few weeks.

My rating: ★★¾

41473380-1Stormsong is a sequel that does something very few sequels do: it deals with the afterwards. What happens after you’ve defeated the Big Bad and uncovered his nefarious plots? Chances are the structures that allowed the Big Bad to rise and thrive are still standing, and that’s a serious problem.

As Witchmark was one of the most nuanced takes on the outlawed magic trope and very plausibly portrayed the rich profiting from it, Stormsong is one of the most nuanced versions of the “rebellion against the establishment” plotline, and with a very interesting perspective – Dame Grace Hensley was completely part of it until a few days before, and in some ways still is. This book knows how to talk about privilege and oppression, about how this kind of discussion has to be full of grey areas and still requires steps, solutions, because injustice can’t be allowed to continue. Sometimes, those solutions will have high costs.
(Forgive me the aside, but this is the very reason no trope is tired until marginalized people have had as many chances to write it.)

In this book, what truly happened with Laneer comes into focus, and there’s also discussion of justice in the context of colonial wars. Everything in here is complicated, and this book handles all of it with… grace. (Sorry.) There are also advocates for witches’ rights, and the Amaranthines sometimes have goals of their own, and everything is twisted enough that I couldn’t even predict the solution to the murder mystery (yes, of course there’s murder too!) this time.

I still didn’t like this book as much as Witchmark. It might be due to my mental state, but my frustration at the ending had a lot to do with it. I hate cliffhangers, they make me want to not continue with the story, and while I get why a certain character didn’t get what they deserved, I’m still really annoyed and that’s never the emotion I want a book to leave me with.

The romance in this book also took more of a backseat than it did in the first. Again, I understand why this was necessary, but I still wish I would have gotten more than that, especially when I had to sit through so many scenes with Severin (why do f/f books specifically have to spend so much time on men who want to end up with the main character but obviously won’t?).
It’s also one of those romances in which you’re told that the characters were already drawn to each other since before the beginning of the story, but you aren’t shown that, not even in a flashback, so you’re already starting halfway through. There is a lot to love about Avia and Grace’s relationship, about how they came from somewhat similar situations and are going through similar pathways in different times, and there was even an occurrence of the “there’s only one bed!” trope. I liked them, of course I did, but I still wanted more from this book.

My rating: ★★★★

Have you read or want to read these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

[Audiobook Reread] Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027This was even better on reread.

The City of Brass is the first book in an adult fantasy trilogy involving a faraway hidden city of djinn, a young woman with unexpected powers, and grudges that transcend time.

I had almost forgotten how it felt to read well-plotted, satisfying, unpredictable political intrigue in which all characters are equally realized and there isn’t a clear good side. It’s such a freeing sensation. I wrote in my old review that “Daevabad is such an awesome powder keg and I can’t wait to see it explode“, and I stand by that. There’s so much backstory, all delivered in a way that doesn’t weigh on the reader, that makes everything in this city precarious and full of horrible implications.
And when I say it was unpredictable, I want to underline that this was a reread, and it managed to surprise me again.

I have to admit that the first half of this book, while well-written and atmospheric and still interesting enough to keep my attention on reread, is kind of boring the way travel fantasy often is; it takes half of the book for our main character Nahri to even reach Daevabad, and the first chapters in Ali’s PoV just aren’t that interesting. However: the second half wouldn’t work without the first, which gives you time and space to clearly see the relationships between certain characters develop, and the second half is political fantasy at its best. I can confidently say that it pays off, and I wouldn’t change anything.

This also hits the perfect balance in both making me care about the characters and not making me firmly take the side of only one character over everyone else, which is amazing for political intrigue. Everything here is a complete mess. The characters you spend most of the time with – Nahri, Ali, Dara, and Muntadhir – are often on opposing sides, but because there aren’t easy answers and there’s a certain clear amount of atrocities on all sides, I on some level cared about everyone and wasn’t rooting for only one character to “win” or for others to disappear (that’s where a lot of political fantasy fails: they make some characters incredibly unpleasant to spend time with, and you have to read about them over and over).
And do you know why this works so well? Because it’s fun. I spent so much of this reread, especially the second half, laughing.

I care about Nahri, who is just a (lying, mildly backstabbing) treasure to read about, and Ali grew on me (poor boy has a functioning moral compass. that’s going to be a problem), but somehow seeing them make terrible decision didn’t irritate me, because their inexperience made sense – neither of them has any reason to actually be good at political intrigue – and because I was just living for the situation to get even more complicated. It’s more fun that way?
After all, my favorite part of political intrigue is seeing interpersonal relationship get strained because of it, so I was really invested in both Ali’s family dynamic and Nahri’s relationship with Dara, while at the same time not having a firm idea of how I wanted them to be resolved.

36475759This also confirmed my theory that powerful, competent characters are only interesting to read about if you can make fun of them. Like, look at Dara. Scary? Absolutely! Also the character version of the “old man yells at cloud” meme. I loved his scenes because I find them funny, even though he’s… not funny (does anyone but Nahri have a sense of humor here? It wouldn’t seem so, jokes only exist to Goad the Enemy).
It helps that nothing will ever be as funny to me as “the most hated person of the realm, who people thought dead, returns; chaos ensues” combination of events. As it usually happens with characters that belong to this archetype, the story eventually uses him as a punching bag, and that was also a great time.

Another big reason I love this book is the writing. It’s not overly flowery but it’s definitely descriptive, and I loved that; I will never not love books that understand the power of a well-defined setting, that make details meaningful. Daevabad and the palace of the Nahid almost feel like characters themselves, and are such beautiful, horrible places to read about.

Can’t wait to see just how much The Kingdom of Copper will hurt!

Some observations from this reread:

  • Darayavahoush e-Afshin spends a significant amount of this book complaining. “In my time, things were better”, “when the Nahid were still ruling, things were better”, “why do you keep asking so many questions”, “why doesn’t the prince speak the most important (=my) language in this city”, etc. Interestingly, I’ve seen reviews call Nahri “whiny” (a word I don’t like using in general), but not Dara – when he’s the one who complains constantly. I think this says a lot about how we see female main characters.
  • It’s really interesting to me how healing in fantasy novels is usually a magical ability that is relegated to side/minor characters that are kind of plot devices while the main characters get to fight. Here, healing is the most important magical ability – for once, here’s a book in which the society has priorities that make sense
  • The audiobook was amazing and I can really recommend it as a format. You’ll actually know how to pronounce everything! The narrator, Soneela Nankani, makes all names sound way nicer than how I read them in my head. (The biggest shock for me, interestingly, was the true pronunciation of “Manizheh”. The Italian-style one my brain automatically went to is so sad when compared to the truth)
  • I already said this in my old review but I wish people would stop mis-categorizing this as YA, all the characters are adults and this is very much an adult fantasy with genre-typical slow pacing & attention to worldbuilding, while YA usually prioritizes faster pace and characters/romance over worldbuilding. I get that publishers had a hand in creating this mess (blurbs mostly from YA authors and all) but it’s a form of misleading marketing and also kind of sexist (it’s known that almost only women authors get this treatment).
  • If you’re interested in seeing my old review, it’s also still here on the blog! For some obscure reason, it was my most popular goodreads review until I deleted it.

My rating: ★★★★¾ [raised from 4.5]

Adult · Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #3: Ambiguous Endings in Fiction (and more)

Welcome to the third post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. In 2019, I wasn’t reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

This time, I will:

  • review four short stories, including a Nebula finalist and recently published stories by well-known SFF authors like Alix E. Harrow and Yoon Ha Lee;
  • one short story collection from a well-known horror author;
  • talk about ambiguous endings with a focus on short fiction vs novels.

Recent Reads

Short Fiction
  • 46301916For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll ( this is from a completely new-to-me author; I decided to read it because it’s a Nebula Award finalist. And… it was amazing? It’s about cats fighting the Devil to protect a poet, full of delightful cat logic and very interesting cats (I’m sorry but I want an entire book about Nighthunter Moppet now). It doesn’t take itself seriously at all but it talks about the nature of temptation in a way that doesn’t feel too one-dimensional and yet makes sense even for a cat. I think I would have liked this even more had I been already familiar with Christopher Smart (as usual, everything kind of assumes you already know English classics), but that was interesting to learn anyway.
  • The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix E. Harrow (Uncanny): this was wonderful, and yet I don’t fully love it. It’s as much of a modern witchy twist on Apollo and Daphne as it is a commentary on how society shapes women to turn our anger inwards, our problems against ourselves, so that we’re pretty much trapped by our own minds. And it’s beautifully written, but there’s something about Harrow’s complete lack of subtlety coupled with the predictable trajectory of the story that makes most of her short stories (and her book) not work for me. It’s just so obvious and there’s not much to take away from the journey. Still, I didn’t think this was bad, and I loved how the author mentioned which kinds of plants she was talking about (that’s the way to go if you’re writing about witches!), even though I spent the first third of the story wondering which kind of tree she actually meant with “sycamore”, since that can mean several wildly different species and I have very weird priorities. (I’m still not sure, by the way.)
  • The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe by Cameron Van Sant (Clarkesworld): this is from the author of one of my favorite short stories, the very trippy Super-Luminous Spiral, so I was immediately intrigued. This is set… around a space whale carcass? And I think the main characters are something like space mermaids (they/them pronouns are used for both). This is kind of sad but it’s also a story about love at the end of the world, so not completely sad? Weird, but this time not a kind of weird that resonated much with me. I don’t really know if I got it.
  • The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies): apparently, this is Space Mermaid week! This is a story about a mermaid who wants to become an astronaut, and it’s about sisterhood, relativity, and the way learning science can shift one’s worldview. Also, now I want a scrimshaw depicting a sacrifice to eldritch gods. Apart from the descriptions, though, this is… not my kind of thing. It’s very sweet, and it reminded me of the flash fiction of The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales in its gentle, unhurried nature (…which one wouldn’t expect if only familiar with Lee’s longer works). However, this is not a flash piece and wouldn’t work as one, and it has no sense of urgency behind it. I would recommend it to fans of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, because they’re somewhat similar in nature (alien space crew!) and because I felt pretty much the same way about them: lovely message, boring story.

The collection of short stories I read this month was Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I loved both her memoir In the Dream House (review) and her short story The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (review) in February, so it seemed like a good idea to read this as well.

33375622Some of this was brilliant and daring, some of this really wasn’t, and most of it bored me.

There’s a running thread of unease and alienation in this collection, of things never being quite right, of details that might seem innocent becoming more and more uncomfortable as you look at them. It’s a collection about bodies, especially women’s bodies, representing the impact of the psychological violence against them as a physical manifestation. It forces the reader to look at it, to acknowledge it exists; just because a lot of it is subtler than a punch, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

The stories are ambiguous and twisted, and there’s enough material and subtext to write pages-long reviews of most of them. But here’s where the issue comes in: I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel drawn to dissect or discuss them, or spend any more time on them. I just wanted this book to be over.

This had to do both with personal taste (this is not my kind of body horror, apparently) and because some parts were frankly overdone.
Let’s take the longest story in this collection, Especially Heinous. My biggest takeaway from it is that litfic-adjacent authors can get away with almost everything and have it praised as an incisive masterpiece, and “everything” includes bad fanfiction. Not only I didn’t care because I didn’t know the show this was rewriting (as it happens with fanfiction), it had nothing new to say – it read like a cheap fever dream with nods at twice-reheated commentary.

There were two stories that I really liked, Real Women Have Bodies, an eerie story about the damaging effects of beauty standards with an f/f relationship at the center, and Eight Bites, about the ways fatphobia and misogyny are tied, and how their impact is seen across generations. Mothers was also a really interesting piece about the double-edged nature of fantasy, but I find myself already forgetting most of what I thought about it apart from my feelings about the writing (those descriptions were… something else. I really have no complaints about the writing).

This is probably the first time the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me: individually, I only actually disliked two stories; together, I found myself thinking that again? a lot. I can’t even say it was repetitive, because it isn’t that, exactly; these stories explore an array of different experiences. It was emotionally monotonous to the extreme, however.

My rating: ★★½

On Ambiguous Endings in (Short) Fiction

As I don’t doubt many others are, I tend to be annoyed by ambiguous endings in novels. Of course, there are a lot of situations in which they can make sense, and giving the readers space to find answers themselves can sometimes be a good thing, but there’s always that undercurrent of… betrayal, in a way: the book took a certain amount of time to set up a question, and the reader dedicated a certain amount of time to reading it, but then the book didn’t give an answer. Of course it can be frustrating, especially when there isn’t going to be a sequel.

Something I realized while reading Her Body and Other Parties is that I don’t feel that way at all when it comes to short fiction. The shorter a story is, the more I appreciate what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out. While I didn’t feel compelled to dissect the stories in that collection – for reasons different from their ambiguity – I did see a lot of parts that would have been perfect for that, and if I had been reading this with others, maybe I would have. I remember having a lot of fun with the more ambiguous parts of Salt Slow just a few months ago. I want to be confused and have something to untangle.

Everyone takes away something different from a novel, it’s the fun part of reviewing; with short fiction, this is true to the extreme. People can read Machado’s short stories and come to a completely different conclusion about what they actually mean, and I’m not even really interested in knowing if there is a real answer, the truth of what the author was trying to say – more in various interpretations and how the reader got there. So, Her Body and Other Parties wasn’t necessarily the most interesting collection to read, but it was a really interesting collection to read reviews of.

I think my feelings on this topic have a lot to do with time, how much time the story required me to spend on it just to finish reading it. If it took me an hour, I’m fine with doing all the work myself, but if it took me three days (so, average book-length), I’m going to feel differently about it.

How do you feel about ambiguous endings? Have you read any of these stories?

Book review · Nonfiction

Unexpected Nonfiction & Poetry Time

This month, Scribd is free without needing payment info, so I created an account I’ll probably not renew after these 30 days are over (for personal reasons unrelated to the actual platform, my experience with it so far is great!). The unexpected result? Having access to so many books for free gave me a reason to:

  • listen to adult fantasy audiobooks, which are usually far too expensive (25 € for a book? Especially for a reread? Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen)
  • read completely outside of my comfort zone – and especially reach for books that were on my radar for a while but that I had heard so little about I didn’t feel comfortable buying them.

The result? A nonfiction & poetry binge. 2016!me, no, who am I kidding, even 2019!me would be incredibly confused.

I must be getting old!

Poetry Collections

This is a format that is definitely out of my comfort zone, as I don’t think I had ever read any before now! I have read and loved poetry novels, though (The Poet X, The Black Flamingo), so I thought exploring was a good idea.

41745412Soft Science is a poetry collection that had been on my “maybe TBR” for more than two months now, mostly because of the cover.  Reading it felt like trying to grasp onto something as it disintegrates in your hands and falls through your fingers, which I guess is what the author was going for.

I didn’t get a lot of this. It’s probably not the right collection to start with if you – like me – aren’t used to reading poetry at all, but it was still a really interesting experience. Taken literally, there’s often not a lot to get, because everything in this collection is an exercise in breaking apart, shattering and mixing words, playing with format and the many ways English can be broken and still carry so much meaning if only you look at it sideways.

A lot of this is also talking about perspective and its consequence, othering. No wonder a lot of its imagery relies on cyborgs and AIs. It’s about living as a woman in our world, in which being hammered into a shape made to please others is just a day like another and sex is a no-win situation; it’s about living as a queer Asian-American woman in America, in which racism and xenophobia are everyday occurrences and the internet highlights the worst of it.

It made me think about language barriers, and how there was yet another, unexpected one because of my first language, and try as I might holding onto English will always be more difficult to me.
So, no, I didn’t understand a lot of this. It might have been the point. I might be missing the point entirely. That still doesn’t mean this has no value, even when so much of our ways to measure worth and consciousness rely on something as self-centered as understanding and “relatability”. It made me think about many things in a more indirect way, so I guess it worked.

My rating: ★★★★

27207807._sy475_Another collection I tried was soft magic. by Upile Chisala (I noticed it by chance, and after reading Soft Science, it only felt right? And it was really short), which unfortunately I didn’t like as much. It was sweet, heartwarming, and very straightforward, which apparently aren’t things I look for in poetry. At least now I know?

I decided not to rate this, as my reasons for not liking this had also to do with personal disconnect, and when I’m not the target audience for this – it’s a collection with strong religious themes specifically aimed at Black women and I’m neither religious nor Black – it just didn’t feel right to.


46391051._sy475_I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom is a collection of essays and poetry that mostly ended up on my reading list because of something I read on autostraddle – I don’t remember where exactly, but this was one of the recommendations.

I don’t really know how to review nonfiction made up of essays and poetry, but this was definitely a worthwhile read. It’s an attempt to reframe how we think about justice and the meaning itself of healing in marginalized communities – where so many of us are traumatized, and it talks both about the concept of safety in the context of trauma and about the commodification of trauma in the Discourse™.

As there is a lot in here about how queer communities fail their members that uncannily (or maybe not, all things considered) mirrors queer book twitter’s most dysfunctional behavior patterns, I think many of my friends and followers could get something out of it as well.

My rating: ★★★★★

51778952._sx318_sy475_Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Ejeris Dixon & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a collection of essays, interviews and toolkits on transformative justice that also ended up on my radar because of autostraddle (this time, because of a review. Sometimes I do remember things.)

It explores how justice can look like outside of a system as ineffective at actually reducing violence and supporting survivors as it is the prison system in America, with a focus on trans, queer, and disabled communities of color.

It was a really interesting read: it focuses on the how of something that so far I had only seen mentioned as theory before – when there are people doing this.

My thoughts varied from “I strongly agree and wish that was already a more widespread reality” and “this is a life-changing perspective” to “that sounds like a terrible idea” depending on the essay, so, just as fiction collections, nonfiction collections are bound to be mixed bags! It’s still really honest about the many ways these kinds of process can fail, which I really appreciated – after all, it’s still barely-charted territory. Overall, I also think our  world would greatly benefit if the focus of justice were on the future, on healing and moving on and taking the steps to make sure that something doesn’t happen again, instead of handing out punishments that often make things worse for everyone anyway.

My rating: ★★★★

17465709Since I just read a nonfiction book about healing between humans, it only seemed right to read something specifically about healing human’s relationship with what is not human, so I read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, in which the author brings her perspective both as a professor of environmental biology and as a Potawatomi woman to talk about humans’ relationship with the environment.

In a time in which ecofascism (the belief that humans are somehow inherently separated from “nature”, which must be preserved “pure” and “untouched”, as if we weren’t all an interdependent net) is on the rise, I think this is an incredibly important read and was really valuable to me both as someone who is definitely feeling the weight of climate anxiety and as a natural sciences student.

I think it’s going to be even more valuable for someone who actually lives in Turtle Island/North America, because something inherent to environmental knowledge is that while some things are universal, you can’t talk about everywhere by using a specific place as a model; every place has its own species and communities and interactions and… different things to say, in a way. And different people, of course. (It would be such a huge mistake to not include the humans; we are a part of the communities and ecosystems just as much as everyone else, and while we have a lot in common with each other, we are never the same.)

I think that in this age of global warming it’s easy to despair and think that humans are inherently bad and can do nothing but damage. This book is an answer to that, and it talks about how science, indigenous wisdom, and our ability to actually understand what the environment says (so, learning to read the signals that are its language) can show us a different way to exist.

Also, sometimes it’s really nice to read from someone who is also involved in botanical science and has very strong “unscientific” feelings and opinions on plants. It can also be a strength – I don’t know if I would have grown up learning to distinguish trees the way I do had I not been like that.

My rating: ★★★★ (a little repetitive at times)

Have you read or want to read any of these? Do you read poetry collections and nonfiction often?


Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

51201758._sx318_sy475_Don’t let the rating I’m going to give this lesbian political fantasy on ice mislead you; this is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend or advise against depending on these two options:

⇝ If you like plot-driven books, not in the sense of “fast-paced” (this isn’t) but meaning that you like amazing, complex, unpredictable political intrigue while character development can come second (as in, the characters are well-built, but the character arc moves at a… glacial pace), you’ll love this book.
⇝ If you like character-driven books and the most important part of political intrigue for you isn’t so much the politics but the way they influence deep, well-developed interpersonal relationships, or the way circumstances strain people and force them to reexamine their outlook and loyalties, this won’t do much for you. The main character doesn’t begin doing these things until 75% in.

This is a good book. I can’t understate how much one part of the final twist (there are so many twists, and yet they all make sense) took me by surprise, and YA fantasy hasn’t managed to do that in years. I also know that I would never have finished it had I not started skimming, or if it hadn’t been an audiobook.

The Winter Duke has an incredibly satisfying ending after all the frustrating events I had to read about, and the F/F romance was sweet, and just a treasure overall. Inkar was my favorite character, and it’s a shame that for plot reason we didn’t get much of her until the end.
I also have good things to say about the atmosphere, since this book is set in an ice castle, one standing over a moat hiding a magical underwater city below, and that’s just an amazing setting to explore. So is the idea of so many things being powered by magic when the characters’ don’t truly understand the forces at play.

It only failed in what I realize is the most important thing for me – the characters, and especially the main character, who was really flawed and had sensible reasons for doing what she did (of course at first she thought ruling meant being ruthless, seeing how her family was; she’s a victim perpetuating the cycle) but kept not learning from her mistakes, over and over and over, almost only because it was necessary for her to be dense for the plot to move forward.
I had to spend more than half of this book reading the same scenes with the same dynamic: Ekata tries to keep Inkar away, tries to rule without thinking of the consequences first and alienates people in the process, her prime minister scolds her, she keeps trying to wake up her father even when it’s obvious that would be the worst move, and tries to fend off Sigis’ advances without success.

That was the other problem, apart from how repetitive this dynamic was – I constantly had to read about skeevy Sigis, and I was so tired of that. Sigis this, Sigis that, Sigis invades Ekata’s personal space, Sigis creeps her out, Sigis threatens her and her friends and is almost so efficient he felt like a villain sue at times (though in the end I didn’t think he was one), Sigis gets more lines than the actual love interest (why). He isn’t an interesting character, he was always saying the same things, and I spent most of this book feeling bored and annoyed until I started skimming his scenes: they were unnecessary enough that I still understood everything. While this is not a Beauty and the Beast retelling at all, it’s the equivalent of a Beauty and the Beast retelling that dedicates no time to the Beast and has instead the main character talk with Gaston for most of the book. Why would I want to read that?

My rating: ★★½