Book review · Discussion · Fantasy · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #2: Reading From People You Disagree With (and More)

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

This time, I will be reviewing four short stories, of which two are Nebula finalists, one short story collection from an acclaimed SFF author, and talk about the importance of reading from people you disagree with.


Recent Reads

Short Stories
  • The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta, 2020): I will never forget this. It’s decadent, visceral, and very gory, with a thick, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s about a messed up relationship between an actress and the young woman who basically becomes her servant, including BDSM and a dynamic that is both toxic and intoxicating. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from the grotesque! (The fantasies about vore, of course, are there just for literary purpose! If you don’t know what that means, please, don’t google it.) The points it makes about sex and violence, about what we see as depraved and oddly don’t, about body horror being something so tied into the feminine… it really is true, when our bodies are the landscapes of everyday horror themselves. I’m currently reading Her Body and Other Parties, but this new story is still my favorite short from Carmen Maria Machado.
  • 26199196Variations on an Apple by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2015): What if you were in love with a city?
    The Iliad, retold in Yoon Ha Lee’s signature math-fantasy style. Dizzying, wonderfully queer, and suffused with a quieter sadness than one would expect from a story about war, it talks about fate, and the unstoppable potential of human discord. It’s an even more remarkable experience if one is familiar with either Ninefox Gambit or Lee’s game Winterstrike, as some parts of it felt like glancing at those through a distorting glass. Also, of course cities have no concerns for something as human as gender. It’s not my favorite by Yoon Ha Lee (my favorites remain Ghostweight and The Knights of Chains, the Deuce of Stars) but really good nonetheless; some parts almost read like poetry, and the writing is sharp enough to cut.
  • Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, 2019): cannibalism, lesbianism, and the othering, oppressive nature of western anthropology all rolled into a short horror story, one told through excerpts of fictional books and articles. Original, and manages to pack a punch in very little space.
  • His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal (Tor.com, 2019): a story about freedom, loyalty and gay love between a human and a jinni set in India. Like the previous one, I tried it because it was announced as a Nebula finalist. I feel like the characters had a lot of backstory I couldn’t see nor feel in this space, and I didn’t feel attached to them as a result, but I did really like the escaping devadasi subplot. Overall, nice, but not that memorable for me.
Collections

40855636In February I read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, a collection of short stories from N.K. Jemisin, an author I’ve had mixed experiences with before. That didn’t change, since this collection was even more of a mixed bag than I’d usually expect. Still, it made me want to at least try both the Dreamblood duology and The City We Became; I don’t have any doubt about her skill, especially when it comes to the writing in itself – there’s hardly a word out of place.

In fantasy, I love her worldbuilding. I now want to read The Killing Moon purely because of how much I liked the world in The Narcomancer; it was so vibrant and atmospheric and intriguing. I also love the way she talks about cities – especially New York and New Orleans. The concept of a city itself having a deep, positive power despite all its flaws is one that appeals to me, and so does reading about the complicated relationships marginalized people have with the place they live in and the other people who live there with them. Of course, The Effluent Engine and The City Born Great were two of my favorites. Jemisin always has a fantastic grasp on atmosphere, which shines in this kind of stories.
Sadly, I don’t seem to get along with her sci-fi stories the same way? This is probably more on me than on her, because while sci-fi is my favorite genre, there are some subgenres of it I really can’t get into (cyberpunk and the like) and several of the sci-fi stories fell into that. The Evaluators was the main exception, and it would have been interesting if the ecology in the story had made any sense.

One particularly low point was L’Alchimista, in which the author attempted to write about Italian characters in real-world Italy without even trying to get the Italian language right.

“Mi scuza”
– N.K. Jemisin, 2006.

…that’s like having an American character apologize by saying “Hi’m sorpy”. You can’t expect your readers to take you seriously while talking about Italian food and politics after you do that! As usual, I’m left wondering what American authors have against putting effort into other languages.
Still, since it was written more than ten years ago, I hope she’d make different choices today and it doesn’t influence my interest in her other works. And I do like how she writes about food when she’s not writing about Italy; I really liked the food witchery  in Red Dirt Witch and what she did in Cuisine des Mémoires, because stories that explore the link between food and memory have always been my kind of thing.

Overall, this was very interesting, because I didn’t feel the same way about two stories. Some I loved, some I couldn’t even finish, some I finished and hated, some I liked but didn’t feel strongly about, some I liked while partially disagreeing with – it’s far from my favorite collection, but as far as reading experience, it was one of the most dynamic and I never quite knew what to expect next.


On Reading From People Who Disagree With You

The idea for this discussion was born when I read the first story in How Long ’til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight, which has since been reprinted on Lightspeed Magazine, where you can read it online. It’s a response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (a story I’m only tangentially familiar with because of discussions on twitter) based on Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance.

This story made me think about how we in the book community frame the idea of reading from people who we disagree with. Because I disagree with some points in the story, especially its concern with passive corruption¹ (it’s probably because it reminds me of the twisted, nonsensical book twitter ethics towards fiction²).

The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a story that celebrates diversity while underlining the importance of strong boundaries against intolerance, which can’t be just seen as a “difference of thought” – something I strongly agree with. What I don’t agree with is the process through which this story thinks people become intolerant. Reading this story gave me a reason to truly dissect why I don’t think this feels right to me, which I don’t think I would otherwise done; it means that I did get something out of it, just not necessarily what the author put on the page.

And… being able to read something I disagreed with without feeling attacked by it is something I see as a progress. I learned reviewing from looking at what other people did, and tried to use that framework to talk about my own feelings. But the thing is, we are all hobbyists, and it’s difficult to tell – especially if personal and painful topics come into play – when something stops being an interpretation and starts becoming projection. Couple that with general insecurity about one’s own opinions, and you get defensive callout mentality. There’s a lot of it in the book community, and it’s often rewarded – in places like book twitter, anger and lack of nuance get more traction than anything else – and I’m still trying to disentangle from it; I’m not completely sure I’m successful (also, the worst part about misguided righteous anger is that it feels good). But if I tried to avoid stories like these, that make me a little uncomfortable by having parts I strongly agree with and parts I don’t, and examined what my knee-jerk reactions were, I wouldn’t have reasons to realize this even was a problem.


¹ coming in contact with bigotry will make you partially a bigot? And having come in contact with it means you will spread it and need to get murdered to save the utopia? People never come up with horrible ideas on their own if you shelter them enough…? Simplistic and I don’t think people even work like that.

² Book twitter increasingly seems to operate with the assumption that fiction influences real life (concern towards possible passive harm) but what we accuse others of on the internet somehow doesn’t influence real life (lack of concern towards probable active harm). As you can imagine, it’s hell. I recommend reading this interview by Tamsyn Muir and what happened to Isabel Fall if you want to know about recent examples.

³ In case it wasn’t clear, I agree about them being dangerous, but not the “they will contaminate you” part. It’s far more complicated than that.


Have you read any of these? How did you learn to review? Have you ever gone through realizing that you were doing some parts of it badly?

Discussion · TBR & Goals

Reading & Blogging Plans

I haven’t been doing TBRs this year, but I have plans around reading and blogging, so I thought I’d talk about them and what I’ve been reading this month (spoiler: not a lot, and in a way not as much as I’d like, though I’m trying to get over that).

After all, even in the current best case scenario, I’m going to have a lot of free time this week – I live in Northern Italy, and while I’m not in one of the outright quarantined towns, university lessons have been cancelled and we’ve been recommended to move as little as possible.


↬ I’ve been slowly trying to get into audiobooks, just as I’ve been slowly trying to learn how to cook. The two things go really well together, as it turns out.

44603899._sy475_I still struggle a lot, probably for a combination of difficulties with processing sounds (how do people listen to things on 2x speed? That sounds like a squirrel blabbing in a dead language from another galaxy) and my English just being Not That Good. I posted my review of You Must Not Miss yesterday, and in the next few days I should post the one of The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake. For now, I reach only for contemporary and contemporary fantasy, but I don’t know, maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to change that.

When I’m not “cooking” (90% of the cooking I do time-wise is peeling and cutting vegetables. It doesn’t require that much attention), I’m finding that coloring books are also a good way to keep myself occupied so that I don’t drift off.

↬ I’ve also tried out the excerpts of a few audiobooks to listen to next:

  • The Deep by Rivers Solomon: I struggled with the excerpt a little at first (I’m not used to men narrating) but I got used to it fairly quickly, so I think I’m going to make it work in some way. I think this will be one of the next books I try, and it will probably be my first non-contemporary audiobook.
  • We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia: an f/f release from last year I haven’t been able to get to yet! And the sequel is already there, so this is perfect. I really liked the narrator.
  • The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: this is an UK audiobook, which means the narrator’s accent is going to give me some trouble at first (I don’t know why American book characters seem so obsessed with British accents, they sound like they’re chewing on their words), but I tried an excerpt and it feels doable. I’m really excited for the vampire lesbians.

↬ while I said in my “what to expect from February” that hopefully I’d post a review of Machina, I ended up DNFing it

48767197._sx318_I don’t know how many of you have been following Serial Box originals – they’re collaborative serial novels (the authors involved this time were Fran Wilde, Martha Wells, Malka Older and Curtis C. Chen), and I think they’re just not for me. I had the same problems with Machina that I had with The Vela last year: it feels like the people writing it have been given an outline and are just trying to make it work, moving the characters to point A to point B while disregarding everything that would feel natural. The result feels… soulless, there’s no heart in it, and after a few chapters, the characters start feeling like puppets. Which is a shame, because I did like the premise (robot competition! going to Mars!) and the first chapters.

↬ I’ve been putting together a new Short Fiction Time post (read the last one here), in which:

  • I’ll review four short stories, two of which Nebula-nominated. Yes, Nebula awards finalists have been announced! I’m glad to see a lot of books I loved on here and I hope I’ll be able to read most of the short story/novelette categories before the winners are announced.
  • I’ll talk about what it has meant for me to read fiction from people I disagree with, what the benefits of that might be, and which kind of diverging points of view I seek out.

My goal with this series of post is to have a space to talk specifically about short fiction and associated topics, as I feel that is missing.

↬ I’m getting through rereads to get to some anticipated sequels

While sequels seem to have the habit of disappointing me as often as they can (see what happened with Girls of Storm and Shadow last year and now with The House of Sundering Flames), there are still some I really want to read. I’ve been rereading Witchmark by C.L. Polk – which, by the way, is turning out to be as good as it was the first time around –  because, after all, Stormsong is already out. I’d also love to get to The Fever King by Victoria Lee again before The Electric Heir is released, but I might not, as I’m not exactly in the right place to read about pandemics, even magical ones.

↬  In the next weeks, three books I’m anticipating that aren’t sequels are going to be out:

While this year so far I’ve been terrible at keeping up with new releases (you know how many I read? One. And it was a novella), I’m still going to talk about them, because why not. I’m not sure I’ll actually be able to read these in March, but who knows:

  • Among novellas, the only thing I’ve been marginally decent at keeping up with, I’m really looking forward to The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. The comparisons to one of my favorite series, the Tensorate, make me really anticipate this.
  • If you’re in any way involved in adult SFF circles or circles dedicated to queer releases, I’m sure you’ll have already heard of Docile by K.M. Szpara, a story about capitalism, consent, and sexual slavery. It might be too much for me, I won’t know until I try (the comparisons with Captive Prince do not bode well, but then, I DNFed that one because I wasn’t invested enough to get through that much sexual violence, not because of the violence itself), but K.M. Szpara has been one of my favorite short fiction authors for a while. [If you want to start from his short fiction, I recommend the trans vampire novelette Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time]
  • The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett is going to be out in March as well. It’s on my TBR because it’s F/F fantasy, and while me and YA fantasy don’t get along that well anymore, I’m going to give it a chance.

↬ I’ve been getting through N.K. Jemisin’s collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, and it has convinced me to give another try to her novels:

As of the writing of this post, there’s only one short story left. This was overall a mixed bag for me, even more than the average collection/anthology, which reflects my experiences with Jemisin’s novels so far as well (loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, didn’t care at all for The Fifth Season). I’ll talk more in detail about which stories didn’t work for me and why in my next Short Fiction Time post.

However, two of my favorite short stories in here were The City Born Great and The Narcomancer, respectively set in the worlds of the upcoming The City We Became and her backlist Dreamblood duology. Maybe The Fifth Season really was the fluke for me, which seems partially confirmed by me not caring for Stone Hunger, the short set in that world. If I can explain what went wrong with The Fifth Season for me – that book is a lot like a rock. A solid read for sure! Also dull, a pain to bite into, and emotionally flat.

I might try The Killing Moon in the next Try A Chapter post; the short story I read really made me fall in love with that world.

↬ I’ve been putting together a list of adult contemporary fiction I want to try. Have I actually tried any of it yet? Of course not

Apart from some more ~literary~ adult stuff I want to try that I’ve already talked about, like Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, I’m also looking for contemporary adult fiction that should more or less be as easy to follow as YA contemporary is but doesn’t actually follow teens. So far, some interesting titles to me are Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (I’m not sure what the story is about exactly but it follows a Jamaican-British woman and deals with mental health issues) and In at the Deep End by Kate Davies (about an abusive lesbian relationship). I’ve also been looking for adult fiction set in countries that aren’t the US or UK, and so far If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha and The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao, respectively set in Korea and Indonesia, look interesting to me. I’m not sure when I’ll actually get to any of these but they might be featured in upcoming Try A Chapter posts.

As I’m starting to move away from YA more seriously (not completely, of course; it’s just that I’m 20 and I don’t want that to be most of what I read anymore), I also want a contemporary counterpart to the amazing adult SFF I’ve been reading lately. It might take a while for me to find my niche but I hope I love it just as much.

↬ I’ve also been looking at memoirs that could be interesting to me.

I’ve already talked multiple times about In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which I just finished yesterday (and absolutely loved; I hope to have a review up soon). However, that’s not the only memoir I’ve been interested in: I’ve also found Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown, a YA memoir (I didn’t even know they really existed) and two graphic novels, My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Kabi Nagata and Spinning by Tillie Walden. Both are queer and have been translated in Italian, which means I have physical copies – my favorite format to read graphic novels, of course. As usual, only the graphic novel section of the Italian book industry cares about diversity. [If by chance you’re another Italian, I have some recommendations here.] Memoirs still feel kind of intimidating to me and I hope I’ll be able to get through them easily in this format.


Have you read or are you anticipating any of these?

Discussion

BooktubeSFF Awards: Shortlist Opinions

The shortlist for an SFF award has been announced, and as usual, here’s my opinions! If you want to see the announcement, it’s here.

I’ll probably do the same for the Hugos later in the year if I have time; what doesn’t work so much for me about the BooktubeSFF is that there’s not a true “short story” category. I just want more occasions to discover interesting short fiction, really.

As far as this year’s line-up goes, I really like it! That was not the case for last year’s at all, but this time, there are several books I read and loved on here.


Novellas

Technically, this is the “short work” category; in practice, I don’t think anything shorter than a novella ever made it to the shortlist in recent years.

The Test by Sylvain Neuvel – no interest
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – read
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers – no interest

36516585I find it really interesting how – maybe for the first time? – there are no Tor.com novellas in this line-up. Kind of sad, because I do really think The Haunting of Tram Car 015 deserved to be on here, but understandable, as rules say books after the third of a series can’t be nominated – and two of 2019’s best Tor.com novellas were fourth installments (In An Absent Dream, The Ascent to Godhood).

As I have no interest in The Test (just really doesn’t seem my kind of thing) or To Be Taught, If Fortunate (I’ve systematically disliked everything I’ve tried from this author), I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine what book I’m rooting for. It was one of my favorite books of last year, after all, and I really do think it’s a masterpiece.

Middle Grade

34966859This is not an age range I often reach for, and my attempts usually end up in DNFs – but this time there’s an exception, as one of these happens to be one of my favorite books of 2019.

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden – no interest
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee – read
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez – no interest
Tunnel of Bones by Victoria Schwab – no interest

Dragon Pearl was the only middle grade I read in 2019, so I don’t have that many opinions, nor do I know the age range enough to say anything about how it fits in a wider context.

Young Adult

This is a category I’m finding myself less and less interested in as time goes on, so this time I only read one of these (2016 me would be so disappointed) – but, surprisingly, here’s finally a book on my TBR.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi – to read
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson – read
Starsight by Brandon Sanderson – no interest
The Wicked King by Holly Black – no interest

I still have to read The Gilded Wolves, and I almost can’t believe that. Roshani Chokshi wrote two of my favorite YA books, but I think the amount of hype + discourse kind of put me off this one? I’ve absorbed so much of what happened, spoilers included, through book twitter. Still, I do want to get to it – I’m not sure that will happen in time for the awards but eventually it will.

I’m glad to see Sorcery of Thorns on here, though I’m not completely sure it’s award material. On one hand, it’s exactly what I think YA fantasy should be like – fun, aimed at teens, not afraid to be trope-y but without finding excuses to be bad – but apart from the characters (Silas, mostly), I didn’t find it that memorable? It might be that I’m now not the target audience at all and starting to feel it, though.

I haven’t read The Wicked King (sequel to a book I didn’t care about) or Starsight (it’s Brandon Sanderson) and don’t mean to.

Debut Novel

I often don’t even pay attention to what’s a debut in adult SFF – more often than not I already know the author from short fiction (as it was the case for two of the authors here).

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – to read
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – read
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – read

I mean, I think that if you’ve been here at all it’s pretty obvious what my choice would be, as one of these is literally my favorite book of 2019! That’s A Memory Called Empire. As far as The Ten Thousand Doors of January goes, I wasn’t impressed, but I didn’t hate it either.

Fantasy

I’m mostly just sad Middlegame didn’t make it. Apart from that, this looks really interesting!

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – read
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – to read
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – to read

I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to the two novels I didn’t read in this line-up in time for the awards – they’re so long – but I really want to read both. Gods of Jade and Shadow, the only one I read, is award-worthy, that I can say.

Sci-fi Novel

I mean, I knew Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear would have never made it here, but… I’m still kind of sad.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – to read
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – read
Recursion by Blake Crouch – no interest

I don’t have much to say this time, as two of these are duplicates and I have no interest in the third. (If there’s one thing I don’t love about the BooktubeSFF awards as a whole, that has been true through the years, is that books are usually repeated across categories and that’s boring.) Still, I hope A Memory Called Empire makes it at least in one of the two categories!


Have you read any of these? Who would you like to see win?

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #1: How Do You Rate Anthologies? (and more)

Hi! Welcome to a new series of posts.

“Short Fiction Time” will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I’ve mentioned before that I haven’t been reading as much short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

In this post, I’ll be reviewing what I’ve read lately, and talk about reviews of anthologies and short story collections.


Recent reads

Short Stories
  • 50636271._sy475_The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods by Maria Dahvana Headley (Tor.com): I tried this one pretty much on a whim. While I found its beginning really compelling and the format really original as well – braiding comparisons between common shitty boyfriend antics and godly misbehavior from Greek myths – I found myself kind of bored in the end, when the story turns into… a long list? It’s probably meant to mirror the way one might invoke a goddess, but it was boring to read. I didn’t really get the point of that, though of course Headley’s writing is gorgeous.
  • I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married by Fonda Lee (MIT Technology Review): structured like a r/relationship reddit post and just as wild as reddit posts sometimes get, this is a tale about online dating in a very near future, and it’s… creepy. Both because of the main character’s lack of self-examination (which was realistic for the kind of structure this went for, wasn’t it) and for the way I know some people trust algorithms this much. A compelling read with an ending that made me laugh. Some people never learn.
  • Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny): she’s one of the authors I had bookmarked (she’s been nominated for awards and I hadn’t read anything by her yet), so I decided to start with this one. And… oh wow. Way to start a story? I don’t know if I’m meant to, but I find fictional firearm unsafety very funny (…that’s a very specific trope). Anyway, this starts with gun sex. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Apart from that, this is a story about trauma, and finding ways to survive and be ourselves in the connections we form. A really unusual read about gay supersoldiers, and what can I say, I definitely won’t forget it easily.
Collections

42870948._sy475_In January I read Salt Slow by Julia Armfield.

This managed to gross me out in so many different yet very quiet ways, so of course I really appreciated it.

Salt Slow is a collection about unruly women. Women who defy the rules of reality, who are messy and ugly and feral, or turn so; women who are violent, long for the worst, howl at the moon.
In a society in which even a hint of these things in a woman is met with retaliation, it’s really refreshing to read stories that bend reality to allow us to be. This book isn’t afraid of gore, of going to dark places, and Julia Armfield’s prose certainly has teeth – both in the sense that this book will happily sink them in you and in the sense that almost every single story contains multiple occurrences of the word “teeth”. (why?)

Salt Slow has the kind of attention to detail that makes magical realism and contemporary fantasy truly magical for me – it cares about the mundane and the small, finds the shine and the rot in it. Most of its power comes from exploring speculative paths based on very real, very unremarkable events, turning an average day into an experience of quiet horror.

These stories all have the kind of conclusions that made me think, which I appreciate immensely. I know this will stay with me, as almost every single story did (interestingly, all of them but the one that gives the title to the book).
I often ended the stories feeling uneasy, and even more often, confused. I had to work to make them make sense, or to find a sense – sometimes the sense is a condensation of a story and your own experiences – and I will never turn down a puzzle, so this was fun as well.

As for what it talks about apart from the unifying thread, there are a lot of themes discussed here that are personal to me – most of all, the experience of being raised as a Catholic woman when you’re queer (Cassandra After) – and some that were not, like divorce (Smack), miscarriage (Salt Slow) or a marriage growing cold (Granite).

Individual reviews of the stories that stood out for me the most:

  • My favorite was probably Stop your women’s ears with wax: not only because it centers an f/f relationship, though that is really appreciated too, but because of its sheer energy. It’s vibrant, unforgiving in its attention to detail, and has so much restlessness and color that it all blurs together. It’s about girl bands – kind of a response to sexism in the music industry and the way female bands and their fans are seen with disdain or not at all, with a disturbing turn evoking a fae court-like atmosphere.
  • Cassandra After was probably the most personal to me, as it’s about being a Catholic-raised queer. Me and the main character don’t have the same experiences with it exactly, but this story gets how the shame that is written into us rewrites our experiences, makes it harder for us to do right by our loved ones, cleaves the connection between us and our communities, between us and our own bodies. This is a soft, quiet ghost story – the main character is visited by her dead ex-girlfriend, and both are looking for closure – and haunting stories have a special place in my heart, always. It’s about grief, regret, and the many small-yet-so-heavy ways things are more difficult for queer people, even in absence of explicit homophobia.
  • The Great Awake was also remarkable, a beautiful, slow, sleepy story about sleeplessness, following the relationship between two women who each envy what the other has. It’s dreamlike and unhurried, and the ambiguous ending was a really interesting choice. I appreciated the exploration of the consequences of sleeplessness, but for me it’s more than anything about the sleepless, isolating nature of cities, and how we can survive them only by forming connections.

I want to also mention the two stories about puberty-as-metamorphosis, Mantis (which I reviewed here) and Formerly Feral (probably the most stunning symbolism I’ve seen in a long while), as I think those are also really interesting and would especially appeal to Wilder Girls fans.

My average rating of this might not be five stars, but that’s definitely how I see this collection.

What Next?

As I loved reading Salt Slow – only one story every day, slowly, to give myself the time to think about them – I’m going to make an effort to read at least a short story every day. I’m currently reading How Long ‘Til Black Future Month and will probably review it in my next Short Fiction Time.


Now, onto the discussion topic of the month:

On Anthologies, Collections, and Ratings

The first anthology I ever read was Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins. When it came to writing a review – one I can’t link, as it’s on my old Italian blog – I didn’t even ask myself how to do that; the answer seemed obvious. An anthology is made of a certain number of short stories, there’s no content outside of them. It should go without saying that the most accurate way to review an anthology is to review and rate every single story. And as far as the overall rating is concerned, there’s nothing more accurate than the average rating.

That was 2016. I was sure of all of this then, but I’m not so sure now, because I realize this is not the way I remember anthologies. I don’t remember the stories of Summer Days and Summer Nights that didn’t speak to me; I remember the ones that did, I remember the one that changed my life – The End of Love by Nina LaCour, the first time I ever saw a sapphic girl be the protagonist of anything at all – and what if the average rating is a little under four? I remember it as something that is fully a four and nothing less. And this is one of the least glaring examples.

The most glaring for me is probably Three Sides of a Heart. In it, the average rating for me was also a little under four, and I originally rated it a four on goodreads – when it’s the anthology that completely changed my mind on love triangles as a trope, as it was its goal to do, to convince readers love triangles have potential. That’s because some of the short stories were such standouts (Vega by Brenna Yovanoff, and especially Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton) that I completely don’t mind I DNFed some others. I changed the rating to five a few days ago.

Today, I think of anthologies and collections as more than a sum of their parts. I can’t even fully describe why, but I don’t feel like the way I recall them is accurately described by my average rating of the stories. I also think that not resonating/agreeing with all stories is a feature instead of a bug; an anthology should present as many facets and perspectives as possible, and it’s only natural that I’m not going to like all of them. I’ve moved from reviewing every story and saying almost nothing about the anthology as a whole to doing the opposite. Not all stories are as interesting, not all of them deserve as much space, but my feelings on the book as a whole do.


  • Have you read any of these?
  • What reviewing/rating method works best for you and describes your feelings about the anthology/collection more accurately?
  • Are there any anthologies and collections you recommend?
Discussion

Changing Your Mind About Books You Reviewed

Before I started blogging, I already knew it was difficult to find two people who felt the exact same way about a book. What I didn’t expect was how often I would disagree with myself.

The thing about having a blog that is several years old, especially if you started blogging when you weren’t even an adult, is that you grow and change as a person, and you’re not necessarily going to see the books you read as you did in the past. It’s an obvious thing, and yet one I don’t really know how to deal with, because – blame the anxiety or the perfectionism, I don’t know – I’d like my blog to reflect the things I think now.

The way I tend to change opinions has also changed through time:


When I Started Reviewing…

…I liked most things I read, or at least, I gave higher ratings than I do now on average. And I think it’s pretty much an universal experience to look back on the books you read when you started blogging and think “yeah, that most definitely wasn’t that great”, (especially if you started at 15). I usually changed my mind in these ways:

  • Peer Pressured: I read a hyped book and ended up not feeling much, or couldn’t articulate my feelings. So I rate it four stars, because everyone seems to like it and I don’t have any strong opinion I recognize. Then I think about it months later and realize they’d have to pay me to make me reread it. (Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes is an example of this for me; it went from 4 to 1 stars in the span of a few months)
  • Unfortunate realization: I read a book and like it. Then I learn that several plot points had strong unfortunate implications and that doesn’t make me think of the book in a positive light anymore, even though I did like it while reading (example: the twist in Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon)
  • Plain old suck fairy: [“You read a book you used to love, and—something’s happened to it! The prose is terrible, the characters are thin, the plot is ridiculous.” – Jo Walton]

These mostly happened because back then I didn’t really have standards. Which is fine, because you have to build them for yourself! Change is a good thing and so is growth.

And to deal with them is easy. My Italian blog isn’t public anymore, so I don’t have to think about old reviews; if I want my goodreads shelves to reflect my current taste accurately, I just go on goodreads and either change or remove the rating.

But that’s usually not the kind of self-disagreement that happens to me anymore.


Now?

Now what happens more often is that I change my mind about a book I disliked. Sometimes I dislike something because I read it at the wrong time, or because in the context I had the book was bad and then the context changed – as I’ve talked about a little in my review of Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire.
But this was an easy case: I wanted to reread it anyway, and it was a novella.

What if I change my mind about a book I don’t want to reread?
Let’s make two examples:

#1: The Cruel Prince

26032825I read The Cruel Prince when it came out, and I gave it 3.5 stars. I still think that’s what it deserves, so the rating stays, and I don’t feel the need to reread it – I’m not that interested in the sequels if not in the “wanting to understand the discussions around them” way, but it’s not a strong enough motivation for me.

What has changed? I disagree with my own review (or: a certain part of it) and don’t think that at the time I could really explain what didn’t work for me.
Ok, I’ll explain, because I feel the need to do that somewhere at least.

The part of The Cruel Prince I disliked the most was the relationship between Jude and Cardan. When I tried to explain what went wrong for me in early 2018, I tried to put together an explanation that pretty much relied on this assumption:

I don’t like it, therefore there must be something objectively wrong with it

Which, especially when it comes to relationships, is pretty much the foundation of most shipping discourse and book twitter’s favorite hobby. I also think that, in most cases, it’s bullshit. And I get why I did it! I was still listening to book twitter/Tumblr (RIP) at that point, and thought that if I came across a toxic relationship I didn’t like in a book, especially one you’re not meant to strongly dislike, it must mean that the book is romanticizing it. (I didn’t use that word because on some level I did feel it was bullshit – I said it was a “fake redemption arc” like the one in the Shatter Me series, except it’s not really that.)

Which is all very hypocritical of a villain romance fan.

The now-obvious thing is that The Cruel Prince never meant to be a portrayal of a healthy relationship or a “how to” novel or a story about how the reader’s bully must certainly secretly love them, and to read it that way is to misread it. So much of fandom discourse is based on misreading, sometimes maliciously – “authorial intent doesn’t matter”, they say, but I say the reviewer’s intent is really, really important – but you don’t realize that when you’re sorrounded by it and new to it at the same time.
I also have never believed in the “reading about unchallenged (or according to some even challenged) toxic relationships will make you seek out toxic relationship or will make you an abuser” pseudoscience.

What didn’t work was that Jude and Cardan’s relationship dynamic is that of a power fantasy that doesn’t appeal to me on any level. To me, there’s nothing as unattractive as a bully, and Cardan is the fae version of a repressed high school bully. Maybe I feel this way because I was bullied, maybe I would have felt this in any case; it doesn’t really matter. I don’t believe that people who like Cardan must not understand what it’s like to be bullied, and this isn’t a line of thinking that I feel is productive anyway [this often leads to the whole “we must know your past trauma to understand if your take is valid™” thing, which I find troubling.]

The step between “this is abhorrent and completely opposed to my experience” and “people have different experiences with the same things and what is flatly disgusting to you might be interesting to dissect for someone else for reasons you might never truly get” is important. But recognizing any of this would have meant recognizing the diversity of human experience and that there aren’t hard rules on “hurtful”/”not hurtful” literature; any of this would have meant letting go of the rush of anger people will tell you is so so righteous when you dislike something problematic. I definitely wasn’t there yet.

I still deeply don’t want to read about bully romances, and that’s fine too.

My review is still up on goodreads, and I don’t remember the book enough to re-review it. And I can’t replace it with all this because it’s not a review, this is dragging January-2018!Acqua (she was not in therapy yet and it shows) and book twitter, and I don’t think it belongs on goodreads.

I still haven’t decided what to do about it, apart from writing this post.

#2: Empire of Sand

39714124Empire of Sand is a favorite of many of my mutuals on various sites, one I still think about trying again sometimes, but then never do.

I first tried reading it in November 2018, and I remember that without looking it up – how could I not? The very end of November 2018, the month in which I went off from medication.

If you’ve ever had to deal with psychiatric meds, you’ve also probably heard of or dealt with the side effects, and that some people need to stop that kind of treatment because of them; also, one might experience side effects during withdrawal.

An ARC of this book was lucky enough to not only end up in my hands only a few days after I read Girls of Paper and Fire (both are heavy fantasy reads involving constant threat of sexual assault for the main character) but to also do so during what was, in hindsight, a medication-induced depressive episode.

While it was happening, I didn’t think much of it. I couldn’t think much of it. I didn’t have the energy to do much at all and felt horrible and everything I tried reading felt horrible as well. I don’t think I can explain just how much I dreaded picking up this book again – I’ll just say that I didn’t want to DNF this (I could at least tell that the worldbuilding was good) but had realized that doing chemistry homework in the state I was in (which made me feel miserable, of course, as I kept making obvious mistakes) was less exhausting than this and would have rather done that instead.

But at the time I didn’t have as much insight on what was happening (you can see, from my November 2018 wrap-up, that I said “I kept finding mediocre stuff”) and DNFed Empire of Sand thinking that it was mostly on the novel and just a little on me. I did realize there was a connection between how much GoPaF exhausted me and how I felt about this, but not much more. I rated it two stars on goodreads and that was it, for a while.
The thing is, until this sort of episode is over, you can’t look back and say, no, that was definitely not normal.

It was not on the book. After a few months, I removed the rating, but it took me a while to understand what had happened, and today I still don’t know how I feel about this. I’m in this weird situation in which I read more than half a book and remember it vividly, but don’t really have an opinion on it, though the idea of picking it up again to find out fills me with dread. It certainly has made me think about just how unreliable my negative reviews can be in certain circumstances, and I might not realize that until later.


And That’s Only a A Part

There are other cases, but I won’t stay here to talk about all of them. From Anger is a Gift, a novel I didn’t like but that I read while sick enough to end up in a hospital a few days later (I didn’t think it was good, but was I unfair because I was sick? I ended up deleting my review) to The Poppy War, which I didn’t like, but I liked my attempt at explaining why even less (I’m still not able to explain it, I’ve found things that contributed but I always feel like I’m missing the mark), there really are many.

Generally, I’ve realized that in the last year, I’ve trusted negative reviews – especially one star reviews – less than I did once, and this includes my own (I’ve tried writing a post about that multiple times but it never quite comes together.) There’s probably a lot on this blog I don’t agree with anymore. At the same time, I try to keep in mind that the urge to delete, delete, delete everything is an anxiety symptom, so I shouldn’t listen to it too much.

The problem with the internet and a great thing about the internet is that everything stays while we don’t, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe, every time I realize I significantly changed my mind about a book I didn’t reread I’ll write a post like this one about why, or maybe I’ll keep having crises about the inherent instability of life.


What do you do when you change your mind about a book? Change the review? Nothing? Write too-long discussion posts?

Discussion

Acqua & Movies: Booksmart + Let It Snow (2019)

In March of 2019, I wrote an Out of My Comfort Zone post about book-to-movie adaptations. I finally felt like I was in the right place to watch something again.

Prepare for a whole post of low-level culture shock and me being confused!


I wanted to try a movie that was not a book-to-movie adaptation, and I wanted something that was a) sapphic and b) available to buy in my country on google play, the only place where I could easily buy things online without having to ask my parents.

Unsurprisingly, that’s a really small pool, and that’s how I ended up watching Booksmart (2019, directed by Olivia Wilde), in Italy “la rivincita delle sfigate” (wow do I hate this title).

bI wish I were able to start by telling you something as simple as whether I liked Booksmart or not, but as usual, screen-induced anxiety made this a weird experience and I don’t know what to say. Or, I should probably tell you that you shouldn’t take what I say too seriously, as I started to get into this only around the 75% mark, and the 102 minutes of it actually took me a whole afternoon, since I kept pausing things.

We started off on the wrong note because this was only available in Italian, and not in English (with or without subtitles), and the dubbing was… messy. At first I struggled to understand which of the two girls was speaking. Also, the humor in this book relies a lot on certain types of joke that don’t translate well, and that doesn’t help.

And since we’re talking about cultural barriers: I always forget just how alien American culture – and, especially, American high school – is to me until I actually see them. I realize I keep imagining things wrong when I read contemporary books, because even the settings (the cities are so flat and yet going anywhere has to involve a car?), the objects in here (…people actually seriously unironically wear togas? I forgot that. And cars that old are allowed? Like no one will stop you?) – everything is so weird to me. And this is important, because this is a story about challenging high school stereotypes, and it doesn’t work as much when those stereotypes aren’t really your own? But once I got into it, it was a fun time, if one I always felt like I couldn’t fully get.

I also agree with this tweet by author Rory Power:

I’m not going to pretend I know anything about movies and say whether or not this was in any way good on a technical level, but it was really nice to see a lesbian on a screen, and that’s what I wanted, so I’m not unhappy. I also got emotional because of the character development, so that was nice, but the nicest feeling is the one I got by constantly reminding myself of how good it is to not be 17 or in high school anymore.

Now I’m left with a question – why does US media like to pretend high school is something worth missing? The characters seem to hate it, and yet the ending is all about how they’ll miss this time of their life. I’m two years out of high school and I haven’t missed it for a moment, and it’s not like people in my country seem to expect people to. Cultural differences again? Or is there something I just don’t get?


Then I finally figured out I could a 25€ giftcard at my local bookstore and start a Netflix account on my own without needing anyone’s help, which definitely widened the pool of material available to me.

To start out safe, I went back to a book-to-movie adaptation of a collection I read before I started blogging even in my first language, Let It Snow.

let_it_snow_posterI liked this so much more than Booksmart, surprisingly. Not because of… better quality of the original material, I don’t think so, but this time the dubbing wasn’t a tragedy and the movie wasn’t quite as heavy on my screen anxiety. Maybe it was the recent exposure (two movies only a few days apart from each other… wow Acqua) and maybe it’s really this specific story, but I managed to enjoy some parts of this, which is a lot for American movies about teenagers.

I don’t remember the book that clearly, but I have to say that as an adaptation this is both:

  • high quality, or at least, better than I remember the book being
  • not faithful at all – it’s almost more “inspired by the collection Let It Snow by Mauren Johnson, John Green & Lauren Myracle” than an actual adaptation, which is probably a positive thing

(In case it wasn’t already clear, I didn’t love that book.)

The main thing I loved about this adaptation/reimagining was how they took away a lot of space from Lauren Myracle’s short story, which I remember most people hated and that I didn’t love either, to give space to a sapphic romance. I don’t remember if there was any F/F content in the book, but it definitely wasn’t a major storyline as it was here – so much more space is given to Dorrie and Kerry’s romance than it is to Addie’s “woe is me I’m so self-centered that everyone hates me… maybe I shouldn’t be like that” storyline.
The sapphic romance still isn’t as developed as the two straight romances and it is written with straight lenses (it has the dreaded “person who is out pressures other person to come out” trope portrayed with no nuance whatsoever – the movie acts as if Kerry is wronging Dorrie by not being out) but I honestly don’t have it in me to nitpick the very little sapphic media that is legally available to watch in Italy. Also, this story might be a tired cliché and not a very good one, but it still had a lot of heart in it? Probably because the actors playing these two characters are both queer; that matters.

What I would have changed was the amout of space given to the characters of John Green’s short story, Tobin and Angie “the Duke”: their friends-to-lovers story is boring and has no flavor at all apart from the overwhelming heterosexuality and how much the main character is a typical John Green Novel Main Guy. (If you’ve read one of his novels, you know the type.) Their story had like… two funny moments and the creepiest romantic declaration I’ve seen in a long while (“when I see you with someone else I want to kill them”? What the…? What? Why didn’t Angie run? I hope that was a joke and that I didn’t get it.), which ruined what little good it had.
Though I have to admit their story had one of the funniest parts in the movie, the completely out-of-nowhere blasting of Rock the Casbah during the car chase. (…I couldn’t stop laughing at that.)

The main storyline, though, is pretty much unambiguously the normal girl/celebrity one, following Julie and Stuart. It was adorable, if really different from Maureen Johnson’s short story (the only story I remember liking). I’m glad that the main roles were given to two actors of color. I just wish the whole miniature decorative houses played a bigger part in the movie, as they do in the novel, because they’re cute.
Another thing the movie did right was that it got the atmosphere down perfectly. If there’s one thing these teen movies are good at and have in common, it’s being really pretty.
Also, tinfoil lady was the best character.

And this time, I’m again left with a question: is going in Africa for a semester after high school so… not uncommon for American students? It was mentioned both in here and in Booksmart. That’s “I’ve never heard of anyone in real life doing that” level of unusual for Italians.


Have you seen these? What did you think? What should someone with a Netflix account and time they should definitely be using to study watch?

contemporary · Discussion

Out of My Comfort Zone #8

My eight post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

My last post was about experiencing a story in three different formats; this time, I’m going to talk about my experience with adult mysteries.


My History With This Genre…

…is completely nonexistent. I always start my Out of My Comfort Zone posts talking about history, but this time I can’t, because I had never read an adult mystery set in the real world before. Fantasy mysteries? Sure! The Perfect Assassin, for example, was one, even though not really good in the mystery aspect; same for one of my favorite books of last year, Witchmark by C.L. Polk. But no contemporary/realistic mysteries.

Maybe my own complete lack of interest leading up to this post should have rang a bell and made me understand that the fact that this genre didn’t sound appealing to me at all until I got the idea to read it for a blog post could mean something. Maybe that could have deterred me from trying.

Alas, it did not.


What Happened

I read two books:

  • If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, a contemporary/historical mystery set at an elite arts college and following a group of obnoxious theater students; I chose this one because it’s hyped, got many good reviews from people who have tastes not too different from mine most of the time, and because I’ve been told it’s m/m and why not read about gays across genres.
  • After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott, a contemporary mystery/thriller story about child abduction in an English small town. I chose this one because it has been getting wonderful reviews from friends and people I follow, and because it has a main f/f romance (of course, it’s not the focus), which does seem particularly uncommon in this genre. Also, it’s more of an “under the radar” book, which means I didn’t go into it with they weight of hype or high expectations.

And now, to what I thought of them.

If We Were Villains

30319086The main thing I have to say is that If We Were Villains kind of is to books what cardboard is to food, and I failed to see the appeal of it on every single level.

I should have DNFed it when I realized – and that happened pretty quickly – that I hated every single character, but I didn’t: you’re not meant to like them, and I wanted to know where the book would go with such a deliberately unlikable cast.
But the problem is, they’re not even unlikable in an interesting way. There are characters I don’t like but am fascinated by, and there are characters I just want to disappear from the page. Here, everyone fell into category two, and I should have listened to my DNF instinct; after all, there’s a difference between my first reaction to a group of characters being “this is awful and messed up, I’m into it” and it being “everyone in this book would greatly benefit from a year or two spent hoeing the earth“. More than messed up – which they were, sure – they were blandly annoying.

Yes, bland. I really didn’t expect that from a book with a skull on the cover and a cast of over-the-top pretentious assholes. Did the main character even have a personality? Did James? What sense does it make to write a character-driven book in which the characters (intentionally?) have only two character traits, one of which is “pretentious”, so that we get “pretentious and promiscuous”, “pretentious and prideful”, “pretentious and frail”, or “pretentious and intoxicated”? This isn’t a play, this is a novel, the characters should have some depth.
And for a book in which a lot of the plot hinges on the main character’s loyalty to [redacted], the book sure managed to not make me feel anything about it. There was a lot of telling, but when it came to actually showing these relationships, the dynamics of this dysfunctional friend group… they felt so empty. I didn’t believe them, and the amount of backstory the characters shared that it’s implied but we’re not even really told about didn’t help either.

While reading this, I kept thinking that there was no way the characters were intentionally that flat, so I can’t help but wonder if this book is meant to be something meta about Shakespeare’s characters or plays. But since I know pretty much nothing about Shakespeare, this didn’t do anything for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case for many who didn’t grow up immersed in the Anglosphere.

And no, if you don’t have the average Shakespeare knowledge an English speaker is expected to have, I really don’t think this book is worth it. It’s flavorless, and as a mystery, it was obvious enough that I predicted the ending step by step before the murder even happened.
(There were also many smaller things that were in bad taste, like using an eating disorder as a plot device to annoy the main character, but at that point I barely had the energy to care.)

My rating: ★★

After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott

44153328._sy475_This was suspenseful and incredibly compelling, for something in which I guessed who the culprit was the moment he appeared on the page. While the book constantly tries to mislead the reader, the combination of heavy-handed foreshadowing and stereotypical characterization of every single side character didn’t leave much space for the reader to imagine other outcomes. I never suspected anyone else.

Unlike the previous book, this story did keep my attention; like the previous book, it disregarded the idea of complex, realistic characterization to pin every single character in a predictable role. Even the main character isn’t much more than the classic figure of the mystery-solving figure with alcohol problems and a past unresolved tragedy which ends up being tied to the present one; at least, unlike most characters that belong to this archetype, she is a lesbian and ends up in therapy.

I also think that if you’re going to write a multi-PoV novel and the book is not only perfectly understandable but also deeply predictable if the reader outright skips one of the two PoVs, there’s a problem. This is a story about child abduction and child sexual abuse. When I understood that there would be many chapters in the point of view of an abducted child, the choice for me was either skip all of them or DNF the book – I chose to skip/heavily skim, and I didn’t feel like I missed any relevant information. I can see reasoning both for including that kind of content and not doing that, so it’s more complicated than “just don’t include this kind of thing”, but the way it was done here… I’m not sure it was the best choice.

Overall, my impression of this was that it was deeply average. It’s a story about a struggling journalist in a small town with a quirk that has to catch the town’s predator before he strikes again, and while it isn’t a bad novel, it doesn’t do anything unexpected. I’m already forgetting most of the details and it’s only been a few hours.

My rating: ★★½


Will I Read Another Adult Mystery?

I’m always hesitant to judge an entire genre from only two books, but at the moment, I don’t plan to. This genre never appealed to me, and considering that I picked up the books that I thought were more likely to work for me – they’re queer, they got many good reviews, they had an interesting premise – that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

I feel like mysteries – and this is also true for the YA mysteries that don’t get too distracted with the romance – often expect the suspense to carry the reader through the story instead of crafting compelling characters and relationship dynamics. And I mean, on a level it works: I didn’t DNF either of these books, and they didn’t take me that long to read. However, that also means that I start forgetting them the moment I finish them and end up feeling like I wasted my time.

I don’t want to write off an entire genre, of course. I want to be able to find books that work for me, I’m just not really sure where to look for them, and I’m not sure which kinds of adult mysteries/thrillers would be more likely to make it. I don’t know. I want something that will actually give me characters who feel like people and that I won’t start hating from the moment I start reading (…as I said, unlikable is great as long as it doesn’t start to make me question why should I ever want to spend time in that character’s head; I realize this is a harder balance to strike in contemporary) instead of throwing half-baked plot twists at me.


What do you think of this genre/books?

Discussion · Fantasy

Am I Falling Out of Love With Fantasy?

Fantasy was once my favorite genre. A trend I’m noticing – in my ratings, in my favorites, and even in what I add to my TBR now – is that I seem to like it less and less.

This is going to be long! I can’t promise it will be worth it, but here we are.


First, A Disclaimer

Defining what is and isn’t fantasy is complicated, as the line between sci-fi and fantasy can get really blurred, and as some genres are considered fantasy by some and not by others (for example, magical realism, paranormal romance, contemporary with a small speculative twist…)

In this post, I will use the word “fantasy” to mean a book set in a fictional/historical-fictional world in which magic has a significant role, and in which the technology is on average less advanced than our own.

I know this excludes a lot of subgenres, but drawing the line between what can be considered fantasy and what can’t is even more complicated in a contemporary or futuristic setting; as this post does not apply to urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy, magical realism and all the subgenres and arguably separate genres one doesn’t immediately think of when the word “fantasy” is said, consider them excluded from the word “fantasy” for the purpose of this post.
I consider urban fantasy a fantasy subgenre, of course – it’s just not what I’m talking about, it’s not a genre I considered a favorite when I was younger. I also didn’t want to say “high and historical fantasy” every time when that’s what most people immediately think of when they hear the word “fantasy” anyway.


The Current Situation

43263188I have rated only one fantasy novel five stars this year. Said novel is The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore (review), and it’s a 4.5 rounded up because the buddy read with Silvia was a great experience. I don’t know if I would have rounded up had I read it on my own; it was fun, but far from flawless, and it doesn’t fully feel like a five star. It’s really the kind of book I’d actually love to have half stars for.

I have loved some fantasy short stories (The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections), novellas (The Ascent to Godhood) and graphic novels (Monstress), but novels… not so much. And I have been reading fantasy novels.

Let’s make a quick, simple list. Of the 91 books I read this year:

  • 33 are not novels (short stories, graphic novels, novellas, collections and anthologies of various genres)
  • 7 are novels I reread (of various genres)
  • which leaves 51 novels.

Of those 51 novels:

  • 17 are fantasy (of which one is a 5 star)
  • 9 are sci-fi/futuristic (of which five are 5 stars)
  • 14 are realistic contemporary or historical fiction (of which four are 5 stars)
  • 11 belong to the “contemporary with a magical/sci-fi/paranormal/horror twist” group (and three of them are 5 stars)

You see, it’s not like I’m not reading fantasy novels. But I’m not liking them, or at least, I’m constantly disappointed by them. Some of the most disappointing books I read this year were hyped fantasy books like The Fifth Season, The Ten Thousand Doors of January and House of Salt and Sorrows. And that’s just counting the ones I finished! I just DNFed Steel Crow Saga, for example, another anticipated release.

If you compare these stats with what I read in 2016 (around 100 books, of which 30+ were fantasy novels for the purpose of this post), yes, I’m also reading a lot less fantasy.


Why Is This Happening?

Here are some possible explanations, and what I think of them.

is the fantasy genre getting worse? I honestly don’t think that’s the case; if anything, I think that in the YA fantasy age range, it’s getting better; at least we’re not still stuck retelling the same 3 fairytales with straight, white main characters as we were in early 2016. I don’t know enough about the recent past of the adult part to say if it’s the same there, but I think we’re seeing a lot more women, more diversity and that’s of course positive. YA fantasy is also taking itself more seriously and that’s a double-edged sword, as some kinds of narratives and clichés just don’t work when you try to write that kind of story, but overall, I think the quality has improved.

I have read too much of it. Well, this is definitely a significant part of my recent dislike, especially when it comes to YA fantasy. YA fantasy is formulaic enough to feel stagnant, and when novels that actually feel like a breath of fresh air – like Six of Crows did back then – the genre’s response is to try and make lesser copycats of them instead of looking for more stories that branch out from the typical YA fantasy structure.
I was starting to feel “YA fantasy fatigue” in 2017, and I was 17 at the time, so I don’t even think it’s a “you’re not the target audience” problem. Teens get tired of reading the same exact story 20 times, too; I don’t think “this might be the first time a reader encounters that story, though!” is that much of a justification – it almost surely isn’t the first time, if said reader reads more than three YA books in a year, and if they don’t, they’re unlikely to reach for the midlist first! It’s almost as if this category almost only ever tries to play safe, and I don’t like that. (The “really formulaic” thing is also true for most YA sci-fi, but that genre has never been my favorite.) I understand that to some YA is kind of a comfort read, but that was not true for me as a teen; I mostly wanted original stories that didn’t go into adult territory, and I truly believe there’s space for both the cliché and the not.
Also, while I think that formulaic diverse stories have a value, I’d love to see publishers understand that marginalized readers might also want diverse stories that are not  formulaic, not “exactly the same plot as popular m/f YA fantasy book, but gayer” or something like that. You can have both. I promise.

⇝ Since I have read a lot of it, I have higher standards. Also true. I know what has been done really often before in fantasy more than I do in other genres. A lot of fantasy books I love, even books I loved this year on reread like Shadow and Bone, aren’t books I’d give five stars to today if I read them for the first time. It’s less about nostalgia (for Shadow and Bone: I read it in 2015 and that isn’t a time I’m nostalgic about, really) and more about that being the first time I experienced this kind of story, with a main character who was almost exactly the same as 15-year-old me; it carries a weight that similar stories could not today. I would still like it, of that I’m certain, but I wouldn’t love it (and would be annoyed by some things that I forgive in fantasy published in 2012 but not now). It would probably be around four stars.

⇝ finding adult fantasy without a serious pacing problem is difficult. It doesn’t make sense to me that adult fantasy is totally fine with taking 200+ pages to get to the point almost every single time, because the more I approach actual adulthood, the more I think I’m not 13 and I don’t have unlimited free time anymore, can you shut up and get there already? For example, Jade City and especially Jade War by Fonda Lee would have been such great books, if not for the fact that half of the text that isn’t dialogue could have been omitted to make a perfectly viable story anyway. Who allowed them to get that long?
And the thing is: adult sci-fi, which has just as complex (and sometimes more complex) worldbuilding, doesn’t have this problem nearly as often, or maybe I’ve been really lucky. It might have to do with the fact that adult fantasy has had a history of being long-winded since basically the beginning? I know nothing about older sci-fi, so I’m not sure how the two compare.

⇝ a lot of fantasy acts as if having a sense of humor could kill it. We‘re very serious people here! This is meant to be Meaningful! Fun is forbidden because here we are Edgy and it’s all about pain! Of course, this isn’t the case for all books, but I wish dark fantasy’s sense of humor weren’t just really occasional sarcasm. I think most of us really are here to have fun – maybe not literally, I think it’s more about being interested and captivated and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book has to be funny, but I don’t think I’m the only one who finds overwhelming misery overrated, as it’s really easy to come by without needing a fictional world. Balance is everything to me, when it comes to these things, and adding humor to difficult circumstances doesn’t make a story cheaper.
(Though I have to say that when the book has a sense of humor I don’t actually find funny, it gets awkward. See what happened with Steel Crow Saga.)

⇝ something that I also need to remember is that it’s more difficult to tell apart fantasy that isn’t going to work for me. I’m pretty good at guessing which sci-fi I need to abandon within the first chapters; this also works – though not as much – with contemporaries. With fantasy, I struggle. I’m not sure why; I can tell that a sci-fi book does not interest me from the premise but with fantasy I’m not able to do the same as often and end up with more low ratings. However, this does not explain why there are so few high ratings.


What About the Future

I’m still going to be reading fantasy books. Of course. However, I don’t consider it my favorite genre anymore, and I think me and YA fantasy are inevitably going to grow apart, not because I’m not interested in reading about teenagers anymore – I’m not thirty either, but that doesn’t make fantasy stories with adults in their 30s as main characters automatically uninteresting – but because it isn’t doing much for me anymore. Things could change, but if they don’t, my YA fantasy reads will slowly become more the exception than the rule.

I don’t see myself growing apart from fantasy altogether. For example, if it hadn’t been for the problems I had with the romance and portrayals of female characters, Mo Dao Zu Shi (review) would have probably been a five star, and even though it wasn’t, I still couldn’t think about anything else for a week, so yes, I can still love fantasy.

A Few Fantasy Reads I Have High Hopes For

Who knows, maybe I will be able to find a full five star read in the fantasy genre before the end of this year!

⇝ The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
If I ever get to this, which might not happen because I am a coward, I’m actually pretty sure that I’m going to like it. I’ve heard that as far as books this long go, the pacing is great, and what I’ve heard about the characters and worldbuilding was encouraging as well.

Descendants of the Crane by Joan He
I’ve heard this one is slow, but slow YA fantasy is easier to deal with than slow adult fantasy, being on average shorter and lighter. I’ve also heard this has political intrigue and interesting court dynamics and I live for that. I haven’t been reading enough “backstabbing at court” books this year, and I usually like those.

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams
I’m not completely sure what this is about but it comes highly recommended from people I trust. I’ve heard there are complex villains and queer characters in here, so that’s bound to be interesting. I haven’t heard a lot about the series in general but I’m hopeful.


Have you ever felt like you and a genre were growing apart? What are your current thoughts on fantasy?

Discussion

Out of My Comfort Zone #7

My seventh post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

This time, I did something a little different, and tried experiencing the same story in three different formats at the same time.


A Little History

For several month now, my twitter timeline has been full of people talking about a something called Mo Dao Zu Shi (or, as it usually is in tweets, mdzs). I didn’t pay that much attention to it, because most of what I saw was completely out of context and I had no idea of what it even was. I just assumed it was something movie/show/animation-related, and didn’t investigate further. (If you want to know about my history and relationships with things on screens: here. The TL;DR is that watching things on a screen and my anxiety don’t go along well.)

So, I went through months of being spoiled for basically everything, but in a way that was so out-of-context that it didn’t even matter or affect my following experience with mdzs. All I really knew was that it was a) gay in some way, at least in subtext and b) historical, maybe?

Then, I don’t remember how we got there, but I ended up talking about it with Silvia on twitter, and she recently got into it – so I finally understood that the thing that was everywhere on my timeline was a Chinese m/m adult fantasy novel involving necromancy that was adapted both as a donghua and as a live action show.

This combination of hype + recommendation from people I trust + vague but interesting premise meant that, at that point, I really wanted to try it. Since I had been wanting to try again and watch something on a screen for a while as well (in small doses, I can do that, if I can skim certain kinds of scenes), I did.

If you want more detailed information about what this story is and where to start, Silvia wrote a post about that!


Overall Thoughts

43188345._sx318_Someone should have told me that this had the very specific trope “the most hated person of the realm comes back from the dead, chaos ensues” sooner!

I realize that I’ve never talked about this because it’s an overly specific combination of things and because I had only seen it in another book before, but… it might be my favorite trope. (Even though these stories have nothing in common, Mo Dao Zu Shi opens with exactly the same trope as Raven Stratagem.) I love reading about hated undead. It might be the many years spent in Catholic school and the whole framing of resurrection as holy when actually it’s a terrifying concept, I don’t know.

Also: complicated family dynamics! Music as magic! Necromancy and blood magic! There were a lot of tropes I loved in here.

Anyway, the story overall was great, and this was such a good time. Far from flawless, and it’s definitely the kind of thing I would only recommend with disclaimers, but was it addicting.

Now I’m going to talk about what I liked about each format. Keep in mind that I have very little experience with two of them.


Mo Dao Zu Shi [Donghua]

I started from here. Season one has been completed, season two is ongoing, and there should be a season three but I’m not sure when.

Pros:

  • There is a lot to take in at first. Not only because it’s fantasy and we know how worldbuilding can be, but because it starts at a point in which the main characters already have a long, fraught history with each other, so you don’t really understand their reactions at first (after, there will be many flashbacks). However, I have to say that, as I was told, the donghua beginning is the easiest to follow – it doesn’t infodump you but it gives you most of the information you need.
  • Even before you get to appreciate the characters for who they are, this is funny just for how dramatic it is, and I loved that about it. The first scene involving the protagonist is one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen and I was there for it. (Might be typical of the format? I wouldn’t know.)

Cons:

  • So many scenes happen in the dark. Scenes set in tombs, in caves, dark buildings, woods at night – there’s a lot. Every time I got to one of those scenes, I couldn’t understand anything about what was happening, because of the terrible lighting/lack of contrast.
  • I kind of find it aesthetically unpleasant for a variety of choices.
  • It’s not finished yet.
  • The fight scenes are boring and proportionally longer than they are in the live action (at least they’re really dramatic, which makes them funny).
  • Of course, as usual, I need to skim some scenes, which means that I do lose some things.
  • The m/m relationship can only be heavily hinted at because censorship.

Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation [Novel]

This one was a really interesting experience. You might already know that I have little to no patience for long books, especially ones longer than 600 pages. If I had known that this one was longer than 1000, maybe I wouldn’t even have started it. And it didn’t feel like something longer than 1000 pages, which made me think about what exactly I don’t like about long books – it’s not the length, not really. It’s the repetitive structure in a novel that just takes longer to get there.

A published American novel, unless it’s somehow experimenting with format, has a beginning in which the characters and world are introduced (or: new elements are introduced if it’s a sequel), a middle in which there might be a journey and there’s usually rising tension, and then a climax and an ending. It might be 100 or 500 pages, but it’s always that. If the story is really long, it gets broken up in two to three books, so you have to do this exact same thing three times. And from knowing this structure, you can more or less predict what’s going to happen next.

And it’s not that in this novel these elements are absent. There is a beginning, there is a main climax, there is an ending; however, it’s also a mess of incredibly long flashbacks sometimes following characters different from the main couple, and while it’s long it’s one story and not one broken and watered down to make three books, and all of this paradoxically makes it less boring.

Pros:

  • Being a novel, you get more details and many thing that can’t be translated as well on a screen;
  • Comparing structure and tropes with the novels I usually read was really interesting, and there are some parallels as well as things that I’ve never seen a fantasy novel try, when they clearly should have. (Fake redemption arcs in a Shatter Me/A Court of Mist and Fury style are boring and always feel somewhat forced. What this book did is so much better when it comes to reversal of expectations, why don’t YA novels do [this spoilery thing] more often?)
  • Unlike the other two formats, this is explicitly gay and doesn’t only hint at things. This way, you get that it took the main character years to understand that he is gay while being clearly in love with another man.
  • If you’re interested in another of the two formats, this tells you the significance of certain symbols, so that the gay subtext of the adaptations becomes way closer to text in your head.

Cons:

  • This is messy at heart.
  • While the author is really good at writing pining and romantically oblivious characters, the same definitely isn’t true for actual romantic scenes. The amount of dubcon in the form of non-consensual kisses and drunk kisses and drunk sex was really uncomfortable. The love interest’s jealousy also made my skin crawl. Let’s say that while I liked the romance in theory, the execution was bad.
  • A person who values their own eyes should skip the sex scenes. I’ve never seen a fandom agree so strongly about the fact that these are terrible.
  • It’s true for all of the formats, but something that is even more glaring in the novel is that every single female character is either evil, dead or irrelevant, with usually a big emphasis on irrelevant. While the other formats at least attempt to develop the female characters who end up dying, especially the live action, the novel does not.

The Untamed [Live Action]

ac7ca78b020149ebae1c12792f8220ec

Pros:

  • Listen. The aesthetic. I love everything about the way they chose to portray the setting and the costumes and everything looks so pretty on the screen
  • I thought the casting choices were really good! I mean, there is to say that even if the acting was mediocre, I wouldn’t know, but I thought the characters were portrayed really well on the screen
  • The romantic tension. This is such a good example of dancing around censorship. The longing, the loving gazes, the romantic songs… perfect. (This led to the weird phenomenon in which I like the romance in the live action, in which it can’t be explicit, far more than I do in the novel, because all the weird dubcon isn’t there. What a recipe for pain.)
  • Female characters have a more active and important role! It’s still very flawed but at least they do something.

Cons:

  • It’s completely impossible to take the fight scenes seriously. (Maybe that was the purpose, I’m not sure, but they’re kind of ridiculous).
  • It got rid of some of the moral ambiguity, which I have mixed feelings about.
  • Censorship, of course
  • Since this looks more realistic than the other two formats, I needed to skim a lot.
  • Even though this ended up being my favorite format (I know, I didn’t see that coming either), I don’t recommend starting from it because I think I would have found the beginning really confusing if I had.

So, How Was Following A Story in Three Formats?

It helped.

A problem I have with anything on a screen is that I have to skim. By skimming, I usually lose interest, because I lose details. Being able to switch from one format to another when it came to a point in which I started to lose interest in one was helpful, so that I ended up finishing all of them [well, the first one isn’t finished, but I saw all that was out]

It was really confusing, yes. These stories are similar enough to all feel the same story and different enough to cause confusion. I don’t separate them clearly in my head, but there’s also some good that comes from that – watching something that only heavily hints at the m/m relationship while reading the novel in which they’re explicitly gay (and what I said about the novel explaining the symbolism) ends up making you feel as if you are in fact watching something explicitly gay, because you mix them up in your head, everything feels like the same story. It never feels like baiting.

There are not many stories with which I could do this kind of thing – the stories that I’m interested in reading rarely get adapted, which is sad – but I would do it again if I had the chance.


Have you ever tried following a story in multiple formats at the same time?

Discussion

Two Years Of Blogging: Going Forward

This blog is two years old, and in this two years, something that has never changed is that I still don’t know how to start a post.


On What Is Happening

In these last two weeks I was rarely on here, not writing any new posts, and barely reading. Nothing unusual is happening, apart from two thankfully now-past exams – it’s just the anxiety.
That’s nothing new, but if I know I have anxiety and it manages to get in the way of a lot of things already, adding deadlines for something that is supposed to be fun is really not the best idea for me.

Acquadimore Books started as a way to talk about books with people who are interested in the same kind of content I am (books written in English); it did not start to exist in my life as another source of stress.

And I know I still want to be there. I love reading and talking about books with other people, and reading their blogs – my experience with the book blogging community overall has been really positive. Like every place, it does have its occasional problems (mostly plagiarism and bad discourse) but it is fun to be there, most of the time. I don’t want to ruin it for myself.


Going Forward

A few things that will change:

  • ARCs. Of course I’m still going to request and review some ARCs, but I’d like to start not requesting as many of them. It’s not that I have an overdue ARC problem (I don’t; I’m pretty reliable on that, at least) but I do feel the deadline pressure. And I don’t want that. I want to be able to read things at a pace that feels more natural for me, which I can easily achieve by requesting less ARCs.
  • TBRs. I think I’m going to keep making them, at least until the end of this year, but I think they’re going to be smaller than nine books – maybe six, like the last September TBR. They’re useful, but I want to have space to be a mood reader sometimes. In these two weeks, I’ve been reading something not for review or for a TBR, and it’s been so refreshing. It shouldn’t feel that way, which is why I want to change things a little.
  • Schedule. I might not be posting as often, or exactly on the same days. I’m not sure how much it will change – what matters to me is that, just I don’t want to push myself to read, I don’t push myself to write either.

What I’ve Been Up To

40794181I’m currently writing a new Out of My Comfort Zone post about what I’ve been reading lately, so I don’t want to spoil it, but it will be about the thing I’ve read not for review or for a TBR and it will, hopefully, be up soon.

I’ve also been slowly making my way through The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. Due to exams and getting really distracted by that other thing (though this book’s pacing didn’t help, there’s that), I haven’t made much progress, but now I feel like I finally got into the story, and I hope I’ll be able to post a review soonish. For now, I will tell you that the writing is beautiful without drawing that much attention to itself, and that it would probably sound amazing on audiobook.

My plans for September remain pretty much the same; I’d really like to get to most of the books on that short TBR, especially Steel Crow Saga (I have heard it’s Pokémon inspired, so, how could I not). The only exception might be Gideon the Ninth, because the universe seems to be conspiring against me on that. For the rest, I plan not to make any more plans for this second half, and go with what happens. If I end up not reading that much, I’ll try to not think of it as a problem.


How do you feel about ARC deadlines?