Discussion · Fantasy · middle grade

Going Back to Fairy Oak

May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Who’s afraid of the suck fairy?“. Well, I am.

I’ve known this feeling since I tried to reread City of Bones in 2017; as I’ve learned, the book that is your favorite at 15 might not look so great two years and two hundred books later. We can talk about this in a boring “your tastes will change, that’s natural and good!” way, or we can do so in a fantasy way: nothing about you changed… the suck fairy happened to the book.

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, The Suck Fairy

For this post, I’m reading the new installment in the Fairy Oak series, which I loved in middle school; it has fairies in it and I’ll be crushed if it sucks, so it’s perfect for the topic. Also, after my last post, I feel like dedicating at least one post to an Italian fantasy book is the right thing to do.

For the 15th anniversary of the Fairy Oak series, author Elisabetta Gnone returns to Fairy Oak with a new story. For this post, I went back too.

I’m not going to write an actual review of Fairy Oak: La storia perduta because it wouldn’t make sense to review in English a book that doesn’t even exist in said language; I’m going to use it as a comparison – one between my current feelings for this series and how I felt about it at the time; one between Italian fantasy and US publishing’s idea of Italian fantasy.

I didn’t feel the way I felt while reading the other books in the series when I read La storia perduta, both for my own limitations (I’m 21 instead of 12) and the book’s (it’s a low-stakes story set between already-written books, it didn’t have much space to be its own thing) but it was still a nice time – for the nostalgia, the gorgeous illustrations, and because reading something created outside US publishing’s direct sphere of influence is always a breath of fresh air…

…for the most part. This book is made of flashbacks, and the parts set in the present are exactly the kind of “the characters you loved are now straight married and with kids” thing I despise. Back in middle school I related so much to the main character Pervinca – I, too, was boyish and messy and the less perfect sibling; if I had had magic I would have also been the only Dark Mage in a family of Light Mages – that to read about her happy straight marriage and three kids just feels like a lie. Not like I expected anything different from an Italian book, but I wish I could be more than one part of me at a time, Italian and not trapped in a heteronormativity web. I don’t need it, but it sure would be nice.

this book has a beautiful naked hardcover

But this is Italian, at least.

Americans’ idea of Italian-inspired fantasy often doesn’t feel Italian to me at all; much of it is either stereotypical or simply baffling. The average American Italian-inspired fantasy will involve some fake version of Venice, the mafia, or the Catholic Church (all three if the author is feeling inspired) and a lot of google-translate Italian thrown in where English would have been just fine.

So I’m going to explain why the Fairy Oak series feels Italian to me (well, Ligurian, as both me and the author are) even though it isn’t even trying to be set in Italy, because I don’t think most of these things would even register as Italian-inspired to many. I believe that part of this “Italian inspiration” isn’t intentional, it just bled into the books, which now feel like home.

⇝ The plot of this last book revolves around recognizing cetaceans, together with an illustrated guide; the year’s event is the return of the whale. This is the most Ligurian thing ever. The Ligurian sea is a cetacean sanctuary! (My university has an entire course about that and I gave that exam just a few months ago!)

⇝ There’s so much about sailing and fishing and ropemaking when the book is mostly set on land; that’s very Ligurian too. My family history is made of these things, and in a book that is about roots and tangled family trees and the repeating nature of history, it’s appropriate.

Multiple generations living under one roof and many elderly characters whose only role in the story isn’t dying to teach the main characters about grief. Just a lot of Old People, most of them somewhat nice, which is something American fantasy just doesn’t do.

⇝ In the main series, the enemy is a rainstorm that takes away people: a Ligurian fear made character. A “simple” rainstorm, not a hurricane or a tornado; it’s a… local metereological fear. We (mostly) don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes, but in Liguria, every few years the November rainstorms get deadly.

Magic ≈ Plants. Just like all Ligurian towns, this book is set in a small piece of land between the mountains and the sea, and the two sides come together, green earth and saltwater. There’s sailing, yes, but there’s also more botany than one would expect, because there’s magic in what grows out of the earth in the little space we have. Some magical lessons are set in the greenhouse, the whole town is built around a talking oak, fairies are tied to flowers, and even most of the human magical characters are named after plants. It’s like Prebogión. (Genoese word: mixture of spontaneous weeds that are gathered to make soup or ravioli filling; there are at least 35 plants that can be put in it but some should be used sparingly.)

some of the other books in the series

Fairy Oak doesn’t feel the need to dress up as Italian because it isn’t written to be Italian, it just is. It doesn’t matter that most characters have English names or that the setting clearly isn’t Liguria. The English words are just a dressing: the concept of fantasy is inherently English in the Italian imagination, and this is a fantasy book after all.

There’s nothing that even suggests the characters are speaking in English, which has some… interesting consequences when it comes to names. There’s an evil character named Lesser Skullcup, like the flower (Scutellaria minor, lesser skullcap), but with a misspelling. Yes, “Lesser” is his name. This is the first time I’ve seen the English equivalent of the nonsensical fake Italian names of American Italian-inspired fantasy!

I’m so used to Italian-inspired American-hearted books written by authors who only care about Italy as a decoration that finding the exact opposite was an Experience. Does it make me think less of the quality of the writing? Yes; I’m bilingual, this is ridiculous. Do I still kind of love it? Also yes.

I’m going to end this post with a picture I took in 2019, both for Atmosphere reasons and to explain just how literally I mean “between the mountains and the sea” and “the little space we have” when I talk about Liguria.

Vernazza, once Ligurian fishing port and now beloved Ligurian tourist trap.

Would you reread or continue the series you loved in middle school, or do you feel the shadow of the Suck Fairy hanging over them?


Out of My Comfort Zone #4

My fourth 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 will be talking about an age range I rarely reach for anymore, middle grade.

My Long History With Middle Grade, and Why I Almost Never Read It Anymore

9788893816601When I was the target audience for middle grade, I read a lot of it. A good part of it was Italian middle grade – I want to mention specifically the Fairy Oak series by Elisabetta Gnone because this series kind of shaped who I am as a reader (it’s an atmospheric story about witches with a lot of plants involved, of course I loved it).

I also read a lot of translated middle grade. Harry Potter was really important to me when I was in middle school, and so was The Golden Compass.

Then, from 2013 to may 2015 I almost completely stopped reading. I won’t go into what happened in this post because it would be off-topic, but anyway, in 2015 I started reading again. This time I was mostly picking up young adult books, because that was what I was drawn to – I wasn’t the target audience for middle grade anymore. But as I started following bloggers and booktubers (I started blogging in Italian at the end of 2015), I didn’t only see YA recommendations, but also middle grade ones. And the most loved middle grade series after Harry Potter seemed to be Percy Jackson.

I had always avoided Rick Riordan’s books because their Italian covers are hideous. In 2015, I tried two of them. And while Rick Riordan seems to be a great person from what I know about him, his books aren’t.
33832945I hated Percy Jackson. The narration irritated me, I couldn’t visualize anything, and the book was trying so hard to be funny and quirky that it only ended up feeling fake all the way through. But as so many people loved it, what I thought wasn’t “maybe I don’t like this author”, it was “I think I’ve outgrown middle grade” – which was reinforced by the fact that I tried Cassandra Clare and Holly Black’s Magisterium series and thought it was mediocre at best, even though I had liked YA novels from both of these authors.

And that’s how I didn’t read another middle grade book until the summer 2018, in which I tried The House on Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, inspired by the Russian stories about Baba Yaga. It was, again, mostly mediocre, and didn’t do anything to convince me I wanted to pick up more middle grade books. If anything, it reminded me that just because a book has a really pretty cover and an interesting premise, it won’t mean it’s good.

What I Read

I decided to try three books from three authors I already know I like.

City of Ghosts


I have had a complicated history with Victoria Schwab’s books, but I can sum it up as “she’s good, I’m glad she got popular, I don’t like how people criticize her female characters for literally everything, but some of her books are really overrated”.

I hadn’t heard a lot about City of Ghosts – probably because it’s middle grade – but it looked like it could be a cute and slightly creepy ghost story. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the writing style at all, which was a surprise.

If I had read this a few years ago, when I was the target audience, I think I would have felt like I was being talked down to. I understand that Schwab probably felt the need to explain more because she’s writing middle grade, but… I’ve always thought that authors should trust their readers. I can’t of course be completely sure I would have felt this way about City of Ghost when I was in middle school, but I know that at the time I felt this way about some middle grade books – and phrased it a lot less nicely. (“Does this book think I’m stupid?”). The only thing I’m sure about is that I’m unlikely to get anything out of this right now.

DNF at 25%

Dragon Pearl


I… would have loved this one so much in middle school. I love it right now, too, but middle school me needed this.

I mean, this book features mischievous ghosts, adventures in space, a shapeshifting fox teenager who is trying her best and lying a lot (she gave me Lyra Belacqua vibes at times and she was my favorite character for so long). Of course the writing style isn’t Lee’s usual Ninefox Gambit-level of weird, it’s easy to read, but I never felt like it was explaining too much.

This book also has a lot of things I appreciate today that I don’t know if I would have noticed/cared about a few years ago, like the way the technology is tied to the characters’ beliefs and feels a bit like magic but also not completely. But the main difference between this book and the middle grade SFF I read in middle school is the diversity. It’s an ownvoices Korean-inspired space opera set in an  unapologetically queer-inclusive universe, with non-binary side characters and mentions of polyamorous adults. I don’t think I read any non-western-based fiction until I was 16, and I definitely didn’t see even a mention of queer characters in the books I read. If there was rep, it was Dumbledore-style-rep, which is to say “useless, vaguely-hinted-at representation I didn’t even know was there”. And of course trans characters weren’t anywhere. It means a lot to me to see that now things are different.

But, more than anything: this book was so much fun. In a way adult and YA books often aren’t, and not in a I’m-trying-to-be-funny way either. I just love books about adventures like this one, they’re so full of wonder.

I wrote a complete review of this, here.

My rating: ★★★★★

Aru Shah and the End of Time


When I started reading Dragon Pearl, I was afraid that it would somehow sound like Percy Jackson because it’s a Rick Riordan Presents book. It wasn’t the case at all, as I hoped. Then I thought it didn’t make that much sense to worry about that in the first place, because Lee sounds nothing like Riordan, no matter how much he tones down the weird-and-somewhat-purple side of his prose.

As it turns out, it wasn’t that nonsensical, because Aru Shah and the End of Time had everything I dislike about Percy Jackson in it, and Chokshi didn’t sound like Riordan to me either, when I read her YA books. In this book, the narration is constantly trying to be funny but it doesn’t really work, the quirky (…annoying. I’m sorry.) chapters titles are here, and the result is unreadable – for me, of course; this will probably work for those who liked Percy Jackson.

I’m disappointed because I loved the premise and Roshani Chokshi’s previous novels, but I think I’m just going to stick to her YA books. (I still haven’t read The Gilded Wolves. How.)

DNF at 10%

Will I Read More Middle Grade?

…It depends? If some other authors I love start writing it, I might pick it up, and if Dragon Pearl gets a sequel I will read it for sure, but I probably won’t pick up much middle grade on my own.

I never like to say “I outgrew this”, but it’s also normal that most of the books written for an age range I’m not part of anymore don’t work for me. I’m just not the target audience. I don’t think they would have worked for me when I was in middle school either, but again, I can’t be sure.

What do you think of middle grade books? Have you read any good ones lately?

Book review · middle grade · Sci-fi

Review: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

34966859This is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Dragon Pearl is a Korean-inspired space opera following a teenage fox spirit, set in a queer-inclusive universe. I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it just because it was middle grade; if I hadn’t loved Ninefox Gambit so much, I would have never picked it up, and that would have been such a mistake on my part. It is middle grade, that’s the target audience, but Dragon Pearl is the kind of book that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

I had almost forgotten that books could be so much fun. I read mostly upper YA and adult books, and many – though not all – are always trying to be dark and tense and serious while forgetting that without the light moments, nothing in them feels meaningful. That’s not to say that this book is all sunshine and happiness, because it’s not, but it understands balance and doesn’t throw unnecessary violence at you. It’s the kind of book about an adventure that you just can’t put down – it follows a young shapeshifting fox who is constantly trying to trick people, and I loved every moment of it. I would have loved this when I was twelve and I think I would love this again if I reread it in a few years. There are books I loved because I read them at the right time in my life, but this is the kind of book I would have loved no matter what.

Let’s talk about our trickster fox, Min. She’s the kind of character I would have wanted to be at twelve, and now I both admire her a lot and want to hug her. She’s just trying to find her lost, maybe-traitorous older brother back, and to do so, she’ll get in increasingly dangerous situations, with the help of her charm and her ability to shapeshift.

This is also the kind of book I needed but didn’t have when I was twelve. A middle grade book that not only has queer characters in it, its world is full of them: in Dragon Pearlbeing non-binary is normal and people casually mention their polyamorous family. Also, foxes can choose what gender to present as in their human form, and Min says that she chose to be a girl… because of tradition. I love reading about societies whose views towards gender are different from the western human default.
(Min’s sexual orientation isn’t stated – there’s no romance and I loved that – but I will never assume that the default in a book written by Yoon Ha Lee is straight and neither should you!)

As I expected, I loved the writing. If you’re familiar with Ninefox Gambit and you’re worried it will get as complicated as that (I love complicated! But not everyone does), this is much more accessible and the worldbuilding is still wonderful and complex. It’s a story set in space which has exactly what I love about Lee’s worlds: technology, magic and the characters’ beliefs are linked, the lines between them always blurred. You get something that feels a bit like science, a bit like religion, a bit like magic, and yet different from all of them.
I never struggled to understand how things looked like. And from dangerous gambling parlors to spaceships and halfway-terraformed, dusty planets, everything about this book was beautiful.

I also really liked reading about the side characters – Jang, the ghost of the cadet Min is impersonating at some point, her friends, the female dragon Haneul and the non-binary dokkaebi Suijin, and even Min’s own brother Jun, when I got to meet him. This is officially the first time I liked the “main character goes on an adventure to rescue sibling” trope, because I actually ended up caring about said sibling. He was an amazing fox too.

Also, that ending? I almost cried. Of happiness.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · middle grade · Young adult

Short Reviews: Short Books that Needed to be Shorter and Recent DNFs

37825422The House With Chicken Legs is a middle grade fantasy book following Marinka, a girl whose house has chicken legs and never settles down, making it impossible for her to have real, living, human friends. But Marinka has an important role: she is Baba Yaga’s nephew, and she must learn to help the dead pass the Gate in her chicken-legged house.

I picked up this book because it offers a really interesting twist on Baba Yaga’s fairytale, and I wasn’t disappointed by that aspect. Baba Yaga is not a terrifying witch, she’s a misunderstood grandmother, and the house is a character itself – probably my favorite character in the book.
I love seeing books inspired by Russian folklore, especially when Baba Yaga and her house are involved, so I really liked the premise of the story and its (moving) setting. I mean, who doesn’t want to read about a house with chicken legs surrounded by a fence of bones?

The House With Chicken Legs is a heartwarming story about grief and growing up. It had an interesting plot with some twists I didn’t anticipate, and I liked its themes and message, but I was a bit disappointed by the pacing – this book got somewhat repetitive in the middle and Marinka wasn’t that interesting as a character. I feel like I would have loved this book if I had read it in middle school, however, so I still recommend it to its target audience.
(I have to say that I could have done without the North African Mean Girls Scene, though).

My rating: ★★★¼

35565988Chord is a romance set in college between two girls who are roommates. The main characters don’t know they’re both attracted to girls at the beginning, but I wouldn’t say this is a coming out novel, because the focus is on the romance and little attention is given to the coming out scenes – which I appreciated, in a way, but this book really had no plot.

The first book in this series, Style, managed to be a balanced low-conflict, fluffy novel that had little plot aside from the romance but wasn’t boring anyway. But Chord isn’t low-conflict, there’s no conflict at all, and since the two girls realize they like each other and get together before halfway through, the second half ended up being really boring. I ended up skimming parts of it.

I really liked the beginning of this book. Chase and Cordelia were really cute as a couple, but what I liked the most about Chord was the way it showed how girls can be so oblivious when they fall in love or are attracted to another girl because they just don’t think about that. Also, the two main characters haven’t decided which labels fit them by the end of this book, and I liked that – there’s very little representation of main characters who are definitely queer but don’t know if there’s a specific label right for them. One of the two main characters wants to find one and the other doesn’t care, which I loved (no, not every unlabeled queer girl is bisexual and in denial, really, can we stop with that stereotype).

There are two other things I really appreciated about this book: it’s f/f with explicit sex scenes (I love how sex-positive Cameron’s book always are) and basically every character who isn’t one of the girls’ parents is queer. Also, Stella and Kyle are relevant characters here! I just wish the writing had been better – the PoV are really similar and I often confused them, there are many typos, and the dialogue feels often forced and repetitive – and I think I would have liked this a lot more if it had been as long as the novellas in Cameron’s Violet Hill series.

My rating: ★★½

Recent DNF #1

32714258Barbary Station has one of the best premises ever:
🛰️ Pirates! Even better, two pirates in space who are women and also engineers (women in science!)
🛰️ and love each other (established f/f couple!). One of them is black and butch, the other is chubby
🛰️ they became pirates because of student loans.
🛰️ and they have to fight an evil AI!

And yet, I couldn’t finish this book. The writing is dry and I struggled to focus on it. I found myself rereading paragraphs many times because I just couldn’t care about the details of the political stuff or the side characters.
Since I’ve mentioned the side characters: once Adda and Iridian got on Barbary Station, we’re introduced to more than ten side characters, and I started confusing them almost immediately. Was I supposed to care about the ones who died? How could I, if I knew nothing about them but their name?
Adda and Iridian themselves weren’t that interesting as characters. It’s not that they were terribly written – they were just a bit flat – it’s that the writing was so dry and dull that they sounded exactly alike, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a book told in first person PoV + dual perspective.

Some of the pirates hate each other because of a war between different places in the Solar System that ended a few years before the events of this book. Or so we’re told through graceless infodumps I skimmed. I think I was supposed to care about that too, but there are no stakes. The war has already ended and seems to have nothing to do with the actual enemy – the AI – so…?

There were two things I actually liked about this book apart from the premise:
🛰️ Adda and Iridian as a couple – women who love each other and support each other with no miscommunication involved are some of my favorite things to read about. Yes, the relationship having no conflict also meant it had no tension, but that wasn’t what made this book boring.
🛰️ The hacking scenes, if they can be called that. There’s a lot of interesting technology in this book, and it’s sad that I hated the writing so much, because hallucinatory hacking involving insects is a very cool idea and I wanted more.

I don’t like writing negative reviews of f/f books, especially if they’re genre fiction and not standalones, but I just couldn’t get into this.

My rating: ★★½

Other Recent DNFs

33503519The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin: More “on hold” than DNF, because I want to try this again, as there wasn’t anything wrong with it – all I’ve read was actually really good. I’m just not in the right place to read this right now, and I don’t know when I will be – sad books about people suffering because of systemic oppression are something I find difficult to read.

Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer: Not only this was boring, I [a 18-year-old] also found it disturbing, and I don’t know if I was meant to feel that way about the main relationship.
I really don’t have any interest in debating what’s problematic or immoral in a f/f Dorian Gray retelling, but I also have no interest in reading about people younger than me dating people in their thirties.

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir: I read the first book in 2015 and really liked it, but never continued the series. After three years and the first three chapters of the second book, I can just say that this series doesn’t appeal to me anymore.

So Sweet by Rebekah Weatherspoon: reading diversely for me also means trying diverse books from genres and age ranges I don’t reach for often – like middle grade, or, in this case, adult romance – and that’s something I’ve been trying to do more often. However, this just wasn’t my kind of thing – I don’t really know how to explain why, I just found the gender roles in this book [it’s m/f romance with a plus-sized black heroine]… exhausting? I don’t know, it was just really not my kind of romance.

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde: this read like fanfiction, and not in a good way. I wanted to see ownvoices anxiety and autism representation but the writing was too awkward.

Do you DNF books often? What is the last book you chose not to finish? Have you read any of these?