Wrap-Up

Spring is Here

And so am I! Mostly. I wouldn’t say I’m back exactly, but the blog is back online for the time being.

I decided I was going to be mostly offline back November for my own sanity. Predictably, at least in hindsight, I ended up liking how that felt. After a while, I also found another time-occupying thing to do online that has nothing to do with books or social media (and requires me to write in Italian: my English got worse); then, with exams and everything, I kind of lost contact with the English booksphere. But while I don’t miss certain aspects of this place – the overwhelming American nature of it, and everything that concerns “book twitter” as an entity more than the people themselves – I do miss talking about books with people.

(Yes this was up yesterday for a few hours, yes that was a mistake)


What Does This Mean?

I’m around again: though not even nearly as often, and I hope my relationship with this place will be different. You can read most of what was going wrong in this post I wrote last fall; I don’t want to feel like that again.

A smaller TBR: I’m deleting most YA books I know I won’t pick up anytime soon, those I expect I’d give around 3.5 stars; I don’t have the time to try things I know I won’t love. My goodreads TBR is currently around 110 and I hope to get it under 100… somehow (I don’t think that will happen)

Broom season just begun!

I’m not sure which broom this one is exactly (bad: I definitely should!) but it’s the only broom in bloom™ in the shrubland right now. The ginestra spinosa/spiny broom (Calicotome spinosa) and the ginestra di Spagna/Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) aren’t quite there yet, which only means we will have different but very similar species of brooms in bloom™ for a few months. Does that have anything to do with books? No and I don’t care, they’re pretty.


What about books?

This should, after all, be a book blog…!

I haven’t read much. I’ve been listening to the same book since the end of last year, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone; as far as reading-through-words-on-a-screen, I haven’t been doing any of it for the sake of my eyesight. I’m liking this absurd space opera, even though I find it way too easy to follow – when it comes to adult sci-fi, I want my brain to hurt, otherwise it’s just not good worldbuilding to me.

A brief list of my thoughts so far:

  • I appreciate the gay. a lot.
  • there’s such a thing as too much action & this book really isn’t afraid of being too much
  • sometimes it feels like superhero fiction and that’s not really my thing
  • it would give the judgemental bores who made “mary sue checklists*” a stroke and that’s good, I approve
  • I’m around halfway through and my #1 wish for the story is “get weirder”
  • not that it isn’t weird at all, but you know, there’s Room for Improvement

*I don’t know how much of a common experience it is, but when I found those “how not to write a mary sue” advice posts at 15 I took them very seriously, when 90% of what they said is fuffa (Italian; means something between crap and empty and vapid and right now I can’t find the right English word).

However, I have read some short fiction (of course I have, whose blog do you think you’re reading, etc) and the two most memorable stories were:

I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You by Karin Tidbeck (Strange Horizons, 2013): I tried it because I was curious about the author’s translated novel, Amatka, given that I’ve been wanting to know more about non-English fiction lately.
It follows a woman who is undergoing psychiatric treatment and is asked to try the “latest experimental therapy”, the Sadgoat: she is literally assigned a goat to care for, and it even seems to work… but something else might be going on. This is the kind of story that I recommend to other fans of weird, ambiguous short fiction that is more about a feeling than about the underlying mechanisms of something. It wouldn’t satisfy the kind of reader who is always looking for definite answers, but if you’ve ever had to deal with psychiatrists’ tendencies to… obfuscate, and the feeling that gives you – this is perfect. It’s also a really interesting twist on the concept of scapegoat, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

Then there’s Seven Night for Dying by Tessa Gratton (in Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite by Zoraida Córdova e Natalie C. Parker). I have no interest in the whole anthology but the editors were so kind to put Gratton’s story at the beginning so I could read all of it on google play without buying the book. Anyway. This was everything I’ve ever wanted from a YA vampire story. It’s bold, it feels like it shouldn’t be happening but you want it to, and I can feel why the main character is drawn to the vampires. The concept might not even be that original, the vampire lore is what we’re used to, but that doesn’t matter at all: it’s written so well that it just comes alive, and its structure – short snippets that are just slightly ambiguous at times – makes it a quick but memorable read with a strong atmosphere and forbidden feel to it. Also, reading about a girl who is given a choice when choices are all but a given in these stories – not when it comes to teenage girls and the dangerous allure of “turning” – has its own meaning. I wish I could get more, but it’s perfect as it is.


A Short List of Interesting Stuff

Two non-fiction posts I didn’t necessarily agree with on all points but that I did find really interesting to read:

  • The Trouble With Easy Criticism by Ritesh Babu: I don’t know anything about most of the things this post references, as it’s about a completely different sphere of media, but I do feel like my ideas and trashed posts about projection and today’s reviewing culture + the ones about not liking some of my old reviews were going for something like this, partly, but not fully – there are some parts of this I don’t really feel. It’s Complicated and that’s why I remember this post.
  • And, to talk about complicated: Complications and Contradictions: All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil, review by Alex Brown on Tor.com. Someday I’ll be able to fully unpack my feelings about this book; in the meantime, I really recommend this review and appreciate it for not taking the easy way out, which is condemning the book.

What About You?

As I said, I didn’t keep up with anything. Please tell me about the best books you’ve read in the last ~5 months, or tell me about your best posts, or anything like that – I want to know!

Also: December was such a weird time for me that I didn’t even think about it, but: my “best of 2020” post never went up, would you be interested in reading it even though it’s April and there’s nothing on there you can’t guess? Let me know; as far as the rest, I hope my next post here won’t be as late as this one has been.

Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #5: On Rating Short Fiction (and more!)

Welcome to the fifth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.

This time, I will:

  • review six short stories (nothing like last month’s fourteen, I know; that’s just how my relationship with short fiction is, it comes and goes)
  • write a DNF review of an anthology
  • explain why I don’t give a rating in the aforementioned reviews.

What I Read

Short Fiction
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The Time Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu (Tor.com): A Snow Queen retelling with physics! Abstract and unusually formatted (with footnotes); not an easy one to follow, but really interesting nonetheless. It talks about the nature of evil, how we tend to rationalize and dismiss it, because that’s how it always has been. I’m not sure I fully got the scenes of the Robber Queen and the Lap Women: maybe an acknowledgment of the importance of friendship and elders in this situation, coupled with the distance that it has inevitably already formed? Apart from that, gorgeous writing; this is the kind of science fairytale I could see myself returning to.

A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential by JY Neon Yang (Clarkesworld): trans mecha phoenix pilot story in space! I think this one definitely could have been shorter (there are parts that kind of drag, which shouldn’t happen in a novelette! Of course it happened on Clarkesworld) and I’m generally not going to mesh well with stories that heavily involve religion without actually talking about the religion (in this case, basically AU Catholicism in space), but I recognize that there wouldn’t have been the space for that here. Still, I… really, really liked this? Especially the ending. There’s a lot to say about how the idea pushed on queer people (sometimes even by other queer people) that figuring oneself out is quick and easy is one of the ways society compels us to accept the roles we’ve been forced into – but sometimes you don’t know who you are because you’ve never been given the chance to be anything else. Powerful and so, so non-binary.

Beyond the Dragon’s Gate by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com): What I love most about queer SFF are the new perspectives it brings; this talks about AIs’ relationship with their hardware in a trans perspective – while also having human trans characters. By the way, no wonder the non-binary marshal is fascinating despite the little space they have to shine, it’s a Lee story with typical Lee elements (including Unfriendly Architecture, which I love). I liked how AIs crossing the Turing Threshold was likened to a carp turning into a dragon, it reminded me of one of my favorite novelettes (Zen Cho’s imugi story, which I think is inspired by tales with similar elements).

Taraxacum by Cristina Stubbe (Anathema): I read this one for sapphicathon! I’m in the middle of preparing myself for the phytognostic part of the botany exam, which involves dealing with a lot of weeds; this is about magical weeds, so it felt right. Specifically, it’s about dandelions growing on the windowsill in slightly magical ways. It’s a latinx sapphic story about grief, a relationship that ended unexpectedly, written like many diary entries. It’s quiet and full of botanical magic, just what I need to not mind that a short story is excessively straightforward. I really liked it.

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The Insects of Love by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com): dreamlike story about an entomologist looking for her dead sister… maybe. You can draw completely different conclusions depending on how you look at it. It’s barely grounded and one could question everything about it, as you have no way of knowing what’s actually real inside the universe of the story. I appreciate the attempt at sci-fi entomology (one really can’t have too many bugs in a book, I say), but I would have liked this a lot more if the author had asked someone with basic knowledge of taxonomy to proofread it, as it’s full of obvious and jarring mistakes.

Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Café by Vida Cruz (Strange Horizons): written like a tourist guide, inspired by stories from and current political situation of the Philippines, this is about a Café staffed by supernatural creatures, and one of the main ingredients is human heartbreak. It’s explicitly and deliberately political, which makes me think I would have gotten more out of this had I been more familiar with the context. Still, it was an interesting read, especially Maria Makiling’s outlook on non-humans and her goals (and everyone’s ideas about her goals). I also really liked that it’s a multilingual short story, as I don’t see them often – most of the parts not in English (I think they’re in Tagalog and Cebuano?) are already translated for English-only speakers, but not all of them – and, of course, the food descriptions.

Anthology
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This month’s anthology was The Mythic Dream edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, but sadly, it ended up being mostly “this month’s attempt at an anthology”, because I rather quickly realized that I was hating it. After having disliked most of Hungry Hearts (which I forced myself to finish) last month, I decided to just DNF this one. It’s not that all the stories in it were bad – they weren’t, actually! I liked the one at the beginning by Seanan McGuire, and the one by JY Neon Yang – but the majority of them were mediocre, forgettable, and didn’t say anything interesting nor came together in a way that made reading the weak ones worth it. Even the two stories I mentioned wouldn’t have been anything special outside the anthology, not when I’ve been reading so much great short fiction at the same time for free online.

I just think short fiction retellings aren’t that great of an idea. What sets a retelling apart is in the execution, and even with deconstructions and stories that play with format (like JY Neon Yang’s) there’s only so much that can be done in a short story. The result is… not that interesting 90% of the time? Outside of this anthology, even Variations on an Apple, a lovely & very peculiar retelling of the Iliad by my favorite author, is one of my least favorite of Yoon Ha Lee’s; and The Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu was good but it’s not a favorite. I just don’t think short fictional retellings are for me.


Why I Don’t Rate Short Fiction (Mostly)

If you’ve been following this series of short fiction reviews this year, you might have noticed that on this blog I don’t rate any of the short stories I read, and this is a recent development – in the past, when I wrote reviews of short stories, I always rated them. What changed?

Mostly, I’m finding that it isn’t useful to me, at least here. For the short stories I do mark on goodreads as “read”, I use ratings because I notice that having a rating calls attention to a review the way a text-only one doesn’t; short fiction is already something that gets little to no attention. However, this isn’t a problem on this blog, and mostly: I want people to read why I liked or didn’t like a short story and see if it would be for them instead of just basing themselves on the rating.

As I already find difficult to sum up what I felt about something so short with a rating, I don’t want people to ignore something just because I gave it three stars! Especially when in this format, “like” or “dislike” has so much to do with personal connection to themes and writing, more than it does with actual craft, at least most of the time. More than in novels for sure.

To be honest, I also find the one-to-five star rating useless when it comes to short fiction, because as far as I’m concerned all of short fiction is divided in “favorite” (will forever remember, left me something, maybe even changed my life – yes that has happened but it’s a discussion for another day, don’t dismiss short fiction) and “not a favorite, will forget about it”, with some exceptions being stories that I hated – but that happens rarely. I can try to translate that to star ratings, and I do, but it’s not accurate. There’s so much difference between a five (favorite) and a four (not a favorite), while there isn’t so much between a four and a three or a three and a two.

So I don’t rate it. I try to explain what I thought of it in words; I hope it works.


Have you read any of these? How do you rate short fiction?

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #4: Growing Out of YA? (And More)

Welcome to the fourth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.

This time, I will:

  • review all the short fiction I read in April, 14 stories (…yes I ended up reading a lot of short stories) which include 5 Hugo Award finalists.
  • review a YA anthology
  • talk about my current relationship with YA books and what said YA anthology made me understand about it

Recent Reads

Short Fiction

I read a lot of short fiction this month (short stories are so underrated and yet are doing so much and I love this format a lot) so I decided to implement emoji tags for clarity:

  • the 2020 Hugo finalists I review in this post are marked with a 🚀
  • while I recommend most of these, my new favorites are marked with 🌠

51175276._sy475_St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk (Tor.com): a bittersweet sapphic story involving magical beekepers that has an atmosphere of inevitability to it, the cost of it all looming in the distance until the end. It only makes sense that tarot reading is featured in it – so much of this story in some way involves fate – and that its title names three saints closely associated with bees. Bees as a legacy that keeps drawing you in. There’s something mysterious about it, too, because the story doesn’t tell you anything more than what you need to understand it; it doesn’t have one word out of place. I really liked it.

Escaping Dr. Markoff by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark): sometimes if you explore the motivations of the unimportant side character you get something far more interesting that the original story! This is about the horror movie Female Assistant who is in love with the Mad Scientist, and it plays with these stock characters by following someone whose only characteristic is usually the obsession for and the total devotion to the male Mad Scientist. And maybe, if you give a character the space to be something more, the story might break in very interesting ways (involving erotic and queer twists, because why not). Fun and meta and really smart – I’d probably get even more out of this if I knew anything about horror movies, but we know that’s not possible – and wow, was that An Ending.
I found it because of Hadeer’s wrap-up, so thank you!

29387827._sy475_The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho (not for free online): not my favorite from Zen Cho, also because I was told it was an f/f romance, and while it has sapphic characters, I wouldn’t describe it as such – not like I would with If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Still, it was a lovely read. It’s set in hell, where the main character – a Malayan girl named Siew Tsin – has been forced to marry a man; now the man has taken yet another wife, a terracotta wife. It’s a light, smart story about personhood and waking up from a paralyzed state of mind, with really interesting details in the worldbuilding and a lot of heart; I wish I could have had more of a sense of who the characters were.

A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny) 🚀: about a world in which the line between emotion and the weather is very thin, and maybe natural disasters are something more than a natural disaster, and sometimes the people are part of the weather and the weather is people. The lines in here are air-thin and it’s a story about family, about leaving or staying – and sometimes those things are their own kind of storm too. Don’t expect it to make too much sense, it’s one of those ambiguous/symbolic stories I talked about in my last short fiction time. I really liked the writing and the weirdness of it all, but it didn’t stay with me emotionally.

48594209._sy475_As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang (Tor.com) 🚀: in this world, to use a weapon of mass destruction, the president has to kill a child himself.
This story follows the child, Nyma, and it’s about costs, the necessity of making something unimaginably difficult vs the overwhelming pressure that wars can put on a country, and as a story it doesn’t give you a clear answer about which path is worse. It has some beautiful poetry in it as well. The worldbuilding is very vague (and let’s just say that calling something “the Order” won’t help me take it seriously), but for the most part that wasn’t a problem. Powerful, hearbreaking, and thought-provoking.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny) 🚀: so far I haven’t found any of Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction to be particularly memorable, even though all of them are solid stories, and this one was no exception – a horror novelette about a mystery author who decides to write her new novel in an isolated cabin. The horror comes from a very unexpected place given the set-up (the premise sounds cliché? It’s not), which was clever, but I didn’t find this creepy at all – it was kind of boring, but horror is very hit-or-miss for me. Mostly a story about the importance of a good assistant.

51dwoeoslsl._sx284_bo1204203200_The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed) 🌠🚀: new favorite. I love reading about space archaeology – the whole “the past of the future” set-up really appeals to me – and this was also a very emotional story on a human level. About grief and the subjectivity of memory, what is lost in the act of remembering, the love and understanding that are gained, the pain that slowly loses its edge but never quite stops hurting; about how destruction is so often tied with discovery. Everything related to the Chronicle technology was so interesting, and so was the answer to the mystery (mysterious mass death!). Also, women in science and side relevant gay couple.

Away With the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny) 🚀: I thought I would never read anything by Sarah Gailey again after how angry one of their short stories made me last year (STET, which tried to tackle a heavy, ecology-related topic with so much ignorance it was appalling) but since they got nominated for the Hugo again, here I am. And… I finally liked something written by this author! It was my fifth try. Anyway, this is a story from the Uncanny special issue about disabled people in fantasy, and it’s pretty much about accessibility for a werewolf who has chronic pain in her human form, which is a great concept. It had one (…and then two) really heartwarming female friendships, a happy ending, and the atmosphere was really good as well. Really straightforward, and sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs to be.

52667367._sx318_sy475_Water: A History by KJ Kabza (Tor.com): we don’t get many stories about elderly queer characters, much less in space! This is about an old sapphic woman on an arid planet in which water is the most important thing and going outside the colony is dangerous. About the importance of intergenerational friendships and the risks that make life worth living. It hits in a very specific way when read while on lockdown after a particularly arid spring (that’s why you should research stories before reading them, Acqua), but I didn’t find anything about it particularly remarkable aside from that and I don’t think it will stay with me.

Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (in the Upgraded anthology, reprinted on Lightspeed) 🌠: Hello! I’m in love. Who knew biopunk horror could be heartwarming? Anyway, this is a weird, sweet romance between two outcasts, and it’s set in a creepy space city that rearranges itself cyclically, has a strong preference for well-intentioned body horror, and is the perfect setting for a story that involves replacing body parts. Gorgeous writing featuring artistic murder, the usual asides of weird for the sake of alliteration that I love so much about Lee’s descriptions (“a pipe, rattling as of librarian lizards realphabetizing their movements”) and the occasional very specific and cursed™ detail (of course tentacles are “ever-popular” as a replacement). Another new favorite; I will never not love stories about cities.

53284124._sy475_Of Roses and Kings by Melissa Marr (Tor.com): queer, fucked up twist on Alice in Wonderland with lots of murder and various other questionable things, because what’s morality in such a place? It really doesn’t hold back and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending, but I have to say that, as with all books that try to make Alice in Wonderland darker, a lot of whimsy is lost in the process, and I miss it. Still here for the unapologetically toxic stories about loyalty, especially since I don’t often get a sapphic version!
(Very predictably of me, I always love when we do. Please give me novels like that!)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny): an older story and a Hugo nominee back in 2017, because who said that newest stories should get all the spotlight. Anyway, this is as much about a supernatural (phoenix-like) creature’s revenge as it is about the way stories are always centered and making excuses for rich white men. My overall opinion is that it’s really well-written (as usual for Brooke Bolander) but that there’s such a thing as too straightforward and unsubtle in a short story, and Our Talon Can Crush Galaxies really sits on that limit.

51097037._sy475_If You Take My Meaning by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) – you probably already know about my new favorite book The City in the Middle of the Night (if not: here’s the review!), and this is set in the same universe. This novelette isn’t going to make any sense without having read the novel, but since I recently did, this was the epilogue I wanted the book to have even though I knew it wouldn’t fit, and it was perfect. The integration with the Gelet is in progress! People mess up and try to reach for the way to right certain wrongs, which also includes more mistakes! More direct digs at Xiosphanti culture and more subtly at America’s worst points! (That line about Xiosphanti believing in repression way more than was healthy or realistic… yes.) So many things are said about culture, understanding, and the importance of community vs the corruption and relative irrelevance of the people in power. And finally we also get some insight into Alyssa’s thoughts, as one of my main disappointments had been that by the end of the book I still felt like I didn’t understand her at all.
Meanwhile I’m wondering whether what this novelette said about love a certain trio is meant to be interpreted as polyamory, a really strong friendship, or neither – because who needs to categorize things in structures that are so singularly unhelpful once one has gone through integration? Anyway, I love that for them and love that they have their priorities in order. (What’s this kind of arrangement for, if not to sleep in a pile like cats? I approve.)

36426163Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May (Toil & Trouble) – women accused of witchery find power in each other while in their prison; I listened to it on scribd. It wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be something different from what it was once it turned out to involve religious abuse, because that aspect was used as a prop for the message (an effective-if-unnuanced exploration of how the not-like-other-girls line of thinking is misogynistic and contributes to victim blaming) instead of being explored like something in its own right. I don’t want to read a portrayal of forced penance if you’re not going to do anything with it – I’ve already had enough of that.

 Anthologies

This month’s anthology was Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love, edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond. I read it for free thanks to the scribd free trial: I chose it out of all the anthologies on my TBR because it was the most expensive (12€ for an ebook? No thank you) and as it turns out, that was a good choice – for all the wrong reasons, the main one known as “at least I didn’t pay for this”.
But let me explain why.

35858798Let’s say you’re an editor with some very interesting anthology ideas, and you’re fascinated by these concepts:

🍜 an anthology of interconnected stories that all take place in the same neighborhood at the same time, in which each story is full of tiny references to the others and forms a seamless web that enhances each story’s meaning;
🍜 an anthology that spans across genres, from contemporary romance and horror to gang rivalries and ghost stories and superhero tales, in which stories have little to do with each other in tone and themes and only have a tiny thread (here, food) to tie them together

Then, please, don’t be like Hungry Hearts. Only choose one of the two. If this had stopped at the first of the two points, if it had been an anthology of interconnected contemporary stories all involving food in some way, it could have been so good. I can only describe the result of trying to do cross-genre connected stories as a complete mess.

It doesn’t help that the individual quality of the stories themselves was questionable. While it’s true that I’m realizing that this kind of YA doesn’t work for me as much as it used to, most of these stories were incredibly bland and couldn’t even be saved by the food descriptions.

The only story I loved was The Grand Ishq Adventure by Sandhya Menon, a contemporary story about a girl who decides to go to restaurants alone to face her anxiety, which was wonderful in every aspect, from a beginning that draws you in (the voice in this story was amazing) to a delicious continuation and an ending with a sweet twist. There were other stories that worked, like the bittersweet Rain by Sangu Mandanna, the fiery revenge story Sugar and Spite by Rin Chupeco, and Panadería ~ Pastelería by Anna-Marie McLemore, which was like the dessert at the end of a meal. All of these were contemporaries or contemporaries with a slight magical twist, so that I could believe they coexisted in the same universe, and were well-written. All the other stories were either a boring blur or completely outside of the tone of the rest of the anthology.

I think the editors were going for something that felt not only like a story made by many interconnected parts but also a meal with many courses, and so were trying to get as much variety inside of it as it was possible, but the result was dissonant and messy.
There’s still a lot to love about this, from the diversity to the food descriptions (you really can’t go wrong with those) and especially the celebration of foods that mainstream white, western American society would consider “too weird”, but apart from these things, most of this was forgettable.

My rating: ★★


About Me and the YA Age Range

While reading Hungry Hearts, I started wondering if my lack of interest in it was also tied to me being tired of stories about high schoolers, which I started noticing while trying out series on Netflix. I don’t think I would have liked Hungry Hearts at any point of my life, but even in the stories I liked – with the exclusion of Sandhya Menon’s – I struggled to feel interested in anything they talked about. This is usually not a problem I have with short fiction.

But I do still like YA books, so this doesn’t make sense! I thought.
Then I looked at my reading so far this year, and:

of all the 45 books I’ve read so far this year, only 5 were YA.

I didn’t expect this at all. And yes, that’s counting Hungry Hearts. It’s not like I’m not liking them, not necessarily (there was a 5 star book!), but interestingly most of them were audiobooks, because YA books are easier to follow and less intimidating for me when I started to really try out the format this year. Would I have read any YA had I not wanted to try audiobooks?

I was surprised to find this out, because this was in no way a conscious choice; my TBR is still 50% YA and 50% adult, I’m just avoiding the YA books without even realizing I was doing so.

In a way,  I thought this wouldn’t happen to me. I spent half of my teen years being a mostly-YA reader and following reviewers way older than me – way older than 20 – who read mostly YA; in a way, I grew up knowing that while it prioritizes (or at least, it should prioritize) teens, YA is in fact for everyone, and that sometimes a book’s age range depends more on the publisher’s ideas about effective marketing than on anything about its content. A lot of YA SFF is following characters who are so clearly aged down for marketing reasons that it gets kind of ridiculous.

Still, here I am, 20, tired of YA and yet not even noticing that until I tried some TV shows. But I did DNF several YA books this year, too – I just didn’t think much of it. I’m realizing that the main reason I keep coming back to YA even though it appeals to me less and less is that I don’t quite know where to find what I want in adult fiction, especially the non-SFF part of it, which I should try to explore more.

Also, it’s relevant to mention that in my experience YA-focused content gets a lot of attention on blog posts compared to adult SFF.

So, what does this mean?

  • my main response, since I am who I am, is that my TBR could definitely handle a cut! It makes no sense for it to be half YA when YA books aren’t even a quarter of what I read.
  • I will definitely still be reading YA, at the rate that feels natural to me – I’m not the kind of person who thinks excluding an entire age range from their reading on principle is a good idea. It’s just that the rate at which I reach for YA is currently really low.
  • I probably should face the truth and start considering myself an adult SFF reviewer instead of someone who reviews that and YA in equal amounts, as if I were stuck in 2018. (Thinking back, a lot of my YA reading in 2019 was due to ARCs. Not requesting/barely requesting ARCs anymore is doing a lot for making me understand what I actually want to read and I strongly recommend it.)

Have you read any of these? Has your relationship with an age range category changed over time?

Adult · Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

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

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

This time, I will:

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

Recent Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★½


On Ambiguous Endings in (Short) Fiction

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

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

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

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


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

Book review · 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?

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?
lists

Non-Novel Favorites of 2019

As I said in my post about my favorite novels of the year, I also have a lot of “favorites of 2019” that aren’t novels, and I will talk about them in this post.


Novellas

2019 was a great year for novellas, and less of a great year for me actually reading them. I still have to get to a few titles I’m really interested in, like the unanimously-praised Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney and the unusual-looking The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall. And I should definitely reach for more novellas, because I read 15 and 5 of them ended up being favorites, and that’s not even all the five stars. If only with full novels I could find a favorite every three books.

My 5 favorites were:

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire: Seanan McGuire has outdone herself this year. Both her books were full five stars for me, which I didn’t expect, as I had liked many of her previous ones, but hadn’t rated them that highly before.
I have such fond memories of In An Absent Dream because I listened to it on audiobook (the only audiobook I’ve ever liked!) on the two days I was going with my class on botanical excursions, two of the best days I had in 2019. The audiobook is perfect – the narration was so good I felt as if I could see and feel the goblin market’s world – and the story is as well. It’s about unfairness, navigating two worlds, and how freedom isn’t always defined by choice. It made me think about so many things and it’s one of those stories that will stay for me for a long time. It’s bitter and I wouldn’t change one thing about it, despite how much I wish it could have gone differently.

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang: I will never not be there for F/F villain romances. As it’s tradition for this novella series, it’s written in an experimental format – this time, it’s a drunken monologue – and I loved that about it, as the point is as much the story as it’s Lady Han’s current feelings about what happened, the hindsight, the hate coexisting with grief. She is telling the story of how her very dysfunctional relationship with the empress led to the dawn of a revolution, and I will always value tragic queer stories that are not tragedies about being queer.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark: this universe (the same of A Dead Djinn in Cairo) is one of the best examples of imaginative worldbuilding in fantasy. I will always love stories about cities that feel alive and chaotic and real, and this is all of that while mixing steampunk and paranormal, which is a great concept in itself. I mean, haunted aerial trams? One can’t do better than that, and the way this novella balances between “paranormal mystery” and “story about the advances in technology and society” is also masterful – it is mostly about the ghost, but also about corruption and politics and there’s a background storyline about women’s right to vote. I hope I will get more from this world, and P. Djèlí Clark is becoming one of my favorite authors.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone: If I had known what this novella truly was – the closest a book can get to poetry without being in verse – I would have liked it even more, so I plan to reread it at some point.
I’ve seen it end up on many other lists of favorites, and I can definitely see why, from the perfect hook “F/F enemies-to-lovers between two spies during a time travel war” to it being one of the most beautiful examples of sci-fantasy I’ve ever seen, with a dynamic between the two main characters that is so intense and… such a powerful positive force in a way we don’t usually get for F/F relationships. A really remarkable novella I expect to win a lot of awards this next season.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole: this is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. I’ve never been to New York and I’m probably imagining it wrong as well, but I felt as if I was walking alongside with the characters: the author’s attention to detail made this sweet romance unforgettable. This is a second chance F/F romance between two Black women and I loved Fabiola and Likotsi’s story so much.


Short Stories & Novelettes

Sadly, I didn’t have as much time to check out short stories in the second half of the year as I did in the first, so I basically didn’t read any after… July? But I did find some favorites during the first half of the year.

Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy by JY Yang: sometimes a story stays with you because it hit you in a way only short stories can, so personal and close that you can barely look at it with any distance. I can’t tell you what it’s actually about, but I can tell you that nothing has ever described so well the feeling of being forced to face your own past coping mechanisms – the struggle between what the world says you should feel about what you did to survive and what you actually feel.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho: the cutest F/F short story between a human and an imugi who wants to become a dragon. Funny and bittersweet and definitely deserving of the Hugo, it’s about perseverance, and when that is a good idea, and the great things you stumble into while looking for something else.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly: the most interesting banquet/revolution story you will ever read, as well as a really smart way to explore the link between food and memory in a more… literal way. I can’t say more without spoilers but I loved this a lot.


Collections

I haven’t read an anthology in all of 2019? 2018 was a year of slowly realizing I don’t like them 90% of the time, and this is the consequence. What I can like, however, is collections written by my favorite authors. I read 4, and one of them ended up being a favorite. (The other three, Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee, Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard, and Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley, were also really good but not favorites.)

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The Fox Tower and Other Tales by Yoon Ha Lee is a collection of delightful flash fiction fairytales. It’s sweeter than anything you’ll find in Lee’s books, but still with the very characteristic kind of writing I love about them – the blurred lines between magic and math, magic and science, and the many, many foxes. Also, many stories are queer, of course. It made me so happy.


Comics & Graphic Novels

After this Out of My Comfort Zone experiment at the beginning of 2019, I decided I wanted to read more of them, and for once, I actually did. I went from having read 4 graphic novels in 2018 to this year’s 16. My five favorites were:

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell: this is a graphic novel about Freddie, an Asian-American girl who is in a toxic relationship with a white, popular girl who keeps breaking up with her. I stayed up late to read it because it’s wonderful, as much a story about the importance of friendships in your life as as it is a celebration of queerness – yes, even though it follows a relationship gone wrong that needs to end. And the art? Breathtaking. I want to reread this soon.

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe: as it’s important to me, a queer person, to read about failed queer relationships, it also is to read about morally messed up queer stories like this one. A vital part of being acknowledged as human in fiction is being allowed to be a horrible person without being turned into a caricature, and this was the deeply unhetical noir with a mostly queer female cast I didn’t know I always needed.

Monstress Vol. 3: Haven by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda: I could tell you that I liked this because the story or the art (both are amazing, don’t get me wrong), which is true, but honestly the thing I remember most vividly was just how much I was into some drawings of one of the antagonists. I’m glad my favorite bookish villainesses only exist in written form or I wouldn’t survive.

Sol by Loputyn: this collection of gothic illustrations by Italian artist Jessica Cioffi is the drawn equivalent of a poetry collection, and I’m sad that the author being from Italy means it won’t get any attention outside of my country despite having barely any words in it (it wouldn’t need to be translated). It goes from sweet to sad to eldritch in a few steps, and it’s gorgeously witchy. Most of the illustrations featuring couples are M/F, but there are a few F/F ones as well, and to see queerness in Italian-authored books is everything to me. (If you want to see a little more of the art, here’s my review.)

La mia ciclotimia ha la coda rossa by Lou Lubie: a memoir about living with cyclothymia I liked so much that I made my whole family read it (it helps that it’s short and has an amazing sense of humor) and they all liked it! I recommend it if you ever want to start/continue a conversation about mental illness with someone, even if you don’t have any kind of bipolar disorder – as far as I know, I don’t, but some parts of this were relevant to me as well. It exists in Italian, French (original language) and Spanish.


Poetry

Poetry is something I should explore more, but I don’t quite know where to start. The only kind of poetry I read this year – The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, a novel written in verse – was a favorite, so I really should try more.

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This is a story about growing into your own identity, following a gay Black boy as he understands what he wants from his life and what it means for him to be gay, to be biracial, to be Jamaican and British and Cypriot, and finding his own people as well. It focuses on friendships and family and some of the poems about that really resonated with me.


Shows

I would never have thought there would be a section like this in one of my “favorites” posts. While I did watch 3 movies this year (a record? maybe?), none of them was anything like a favorite, but I absolutely have to mention The Untamed, the only show I watched, adaptation of the Chinese novel Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.

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I read the novel and really liked it, but this story ended up working even more this way for me, which I didn’t expect at all, as I usually lose interest in TV shows. And yes, while unlike the novel it can’t let its main character kiss because of censorship, it’s still so blatantly gay that my straight friend got it (without me telling her) during the first episode.
Anyway, if you don’t know what it’s about (which would surprise me, unless somehow you’re never on social media but you are reading this blog – this is everywhere) I can tell you that it’s a Chinese fantasy story involving necromancy, war, and an epic romance – starting out with the resurrection of the most hated person in the whole country, our main character Wei Wuxian.


What did you think of these?

Adult · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley

43801821._sy475_I could sum up my thoughts about Meet Me in the Future by saying that all the stories were, if not always good, at least solid, but not one of them was memorable on its own the way I find short stories can be.
These stories are not pretty. They’re not necessarily satisfying. They would, however, be really interesting to discuss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the whole purpose of how some of these were written. They’re meant to be shared and talked about, not read and put down, I think.

As you’d expect from something Kameron Hurley wrote, many of them are about war. War is an element in the past, still casting a shadow on the main character (Elephants and Corpses), it’s something that is seen as inevitable by a society, but is also a direct danger to it (The Red Secretary, oh had this story a lot to say), or something that is paradoxically seen by some as “bringing civilization” even as it actually destroys it (The War of Heroes), something that is always inherently tied to the dehumanization of someone (When We Fall) and horror, horror, horror as much as an instrument to keep the attention away from the actual enemy (The Light Brigade – I recommend skipping this one if you want to read the book, however), something that needs to end (The Improbable War).
Not all of these were anything remarkable when read on their own. Inside the collection, it’s a running thread, and there is for sure a lot to discuss.

There’s also, of course, a lot of queerness and discussions about gender. The collection starts with a body-hopping mercenary who happens to be a trans man (Elephants and Corpses), and presents gender as something not tied to bodies, even though still relevant to the person, and continues with stories about violent matriarchies (The Women of Our Occupation, possibly my least favorite story, I’m not that interested in reading about speculative reverse sexism), stories in which gender is never stated (The Light Brigade), stories in which there’s only one gender (Warped Passages), and stories in which there are at least four different genders recognized by the society (The Plague Givers, my favorite story). In these stories, women are allowed to be ugly, to be dirty – queer, disabled, brown women are allowed to be all of these things without ever be seen as anything but wholly human, the way a man could be portrayed. The idea that women have to be beautiful is so woven into everything, even everything fictional, that these stories almost feel jarring.
And, since we’re talking about women and imperfections, here women are allowed to be evil or morally gray, humans with the capacity to experience a full spectrum of emotions. I will always be there for portrayals of queer women that are all but soft and unproblematic; in Garda we get a woman who is divorcing from her two wives (if the story had been about that, instead of becoming about a mystery with a main character who wasn’t Nyx but felt exactly like Nyx from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I would have liked it a lot more), and in The Plague Givers we get a story about the consequences of a very toxic f/f relationship in a world where magic can bring plague (I loved this one so much).

There are a couple stories that felt like filler (notably, The Fisherman and the Pig was a completely unnecessary sequel to Elephants and Corpses), but overall, this is a collection with a lot of things to say; the average rating might be a weak 3.5 stars, but the whole is more than a sum of its parts.

My overall rating: ★★★★

Individual ratings:

  • Elephants and Corpses – 4 stars
  • When We Fall – 4 stars
  • The Red Secretary – 4 stars
  • The Sinners and the Sea – 3.5 stars
  • The Women of Our Occupation – 2 stars
  • The Fisherman and the Pig – 2 stars
  • Garda – 3 stars
  • The Plague Givers – 4.5 stars
  • Tumbledown – 4 stars
  • Warped Passages – 4 stars
  • Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light – 2.5 stars
  • Enyo-Enyo – 3 stars
  • The Corpse Archives – 2.5 stars
  • The War of Heroes – 3.5 stars
  • The Light Brigade – 4.5 stars
  • The Improbable War – 3 stars

Do you rate anthologies with the average rating of the stories or do you have another system?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War + Small Discussion

Today, I will be reviewing This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, and also talk about a short story I really recommend reading before/after reading this novella, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn.


36516585This Is How You Lose the Time War is a novella about a love that transcends time, space and humanity. It’s beautiful and lyrical and heartbreaking; it’s all of these things and I loved its ending so much that I don’t feel like I can do this story justice with a review. Just know that, while this is an epistolary f/f enemies-to-lovers story set during a time-travel war, calling it that feels almost reductive.

It follows two entities, “Red” and “Blue”, both presenting as women but who don’t strictly adhere to our definition of what a human is, and there’s a time war. If you’re the kind of person who needs to know the reasons and the workings of everything, this won’t work for you; it’s often vague, but as I didn’t feel like much more context was needed, I didn’t have a problem with that.

The writing in here will be polarizing. At times, I hated it: it was pretentious, and it made me feel like the authors were trying to show off how many pretty sentences they were able to string together without saying that much at all. But in other places it was beautiful and powerful, and the foreshadowing was woven into this story effortlessly – which only makes sense in something about braiding time.
And you know what else makes sense? That a story about Red and Blue writing to each other would be 90% Purple prose.

In one of my updates, I said that I wondered whether this started out as a short story. If you’ve ever read some short fiction on online magazines, you probably recognize the metaphor-heavy style and the vagueness of the worldbuilding, and I mean, if I’m going to read something that short, I want something really pretty that will make me feel and won’t need that much background to do so. I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had toned all of this here a bit down, however.

My rating: ★★★★½


On What I Got From This

The major spoiler is hidden but there could be small ones

It’s weird how sometimes reading a book can help you understand something you read years before.

You should know, from that title, that This Is How You Lose the Time War will be in some way about someone losing a war involving time travel. And it is. But the question that is woven between its lines isn’t “how could they have won”: it’s “can you ever win a war?” Can a successful war effort ever be seen as a victory? The title tells you, this is how you lose.

A certain character says, at the end:

This is how we win. Losing the war – letting go of it – is winning at life.

ThatGameIt reminded me so much of a few lines that had stuck with me in a short story I loved in 2017, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn. A few lines that had something important to tell me, and I knew that, but while I loved the story, I didn’t really get what¹.

For some context: the war has ended, and the main character Calla (who is Enith, non-telepathic) is playing chess against a telepath (a Gaanth, so someone who was an enemy – at least on paper – until very recently) and employing a specific anti-telepath strategy. One of the other Gaanth says:

“This is how you won,” one of them said, amazed. He wasn’t talking about the game.
“No,” Calla said. “This is how we failed to lose.”

I think I know what it means, now. Winning would imply there was something positive about the whole thing, and there wasn’t, there had never been. The deceptively happy tone of the story is a happiness built from ruin, so fragile and so impactful, and it might feel naive at times, but sometimes you need to let go of that cynicism. Sometimes you need to let go and rebuild.


¹ something about 17-year-old me: she kept falling in love with books she didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain why. It was something like a message hidden, something that resonated with me in ways I didn’t have words for – the biggest example of this is The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, a story about perfectionism that I didn’t even understand was about perfectionism until I reread it.

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

42201485Hexarchate Stories is a collection of stories – from flash fiction and prose poems, both old and new, to a sequel novella – set in the universe of the Machineries of Empire series.
While many of these stories develop the worldbuilding, give a PoV to characters that were only minor in the trilogy, and give you some insight into how this series came together, they’re not necessary to understand it. Nor – I think – would mean a lot to someone who isn’t familiar with the main trilogy. I would recommend this mostly to those who loved this universe and want more.
As I’m part of said those, I’m glad these stories exist, and I’m glad that I can find most of them in only one place now.

This collection starts with The Chameleon’s Gloves, following Rhehan, an alt (non-binary person) who is trying to pull off art theft and gets roped into something much more dangerous instead, something that will make them question their loyalties. This was interesting mostly because of its worldbuilding, as it’s set before everything we saw in the series came into being.
Of mostly historical significance is also Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam, snapshots about a faction then gone heretical, which made me realize just how much the Hexarchate misunderstands its own history.

And I can’t not mention the gorgeous prose poem How the Andan Court. I’ve always been intrigued by the Andan faction, mostly because a) pretty and b) we see a lot of the inner workings of the Shuos, but not of the Andan, but from the little we see of actual Andan in the series they’re equally terrifying.
And now I want them to court me instead

There are also stories following Jedao’s childhood and family. They’re bittersweet, especially if you know what happens later, and really interesting, because Garach Ledana is a very fascinating person and because foreshadowing. The one in Rodao’s PoV was especially heartbreaking, as I can’t help but wonder about all the what ifs.
(Also, of course kid!Jedao cut class to play jeng-zai)

Then there’s Extracurricular Activities, the novelette that introduced me to this series. It has all the humor of the series, but it’s much lighter in tone; I’ve read it probably more than ten times by now, and every time I catch some new detail that makes me laugh. (The part about eating utensils and Jedao’s thoughts about knives never fail.)
It’s just – Jedao. He’s a charming, murderous bisexual disaster?
Also, here you’ll get more details about his mother, about the Gwa Reality, and you’ll get to read probably the closest thing to a (m/m) romance there is in this series, apart from the Brezan/Tseya storyline, maybe.

Far less romantic is Gloves, in which Jedao visits a brothel, feat. forbidden Kel uniform kink. Basically PWP, but as I suspected, there was some seriously ugly context, because my experience told me that when this author takes the time to describe a sex scene instead of just mentioning it – at least in this universe – there’s always some seriously ugly context.
And I mean, that was one messed up ending.

Another story I read before the actual trilogy is The Battle of Candle Arc, about of one of Jedao’s most well-known battles, in which he was outnumbered eight to one. I’ve read it a lot of times by now, and every time, my favorite parts are the ones about cross-faction bickering and the Jedao/Menowen dialogues.

Then there’s Calendrical Rot, which started out as the prologue of Ninefox Gambit but was then removed. It’s just a fragment about one of the many places in which the story began, and now I have questions, and is it weird that unanswered questions just make this world feel more real?

The following stories (BirthdaysThe Robot’s Math LessonsSword-ShoppingPersimmons) are about Cheris, her Mwennin upbringing, and her relationship with servitors. I love how Cheris is simultaneously a math lesbian and a sword lesbian, this is the kind of representation we need
The servitors have never been my favorite part of this series, but reading about how they see humans and how they interact with them, especially with Cheris, is always interesting.

Then there are two stories following some of my favorite characters: Irriz the Assassin Cat, of course, which is probably my favorite of the flash pieces, because it’s about Zehun and cats and Shuos parenting, and Vacation, about Brezan and Tseya, featuring questionable Nirai experiments.

The last short story is Gamer’s End. I’m not sure where it’s placed timeline-wise, but it’s a really interesting piece in second person about Shuos Academy’s new ethics curriculum. This is probably the most unethical way to have a test about ethics anyone has ever come up with, but what can you expect from the Shuos?
Also: a medical unit decored with knitted lace? Mikodez, why. (No, seriously, half of the reason I like this series are this kind of details.)

And then there’s the sequel novella, Glass Cannon, in which Jedao Two escapes the Citadel of Eyes to get his memories back from Cheris, and the two kind of reconcile in the process. I have some mixed feelings about this, because it has an exposition problem. I think there was an attempt to make this novella accessible to those who haven’t read the main series or don’t remember it that well, but it… really didn’t flow smoothly the way the rest of the series does. (How many times did you need to directly tell me that Kujen liked luxury?)

Also, I’m not sure if there are going to be more stories in this universe, but reading a very open-ended sequel novella after the trilogy had a pretty satisfying conclusion is… somewhat disappointing? However, there were some things left open in the third book, and this novella started to deal with them (servitor rights! moth rights! Seriously I love the Harmony), and Jedao Two was in a terrible place mentally when we left him – at least what happened here seems to have made that better. Also, Cheris now knows more details about what happened with Dhanneth, which is something I had hoped would happen in Revenant Gun, and I’m glad that was addressed, if somewhat obliquely.

I realize that so far what I’ve said about this novella sounds mostly negative, but I actually really liked reading it – it’s hilarious. As Cheris/Jedao and Jedao Two are both Jedao to a level but not fully, and as no one alive hates Jedao quite as much as Jedao himself does… well, it goes exactly as messily as one could think. It reminded me of Extracurricular Activities, as it has all of the humor and some of the darkness of the main series but none of the heaviness. And since I’m always there for mirroring, something about this ending made a lot of sense to me, too.
(My favorite parts were the ones in which Jedao was described as “the regenerating menace from outer space” and “what did the void vomit forth”.)
Also: Niath cameo (I’m so glad he seems to be doing ok, even though I hadn’t really met him before), Hemiola cameo, and poor Mikodez.

My rating: ★★★★½ [5 for the short stories, 4 for the novella]