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?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

43558747Me and YA fantasy this year really don’t get along.

In terms of how it compares to the first book, Girls of Storm and Shadow is probably the worst sequel I’ve ever read.
After all, how can a series in which I love the two main characters end up being actively unenjoyable? Somehow, this one managed, and without ever making me change my feelings about Lei and Wren – which is a remarkable accomplishment, one I hope to never see again.

The best word I can find to describe what went wrong with most of this book is “sloppy“. A lot of good ideas, but to say that the execution left something to be desired would be an understatement, and this was true right from the beginning. I read an ARC, and I hope some of these don’t make it to the final copy, but one of the first things that stood out to me about Girls of Storm and Shadow was the jarringly modern language – characters using words like “fanmail”, or “B.O.” to mean body odor, or saying “stealth mode activated” – out of nowhere, in what is very much a high fantasy setting. There are also some puns that, to work, would require the characters to be speaking English, which clashed with everything I know about the worldbuilding. Also, since we’re talking about the puns: I didn’t mind that they were purposefully terrible, but the attempt at funny banter involving Bo, Nitta and Merrin was so cringey I just wanted them all to disappear. There really isn’t a character more annoying than the unfunny comic relief.

The jarring parts didn’t stop there; no, soon I started to notice how awkward the dialogue was at times – always at the same very specific times. While every character has their own way to speak and it’s usually easy to understand who is saying what without needing a dialogue tag, most of the characters seemed to have a thing for launching themselves into monologues about what bravery is and the costs of fighting back. In those monologues, they all spoke the exact same way. It was as if these parts were made to work out of context instead of in context, as if they were meant to be quoted and shared instead of actually belonging in the text. While I agreed with what the book said about resistance and what it means to be brave, abandoning all subtlety to deliver important lessons to the reader is talking down to the reader.

This is also a journey book.
I’m always hesitant with sequels of books I loved, because in a trilogy, the second book often turns into a journey book. If the first book wasn’t one already, the second often fails. One of the things I loved the most about Girls of Paper and Fire was the atmosphere, at the same time dazzling and claustrophobic, and the way the f/f romance was framed as a light in the darkness for Lei. All of this is lost in the second book; we go from a developed, vivid setting that feels real to speeding through a series of locations we’re told relatively little about, and everything feels so flat and fake. We go from a romance that was a source of strength for the characters to something that is mostly yet one more obstacle for them.

I appreciated how this book portrayed the way even a loving relationship can become really strained when two people are uprooted from the circumstances in which the relationship began and thrown into a very different but still ugly situation. Lei is suffering because she feels out of place (on top of everything we saw in the first book); Wren has been raised by a family that mostly saw her as means to an end, and at times finds herself missing some parts of palace life, and this horrifies her. I wasn’t annoyed by the way the main characters found communicating difficult – no, I think the miscommunication was realistic and necessary. These are traumatized 17-year-olds and Lei is clearly displaying PTSD symptoms. Of course they’re struggling, and that impacts their relationship. This book doesn’t shy away from any of that, and that’s probably what I liked the most about it.

What really annoyed me was that this book thought it was necessary to include [spoilery thing] of all things, out of nowhere, 70% in. Now, I can have fun with this sort of thing in lighter reads in which I’m just there for the drama. This is very much not that kind of book, and I have no idea why this was done. To add conflict? As if there wasn’t enough. That sort of thing only annoys your reader, and it’s not like I needed that, because believe me, after spending 300 pages with Bo I was already annoyed.

Click here to see what the spoiler-y thing is, because I wish I had known:

Unnecessary drama involving an ex-girlfriend that is suddenly introduced.

I also felt like nothing happened, even though a lot of things clearly happened, since the characters were constantly on the run or trying to convince people to ally with them. The problem is, the situation felt very stagnant, because the characters’ goals were always the same, their relationship with the world and each other were always the same, the villains’ goals were always the same – at least for the first three quarters of the book.
I quit 75% of the way through, because I realized that I wasn’t actually liking anything of what I was reading anymore.

My rating: ★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Missing, Presumed Dead by Emma Berquist

40221949Now I have feelings, book, how dare you.

I love ghost stories. It’s not so much about wanting to believe in the paranormal or wanting to talk about what is after death; that’s not what draws me in. It’s that haunting stories are stories about isolation. There’s something inherently detached from reality in this kind of paranormal. They are stories about the word’s hidden pockets, the in-between spaces, for the lonely and the lost. They are about the weight isolation has on a person, and seeing Lexi’s journey with that, seeing how what the story does with this theme, meant so much to me.

Lexi is a bitter and deeply pessimistic person. The first impression I had of this story, before I really got to know her and her past, was that it really was a downer. And it’s not. I’m not saying this just because there is humor – dark and sarcastic, often, but it is funny – but because whether something ends up being depressing is about what a story does with its premise, and this might be dark, but it’s all but hopeless.
And, after all, how could Lexi not be the way she is? She can’t touch people without seeing the time and the cause of their deaths, and she avoids (and is avoided by) people for that reason. Stories often understate how much loneliness can affect a person. What matters is that she is not static in this, and the way the book ends up dealing with all of this was both original and right for the story. (Ghost therapy? Ghost therapy.)
By the way, giving your haunted and isolated main character a power that can double as a metaphor for significant touch aversion, and showing how people often don’t respect that kind of boundary, which only reinforces something that already is really isolating to deal with: great and painful content.

This is a story about an angry, isolated girl who can see death and the dead as she meets an angry, vengeful ghost of a murdered teenage girl (Jane), and their relationship was one of my favorite aspects of the book. In equal parts tender and raw, it’s messy and tangled and somewhat unbalanced, and the main character absolutely do say terrible things to each other, think terrible things about each other, harm each other. And yet. There is a conversation in which Lexi says that she’s not sure they’re going to work, and she thinks that trying and not making it could only hurt her more, but here’s the thing: I can see it working, and in the end, so does she. Because they finally talk about their feelings, and not wanting to deal with them was a big part of why their early interactions were toxic (so much that Lexi at one point thinks, paraphrasing, “I wish Jane would always be angry and vengeful instead of trying to make me think about my feelings”). The elephant-in-the-review I still haven’t talked about, which clearly had a strong negative impact on their relationship while at the same time bringing them together, also had a resolution.

About the relationship: (spoiler-y)

it’s so interesting to see a story about isolation through hauntings have this kind of resolution. Lexi finds friends and a girlfriend in the ghosts around her; they’re not the ones isolating her anymore, they’re a part of her world and just as human and the relationships Lexi ends up forging with them have the same value to her. She can’t be around living people the way everyone does – even though she does find some living friends as well and slowly accepts that they are in fact friends – and so she finds her people mostly among the dead.

But let’s talk about the aforementioned elephant, the reason I haven’t given this f/f ghost story about all the themes I love, following two angry bi girls I also loved, a full five stars. And that elephant is the murder mystery, the thing this book wants you to deceive it is. It’s not, really, even though the mystery drives a significant part of the tension. Get into this if you’re interested in an introspective story about isolation; as a murder mystery, it’s underwhelming. I did fall for one of the things the book threw at me, which I did appreciate, but this is the kind of book that doesn’t give you enough elements to solve the mystery along with the characters, and that’s always disappointing. Also, introducing this many (often irrelevant) male characters in the first chapters of a story meant that I kept confusing them, so that didn’t help either.

Overall, this was a really compelling paranormal read and I really recommend it to everyone who needs more queer ghost stories in their lives.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · contemporary · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum + Small Haul

My physical copy of The Weight of the Stars arrived yesterday, which led me to realize that I haven’t posted my review of it – of one of my favorite novels of the year, which I can now confirm is also beautiful in person – on this blog yet. I read in in June as an ebook and I have talked about it multiple times, but never scheduled the review, so here it is:

36952571The Weight of the Stars is the kind of novel that reminds me of the power of quiet books. There are no grand revelations, surprises or explosions; just two girls, their friends, and the stars – and yet it feels so wide, carrying so much weight sometimes in just a paragraph, so much emotion in the unspoken moments.
It does feel like looking at the stars.

This is a story about Ryann, a queer butch girl, who falls in love with Alexandria, a biracial black girl whose mother left to live in space and never returned to earth. It’s a story about them and their friend group, a group of teenagers (many of which queer and/or people of color) just trying to make it work despite their trauma and the general unfairness of life. It’s about humanity, and the ways we look at space. It’s so many things, and I won’t lie, just like The Wicker Kingit’s such a strange book. It will either speak to you or not make much sense, but I’m sure that in either case it will be unlike every other thing you’ve ever read.

The romance felt also very different to me. Not only because it’s f/f, even though that’s always something I look for, but because Ryann and Alexandra’s relationship isn’t… soft, unlike most f/f romances I know, especially in YA. It’s angry, it’s raw, it’s deeply beautiful.
The friendships are far softer, though not always, but I loved them too. Of the side characters, Ahmed was my favorite, and I was living for the cameos of the characters from The Wicker King (so, Ahmed’s three parents. Who are happy and in love. Polyamory rep and Sikh rep!)

Just like with the previous book, there are some mixed media aspects to this. I’m not only referring to the way chapters are structured – extremely short, with a time in the place of a title – but also to some things that happen near the end. I thought that part was beautiful; I thought it was necessary, because one can’t think about space and not be aware of their own smallness, one can’t think about space and not be aware of being just a part of a whole – one can’t think about space without thinking about humanity.

I loved most of this book. However, I don’t see it as a full five stars. Because I liked these characters, and cared about them, and yet I didn’t understand them, and something got lost along the way.

I think I know what happened. A big plot point in this book is people being separated because they decide to live the rest of their lives in space, away from earth. I think I was supposed to feel that mix of wonder and grief and longing for infinity they felt, and at times I did, but mostly I couldn’t. I am the kind of person who sees the meaning of life on leaves, and feels so strongly about plants that is afraid of them. I… have roots, and the idea of leaving it all behind, the plants of which I want to learn the names of or the combtooth blennies or even the polychaetes living in polluted waters – I don’t think I will ever be able to understand that decision.

I understand that not everyone sees things like I do, but I was so caught up in how horrifying I found even only the idea of teenagers deciding to leave the earth to live shut off in a box floating in nothingness, so away from life, that the ending landed with half the impact it could have had.

It still made me feel so much, and for that, I will always remember it positively.

My rating: ★★★★¾


Small Haul

I only buy physical copies in English a few times a year, not counting the rare occasions in which a book worth buying mysteriously appears in my Italian bookstore’s minuscule English section. (For example, that’s how I got my paperback of The Kingdom of Copper. If you’re wondering, no, the first book in the series never showed up. Neither do far more popular high fantasy series. Italian bookstores really are a mystery.)

This time, I got:

IMG_20190912_202638353

  • Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: this… this was a replacement goldfish, basically. You might already know that I almost only buy physical copies of favorite books, and only make exceptions for some authors (Yoon Ha Lee, mostly) and really, really, really anticipated releases. The really anticipated release this time was Gideon the Ninth, but when I saw that the price (30€? Is that a joke? I hope gets reasonable before next year), I decided to get something else instead of buying nothing, because I could. Middlegame was half the price, which is saner.
  • The Weight of the Stars by Kayla Ancrum: see review. If physical copies are an option for you, I really recommend it, as the mixed media aspect works even better (the background of some pages is different, which wasn’t true for the ebook).
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear: one of my favorite books of the year, another of which I still need to post a review of (yes, I fully admit that I was lazy about scheduling this summer). I don’t know if the picture shows that very well but this is a Tome. Such a beautiful book, inside and outside, and really heavy (only on the outside… mostly.)

Have you read any of these?

 

Book review · Young adult

Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

38612739Pet is a story about how evil – any kind of evil – thrives in plain sight when people start refusing to look for it, to acknowledge that it can and does exist. It’s a story about how this refusal of any kind of discomfort, this hiding from the world’s truth, hurts and silences victims.

It follows Jam, a black trans girl with selective mutism who lives in Lucille, a town in a future version of America that would look like an utopia to us. Not only the people around Jam accept all of her as she is, Lucille as a whole doesn’t have “monsters” anymore: no police to fear, no hoarding billionaries or evil politicians or backstabbing bigots. Evil has been defeated, people say, but as Jam soon discovers, that’s never really the case.

This is a charming little book. It’s so short, but it has so much to say, with this world balanced between surreal and futuristic, in which creatures can come through paintings and monsters are still so familiar. It’s not contemporary, but it’s that kind of book that feels more real than reality, and one I would recommend to readers of all ages. I think that it’s technically a much-needed lower YA, as the main character is 15, but it’s accessible even to younger readers, and adults could get a lot out of it as well. From what Petsays about the nature of evil to what it says about what makes a monster, or an angel – not the appearance, not what they are, but what they do – there are a lot of important messages and reminders in this book.

I think it’s really interesting how, in an age range that is supposedly geared towards teenagers (so, from 13 to 19, and even then, people will tell you that it’s technically meant to be 14-17), characters that are younger than 16 are so uncommon in YA. I think this is one of the reasons this book felt so unlike every YA novel I had ever read before – Jam is a 15-year-old girl who actually feels like one, and Pet talks about the typical difficulties of being a young teen in the world: Jam doesn’t know how to communicate with her parents anymore, she’s slowly realizing that the world is uglier than she has believed for all her life, and is terrified that people won’t listen to her just because of her age. I remember experiencing all of these things myself, and it’s sad that the YA age range usually avoids dealing with these topics to favor storylines that are more appealing to adults instead.

Pet also focuses a lot on family dynamics, both in Jam’s own family – Jam’s relationships with her parents, Bitter and Aloe, is really developed, which is also uncommon in YA – and in her friend Redemption’s, in which Jam has been told “hides a monster”. I loved the portrayal of Redemption’s family, it’s so uncommon to see extended families and polyamory representation (Redemption’s parents are a woman, a non-binary person, and a man, but aunts and uncles are almost like parents to him too) in books, but even families that look perfect can have their ugly sides. And this is still a story with a happy ending, the best possible ending given the circumstances. Just because it has an important message, it doesn’t mean it has to be constantly painful.

And then there’s the relationship between Jam and Pet, the creature that came through Jam’s mother’s paining. I loved what this book did with Pet, especially what Pet meant to Jam – their complicated friendship, their disagreements abou how to pursue justice, and how Pet taught Jam to be brave and that sometimes discomfort is a positive thing.

I hope Pet ends up reaching a lot of people; I think most could get something useful from this.

My rating: ★★★★★

Book review · Young adult

Review: Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé

36445966Strange Grace meets The Wicker King, but duller, more hopeless, and unnecessarily heterosexual. If you’ve followed me for a while, you might know that I loved Amelinda Bérubé’s debut, The Dark Beneath the Ice, for being an introspective, chilling horror story about mental illness, portrayed with a care that I don’t always trust the horror genre to have. Here There Are Monsters, however, didn’t resonate emotionally with me at all.

This was… I’m not sure what it was. On the surface, it’s a horror story about a girl gone missing and the woods trying to drag other people into the horrifying, twisted game that got her to begin with. What I got from it is a story about cycles of violence, about neglected teens and preteens trying to survive in a world that laughs at the violence perpetrated against them, and the twisted and ugly things that rise from these situations. About the toxic pull of power, because you want your bullies to stop, you want to make them stop, and the horrifying answers to powerlessness. It’s also a story about how trying to rescue a person from their self-destructive urges might destroy you – and the people around you – in turn.
These sound like good concepts, now that I write them down like this, but what this book did was merely point at the situation and say “it’s ugly”. Yes, of course it’s ugly. Now what?
I don’t know. I guess I wanted more from it.

The thing is, I didn’t feel like the characters gained that much from what happened to them. Skye’s character arc felt wobbly to me, and in a genre that relies a lot on character arcs, I can’t accept that. Or maybe I just struggle with stomaching character development that is both positive and negative (I would explain more, but I don’t want spoilers in here; my take on some things is that the path towards doing better isn’t made of self-loathing). Also, by the end I disliked every single character in the book (my whole opinion of the love interest was “someone please give that boy a personality”), which made caring even more difficult.
I don’t need to like the characters, especially not in a horror book, but then there have to be either solid thematic arcs or character arcs, and here, that wasn’t really the case.

There are some things about this book I did appreciate, like the creepy forest atmosphere, and the fact that the book described which plants one could find in said creepy forest (cedar, sumac, white pine – probably the most detailed plant horror descriptions I have ever read, which was wonderful). It’s just that nothing about the actual story really drew me in.

As with every horror book I didn’t like, I’m left wondering if I missed the point of it entirely. Maybe I did, and this book could be important to someone else the way The Dark Beneath the Ice was almost a revelation to meHere There Are Monsters was just fine, there was nothing deeply wrong with it, so it’s not a story I would actively recommend people to avoid. However, stay away from it if animal death, including pet death, is one of your triggers, as there’s a lot of it.

I definitely intend to read more by Amelinda Bérubé in the future, and I hope I will like (understand?) those books more.

My rating: ★★½

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

42202063Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a contemporary story following Nima Kumara-Clark, a biracial Sri Lankan lesbian, as she learns the benefits of going out of her comfort zone through the local drag scene.

I have read a lot of queer books, but none of them prominently featured drag performers. In this novel, the main character, the love interest, and various side characters have been drag performers at some point. With every year we get more YA books about so many different sides of the queer experience, and I’m so glad that’s the case.

This novel has a slice-of-life feel to it. It’s slow-paced, it’s kind of open-ended on some sides, and more than everything, it’s messy. But the messiness is one of its strengths, in a way, and while me and Nima didn’t have a lot in common, I could definitely understand her. She’s awkward, she makes a lot of bad decisions, she is… imperfect in so many ways, and I loved her for that. If you’re the kind of person who needs teen girls to be perfect, I really don’t recommend this, because Nima makes so many mistakes. As teens do.

I especially liked seeing how insecure she was, how she felt what I call “queer imposter syndrome”, because there are moments in which she sees herself as far too bland to even have the right to interact with other queer people. (By the way: answering that your hobby is reading and, when asked for more details, saying that your hobby is reading novels is something I’ve done. It’s what people who have been mocked for their “boring/weird” hobbies or have this specific insecurity would do. Being vague is a shield.)
Also:

Maybe I was assuming too much. I could be making up any interest on her part. Why in the world would she be interested in me? She was probably just being friendly. She seemed really friendly.

Nima is such an awkward lesbian icon. I love her, and I loved her narrative voice, for the most part – but if you plan to go into this, keep in mind that it’s often overdramatic. To make a few examples of weird, emphatic figures of speech in her narration:

“I swallowed my heart back into my chest”
“my heart played hopscotch around my chest”
“her teeth took up her entire face”
 (…what)
“I had a whole mob of butterflies flapping around in my stomach”
“made my heartbeat quicken until I thought she might actually be able to see it through my chest”
“I could feel a heart attack coming on”
“I woke up feeling like someone was making scrambled eggs in my stomach”

And more. It got distracting at times, especially since I don’t love this kind of writing, but for Nima’s personality, it made sense. But my personal favorite was this one:

That was pee-your-pants kind of nervous. This—this was shit-your-pants kind of nervous

As you can see, she’s a poet, and has such a way with words. But, surprisingly, all of this ended up feeling endearing more than annoying.

As I said before, I saw this book as slice-of-life. I say this because a few aspects of this could feel lacking in closure, but I don’t necessarily agree. This is Nima’s story, what her mom is doing isn’t relevant to her – realizing that it isn’t relevant to her is one of the plot points. And I liked Gordon’s storyline. He’s a side character who has a lot of internalized queerphobia and is struggling because of toxic masculinity, but who is also dealing with bodily dysphoria – and it’s implied that he might be trans, even though by the end of the book he’s either still figuring himself out or not ready to come out to people. In any case, it wasn’t Nima’s business: what mattered, what gave closure to the storyline to me, is that by the end they were friends again.
In a way, the ending felt more like a hopeful beginning than an ending, and I really liked that about it. It reminded me a bit of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls: the book might have ended here, but Nima and her friends have a whole life ahead of them. Because of this, and because of how messy this book was, everything felt more real to me.

However, while the drag queen Deirdre is unambiguously a black trans woman, I would have loved if this book had used the word trans even just once. For something that is named Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, this book was surprisingly binarist at times, by not acknowledging non-binary trans people explicitly and using some binarist phrasings here and there.

Another thing I didn’t love was the writing, and not for Nima’s awkward metaphors, but because of the complete lack of atmosphere or sense of setting. I know she’s supposed to live in boringland, but I had no idea how anything looked like.
I also had mixed feelings about the romance: the love interest, Winnow (who is biracial Japanese), is one of the less developed characters, and there’s a significant age gap (3-4 years I think) that didn’t make that much sense to me, especially considering that Nima reads even younger than her age at times. But as this book doesn’t really focus on it – the romance is more of a motivation for Nima to get into the drag scene, in a way – it didn’t bother me too much (…maybe because I’ve read a book with a truly uncomfortable and weird age gap a week ago and this is nothing confronted with that? I don’t know.)

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

36683928Spin the Dawn is the first book in a Chinese-inspired fantasy series. If you think that this book’s cover is beautiful, I can now tell you that its inside is even better, and that it is worth reading just for the descriptions and atmosphere, if you care about that sort of thing.
I certainly do.

One of the first things I noticed while reading this book was that I could visualize everything perfectly – from the dresses and the needlework to the landscapes and the magic – so much that I was actually happy when, once the sewing competition ended, this became a travel fantasy. Travel fantasy is very hit-or-miss for me, but when I love the author’s writing (especially the descriptions), I always end up loving it, and this was no exception.

It was so refreshing to read about a heroine who wasn’t a warrior in a book about a competition that didn’t in any way involve fightingSpin the Dawn is about a competition to become the Emperor’s personal tailor; in this world of demons and magic that can spin sun rays and paint with the blood of the stars, it’s exactly as beautiful as one would think, and the mythology is just as interesting.
Maia, the main character, isn’t good at wielding traditional weapons – her “weapons” are needles and especially her magical scissors, but this doesn’t make her a damsel in distress. I always appreciate when YA fantasy portrays characters who have a different sort of strength from the usual warrior archetype.

I almost wanted to give this book five stars, because I did love parts of it, and it’s been a while since a YA fantasy novel captivated me so much. However, some tropes this book employed left a bad taste in my mouth – crossdressing plotlines usually have transphobic implications in some scenes (which is why I skimmed the ~gender reveal~) but what I didn’t expect was the whole “I’m disguised as a boy and I’m attracted to a boy, people think we’re *gasp* gay“. It almost felt like the book was playing it for laughs, and… that’s really not good, especially not in a book in which there are no explicitly queer characters. [there’s also a really ableist trope at the end of the ARC, bus as I’ve heard it was removed from the final copy, I won’t let it influence my rating.]

It might be that this is the first straight book I’ve read in a month, but the romance wasn’t great – it’s the typical “kind of naive girl + mysterious boy with an eye color far more striking than his personality” dynamic that is everywhere in YA fantasy. I wouldn’t hate m/f YA fantasy romances so much if it weren’t for the fact that 90% of male love interests sound like the same person. It’s also one of these mortal + old immortal romances, except the love interest doesn’t sound old at all (I don’t get why he had to be immortal in the first place), and I didn’t get why the two liked each other at all either – their banter was fun at times, but what did they see in each other? I don’t know, I liked them enough as individual characters (especially Maia) but as a couple… I just didn’t feel it.

My rating: ★★★¾

Book review · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

42505366Annihilation meets Lord of the Flies in this YA literary horror debut featuring a quite deadly illness that slowly turns an all-girl school’s students into monsters.

Unfortunately, me and this book didn’t click as much as I hoped after seeing that cover – one of the most gorgeous in YA – and what this book was about, since it promised creepy woods and queer girls. It delivered both, but I found only one of them actually satisfying.

The main reason this book didn’t work for me were the characters. There wasn’t anything wrong with them, not really, but by the end of the book, I realized that I didn’t know them at all, which was the reason I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. I rooted for them, of course, but I didn’t feel it.
They felt so distant that I started to wonder whether this was intentional and the author was trying to mirror what Annihilation did with its main character. (And it really feels like a YA version of that! It even has the bear.) I can’t know the author’s intent, but the Annihilation approach worked because that book was barely longer than a novella, not even reaching 200 pages.

Another theory is that she chose not to develop her characters because Wilder Girls is meant to be a general portrayal of the experience of girlhood in a misogynistic world – which it could be, since this can be seen as a story about how girls are constantly made to change, told to be different, told that their bodies should be always beautiful, told that their bodies belong to everyone but them. Even then, I still don’t think this was the best choice (if it really was intentional). I just… couldn’t get invested in anything but the atmosphere.

Also: (spoilers)

I’m so tired of “climate change!!” plot twists in books that never in any way talk about ecology. It may be that I’m studying it and so I feel strongly about that, but to me it feels like constantly reading novels in which every plot twist involves deities but that never actually talk about religion. Of course we want to talk about climate change, of course it’s horrifying, but that’s exactly why you shouldn’t throw it around as if it were magic that is completely not tied to how ecosystems actually work.
I strongly believe that metaphors for something should make sense emotionally, and this… didn’t? I don’t know, when the cause was revealed I was pretty underwhelmed, and the worst thing is that I can already think of a lot of ways a similar set-up would have made a far better metaphor for climate change

 

Apart from that, I can say that this book is really well-written. The writing is gorgeous and evocative, the pacing excellent, and this is one of the best examples of plant horror I’ve ever read, because for once, I’ve found a plant horror book that actually tells you how the forest looks like and which trees are there (pines, spruces – yes, this book doesn’t call all of them pines, I love that – and broadleaf deciduous trees). I still didn’t love it, as I prefer books in which the forest horror comes from the plants and not from the animals that roam it.
Also, creepy tide pools! There are creepy tide pools! I loved the setting so much.

In addition to what didn’t work for me about the characters, this book also had what didn’t work for me about Annihilation, the sad, lost and gloomy tone, as I find it exhausting, but that’s not the book’s fault.

My rating: ★★★½

If you want to know the trigger warnings for Wilder Girlsthis list on the author’s site is comprehensive, but to that I’d add “therapy session gone wrong”, because I needed it.

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika Moulite & Maritza Moulite

39072988Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is a contemporary novel following a girl who is the daughter of divorced Haitian immigrants living in the US, and it’s set both in the United States and in Haiti.

I am always looking for novels set outside the US, especially ones written by authors who have lived there or have ties with the country they’re writing about, because American books, despite being read (translated and not) worldwide, always prioritize the white American perspective. Dear Haiti, Love Alaine was exactly what I wanted: it’s a story about a girl who is the daughter of immigrants as she visits Haiti for the first time and meets the rest of her family, learns more about her family history, and also gets to know both Haiti and her mother more. This book shows Haiti as a place that isn’t a stereotype, but a country with its own history, culture, flaws and good aspects.

What stood out to me about this book first was Alaine herself. I loved her narrative voice, the way she uses humor to connect with people and to protect herself at the same time, and I could feel her passion for journalism. And she grows so much during this novel!
I also really liked reading about her relationship with her mother, who has been distant for most of Alaine’s life, and who has now been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The way Alaine tries to deal with that felt very realistic to me, and it was heartbreaking at times.

My feelings on the mixed media format are less positive. On one hand, I loved that this was told through diary entries, parts of school projects, tweets, blog posts and emails. On the other hand, the poor formatting of the eARC meant that at times these were either unreadable or missing.

Another thing that didn’t work for me as much as I hoped was the plot. I would have loved this book more had it focused mostly on Alaine and her mother’s relationship, but it didn’t – there are a lot of side and minor characters (so many that “who is that again” is a reaction I had multiple times during this book) and a lot of side plots, involving embezzlement, a maybe-romance, and a family curse. I also felt that some characters that were relevant in the first half of the novel were barely there in the second, like Alaine’s dad (and I liked reading about him), or Alaine’s friend, who completely disappears.

Overall, I do recommend this, but I think it’s the kind of novel that works better in physical form.

My rating: ★★★¼