Feb 5 2016

Book Review: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble provides yet further evidence as to why Kelly Link is one of my favorite living short story writers. These tales are raw and human, with interweavings of the speculative, sometimes in subtle ways.

In “The Lesson,” the only hint of magic or the scientifically strange is a stuffed, clawed creature said to be long extinct, despite strange rustlings in the night. Where the magic comes in is how the story unfolds. Two men, awaiting the birth of of an adoptive child through a surrogate mother, take a trip to an isolated island to attend the wedding of a friend they haven’t seen in years. Through the bride’s wonderfully weird version of party celebrations and the discomforts of being disconnected from news from the mainland, it becomes clear that these two men love each other deeply and that that love is being strained by the stress of adoption. It also becomes clear that the decadence of their youth no longer appeals to them. “The Lesson” is a beautiful tale and my favorite in the book.

Other stories reveal a young woman who serves as an uneasy caretaker for the mysterious beings that live up on the hill (“The Summer People”), an aging movie star, formerly known as the demon lover, who seeks out his ex-girlfriend while she’s on a ghost hunting expedition (“I Can See Right Through You”), and a girl attempts to meet an older man she catfished online at a hotel where dentist and superheroes are both having conventions (“Origen Story”).

Another story that lingers with me long after I read it is “The New Boyfriend,”    which explores the complicated mess of teenage friendship and young love in unsettling ways. When her friend received her third animatronic boyfriend, a girl enacts a plan to steal it for herself, convince he can love only her.


Jan 27 2016

Book Review: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

In a dark city, overshadowed by darkness, a man embraces his wife and daughter and then boards a steamship for another country, where he hopes to create a new life for his family. After going through a long process of immigration, he finds himself in a city he finds himself is bright and beautiful and strange.

Although he doesn’t understand the local language, he fumbles his way into a room for rent and then seeks employment. Along his journey into shaping a new life for himself and his family, he meets other people from other countries who have migrated to this city as well. Each has their own stories, their own reasons for leaving home and making a new life for themselves.

One of the amazing things about this book is how it tells a moving, heartfelt story entirely in images. There are no words, just gorgeous art. The art is softly penciled and sepia toned. It manages to be both realistic and fantastical at the same time, elaborately bringing to life a strange world that also feels familiar.

A beautiful book.

Art from The Arrival by Shaun Tan


Jan 6 2016

Top Reads of 2015

Since I can’t seem to narrow my favorite books down to a top ten list, I’m presenting them here as my favorites according to categories.

Best Science Fiction Novel

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and with it the entire Imperial Radch trilogy, which is the best science fiction trilogy I’ve read in probably ever. Breq used to be a part of the Justice of Toren, a ship powered by artificial intelligence with a thousand ancillary counterparts all operating as part of the same consciousness. But with the rest of her self destroyed, she is alone — a single ancillary pretending to be human and driven by anger to seek revenge against the one who destroyed her main ship.

As this trilogy unfolds, the world and the characters unfold with it. There are many layers to the Radch culture, a powerful colonizing empire that has invaded and taken control of a number of systems. The cultures and societies that were invaded, however, were not entirely erased and it’s revealed how the Radch rules of propriety are reinterpreted in different systems or ignored entirely, depending on the group of people. There’s more, as well, with mentions and interactions with non-human aliens who are truly alien by human standards. And the characters, likewise, are handled with the same level of delicacy and care, each one uniquely themselves and people I can relate to and care about. Utterly fantastic.

Runner-up: The Martian by Andy Weir — The story of an astronaut stranded on the hostile surface of Mars. The science and humor and constant tension presented make this a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Best Fantasy Novel

A tie between Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold and Uprooted by Naomi Novik — both with stories of women with hidden power, who find themselves ensconced in battles bigger than themselves. Though both provide unique, clear world building, cultures, and magical systems.

Paladin of Souls is the story of a middle-aged royal woman, who has been kept confined due to a decade long period of mental instability caused by prophetical visions. Having regained a sense of autonomy over herself, she feels claustrophobic under the well-meaning coddling of the people who have long cared for her. She decides to go on a pilgrimage as a means of escape and the journey leads her back into the world of gods and visions, with a looming threat on the horizon.

In Uprooted (which I also mentioned as a favorite novel on Rhizomatic Ideas), a Dragon chooses a young maiden to take back to his tower every ten years. The Dragon is an ageless wizard in a tower, who keeps the darkness and malevolence of the Wood at bay in exchange for the service of a girl, whom he releases at the end of the ten year period. Every one expects him to take Kasia, the most beautiful and brave and capable girl in the town, so when the time of the choosing comes and he chooses Agnieszka instead, it’s a great surprise to everyone, most especially Agnieszka herself. Although the Dragon is a central character, it’s the friendship between Agnieszke and her friend Kasia that makes this novel shine.

Best Apocalyptic Fantasy Novel

I’m starting to stretch my category specificity with The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, because how many fantasy apocalypse novels are there in the world.* However, The Fifth Season is too good not to mention. The worldbuilding is fantastic, with a society that has faced many seasons of destruction and famine, so that their lore is filled with knowledge on how to survive.

In the story, Essun returns home to find that her husband has murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Shortly after this discovery, a volcanic rift is torn across the center of the continent throwing the Sanze empire into chaos. A great earthquake rolls over the land, crushing cities and villages, and ash begins to cloud the sky and Essun is left to pursue her husband and daughter admidst the growing calamity. The journey delves deep into her past and unveils many secrets about herself and the world.

*I know of at least one other magical apocalypse novel — The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson, which is also fantastic.

Best Steampunk Novel

Rupetta by Nike Sulway is beautiful and strange alternate history, N.A. Sulway that questions the nature of humanity and god and to explore what constitutes a soul, while also taking into consideration how history is shaped and how the creation of history through carefully selected “facts” or stories shapes a society. Rupetta is an animatronic object, constructed in the 1600s by a young French woman out of brass gears and cogs and leather fittings to resemble a human being. As she continues to exist beyond the lives of those who loved and used and despised her, the world changes in dramatic ways.

Best YA Novel

A tie between All the Rage by Courtney Summers and The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma — both of which present some darl explorations of what it means to be a girl.

All the Rage is is a rough, beautiful book that explores the after math of rape and the brutal reality of rape culture. Ostracized by her community for accusing the sheriff’s son of rape, Romy Grey becomes tried to find ways to escape from what happened to her while being unable to forget it because of the constant bullying from her classmates. This heavy, emotionally wracking story is also beautifully written, with Summers perfectly capturing Romy’s voice and inner journey.

The Walls Around Us has a haunting quality and not just because the story is populated with ghosts. The stories of the three girls at the center of this story — Amber is a young woman convicted of murder who has been locked in prison for years; Violet, a ballet dancer with a dark secret; and Orianna, a girl caught in a tide of misfortune who binds the other two together — weave together unveiling lies and secrets and the truth behind a murder. Rich, gorgeous prose brings the world inside this prison for young women and the outside world (for this books seems to divide the world into two realms – inside and outside) to vivid, brutal reality.

Best Western Novel

Okay, so, I don’t normally read enough westerns to be able to have a separate category for them. However, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee is wonderful. Two girls — Samantha (called Sam), a violinist, and Annamae, a runaway slave — head out on the Oregon Trail dressed as young men, hiding from the law and hoping for a better life in San Francisco. The two make friends with a group of young cowboys along the way, who join them on their adventures in the prairies of the Wild West. I love the way this book breaks down the myth of the West, providing a more diverse portrait of the time period, while also putting the friendship between these two girls at its center.

Best Short Story Collection

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. is a must read for any science fiction fan and for anyone interested in tightly wrought, unsettling stories. “The Screwfly Solution” involves increasing numbers of attacks by men against women. Bits of news clips, letters, and diary entries are placed alongside the main narrative of a man trying to make it home to his wife and daughter amid the mounting chaos. The ending is fatalistic, powerful, terrifying, making it one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. And that’s just one example in a collection that explores gender and sexuality in challenging and innovative ways through intelligent science fiction. Reading Tiptree’s stories makes me feel inadequate as a writer, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Best Graphic Novel and Best Comedy

Hyperbole and a Half:Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh is an illustrated collection of essays based on her popular blog. These essays delves into stories about her own life, about her dogs and family and self identity, in each case revealing the flaws and joys with a sense of self mocking humor and honesty. Many times while reading, I burst into laughter not caring what anyone else thought about my enthusiasm.

Brosh is brilliant and witty and a lot of fun to read. I hope all my hopes that she will release a sequel (hopefully one featuring the infamous Alot).

(Image by Allie Briosch)

(Image from Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh)

Best Poetry Book

Populated by mermaids and drift bottles and lost sisters and brutal mothers, Drink by Laura Madeline Wiseman is the collection of poetry I mentally return to again and again. I love the lyrical beauty of these poems, the layering of image and metaphor and how each poem layered with the next provides and beautiful emotional arc when the collection is read from beginning to end. (My full review of Drink can be found over at Rhizomatic Ideas.)

Runner-up: Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone by Annelyse Gelman, which features poems that are witty, clever, fun with an undercurrent of vulnerability and introspection. They explore the chaotic realm of everyday life, poking fun at its imperfections and drawing out its underbelly.

Best Nonfiction Book

In Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Douglas A. Blackmon reveals through meticulous research how southern whites by-passed the Emancipation Proclamation and constitutional amendments to continue slavery in the form of convict forced labor. They found their way around emancipation by criminalizing black life by writing laws targeted specifically at African Americans, one such law making it illegal for someone to leave their current employment without their employer’s permission.

This is a depressing book, which is also dense with facts and data, making it a difficult read. However, it’s also a vital book. It presents an aspect of American history that one would not necessarily want to look at, but it’s something we need to look at.(Full review.)

What were some of your favorite books from 2015?


Jan 4 2016

Books finished in November and December 2015

1. Attachments (audio book) by Rainbow Rowell
2. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
4. My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock
5. The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
6. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
7. Rough Magick, edited by Francesca Lia Block and Jessa Marie Mendez
8. Fables: Happily Ever After by Bill Willingham
9. Fables: Farewell by Bill Willingham

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Jan 2 2016

Book Review: Rough Magick

The short stories and poems in Rough Magick, edited by Francesca Lia Block and Jessa Marie Mendez, explore the darker side of love and sex with a mixture of haunting, romantic, and horrifying tales. The anthology is split into two parts with the first half being lyrical stories based in realism, while the second half presents fantastical tales. This choice to split the collection was my biggest annoyance. I would have preferred to have read alternating tales of realism and fantasy, which would have provided an interesting juxtaposition. On the whole, though, Rough Magick is a strong collection with the majority of the stories being rather good and some being utterly fantastic. Here are a few favorites.

Written out like a series of instructions, “Spell to Mend a Broken Heart” by Amanda Yates Garcia sketches out the pain of heartbreak and charts a path to healing. 

“Paradise” by Ashley Inguanta is a  gorgeous story of burning — California wildfires and dry, dusty air, and the thirst of dried out and ashy hearts.

In “Venus,” Sarah Herrington presents two young girls discovering each other among the Venus fly traps with a beautiful, magical lyricism.

Probably the most disturbing story in the collection is “Rathead” by Laura Lee Bahr. It’s a strange staying which a woman falls for a handsome magician, only to wake up the morning after to discover he has a rat head. She stays with him, both loving and hating him for and despite of his hideous head.

“Persephone + Hades” by Jilly Dreadful and K.T. Ismael envisions the underworld as a sleek and seedy version Los Angeles, with various gods of death commingling and Persephone’s journeys there a kind of rebellion against her mother. The writing in this is rich and playful and gorgeous. For example: “I was taken by the ruin that bloomed there: eyes rotted out of the skull, nose skin shrinking away from its open mouth and maggots feasting away on what was left. Surrendering to the cycle, how death begets life: these were things I would never know as the daughter of Demeter.”

Kira Lees offers a disturbing vision of possessive love in “Strands of Gold.” A young girl discovers a monster, which falls in love with her instead of eating her. She brings him gifts of other children (to consume) and plays other kinds of games with him as she grows older. The ending is wonderfully unsettling.