Category Archives: bookish posts

Tender by Sofia Samatar

I knew right away that I had to read this anthology. Sofia Samatar’s work is always amazing: unexpected, brilliant, beautiful. It’s been almost two years since I first read The Winged Histories, which turned out to be an important book for me. In Tender (Small Beer Press, 2017), Samatar has collected twenty pieces of short fiction, most of them published elsewhere previously. They are grouped into two sections: tender bodies and tender landscapes. It’s up to the reader to determine the way these two ideas interact with each other across the divide of the grouping, and the way they take on different shades of emotion and inflection in each story.

Short fiction collections can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when the pieces are uneven in quality. In addition, some collections lack coherence and end up feeling like the pieces have nothing to say to each other. Or the pieces begin to feel too much the same, as if the writer only has one real idea.

For me, Tender struck a nice balance between these two problems. There are similarities of theme–connection and loss, personal resistance to injustice, belonging–and even of tone. Many of the stories strike a melancholy and even elegiac note. However, Samatar’s seemingly endless inventiveness when it comes to setting and the crystal clarity with which she draws her characters keeps these similarities from dominating. What emerges is instead a set of stories that are in conversation with each other across the boundaries of genre and setting.

Because of this, and because it’s a strong collection, it’s difficult to pick favorites. “Selkie Stories are For Losers” as the opener is fascinating; I had read it before and while it’s not my gut-level favorite, it establishes the kind of narrative gaps that Samatar loves to play with. The tension between hope that the future will be brighter and the knowledge that it may not be. Within the first section, I also loved “The Ogres of East Africa,” which starts engaging with racism and colonialism, and ways of holding your self true in the midst of their pressures. This thread weaves through a number of the stories in the collection, approached in different ways but always with thoughtfulness and hope.

If I had to pick one favorite story out of this collection, it would probably be “Honey Bear,” which acts as a class in playing with the expectations of genre readers. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was delighted at how deftly Samatar took my sense of where the story was headed and turned it on its head.

In the second part, tender landscapes, “An Account of the Land of Witches” was especially delightful to me. I loved the way dreams are played with, and it’s an epistolary short story! I love those. “Request for an Extension on the Clarity” also shows how well Samatar can evoke setting and character, even in a very brief form. I’m still not sure what I thought of “Fallow,” the long story that makes up the bulk of the second section. The images and writing are vivid and lovely, but it felt a little bit pat. However, I loved “The Red Thread,” the last story of the collection. With its post-apocalyptic feel and haunting ending, it felt like the perfect conclusion for this set of stories.

All in all, no surprises here, I loved Tender and certainly want to revisit this collection of stories again. Given the depth and richness of Samatar’s writing, I’m sure rereading them will be like revisiting a familiar landscape and finding something in it that had never been seen before.

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2019 Hugo Award Finalists reaction post

I am and probably always have been something of a book awards geek. When it comes to SFF, I have a particular soft spot for the Hugo Awards. Although they’re not the only SFF awards out there, they definitely have a prominent place in the field. The 2019 finalists have now been announced and I have thoughts!

Of the Best Novel category, I have only read Spinning Silver, which I loved. I have a bunch of complicated thoughts about the genre of story it’s a part of, but the actual book itself was absolutely one of my favorites from last year. I have read and loved the first two books in Yoon Ha Lee’s series but didn’t actually finish Revenant Gun. Space Opera I tried and bounced off pretty hard, but I know it has a loving fanbase. I’ll be really curious to see what the winner is in this category!

Interestingly, I’ve read more of the Best Novella finalists. The Binti trilogy is astounding and lovely, so of course I’d be really pleased if Okorafor won. And you all probably know how I feel about Murderbot (I love it in a way that would really displease the actual, you know, Murderbot.) The Black God’s Drums is a fine novella, but I felt it was a bit hampered by lack of space in the format. Of the other nominees, I’ve read the earlier novellas in the Wayward Children series but not Beneath the Sugar Sky; I’ve heard really great things about The Tea Master but have not picked it up yet; Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach somehow passed completely under my radar. Interesting to note that’s novella line has once again almost completely dominated this category!

I have only read The Only Harmless Great Thing out of the Best Novelette category. It’s a dark, beautiful, radiant gut punch of a story and I’d be pleased if it did win. However, I do also love Zen Cho’s writing, and need to check out the other finalists asap.

I haven’t read any of the Best Short Story nominees (maybe I will manage to get myself in gear with regards to short story reading soon??).

Of the Best Series finalists, I am by far most invested in the Machineries of Empire, since I’m a longtime Yoon Ha Lee fangirl and am very pleased that the trilogy has been a hit. I know October Daye is a staple of the urban fantasy genre, although I bounced off of it. And I’m aware that Aliette de Bodard and Becky Chambers are both writing some interesting SFF, although I haven’t read enough of their series to feel really on board with them at this moment.

But then we come to Best Related Work, and oh, beloveds! What an interesting set of finalists we have this year. First, there is AO3, whose inclusion here I totally support and which I would love to see win! I’ve already broken down my thoughts about its importance and place in SFF in a Twitter thread here, so I won’t repeat myself at length. But suffice it to say that AO3 absolutely has a place as both platform and work itself. There’s also The Hobbit Duology, which I haven’t seen in its entirety but which is a great examination of The Hobbit movies and what went wrong with them from a female fan (which imo feels really important when it comes to Tolkien Discourse). I’m not super familiar with The Mexicanx Initiative, but from what I know it is a really fascinating way to document a fan experience from voices that are often marginalized. Then, of course, you have Jo Walton writing about the Hugos and Ursula K Le Guin writing about writing, which seem like they have a nostalgic nerd cachet. I would love for AO3, The Mexicanx Initiative, or The Hobbit Duology to win; while I love both Jo Walton and UKL, I would also like to see some newer voices recognized here.

Sometimes the Hugos are fun as a way to demonstrate just how far behind I am in certain categories. This definitely includes Best Graphic Story! I have to say that if you’re not a Brian K Vaughan fan (I’m not, sorry everyone), it can feel a bit like he’s dominating the SFF graphic novel lineup. But I’m pleased to see a nod for Tillie Walden, and the other finalists seem like solid picks.

I’ve seen a lot more of the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form finalists than I sometimes do. I’m really curious about the winner here; although I love Black Panther and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse, like, a whole lot, I’d also be pleased if Annihilation won.

I’m going to skip over a couple of awards here, because I don’t have much to say about them and/or they’re for personal professional excellence. The Best Art Book  (a 2019 only award) seems like a super cool idea and I’ll be curious to see what the results are. I do love Julie Dillon’s work a lot.

So now we have arrived at the Lodestar, which is the newish YA award. The slate of nominees generally seems pretty solid: The Belles, Children of Blood and Bone, The Cruel Prince, Dread Nation, Tess of the Road. Then there’s The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin, who looks like a local Irish author. I have never heard of the book, which is the second in a series, and I’m…well, let’s just say that I suspect that the local angle + possibly a small voting pool for the Lodestars is the reason it’s on the finalist list. It’s probably a fine book! But also! I’ll be very curious to see the data on nominations when it comes out. Of these, I’ve read all but The Invasion and would be happy to see any of those I’ve read win, although the book of my heart is absolutely Tess of the Road and I will happy-cry-scream if it does get the award. Anyway, I am still  fascinated/defensive/nervous about the longterm history and effect of this award and how it will play out in the future.

I’m skipping the Campbell Award, because it’s also for a specific person. So that concludes my thoughts on the 2019 Hugo Finalists. Of course because it’s the Hugos, it tends towards broadly popular names with some recognition behind them already. I understand why this frustrates people sometimes, but that is quite literally the nature of a popular fan-based award like this one! I have a few strong opinions about specific categories, but generally feel pleased with the finalists as a whole. 

Do you have thoughts? Let me know!


Filed under bookish posts, literary news

March 2019 reading

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Two Naomis by Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Salt by Hannah Moskowitz
The Bronze Key by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Total books read: 9

Favorite books:

  • The Raven Tower
  • Always Coming Home
  • Salt

I’ll be honest, February and March have been really disappointing reading months. I keep trying to tell myself that I was DNFing a ton of books and catching up on the books I didn’t get to last year. And that’s true. But it’s also just frustrating to have a run of less-than-satisfying reading experiences. Really, really hoping April goes a little better! (I’ve already finished two books and am close to finishing a third so….maybe?)


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Favorite reads of 2019 so far

Since the end of March marks the first quarter of 2019, this seemed like a good time to round up a few favorite reads of 2019. I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I wanted or hoped to, although this is partly because I’ve been trying to clear out my TBR and have been setting down a ton of books unread. While this isn’t my favorite reading experience, it does mean that the books I’ve finished have generally been pretty strong reads! This list is almost a third of my total books finished at this point.

I am really proud of the fact that I’ve managed to stick with reviewing almost every book I finish. I’m giving myself a pass for novellas, graphic novels, and some chapter books and trying to include those in shorter reviews instead. It’s one of my goals for the year to keep this up as much as I can. All of the links below go to my reviews.

The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin

A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (the only reread on this list, but I couldn’t resist adding it)




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Recent Reading: Gran, Moskowitz, Abbott

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran (Atria, 2018)

Book three in a series about Claire DeWitt, private investigator. I have not read the first two and didn’t mind that at all; this functions pretty much as a standalone novel. Claire is a tough character who is fueled by (sometimes barely believable) determination and a desire to find out the truth. It’s a weird foray into the mystery genre and  on paper it’s not a type that would necessarily appeal to me. But for some reason, despite the weird semi-mysticism, violence, and Las Vegas setting, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and intend to read the first two to catch up. I don’t know either! Something about the extremely surreal writing and characters was exactly what I wanted when I read it. We’ll see if the experience can be repeated. 

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz (Chronicle, 2018)

Four orphaned siblings left with a tenuous legacy of a ship and some monster hunting skills try to find the beast that killed their parents. Moskowitz just drops us straight into the world, which is a really fascinating approach. There’s not much in the way of backstory or world-building, but since this book is voicey as can be* it doesn’t really matter. The characters are compelling enough that I wanted to read on and cared deeply about what happened to them. Indi and his siblings operate in a weird sideways version of reality, more full of strange creatures and pirates than school and driving tests. But his desire to find his place, to find a home connects to that yearning that I think a lot of teens have–there’s something right around the corner if they can only just find it. It’s a slim book, but I’ve thought about it a lot since finishing it.

* a technical reviewing term, right?

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown, 2018)

An adult thriller about a woman who is suddenly confronted with her former best friend from high school. It’s been on my TBR for ages and I was in a mystery/thriller mood, so I gave it a try. I felt like it was weird about PMDD, which is a major part of the story but which was treated in a way that felt like it was there for shock value rather than feminist critique? I don’t know, I might be unfair here, but the story seemed in the end to reinforce stereotypes about the destructive power of female friendship rather than resisting them.



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Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Marguerite Angelica Taishen, Marghe, is being sent by a Company she distrusts to a frozen and hostile world where a virus kills all men and many of the women who try to settle there. The Company employees live in a small enclosure, while descendants of the earlier settlers have become tribal and cling to their traditions. But Marghe’s discoveries will challenge herself and the status quo. Can she help create a better life for everyone on Jeep, or will chaos and apathy win?

It was coincidence that I read Ammonite (Random House, 1992) just after Always Coming Home, but interestingly I found that they share some similar interests and themes–and similar shortcomings. Having read and loved Griffith’s Hild, I wanted to try some of her backlist while waiting for the potential sequel.

Marghe is a clearly drawn, sympathetic protagonist, who is competent and thoughtful. She’s clearly traumatized by a past violent attack, but she neither magically overcomes her fears nor are they only visible when it’s convenient to the plot. Her journey into assurance, testing her selfhood and abilities, was lovely and resonant. If you want a book where people largely are trying their best, this is a nice example.

The prose absolutely shines when it comes to the descriptions of Jeep itself. They create a sense of the world far beyond sight, evoking the smell and feel of an alien planet vividly. I think this really helped me understand Marghe’s changing perspectives of the planet. At first it is a foe to be beaten, but over the course of the book she and we begin to see the variety of life and the beauty of the landscape and its inhabitants. It’s a nice way to reinforce Marghe’s outward transformation.

This is a book about a planet full of women, but Griffith pushes back on stereotypical ideas of what this might look like. On the one hand, I appreciated this a lot. It’s a world that feels queer even when all the characters don’t necessarily identify this way–in a way that I can only call lived in. I think that Griffith approached this idea thoughtfully and with an attempt to include many different experiences and expressions. On the other hand, it doesn’t include non-binary or trans experiences at all. Here, biology and identity seem to be unmarkedly the same. Obviously, this is not great!

I was also really concerned by the position Marghe herself takes within the narrative. As I said, I found her personal journey very resonant, and the themes that Griffith is playing with are fascinating to me. But Marghe is an outsider who comes into a native culture and is adopted by them, who pushes them to change their way of life and ultimately ‘saves’ them. While race doesn’t seem to play a deciding role in power structures in this world, I still found the implications troubling within a real world context.

So, I’m not quite sure how to react to Ammonite in the end. For this cis white lady, the story was immersive and engaging. But I also see how it could very easily be hurtful and othering for readers. The beautiful prose and interesting world don’t outweigh that. With those heavy caveats, I would recommend this for fans of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series and Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, both specfic stories about competent adult women.

Other reviews:
Kate MacDonald
Alix Harrow
Niki @ The Lesbian Review

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Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin

I’ve had a previously undeclared quest over the past few years to read as much Ursula K Le Guin as I can. Her more well known and recent works–like Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore–are old friends, but she wrote a lot more. A number of those earlier and more forgotten works are now being reissued, which helps except that it also fills me with rage that these seminal books from a giant figure in SFF are just now being republished after her death.. (I have a lot to say about a system which ignores women writers while they live and rewards them with posthumous praise, which allows them in only when they’re writing in “approved” genres and then slams those genres as immature and less important, #ursulashouldhaveanobel, Joanna Russ was right. Read and recognize women writers.)

SO. I am both really sad at the circumstances and glad to have finally read Always Coming Home. It’s a strange book, a book that’s almost all un-narrative. I called it a book of worldbuilding on Twitter by which I meant that it’s the kind of work SFF writers usually do invisibly to create a world which they then write a narrative in, work which remains largely hidden but without which the world doesn’t come alive. Here, this work makes up most of the book. I didn’t realize until just now that this almost exactly the description of “women’s work” but having realized it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

Le Guin calls Always Coming Home an “archaeology of the future”–a record of the daily life, beliefs, and practices of a people who live in some version of a future California. It’s an idea which I think was important to her understanding of the book and structuring of it. But it made me uneasy, because archaeology is such a fraught and political field, which has often been used in the service of western colonialism and white supremacy. And I don’t know that Le Guin ever fully grapples with the implications of setting her project in that context. If anyone knows of perspectives from Native critics on this, I want to read them.

That unease is real and I don’t want to just lay it down and say that this book is great regardless. But I will say that Always Coming Home succeeds far better than it has any right to. The narrative form is deliberately challenging and asks us to set aside our notions of what a book should be. It asks us to set aside our understanding of books themselves. As one of the Kesh people says, “Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”  I said on Twitter that one of Le Guin’s great gifts is the ability to unsettle and force the reader out of our comfortable patterns of thought. I don’t always agree with her–in fact I often disagree–but I’m always enriched by doing so.

One of her other great gifts is the strength of her language. There’s a way that she wrote which holds so much emotional density and complexity of meaning in a few words. It’s not simply that she was good at stringing words together in a nice-sounding sentence. It’s that she uses these nice-sounding sentences sparingly and effectively, so that they hold more meaning and more emotion than they otherwise would. I can’t really describe this in technical writing terms, but  as a reader I feel it every time.

Perhaps my least favorite parts of the book are the moments when the compiler, the archaeologist, herself speaks. These are all titled “Pandora” and I found them distracting from the main sections of the book, and the places where the archaeology aspect of the project was most troubling. The one exception is the section where Pandora talks with one of the Kesh people about about information, and the flawed systems we have in place for access to it.

Because this book is very long and very rich, I could talk about a lot more. But instead, I will just quote part of one of the poems in the book, meant as an initiation song for the people who leave the Valley that is their home and go out into the wider world.

“Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.”

“Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.”

Other posts about Ursula K Le Guin:
Planet of Exile (2011)
Gifts (2011)
Lavinia (2011)
Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)
Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
Reading Notes: Voices (2016)

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading: non-mysteries (2018)
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier (2016)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2011)


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