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bookish posts reviews

#stackingthestories round up

Forestofglory, who I follow on Twitter and generally enjoy a lot, created a short fiction reading challenge for July. I’ve been meaning to get back into SFF short fiction for ages now, and jumped on the challenge as a way of making that leap. I’m very glad I did! I didn’t reach my maybe-lofty goal of 31 short fiction pieces read in July, but it was still very worthwhile and I have a renewed commitment to making sure I read short fiction in the future. Since Twitter is an ephemeral medium, I wanted to collect the short reviews I posted there. The titles with an asterisk before them were personal favorites.

“it me, ur smol” by A. Merc Rustad: I am a bit so-so on this one. It’s a cute idea, and the internet speak read as accurate. As a piece of flash fiction it’s fine, but the gesture towards activism felt hollow in such a short story.

“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” by Aliette de Bodard: Packs a lot into a setup that initially looks simple (it isn’t). I liked the way the narratives were woven together, but never quite connected with the emotion the way I wanted to. (This is true beyond this piece: stories about grief are tough because how can the reader care about the loss of someone who we only meet in absence?)

* “The Dragon that Flew Out of the Sun” by Aliette de Bodard: Stories, memory, and the complexity of truth. Loved this one. (Also curious to reread “Three Cups of Grief” having now read a story that centered me more in the universe)

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape” by Alix E. Harrow: I like it; it makes me uneasy. Liking – Harrow clearly knows libraries well enough to give it a real flavor. I loved the details of the displays in particular. Uneasy – my instant twitchiness about fictional librarians; I don’t quite believe that stories save us anymore; the kid in the story never felt like a real person in his own right. (Maybe I should say stories in & of themselves? I don’t know. At other points in my life, I would have vehemently disagreed with my current feeling) Added all together, this is a good example of a story that I like individually but which fits into a pattern I find troubling.

“Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt: Feels very of-this-moment in a number of ways; it’s…fine, but overall a little on the nose for my personal taste.

* “She Commands Me & I Obey” (parts 1 &2) by Ann Leckie: Look, I can’t be objective here, because I love Leckie’s writing and I love Breq and it’s so interesting to see Breq from an outsider’s pov–what seems familiar & what doesn’t. This story is pretty gruesome in a lot of ways, but it also feels real? And I appreciate that we see no system is without flaws/imbalances/etc. It’s also neat to get a sense of Breq’s weird charisma in another setting. (My notes for this one just say, “BREQ”)

* “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander: I love everything about this, from the fairy tale structure to the descriptions.

“Owl vs the Neighborhood Watch” by Darcie Little Badger: I’m struggling with how to evaluate this story because I bounced off of it pretty hard. But I don’t know if I have the cultural tools to evaluate it. I don’t have any big critical arguments against it, it just wasn’t for me at this moment and I’m not sure why.

“Anyway: Angie” by DJ Older: Very horrifying, tense, and atmospheric. I love the way Older uses language to evoke mood and Reza’s emotions in this one. CW: violence & mentions of sexual assault

* “Abandonware” by Genevieve Valentine:  I would say I’m a genuine Genevieve Valentine fangirl, but I hadn’t read this story before. I’m still not quite sure of my reaction but I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it yesterday. There are some REALLY CREEPY elements/moments.

“Werewolf Loves Mermaid” by Heather Lindsley: This is light and funny and sweet, and sometimes that’s what you need.

“The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig: Ahhhh, another creepy one. It’s short but atmospheric, and quite effective.

* “Tomorrow Is Waiting” by Holli Mintzer: Awww, I really liked this one! I like stories about AI, generally speaking, and this was a sweet/interesting take. Does it ever explain anything? nope! am I okay with that? Yep!

* “The Light Brigade” by Kameron Hurley: Confession: this is the first Hurley story I’ve ever actually read and wow! It’s brutal, but also beautiful and more hopeful than I expected?

“The Counsellor Crow” by Karen Lord: I like the way the world unfolds in this story, in a way that is kind of breathtaking, but the ending felt abrupt to me!

“There are Two Pools You May Drink From” by Kerry-Lee Powell: I didn’t particularly like this one, which may be a personal reaction to the way abuse is treated here. Also a repeated use of “Oriental” as a descriptive term? I don’t know, there was just nothing that felt engaging to me or convinced me the characters were real.

“A Dozen Frogs, A Bakery, and a Thing that Didn’t Happen” by Laura Pearlman: AHHHHH this is pretty fun. To be clear, I don’t endorse the solution here. But I don’t *not* endorse either.

“Blue Morphos in the Garden” by Lis Mitchell: Eerie and thoughtful; I loved the sense of claustrophobic in-turning of the family. (I mean, loved from a technical pov. It creeped me out a lot as a reader.)

* “Solder and Seam” by Maria Dahvana Headley:  A story that rewards rereading; I wasn’t sure what was happening at first and liked it a lot more once I figured it out. I also appreciate the Patrick O’Brian reference.

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bookish posts reviews

What I read: weeks 3 & 4

I love a good middle grade graphic novel and that’s exactly why I picked up Kayla Miller’s Camp. The focus here is squarely on friendship and the strains camp can put on two best friends who rely on each other. It’s fine; I liked the way Miller tests the limits of friendship without letting it break, and the way one person in a relationship may need more space than the other. But I was a little disappointed that it was so white and straight, and in general I just wanted a little bit more. [read for the first time 7/15]

At this point I don’t quite know how many times I’ve read Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. It’s still a book I turn to when I want something that I know will be both healing and challenging. I loved the finale of Breq’s story, and especially the ending. There’s one line a little over halfway through the book that always makes me cry and the last chapter is one of my favorites, even if it’s also an emotional whallop. [reread 7/17]

I also reread a childhood favorite, Pepper & Salt by Howard Pyle. It’s a slightly unusual set of fairytales and in fact Pyle wrote them himself rather than collecting them. While there are some images and attitudes that aren’t okay with me, I did enjoy revisiting these stories. There’s an underlying pattern to a lot of fairy tales that I realized has really stuck with me over the years. [reread 7/18]

My friend Sophie recommended Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe and I’m glad that I read it. While it’s not quite comprehensive, focusing fairly narrowly on a few people who were majorly involved in the political landscape of the Troubles, I appreciated the look at a time of history that I didn’t previously understand very well. Keefe is a good non-fiction writer and does not indulge in my pet peeve (constant speculating about what people might have seen). His sympathies are fairly clear and he’s making a case for the guilt of a particular person, but he also treats the people he writes about with sympathy. [read for the first time 7/19]

I decided to reread all of the Vorkosigan books, and Cetaganda was next up. It’s not my favorite; there’s an awkwardness to the underlying gender themes that doesn’t quite escape Bujold’s attempts to give the Cetagandan women some power. But there’s some nice Miles & Ivan stuff here, and I always enjoy that. [reread 7/22]

Jerry Craft’s New Kid has been recommended a lot recently, and I understand why. It’s a thoughtful look at one kid’s experience as a young Black boy in a private school. The micro- and macro-aggressions that Jordan and the other Black students and teachers experience are counterbalanced by the bonds he forms with a few other students. The art wasn’t my favorite style ever, but it’s in service to the story and I appreciated the touches of humor it added. [read for the first time 7/24]

I wanted to read something light on a Friday and Sarah Zettel’s A Taste of the Nightlife seemed like it would fit that bill. Urban fantasy about a chef who cooks for vampires, what’s not to like? It was fine for that mood, although I don’t know that I’ll read any more of the series. [read for the first time 7/25]

I liked Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year but just now got around to reading The Wicked King. Like the first book, I’d say this is a frothy, sharp story. It’s not doing anything particularly original plot-wise, but I enjoy Black’s fairyland here. [read for the first time 7/28]

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bookish posts reviews

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

I usually write up a little blurb for the books I read, but I knew very little about The Raven Tower before I started it, and for this book that felt right. If you want to know more about it, check out the Goodreads description!

Also, quite honestly, I read this book because it was written by Ann Leckie. Had someone tried to explain it to me beforehand, it would have been a bit baffling. But I was super excited for her first novel length foray into fantasy, regardless of what it was about.

(This is mostly because over the course of Leckie’s novel-writing career, I’ve come to trust her as an author. I know she writes books that I like, that touch me deeply, and that stay with me. Not every author gets the same trust from me. This isn’t something we talk about a lot when we review books, but it’s there all the same. And sometimes authors know this enough to use it in really interesting ways–yes, I’m thinking of Megan Whalen Turner. Other times, it can be eroded or broken, by a series of less-resonant books, or by things like bad representation.)

The thing is, I wasn’t instantly on board with The Raven Tower. It’s in second person, which is my least favorite narrative style. And because we’re dropped right in and trusted to keep up, it didn’t immediately have the deep emotional resonance that draws me so much to the Raadchai books. (Another thing we don’t often talk about is how a smart author can build up emotional connections over the course of a series, so that by the later books they can just telegraph a moment and it will hold so much more weight of meaning than it could in the first book.)

But something about the story, the insistence of the narrative voice, the things that didn’t quite line up with what I thought was happening pulled me in. Besides the fact that I trusted Leckie to write a story that ultimately would deliver. And by the end I did feel rewarded in that decision. There are some clever, slippery things that happen in the narration. They reverse assumptions about the shape of the story, even the characters. They kept me on my toes, and made the story so much more interesting than it would have been without them. But they also add in feeling as details are shaded in, as the world becomes clear, as the characters resolve. We begin to see the subtlety of the cruelness but also the strength of the kindness.

This story is the most like Ancillary Justice out of all the other Leckie stories I’ve read. But they’re not the same. As I was writing this review, I remembered James Tiptree Jr writing about Joanna Russ: “It smells revolutionary—no, wait, not “revolutionary.” Not the usual. It smells and smoulders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode. Fantastic anger. Like the writer is watching every word, saying, Cool it, cool it, don’t say it.” That’s what this books feels like. Cool it, cool it. Don’t say it. Fantastic anger.

Until at last, there is that ending, one of those endings that are far more powerful than the simple words on the page, because they are exactly where the story needs to end: still half formed, still with the taste of them in your mind. I still feel almost as though I can taste the last line on my lips, as though I shouted it myself.

I’ve been struggling to think of readalikes for this one. A little bit For a Muse of Fire, a little bit Tess of the Road, a little bit Persona and Icon. But not quite any of them. If you’ve read it and have ideas, please let me know!

Other reviews (for what it’s worth, all of these are more spoilery than this post):
Liz Bourke at Tor.com
The Book Smugglers
Genevieve Valentine at NPR
Amal El-Mohtar at NYT

Other Ann Leckie posts here:
Ancillary Sword
Ancillary Mercy

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Chime by Franny Billingsley (2011)
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (2014)
Jinx’s Fire by Sage Blackwood (2015)
Ursula K Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices (2016)
In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary (2017)
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2018)

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Currently reading: 9-7

All the books I'm actively reading. Send help,
All the books I’m actively reading. Send help.

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I don’t know how this happened–no, I do. I’ve been reading several intense books in slow spurts because they are really good but also my heart can’t handle too much at once. And then I’m trying to read several other books that have taken me a bit to get into, so I keep pulling a new one off the shelf and trying it. Anyway, from the top:

Dove Exiled by Karen Bao: Sequel to last year’s Dove Arising. I am finding the writing a little choppy, but I’m really interested in what Bao’s doing with the world and characters.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken: For October’s reading notes, so I won’t say much more. Except–this book is 168 pages long. One hundred sixty-eight! Take note, authors.

Perfect Liars by Kimberly Reid: This is a fun diverse teenage con/heist story–great for kids who have aged out of The Great Greene Heist.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: I’m rereading this with librarian book club and auuugghhhh the emotions. They might actually be worse the second time through?

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi: It’s very difficult to say what’s happening in this book, but in a good way. (I tend to like texts that make you work for their meaning, as long as they’re not being jerks about it.)

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: This book is making me feel way too many things. It’s fine. (I just DM the best/worst bits to the friend who recommended it to me. Thanks & you’re welcome.)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: A re-read because I wanted to and apparently wasn’t reading enough intense books? Yeah, I don’t know either.

Monstress by Marjorie Liu: My hold at the library FINALLY came in!! This is a lot more violent than I tend to like my comics, but the visual sensibility is so much my thing that I’m still reading. (Art deco-ish fantasy monsters=I’m there.)

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: I JUST started this one, but I’ve gotten far enough in to be hooked. Definitely a story I’d only trust from an #ownvoices author, though!

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: Third in a middle grade SF series I’ve been enjoying! Fry has years of experience writing Star Wars tie-ins and he clearly has a good grasp of what kids like in their SF. I have a feeling that things are going to Happen in this one.

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Favorite science fiction from the last five years

I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my favorite SF from the last few years. These are not necessarily books published in the last five years, but ones that I’ve read in that time span. (I feel like I’ve read less SF this year than normal, but I know there are also several I haven’t gotten around to yet.)

ancillary mercyscorpion rulesconservation of shadows

Ambassador by William Alexander: I read Ambassador for the Cybils back in 2014 and loved it. It’s nice to have an SF book about a Latino boy, and Alexander does a great job of incorporating Gabe’s identity and culture into the story. The concept that drives the book works well as a way to combine kids and politics.

Quicksilver and Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson: This is a really fascinating SF duology from one of my favorite authors. I’m never sure what to say about these books, because they have some great twists I don’t want to spoil. But I loved the main characters a lot, and I enjoy the way they have an SF plot with kind of a fantasy sensibility–if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: I read this YA for the Cybils last year, and it’s really stuck with me. Less the plot (I just had to Google because I couldn’t remember) and more the characters and worldbuilding Bao was doing. I really liked Phaet, and I felt like her outlook on life is one we don’t get very often in YA.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book. THIS BOOK. It’s terrifying and tense and smart and every time I drink apple cider, I wince. Terrible things happen in it, and yet I also cried because it’s so hopeful and affirming. I can’t say how much I love Greta, and Xie, and all the Children of Peace.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold:  I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in its entirety, as I’ve documented here many times, but I was really fascinated by some of the turns and choices she made in the latest installment. It was also really lovely to have another story from Cordelia’s point of view.

The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you’ll know that I’ve been glomping my way through Cherryh’s massive series. I love the way she writes the atevi and the political and social customs and issues that arise. While I occasionally quibble with the depiction of the human women, overall the characters are really engaging and wonderful as well.

Promised Land by Cynthia DeFelice and Connie Willis: This is a lighter SF romance, which has turned out to be one of my comfort reads. It’s kind of a space western, but in a very different vein than Firefly.

Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry: A fun middle-grade space adventure about a family of space privateers. Tycho and his siblings have to compete to win the captain’s seat, but there are also bigger contests going on. Fry has written a number of Star Wars chapter books, and he clearly knows what he’s doing.

And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst: I love Höst’s books, and this was the first one I read. It’s an intimate story, almost quiet, even though it’s about a terrifying world-wide event. Rather than a sweeping epic, Höst keeps the scale on a human level, and makes me care so much about Madeleine and her friends and the outcome of their story.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: I basically always want to be reading this trilogy; Leckie writes ambitiously about identity, loyalty, families, and imperialism. She also pulls it off, mostly because of her rich characters and worldbuilding which also give an emotional core to the big concepts she’s engaging with.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: I was really impressed by this short story collection, which features so many fascinating and strange worlds, as well as some really striking characters. The prose itself is also beautiful, even when the subject matter is not. I can’t wait till I get a chance to read Nine Fox Gambit.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it turns out that near-future socio-political thrillers are very much my thing when Valentine is writing them. Persona is smart and sleek and tense. If UN + red carpet + spies sounds intriguing, this book is probably for you.

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bookish posts reviews

Ancillary Sword

ancillary swordLast year I read and loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and felt very smug and vindicated when it ended up winning almost every science fiction award there is, including the Hugo for Best Novel. (Which is silly since I had nothing to do with it, but shows you my level of investment.)

But sometimes when you really, really love a book, reading its sequel is a dicey proposition. Ancillary Justice was such a strong book, but Leckie had also taken years to write it. Could she possibly manage to pull off the same thing a second time?

Reader, she could. Or rather, she could write a very different book which is just as brilliant and thoughtful and immersive.

Breq, the protagonist of Ancillary Justice, who used to be a ship (this makes more sense in context) returns to an uncertain world in Ancillary Sword. She has made an uneasy peace with Anaander Mianaai and been given a new ship, The Mercy of Kalr. But the other part of Anaander Mianaai is still out there (this…also makes more sense in context) and Breq’s old life is gone irretrievably.

Ancillary Sword takes place in a fairly limited setting, Athoek and Athoek Station, and the concerns it’s dealing with are at least on the surface likewise limited. Ancillary Justice was all about the grand reaches of politics and long-planned revenge; it had, for all its groundedness, the feeling of an epic. Ancillary Sword is about what comes afterwards, the search for meaning and identity, the awkward coming-to-terms with a sometimes unfriendly world. This is not a young adult book, but it shares some of the themes that YA often concerns itself with, even though the protagonist is in fact a centuries old former spaceship.

But if the Breq of Ancillary Justice was bound to the past, defined almost entirely by her quest for revenge against the Lord of the Raadch, the Breq of Ancillary Sword begins to become a person. This comes across most clearly in two areas: the way she deals with the command of Mercy of Kalr, and the way she deals with the situation on the tea plantation. With Mercy of Kalr, she shows that she can use the knowledge of being a ship, not cutting that part of her away, but also has to fumble her way through the awkwardness of human relationships. She’s dealt with Seivarden before, of course, but they are two exiles flung out of time. I liked both the strengths and mistakes that Breq makes here.

But with the tea plantation we also see that Breq is someone who still cares about justice, about righting wrongs. She is not one to stand by and let the powerful ride rough-shod over everyone else, and yet at the same time she understands her own complicity in the system. Leckie does not make the mistake of assuming a simple solution for the world she has created, and Breq herself must operate within its confines. The part of Breq that spent so long planning revenge against Anaander Mianaai is still there.

(Can I just say for a moment that I so appreciated that Leckie does not ignore the fact that the tea Breq drinks comes from slave labor, and in fact makes this an integral part of the story? I think too many book would simply hand-wave it away, and instead here it becomes part of the quiet subversion, working against the system within it, that I loved.)

I’ve seen a few other people say that this one has middle book problems; I didn’t see it, personally. But then I would probably read a book all about Breq and the crew of the Mercy of Kalr just going about their daily lives. I found the interactions there fascinating, and touching. And the worldbuilding continues to be superb. I love all the little details that underlie the story and show us the way this culture thinks. The writing too is understated and beautiful.

Ultimately, this is–like Ancillary Justice–a book that succeeds in being both thought-provoking and a good story. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Orbit Books; adult science fiction

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bookish posts reviews

December 2013 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

All the other books
This is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky: I found this one to be a touching, tender look at families and identity, and what it means when a parent struggles with mental health. Sophie was a sympathetic protagonist, and I found a lot to like here.

United We Spy by Ally Carter: Perhaps it’s because I came to Carter’s writing via the Heist books, but the Gallagher Girls don’t have the same deep appeal for me that they do for many others. That said, I do think this was one of the weaker books in the series; despite a relatively strong resolution, it just bounced all over the place.

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan: For me, this one was a classic case of English majors run amok. It has a lot of separate elements which are really interesting, but taken as a whole, the symbolism came across as very heavy-handed, and both characters and plot failed to convince me that they were worth taking seriously.

Wise Young Fool by Sean Beaudoin: My reading experience for this title was probably marred by the fact that it included both a forward and afterword purporting to be from the editor and claiming that this manuscript ‘mysteriously appeared in their offices’ and since I hate that kind of intrusion with a BURNING PASSION, it really messed up the rest of the book for me. But also, I had trouble with Ritchie and buying his transformation. I wanted to, but it just didn’t work for me.

Forget You by Jennifer Echols: An enjoyable read, but my favorites are still Such a Rush and Going Too Far.

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron: I was hoping to really like this one; I enjoyed it, but it was a bit more stereotypically high fantasy than I was expecting and it never really wowed me. I do plan to read the next book or two, to see if the series as a whole delivers on the promise of what it could be.

Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers: I tried re-reading this one to see if I liked it any better. I didn’t, though possibly for different reasons than when I was younger.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: I’d been hearing rave reviews of this title even before I managed to get my hands on a copy and WOW. Yes, they were all right. This is a stunner of a book, with a wonderful world and narrator. I loved how much Leckie trusted her readers–there was never a moment when I felt hammered over the head with anything. This would absolutely have been a favorite book of 2013 if I had finished in time.

Above by Leah Bobet: This is a very difficult book to describe, so I won’t try. But I was seriously impressed by the world, by the writing, by the characters. Bobet shows people making hard choices, but does it with a lot of understanding and grace. I never quite tipped over into absolute love, but I really respected what the story did.

Bad Houses by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil
All The Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry
Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez
If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch
Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer