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#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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Dancing, Princesses, and Magic: Vernon and Valentine

girls at the kingfisherof-mice-and-magic

I have said quite a bit about how much I loved Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine when I first read it. I am happy to say that rereading it only added more depth and appreciation for what Valentine is doing here. Jo is one of the most wonderful, heartbreaking characters I can think of, and I’m still amazed by how well the other characters are done, even the most minor ones.

Thanks to a comment from Kate in librarian book club, I really noticed the fairy-tale-ness this time through. Even though Valentine is playing fast and loose with the specifics, she also hearkens back to fairy tales in some really interesting ways. Sometimes this happens in the choice of language, which is deceptively simple and detached while actually full of emotional punches. (“It frightened her how deep her sobs could reach, as if someone was pulling sorrow from her bones.”)

There’s also their father’s detachment and unkindness, which is present in the original fairy tale (you cannot convince me that king was a good parent). It transplants surprisingly well to this setting, because Valentine is partly making a point about rich men who view their daughters as objects that they own. Another one of those devastating sentences: “He was always most terrible when he was trying to seem kind.”

One of the things you notice in fairy tales are the rules that the hero or heroine has to follow to survive. Sometimes these seem arbitrary, but they actually aren’t. In this book, Jo’s the one that sets the rules (which, interestingly, are given their own section as if to highlight their importance):

Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can. Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time. We’ll leave without you if we have to.

The fact that it’s Jo setting the rules is important, I think, because Jo isn’t the usual fairy tale heroine. She’s sharp and angry and distrustful. Unlike her sisters, she’s not quite a Princess; she’s a General. I noticed this partly in a pivotal moment, when Jo is speaking to her father. Valentine’s choice of language underscores both the fairy tale echo and Jo’s liminal place in it: “Then it was silent, and when Jo spoke it gave her words the gravity of a curse. ‘They’re gone,’ she said, ‘and you’ll never see them again.'”

Because the other strand in this book is learning how to be free when you haven’t been, when your soul has grown around something dark and twisted. “I’m my father’s daughter,” Jo thinks at one point, and it’s true–but it’s not all of her. She has to relearn “how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone.” She has to learn how to be a sister, and not a General. This strand hits me right in every single one of my feels. Her fears and struggles and desires are achingly familiar to me.

What’s interesting is how much of these same themes and feelings are present in Of Mice and Magic. Unlike GATKC, where we’re immersed in Jo’s point of view, OMM is told from an outsider’s perspective. Harriet, a hamster princess and adventurer, is the one who rescues the mouse princesses from their father. But like the Hamilton sisters, the mouse sisters love to dance “more than anything in the world.” And like the Hamilton sisters, the mouse sisters stand together against their father’s rage (“but still none of them said a word”).

I’m fascinated by the fact that Vernon manages to tell a pretty complex story about abusive parents and winning your freedom which is also totally appropriate for its audience, which neither talks down to children nor gives them more than they can handle. The mouse king’s selfishness and anger is shown clearly, but the emphasis is on the bonds between the sisters and Harriet’s resourcefulness in setting them free.

It all pays off when the mouse king is left in the ruins of his castle and the sisters escape to the world and freedom. The scene ends with, “and not a single one of the princesses looked back.” It’s a line that would be equally at home in GATKC, and that also resonates deeply.

I appreciated the way Vernon also shows Harriet, another princess, who rescues them and that the story gives us many different ways to be a princess. It’s not that Harriet’s way is the only right one. The mice will have to learn their own paths. To point out the obvious subtext, we’re not being told that there is one right way to be a girl. We all have to find our ways.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and I’m really pleased to have both of these lovely retellings to recommend. Although they’re certainly different in terms of setting and tone, their strengths and similarities in terms of theme make both books powerful separately and together.

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Current Reads: 9-21-2016

I am still reading ALL OF THE BOOKS, but I’m trying to keep my pile down to a reasonable size, and also DNF books if they’re not working for me regardless of how well they came recommended.

current

 

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: YEP I’m still reading this one–but the middle lost my attention a bit and I finished several other books ahead of it. I sat down and read a good chunk this morning, so I’m hopeful I’ll finish this one soon. I still like it, but one of the storylines is just…weird.

The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones: I really liked the first of Jones’s Alpennia books, and then it took me forever to actually ILL this one. I’m about 40 pages in and loving it!

American Girls by Alison Umminger: I started this one awhile back and then it kept getting bumped down the priority list, although the beginning really hooked me. I’m curious to know how the rest will play out–plus I’d like to be able to chime in if/when it gets discussed on the PrintzBlog.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar: Another one that I started and then set down–I’m always interested in families and how the choices of past generations echo. This one is right on the mg/YA line, and I don’t have any firm thoughts about that yet.

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: Also still reading this one–I’ve been doing it a chapter at a time, but I’ll probably try to finish it up this week.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: The last couple of weeks have been tough, so I put this one on hold because it’s so intense. However, the library copy is due back soon so I’m going to sit down with it this weekend!

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken: The next book in my Aiken re-read series! It’s the first one with Dido and I’m so excited.

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Icon by Genevieve Valentine

icon(Orthodox readers, this is not an Orthodox book, despite the title! I’ll talk about this a bit more below but I wanted to make it clear right away.) (Everyone: There are spoilers for Icon below. I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to in this book without spoiling it, I’m sorry, please don’t read any more if this bothers you!)

Oh, friends. This book. However this review turns out, please understand that the temptation to just add that Community “MY EMOTIONS” gif and hit schedule is going to be super high. Genevieve Valentine is really good at making me feel lots of things, it turns out. Also, she writes books that I possibly would not read from anyone else but which are so good that I consider her an auto-read author at this point. I’m pretty sure she could imbue the phone book with strong characters and a tense plot, also that I would like it.

In this case, Icon is a sequel to last year’s Persona. Both are near-future political thrillers, about the same main characters, Suyana and Daniel. I finished Persona and was astonished that both of them made it out of the book alive.

Well, they don’t both make it out of Icon alive.

Icon has a sense of narrative inevitability from page one, and a sense of tension and doom that increases to an almost unbearable extent over the course of the book. I both knew and felt that things were gong to end badly. I kept finding myself holding my breath until the most immediate danger had passed. And yet, I kept reading, even knowing I was going to cry.

I cried so much.

Suyana and Daniel are completely compelling, partly because Valentine has a keen sense for what to tell us and what to leave out. Asking the reader to fill in the blank spaces makes us more invested, keeps us caring, keeps us turning the page. In Persona, we had a sense of them as unlikely partners. Here they’re separated. But they keep fighting and fighting, for the soul of the IA, for the people they care about, for each other. They never get a break or a rest, they hardly have a single moment alone together, and yet their relationship is so potent that it becomes the center around which the story turns.

(I also love that Suyana gets to be calculating without being heartless.)

But Valentine is also excellent at throwing her characters into tense, impossible situations. In Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Persona, they manage to win some sort of space, peace, love. Icon, on the other hand, refuses any way out. I have always thought that West Side Story is more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, because one of them lives and has to go on living. In Icon, not only does Daniel die, and in dying save them, but Suyana “wins” at a horrific personal cost. She ends the book almost entirely alone, muddied by politics. She has done the right thing for the IA and therefore the world. It’s not exactly a bleak ending. But it is a hard one.

Now, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of the title. I understand what Valentine is trying to conjure–the complexity boiled down into a symbol. But since I am Orthodox and the word icon has a primarily religious connotation for me, and since that religious understanding is quite different than Valentine’s usage, it just…doesn’t work for me. I realize this is a personal issue, and one not every reader will share.

I’d recommend this book for people at the unlikely intersection of: invested in Hiddleswift (I have not even gotten into Suyana’s fake relationship with Ethan!), interested in politics, and the red carpet, and into Code Name Verity. (Weirdly enough, I feel like I know multiple people who fit that profile.) Actually, you don’t have to be interested in all of those things, or maybe even any of them. You just have to be willing to let these characters in and then let them break your heart a little.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Saga Press; adult science fiction

 

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Mahvesh Murad at Tor.com; Bridget Keown @ RT; you?

 

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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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Witch Week: A new take on old stories

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors hosted at Emerald City Book Review. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

Folktales and fairy tales are an enormous part of my internal landscape–it’s almost impossible to overstate how important they’ve been to me since childhood. My mom had a huge Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I read all of it at least twice. Later, I grew to love modern retellings, starting with Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

Most often, I tend to like the retellings that thoughtfully examine the original story rather than reversing it completely. But I’ve also found some retellings that come at the story slantwise. These don’t so much destroy the original as remake it. I’m going to talk a bit today about three novels and one short story that I think do this and that I love.

winter princegirls at the kingfisherbone gap

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein: This is Wein’s debut book, and it’s a retelling of the Arthurian legend from Mordred/Medraut’s point of view. But it has more in common with Rosemary Sutcliff than with Merlin; it’s dark and twisty and shows a world that’s full of texture and vibrant personalities. For me, it both humanizes Medraut and also still gives us the kingly Arthur of the myths. I am slightly overcome by how much I love this book just thinking about it now. Also, it gives us Goewin, and I LOVE Goewin.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales ever of all time ever. It’s set in the 1920s and it includes no magic whatsoever, but it keeps the structure and heart of the story, while at the same time using it as a way to talk about family and fathers and abuse and love. I’ve been going on about this one since I read it and I want everyone in the world to try it.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: This is a 2015 YA which has been getting a lot of attention and rightly so–it’s a stunning, complex look at the dark side of the Persephone/Beauty and the Beast story. I truly love both the myth and fairy tale, and many of the newer stories that have echoed them. But I also truly loved this story, which reminds us of the possible darkness inherent within those stories. Roza, the heroine of this story, is a wonderful character in her own right as well.

The Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan: I’m a big fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s work in general, but this short story is one of my all time favorite things she’s written. One of the things I love most about it is that, as a friend pointed out, Mede is a name that has echoes in Greek mythology. But is it Andromeda or Medea? We never know; we never quite find out. While SRB doesn’t directly quote any one myth, the whole story feels like it has echoes and beats that evoke them.

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Three of a Kind: Young women coming into power

fistful of skyA Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: This is a marvelous and deeply weird book–weird in the sense that I’m not sure if I actually liked it or not. The children of the LaZelle family are supposed to come into their power in their teens, but Gypsum alone of her siblings has reached her twenties with no power at all. She has determinedly made the best of this. But then she abruptly comes into quite a strong power, except that it’s a twisted power, a curse power. What follows is Gypsum’s attempt to come to terms with her own power and find her place in the family that had often ignored her.

It’s also, as I said deeply weird in ways I can’t explain because they would be spoilerific. Suffice it to say that some of what Gypsum has to reconcile is the deeper and darker parts of her own personality, and that the ways she does this are fairly unique. I loved the bits about the magic. On the other hand, some of the family dynamic made me uncomfortable and I can’t tell the degree to which this is intended. I’ll also mention that Gypsum is fat and fairly comfortable being fat, although I can’t really say how accurate or sensitive the portrayal is.

bad luck girlBad Luck Girl by Sarah Zettel: This is the third in the American Fairies trilogy, following Callie LeRoux in her quest to find and free her parents and escape from the fairy relatives who wish her harm. I like Callie and her story, although I did feel that this third book was a little unfocused at times.

On the other hand, I really liked the way Callie’s arc in this one is all about coming into her own, learning the limits and contours of her power. She stands at the crossroads of several identities: black and white, fairy and human, and she must figure out who and what she wants to be. She also is struggling to understand the politics of the fairy courts. Despite all these shifting pieces, she is clearly herself, and also clearly wants to help others, particularly the half-fairies who the courts despise and see as a food source. I loved this, and the sense that she cares about those on the outside because she has been there herself.

personaPersona by Genevieve Valentine: I would like Genevieve Valentine to write all the things, please and thank you. In the first two books I’ve talked about, the power is mostly magical, or at least is magical on the most obvious level. Here, in the slightly distant future, Suyana Sapaki is the Face of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation. She and her country are not among the rich and powerful. She takes her job seriously, but she is not important.

But then someone tries to assassinate her, and a Korean photographer named Daniel Park saves her, despite himself. What follows is really a complex unwinding of layers and identities as both Suyana and Daniel are forced to come to terms with who they really are and where their allegiances should like. They have both been keeping secrets, and it’s hard for them to trust each other let alone the other players in the game.

What I love about this one is the sense of possibility–both that this version of the future could be exist in some alternate universe, and the potential in Suyana and Daniel as they try to not only stay alive but change the course of history.

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The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

girls at the kingfisherThis is the story of twelve sisters, but mostly it is the story of Jo.

This is the story of twelve sisters who escape from their home to go dancing until dawn.

They have to escape, because they’re not allowed out, because their mother is dead and their father’s kindness is more terrifying than anything else.

They can escape because Jo organizes it. She is the General; she never dances; she is her father’s daughter.

This is a story about hard choices, about love, about saving yourself, and about saving each other.

I didn’t think at a certain point that this story could end with any kind of happiness. And it’s true that I’m crying now, because there are parts of it that hurt. But there’s hope, too, and unlikely victories. Halfway through the book, I knew I couldn’t stop reading until the end.

One of the things I love is how clearly this is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, without being tied to its source. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorite fairy tales partly because it is so clearly about sisters; that the relationship between the twelve girls is more important than any of the others. And, in all its prickly, fraught, wonderful glory, that’s exactly what we see here. It’s the center that the book is written around. I recognized sisterhood, which both is and is not friendship.

And I loved Jo. She is also prickly and hard and sometimes even cruel. But she’s completely real and compelling and also heartbreaking. Her loneliness at certain points was almost palpable. I ached for her to have a happy ending, more than any of the other girls, and I didn’t know how she possibly could.

And the voice is pitch-perfect, both the bits of 20s slang and the calm-on-the-surface narration that goes down smoothly and then burns. (“It frightened her how deep her sobs could reach, as if someone was pulling sorrow from her bones.”) There’s just enough distance to keep us worried, to keep us wondering.

There’s a depth and richness to this book that makes me want to talk about it for ages. The settings–the house, the different nightclubs, the way the girls interact with each space. The tension between the freedom the girls find dancing and the careful negotiation of the men they dance with. The blatant corruption of the city and how Jo has to find her way in it. The fact that no one turns into a caricature, even the unkind characters, and so there’s no easy way out.

And I loved that the story isn’t bitter. It’s not a manifesto. It’s too clear-sighted for that, too aware of complexities. Instead it has layers upon layers (the way the girls’ father deals with them (that moment when he realizes he has to face all twelve (that moment when he’s caught in his own trap) and how Jo and Tom maneuver him into that) how all his plans backfire on him because people are stronger and smarter and braver than you expect them to be), and each one adds another shade to the picture.

All of my recent favorite stories, the ones I keep thinking about and thinking about, have these common themes: bravery and resistance. Rose Under Fire (that moments when the lights go out), The Goblin Emperor (Maia choosing kindness again and again), heck, Captain America (when the tech says no, knowing he might get killed). It’s here too: the courage to escape, the choice to go out into the dark night and dance and dance and dance.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Atria Books; pubb’d adult but great YA crossover material

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers
Ana @ Things Mean A Lot