Tag Archives: 2017 Books

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight

So, it’s less than a month into the new year and I have a to-read list a mile long that I’ve already deviated from by reading this. This is exactly why I needed this book, which is all about the type of mental and emotional de-cluttering that I’ve been working on with mixed success for a couple of years now. You could probably also benefit from this book, even if it’s just as a quick-ish afternoon read for a few laughs–though I think most of us could learn at least a couple of things from Sarah Knight’s humorous suggestions for living one’s best life.

The book is well-organized into clearly labeled and defined sections that break things down into manageable chunks, and Knight does a good job of describing a system that can be applied to one’s life in stages. Because this sort of de-cluttering is something I’ve been thinking about and working on for some time, it wasn’t all new information–she’s not exactly reinventing the wheel here–but I found it validating to read something that is supportive of what I’ve been trying to do, and Knight’s systematic approach to things is genuinely useful and helped me realize some of the flaws in my own haphazard way of dealing with life stuff. There is definitely a focus on bourgeois concerns that may be alienating (or at least mildly-to-moderately irritating) to some readers–like, there’s a lot of stuff on weddings and who on earth goes to that many weddings?–but most of Knight’s advice and systems are portable in ways that can be adapted to any lifestyle. The book is also just repetitive enough that if you find your eyes glazing over during another passage about destination bachelorette parties or something, you can–and I learned this from the book!–choose not to give a fuck about it and skip ahead to something more useful to you.

I guess, if you’re religious or just don’t care for repeated usage of the f-word, you could just grab your nearest copy of the prayer for serenity and hope for the best, but there are some great tips here for setting priorities and establishing boundaries that help to maximize your enjoyment of life and minimize stress and resentment. Plus, it is pretty short.

Book Review: Windwitch by Susan Dennard

I read Truthwitch around this time last year and enjoyed it in spite of its flaws, which were, well, many. But it was the start of a new series, and it featured a great friendship between two young women and had an interesting idea for a system of magic. Plus, while my tastes certainly skew towards the literary end of SFF, I appreciate some light reading to break up my routine from time to time. So I was pretty excited about Windwitch after enjoying its predecessor so much. Unfortunately, it turned out to be my biggest reading disappointment in a long while. Windwitch is the absolute worst sort of boring, insipid, YA claptrap I’ve read in years.

In Truthwitch, the story revolved primarily around Safi and Iseult, but Windwitch finds the two girls separated entirely. Obviously, based on the title, readers of the first book could expect Merik to feature largely in this one, and he does, but he is also disconnected from Safi and Iseult so that none of the primary characters from the last book actually interact with each other in any significant way. Instead, they’re shuffled around and paired off with others–Safi with Vaness and then both of them with a group of Hell-Bards, Iseult with Aeduan, and Merik with Cam and then sort of with his sister Vivia (who has been upgraded to a POV role)–but none of these interactions are very compelling, and very little actually happens at all, in spite of the book feeling fast-paced for most of its page count.

Safi and Vaness go on a journey, get captured a couple of times, and have to escape, only to learn that they don’t actually know what they’re doing. Iseult and Aeduan are also going on a journey, but they never get anywhere and then end up learning that they have to do something different from what they thought they were doing for the whole rest of the book. And Merik is trying to do something in Nubrevna but then finds out that he didn’t actually know anything about anything. Which, I guess, is supposed to be the main theme of the book–this whole no one knowing anything–but by the end of the book I found I simply didn’t care. It’s not even that the characters make foolish decisions or that everything feels so contrived and senselessly convoluted. Frankly, it’s all just so boring that I ended up just skimming whole chapters to get through it faster, and don’t think I missed out on anything.

None of this is helped by the fact that major aspects of the Witchlands’ magic system are still not very well-explained. It was only about halfway through this book that I finally decided that I’m just going to understand people who are “Cleaved” to be something like zombies, for example, even though I don’t think it’s at all conclusive from the text that this is the case. The magic of all the various characters continues to feel poorly defined, and the way Dennard uses it in the story is inconsistent. I’m sure that she has rules for how she’s writing the Witchlands magic, but whatever they are they’re basically incomprehensible to the reader. This was true enough in Truthwitch, and I called it forgivable because it was a first book in a new series and I otherwise enjoyed it. I thought that surely some of the fuzzier details of things would come into focus in this second book. They did not.

To add to these problems, none of the relationships or character arcs in Windwitch are at all interesting or entertaining except for Vivia’s and hers is subordinated to her brother Merik’s. Vivia didn’t figure largely in Truthwitch, but here she becomes a POV character with an interesting motivation–she’s trying to run her country while her father is ill, and she’s facing sexism in Nubrevnan society while also struggling with her ongoing grief over her mother’s death and her feelings of rather well-justified resentment toward her brother for the way that he has been given choices, responsibilities, and power that Vivia has had to work hard for. In the whole book, Vivia is the only character who has clearly defined and sensible motivations that are complex enough to generate real interest in her story, but she’s not given much page space and much of it is wasted on her almost obsessive thinking about her unspoken and possibly unrequited romantic feelings for another woman. I love women who love women, and goodness knows we could use more lesbians in fantasy, but this sort of relentless pining with no progression in the relationship is tiresome under normal circumstances. Here, where Vivia is legit dealing with a crisis situation as her country starves while being on the brink of war, her constant thoughts about the object of her affection are just plain intrusive–for Vivia and the reader.

Elsewhere, Iseult and Aeduan’s interactions are a study in what I guess passes for romantic/sexual tension. The difference here is that neither of them seem to have the least bit of self-awareness about their burgeoning attraction. I’m sure all this barely contained wanting to bone is great fuel for shippers and fanfic writers, but again there’s very little forward progress on that front. The revelation that Aeduan shares Nomatsi heritage with Iseult starts off feeling significant, but it never bears any actual fruit in terms of a deeper understanding or fellowship between them. Their physical interactions are too PG to ever be truly sexy, all written with a weirdly puritanical coyness that I found actively unpleasant to read.

They could have been worse, though. They could have been more like the interactions between Merik and his sidekick Cam or between Safi and the hell-bard (and by the way, I don’t think Susan Dennard actually knows what a bard is) Caden. The thing is, while I hate the dull, predictable chemistry between Safi and Caden, and I hate the way that Vaness is allowed to fade into the background of Safi’s POV sections, and I hate Safi’s sort of generalized insouciance and her terrible jokes… I despise Merik and his treatment of Cam.

Cam is a trans boy with what sounds like vitiligo, and he’s clever and brave and loyal and long-suffering. Because Merik is pretty much an asshole to Cam through the whole book about everything. The worst part, however, is just how much time Merik (well, Susan Dennard, really) spends commenting on Cam’s transness. It’s as if Dennard decided to make Merik the mouthpiece for her to work through all her own confused feelings about trans people, and Cam spends most of the book being misgendered inside Merik’s head–until the very end of the book when Merik magnanimously decides that he needs to focus on thinking about Cam with the proper pronouns. It’s not good enough. Cam is obviously trans from the beginning of the book, and Merik’s inability to either understand or accept that for almost four hundred pages doesn’t reflect well on him. It’s only when Merik meets someone who know’s Cam’s original name that things seem to click for Merik, and a ridiculous amount of page space is dedicated to Merik essentially marveling that being trans is a thing.

Being cis myself, I don’t feel qualified to fully unpack all this, but it seems like a particularly ham-handed way of including a trans character. Without any scenes from Cam’s POV, there’s very little insight into how he feels about any of this. The disconnect between the way Merik talks to Cam and the way he thinks about Cam is messed up as well. He’s very particular about calling Cam “boy” throughout the book–which has a weird racial dynamic as well, since Merik codes white and Cam is described as being dark-skinned with lighter patches–but he consistently thinks of Cam as “girl” even though he first knew Cam only as a boy. It’s just a huge mess of a well-meaning (I think) but ultimately insufficient attempt at inclusiveness.

Which is pretty par for the course with this book, which is, overall, a big mess in which almost nothing really works. The things that do work–Vivia’s storyline, Aeduan (though not Aeduan with Iseult)–seem to work almost be accident, not through any particular skill or intention of the author. Honestly, I’m not quite sure anymore what Susan Dennard is trying to do with this series. I might come back for Bloodwitch next year, because I do like Aeduan and am mildly interested to see if anything gets any better, but Windwitch honestly made me question every positive feeling I had about Truthwitch.

Book Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Listen. It’s almost impossible for any collection of twenty-one short stories to please everyone all of the time, but with Difficult Women Roxane Gay comes closer than most to nailing it. The stories in this volume are, from start to finish, thoughtful, clever, funny, tragic and hopeful in turn. These stories are a rage-filled paean to the strength and resilience and weakness and fragility and everything in between of women. This is an ugly, heart-wrenching, beautiful book, and if Roxane Gay wrote three hundred forty-four more stories like this I would treat them like a devotional and reread them every year for the rest of my life.

Probably what I love best about Difficult Women is that Roxane Gay is so unconcerned with dualities. She avoids trite, reductive storytelling in favor of exploring the complexities of every day life. Gay’s difficult women deal with trauma and loss, they fall in love, and they fuck. They are kind and brave and capricious and cruel and yielding and stubborn and cold-hearted and hot-tempered and more, and every woman Gay writes about here contains multitudes. It’s impressive to find so much intricacy of character in short fiction, and Gay turns out one fascinating story after another.

That said, there’s a significant amount of thematic overlap and repetition between entries in the collection. Sexual violence, dead children, and abusive lovers figure largely in these tales, and this can at times create a sense of grimness that won’t be appealing to all readers. Certainly there are some lighter stories included, but I found those to have a slighter quality than those stories that dealt with weightier material. Altogether, though, the stories of Difficult Women are well-chosen and smartly arranged so that the reader is never overwhelmed by darkness, and those couple of slighter stories, while not among my favorites, perform an important function in the collection as a whole by periodically lightening the mood and offering the reader a perfect opportunity to grab a drink or take a break.

In style and genre, Gay is clearly a writer of wide-ranging interests, with several stories veering into the realm of magical realism and one (“The Sacrifice of Darkness”) that is unambiguously speculative in nature. Gay writes stories in numerous settings about characters of different ages, races and classes, floating in and out of her characters’ lives with what might seem like ease for the reader but I expect is the result of years of life experience and meticulous study of people combined with finely honed craft. Stylistically, these stories all tend towards a forthrightness that challenges the reader to really see and empathize with the characters with all their flaws and defies moralistic judgments. This is a collection that is keenly intellectual, but never self-consciously so. Even Gay’s symbolism is generally natural and easy to grasp, and she doesn’t bother with any too-precious conceits, complex metaphors or arcane allusions that might make the text inaccessible.

In the end, Difficult Women is just what it says it is and what it appears to be. It’s a work of elegant simplicity and brutal honesty and deeply humane reflections on the human condition. I look forward to shamelessly pushing it on literally everyone I know.

Book Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

It’s early enough in the year that I don’t have much to compare it to yet, but I feel confident in saying that Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is one of the year’s great novella-length works. It’s smartly written, well-paced, has a compelling cast of characters and an original mythology, and is altogether compulsively readable. It’s perfect reading for a cold day or a rainy afternoon, exactly the sort of thing that is easy to zip through in a single sitting like I did.

It might be easy to just focus on the characterization of this book as “that book about the ghost who works at the suicide hotline,” but Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is something really special and interesting that isn’t done justice by that facile, humorous-sounding description. Yes, Jenna is a ghost and she works at a suicide hotline, but this isn’t a funny book and, while a fast read, isn’t really the kind of light reading that superficial description would suggest, either. There’s some lightness here, but this is a book that deals mostly with themes relating to grief and mortality and Seanan McGuire has something quite serious to say about these issues. She does touch on some ideas about community and found family, but those are mostly incidental to the story and more implied than explicitly examined in the text.

Because the book is so emotionally and thematically weighty, the plot is a fairly basic one. After the introduction of Jenna’s predicament and some explanation of her life as a ghost, Jenna and her friend, a witch, have to rescue a bunch of other ghosts when they mysteriously disappear. We never meet any of the disappeared ghosts, so there’s not much emotional stake in their rescue, but the book isn’t really about them at all. Instead, the first person narrative puts the reader completely inside Jenna’s head for the duration of the story. And while Jenna is a kind and caring person, there’s an interesting detachment in her ways of caring for her pets (all elderly cats) and the people in her after-life, and McGuire does a great job of exploring how Jenna’s circumstances have changed her perspective and her understanding of life and death.

McGuire also has an interesting take on witches here, where they have magics tied to any number of things–streets, rats, corn… presumably the options are basically unlimited–that fuel their powers and inform and limit their abilities. The relationship between witches and ghosts is complex and adversarial rather than symbiotic, but it adds another dimension to the reader’s understanding of the themes. Like ghosts, witches exist in a social space somewhat removed from humanity, and both ghosts and witches live extended lifetimes and are subject to forces and motivations outside their control. McGuire’s “What If?” question in this book is broad and perhaps ill-defined, but I love the multiple angles from which she’s chosen to try and answer it.

Looking back on the reading experience of this one, I think the genius of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is that McGuire has used an extremely simple and fairly straightforward plot in order to hang a ton of mythology and worldbuilding upon, but she’s managed to do it in a way that feels complete and not as if it’s just an introduction to a bigger fictional world or a longer series. Sure, there’s tons of storytelling potential here, and there is at least one character (Delia, if you want to know) that I’d love to see McGuire return to in the future. But Jenna’s story in this volume is completely self-contained and entirely emotionally satisfying. I would definitely like to read more about this fantasy world, but I don’t think any sequels are necessary. I’d love for these kinds of singularly lovely standalone stories become a trend even more than I want to see sequels or companions to this story.

This review is based upon an advance copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is an excellent fairy tale-inspired historical fantasy that should appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. Katherine Arden has crafted a well-researched, beautifully written, and overall marvelously realized debut novel that nonetheless has some deep and unsettling flaws that I expect will keep it from being among my favorite novels of 2017 and, frankly, make it somewhat unlikely that I will return to the series (this is the first of a planned trilogy).

First, the good.

If you like historical fantasy or fairy tale retellings, this one is a great choice. Arden has chosen a couple of somewhat obscure-to-Anglophone-readers fairy tales to use as the backbone of her story, and she’s chosen a setting–circa 14th century Russia–that isn’t widely used. Both of these factors set The Bear and the Nightingale nicely apart from the ongoing glut of retold and reimagined fairy tales on the market. These things are always a dime a dozen, so it’s refreshing to see something original being done in the genre, and to have an original idea coupled with a well-researched setting that offers a great sense of place is something really special.

I also kind of love that The Bear and the Nightingale isn’t a romance, though it has some romantic, in the literary sense, elements. Instead, it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, beginning before the birth of its primary protagonist, and Vasilisa grows from precocious child to independent young woman over the course of the novel. Romantic relationships barely figure into the story at all, and it instead focuses on exploring Vasilisa’s relationships with her family and community in order to explore bigger ideas about tradition, religion, gender equality, and growing up. Too often, books like this focus primarily on getting their heroine heterosexually paired off and settled down at the end, so I’m always glad to read something that avoids that narrative that domestic partnership and nuclear familial conventionality are the ultimate happy ending. The somewhat ambiguous, but hopeful, ending of The Bear and the Nightingale suits me far better.

Sadly, while the good parts of The Bear and the Nightingale are excellent, the bad parts are pretty terrible. Mostly, the bad parts all involve Vasilisa’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, for whom everything is terrible all the time.

**Spoilers below this line.** Continue reading Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Magazine Review: Uncanny Magazine Issue 14 Jan/Feb 2017

I’ve read Uncanny Magazine sporadically since they started publishing, but I finally decided to back their Kickstarter and subscribe for Year Three. I’d definitely rate that among my best decisions of 2016, not least of all because it means that I’ve gotten to start off 2017 with a brand new issue that is jam-packed full of the usual sorts of excellent stories, poetry and essays that have been characteristic of the publication since the beginning.

Sam J. Miller’s “Bodies Stacked Up Like Firewood” centers around a trans man’s suicide, and is the first story to make me cry in 2017. Miller deftly and sensitively explores the grief of his characters, utilizing a slight speculative element for a haunting effect that left me perfectly primed for reading the second story that has made me cry this year, A. Merc Rustad’s “Monster Girls Don’t Cry.” I just recently read Rustad’s lovely “This is Not a Wardrobe Door” in Fireside, so I was excited to find a second of their stories so soon and thrilled to find that this one is even better than the first. I’m a huge fan of stories where outsiders come to own their identities, and I love a literal metaphor, so “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” is right up my alley. I fully expect it to be one of my favorites of the year.

Kassandra Khaw’s “Goddess, Worm” is nice but not terribly memorable. “The Thule Stowaway” by Maria Dahvana Headley is rather long and challenging, especially if you don’t know the works and biography of Edgar Allan Poe very well. I could see it being a great favorite for the right reader, however. From Theodora Goss comes “To Budapest, with Love,” which is a thoughtful meditation on ideas of alienness that I didn’t find that compelling. “Some Cupids Kill With Arrows” by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a charming and funny romance that I will definitely be linking to all my classics-loving friends when it’s free to read on February 7 (and hounding them to just buy the issue in the meantime). The Ann Leckie reprint, “The Unknown God,” is fine, but not as exciting as some of her other work that I’ve read.

I’m no poetry expert, but I loved Nin Harris’s “Jean-Luc, Future Ghost” and even think I understood it. Longer poems by Carlos Hernandez and Nicasio Andres Reed round out the section but are beyond my ability to critique other than to say I liked them.

Mark Oshiro offers an important perspective on and critique of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in his essay “Inferior Beasts.” Natalie Luhrs makes an excellent case for romance in “Why You Should Read Romance” and Angel Cruz’s essay, “Blood of the Revolution: On Filipina Writers and Aswang,” is fascinating. The standout essay of the issue, however, is Delilah S. Dawson’s powerful “I Have Never Not Been an Object.” Finally, Julia Rios, in her second issue as print interviewer, talks with A. Merc Rustad and Maria Dahvana Headley, who each offer some great insight into the stories they had in this issue, their respective processes, and what they’ll be up to next.

Like any collection of fiction and essays, Uncanny Magazine #14 has its highs and lows subject to the reader’s tastes, but it’s overall a solid issue of an above average publication. Even the pieces that didn’t especially speak to me personally were obviously chosen with care for their high quality, and I continue to be extremely happy that I finally decided to become a subscriber.

The SF Bluestocking 2017 Winter Reading List

I know it’s a little bit past the actual beginning of winter, but I think from now on I’m just going to break these seasonal reading lists up into more or less three month time periods and name them for the closest corresponding season. It’s just not practical to try and do a full year’s worth of books that I’m excited about, even in January, especially when there are plenty of still-to-be-announced releases for later in the year that I don’t even know about yet. So, this list will get you (and me) through March.

Magazines
I’m starting this year off with magazine subscriptions for the first time in many years. (Like, now that I think about it, I think the last time I regularly read any magazine was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine back in the early ’90s. Yikes.) Here’s what I’m definitely reading (and recommending, natch) in the first few months of 2017:

Tor.com Novellas and Short(-ish) Novels
I plan to continue reading all of these as they are published (or as ARCs if I am lucky and they show up on NetGalley). I know I’ve been full of praise for the last couple of years for Tor.com’s novellas, but I still basically love them. The novella length (and price!) is great for quick reading, and Tor.com publishes a great variety of new and established authors in a good mix of subgenres that offers plenty that I like and enough stuff outside my usual comfort zone to keep things interesting and challenging. After 2016, there are a couple of authors that I will be avoiding in the future because I just don’t care for their books at all, but other than that I expect to keep on reading these faithfully. The first quarter of 2017 has quite a lot to be excited for.

  • Dusk or Dawn or Dark or Day by Seanan McGuire – January 10
  • Sin du Jour: The First Course by Matt Wallace – January 10 (Contains books 1-3 of the series. I probably won’t be rereading it, but if you haven’t read it at least once, you should.)
  • The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott – January 17
  • Passing Strange by Ellen Klages – January 24
  • Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor – January 31
  • Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace – February 7
  • An Impossible War by Andy Remic – February 14 (This is one I’ll be skipping, but it’s surely a better fit for someone.)
  • Cold Counsel by Chris Sharp – February 21
  • Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan – February 28
  • Standard Hollywood Depravity by Adam Christopher – March 7
  • Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman – March 14
  • Chalk by Paul Cornell – March 21

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Everything Else
Everything else obviously is the majority of what I’ve got on my TBR list. There are a handful of things here that I’m not 100% sure about, but in order to hit my Goodreads challenge numbers I’ll have to get through most of these. I hope I can, because there’s a ton of great stuff coming out over the next couple of months.

  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – January 3
  • Windwitch by Susan Dennard – January 10
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – January 10
  • Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler, John Jennings (Illustrator), Damian Duffy (Adapted by) – January 10
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels – January 24
  • Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty – January 31
  • Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer – January 31
  • Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly – February 7
  • The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley – February 7
  • Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey – February 14
  • Angel Catbird Volume 2: To Castle Catula by Margaret Atwood and Johnny Christmas – February 14
  • Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – February 21
  • Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells – March 7
  • The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin – March 14

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