Tansy Rayner Roberts – Love and Romanpunk

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard it mentioned on the SF Squeecast. Oh, if only those guys knew how many recommendations of theirs I went out and bought. Seriously, I’m super sad the Squeecast is on hiatus for now. I hope they come back some day with more books and author guests and lots of squeeing.

love and romanpunkLOVE AND ROMANPUNK
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Twelfth Planet Press, 2011
Ebook: 105 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius.

Thousands of years ago, Julia Agrippina wrote the true history of her family, the Caesars. The document was lost, or destroyed, almost immediately. (It included more monsters than you might think.)
Hundreds of years ago, Fanny and Mary ran away from London with a debauched poet and his sister. (If it was the poet you are thinking of, the story would have ended far more happily, and with fewer people having their throats bitten out.)
Sometime in the near future, a community will live in a replica Roman city built in the Australian bush. It’s a sight to behold. (Shame about the manticores.)
Further in the future, the last man who guards the secret history of the world will discover that the past has a way of coming around to bite you. (He didn’t even know she had a thing for pointy teeth.)
The world is in greater danger than you ever suspected. Women named Julia are stronger than they appear. Don’t let your little brother make out with silver-eyed blondes. Immortal heroes really don’t fancy teenage girls. When love dies, there’s still opera. Family is everything. Monsters are everywhere. Yes, you do have to wear the damned toga.
History is not what you think it is.

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This story collection contains four stories that are all connected to each other, more like a small mosaic novel than a regular author collection you might find elsewhere. This is a thing I like, as I have recently discovered through Angela Slatter’s books. However, reading Love and Romanpunk so soon after falling hard for another short story writer may have been bad for Tansy Rayner Roberts. Because as charming as her stories are, as cute as her ideas may be, they pale in comparison to Angela Slatter. But that’s just me.

In the first story, “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, we meet said Julia – one of many – and  encounter many Roman emperors. Julia tells the story of her family, of their demise, and how not all (or many) of their deaths can be attributed to such mundane means as poisons or old age. No, in fact, her family is haunted by mythological creatures. I find the idea of manticores, lamia, griffins, and harpies wonderful but in a short story, this was a bit much. This story disguised as a bestiary still tells a nice tale, but there was simply an overload of monsters and instead of being terrifying or even very interesting, it became ridiculous pretty quickly. Also, if you’re not too familiar with Roman history (most of what I know, I have learned from the TV show Rome), the names and relations can get seriously confusing because people are born and die rather quickly. Before you get to remember this guy’s name, he’s already dead or married his own niece, or poisoned his mother or whatever… This was my least favorite story of the bunch.

The second story focuses on one creature, the lamia, and features a poet, his mistress, his sister, and mistress’ sister. This is a vampire story, but a pretty good one. There is a nice twist about who the characters really are that I won’t spoil here, and I was surprised by my attachment to them at the end of the story. They’re not exactly supposed to be sympathetic, feeding on the blood of the innocent and all, but I kind of liked them anyway.

My favorite story by far was “The Patrician” which features an immortal monster-killer named Julius who hunts down the last of whatever monster species is still around. Coincidence throws him in the path of Clea, a young girl, who gets tangled up in his monster slaying. Throughout her life, they meet again and again, forming a special friendship that was beautifully described. The monsters fade into the background in this character-driven, almost philosophical piece, whose ending was both beautiful and a little heartbreaking.

The last story which gives the book part of its title, “Romanpunk”, was just pure fun. A man gets stuck on an airship at a party with his ex-girlfriend that he really, really, really wanted to avoid. She’s not your typical crazy ex-girlfriend, though. Nope, she wants immortality at any price. Enter more lamias, more monster-slaying, and a fair amount of sass. The story even features another Julia – and Julias are powerful in Tansy Rayner Roberts’ world.

I started out not liking this collection too much, then it kind of grew on me, and now thinking back on it, it’s actually quite lovely the way it moves through time, ties one story to the next, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Apart from Julia Agrippina’s mess of a bestiary, all the stories had good pacing, intriguing characters, and a plot I was happy to follow along. Maybe a few more pages to flesh out certain parts wouldn’t have hurt but I’ll definitely try more books by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Aside from reading more short story collections than ever before, I also seem to be developing a thing for Australian authors.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

 

 

Angela Slatter – The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

Well, this is how long I could keep away from Angela Slatter’s stories. A bit more than a week, which I used to order a paperback copy of Of Sorrow and Such… now that I’ve read The Bitterwood Bible – which is a sort of prequel collection to Sourdough – I am even more in love with Slatter’s style and ideas. I really hope that her Tor.com novella will expand her readership and get more of her stories into my hands.

bitterwood bibleTHE BITTERWOOD BIBLE AND OTHER RECOUNTINGS
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Tartarus Press, 2014
Ebook: 280 pages
Short story collection
Illustrated by:
Kathleen Jennings
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job.

Welcome back to the magic and pathos of Angela Slatter’s exquisitely imagined tales.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus, 2010), introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings is enhanced by eighty-six pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.

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What is it about Angelas and fairy tales? In both forewords to Angela Slatter’s two collections, she is mentioned in one breath with that other famous Angela who did fairy tales her own way, Angela Carter. While I’d say Carter is a tad darker, I understand the comparison. But because of what this Angela (Slatter, that is) does – namely, connecting all of her short stories and using them to paint one large picture of a time and place – I must admit, I actually prefer her over Angela Carter.

bitterwood - badgersIn The Bitterwood Bible, we see what things were like before the events of Sourdough (reviewed here). Familiar names pop up, well-known settings are used, and one object that was almost a gimmick in Sourdough becomes quite important in these new stories. Since Slatter continues the trend of taking fairy tales and myth and folklore, and using them to build her own stories on top of them, I hardly need to say I loved this collection. But it was striking how much the author has developed, how much more crafty her tales are. What little critique I may have had for Sourdough can’t be repeated about Bitterwood. If there are twists to these new stories, such as in the first story “The coffin-maker’s daughter”, then these twists really hit home.

bitterwood - maiden in the iceI am absolutely in love with “The Maiden in the Ice” which, apart from being a wonderful story in and of itself, ties in nicely with the first story in Sourdough and made me immediately want to re-read it. I haven’t had the time yet but I believe that I will like that Sourdough story much more and see it in a very different light after reading “The Maiden in the Ice”.

Her perfume is earthly, rich and dark, like rotted roses; a sweetness at first, then a potency, then grown too strong, and finally the hint of decay as she moves past the folk in the streets, those in the markets.

If you didn’t think there could be a new and interesting way to update vampires, well, you are wrong! So wrong! Angela Slatter takes vampires and just… does strange and interesting things with them. Hers are neither only sexy and dark, nor purely tortured innocent-ish beings. They are a bit of everything and something different entirely. And they certainly don’t sparkle. I’d say the vampire craze is mostly over and lots of readers may even go out of their way to avoid vampire stories, but lend me a bit of your trust and just try this one. It’s really something else.

“St. Dymphna’s School” merges seamlessly from one type of tale – at least the type I expected it to be – into quite another. It follows a heroine both determined to do what she came for, (almost) no matter the cost, and yet compassionate and understanding that the people surrounding her shouldn’t be hurt just because they don’t help her achieve her goals. In this tale, another character makes a reappearance from Sourdough, or more accurately – an appearance after being mentioned in Sourdough.

bitterwood - st dymphnas kiss

I said above that Slatter isn’t quite as dark as Carter, but that doesn’t mean that these stories are for children or light-hearted. There is one story that  never explicitly mentions the terrible things that happen to its protagonist, but it will break your heart a hundred times over. Even stories with a quirkier, lighter tone manage to twist a knife in you at the end, leaving you filled with horror and shock.

“By the Weeping Gate” is the only story that’s a bit slow to start but it wouldn’t be in this collection if it didn’t deliver the same powerful punch at the end that Slatter’s other stories do. The last story in the collection presents almost a seamless sequel to “By the Weeping Gate” and not only ties these two stories together, but connects the entire book into one big whole beautiful thing.

If Sourdough was about the story of a place and the women living there over the course of several generations, then Bitterwood is about The Little Sisters of St. Florian, women who collect and preserve knowledge, who copy rare (and not so rare) books, some of them mundane, some dangerous, and what happens to their order. The recounting of their last days made me cry a little, as it combines powerful writing with a heart-wrenching story.

One last raving paragraph must go to illustrator Kathleen Jennings, whose work I knew from Catherynne Valente’s The Bread We Eat in Dreams. The style is immediately recognisable and her little drawings are full of detail (albeit a little small on an e-reader). She did excellent work, choosing what to depict – sometimes objects, sometimes animals, and sometimes the characters. I was always a bit giggly when I swiped to the next page and saw an illustration come up. Really wonderfully done!

The longer I read this book, the more superlative my exlamations about it became. From “Hey, I really like this” I went quickly to “This is amazeballs” straight on to “I fucking adore everything Angela Slatter writes!!!” – I gather from other people’s reviews that these are the natural stages of book love when reading Angela Slatter. I kept Of Sorrow and Such for last, because chronology, but you’ll probably be seeing a review of it in December, despite all my well-laid plans for reading exactly what’s on my challenge lists… sorry reading challenges.

Next year promises the publication of Slatter’s first novel Vigil. I don’t even know what it’s about. All I know is that I need it yesterday, and the sequel too!

MY RATING:  9,5/10 – Oh my God, so close to perfection!

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Second opinions
(because you know I’m not completely trustworthy when I adore a book this much – although it did win the World Fantasy Award. Just sayin’…)

 

Helen Oyeyemi – Mr. Fox

Even without certain campaigns, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird never stood a chance of getting a Hugo Award or even a nomination. Nonetheless, I nominated it because I loved it so, so much and that’s what the Hugos are all about! After reading that book, I bought everything else I could find by Oyeyemi. This wasn’t as up my alley as Boy, Snow, Bird but Oyeyemi is still an author I want to follow very closely.

mr foxMR. FOX
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead Books, 2011
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Mary Foxe came by the other day – the last person on earth I was expecting to see.

Fairytale romances end with a wedding. The fairytales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

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Mr. Fox is a writer whose imaginary muse Mary Foxe has qualms about the way he tends to kill off his female characters. In a game of story-telling, the two of them weave fairy tales, play with Bluebeard, and explore their relationship. Then Mr. Fox’ wife Daphne joins in and the relationships become more and more complicated.

You can read this book as a short story collection or a fix-up-novel but either way, it’s never quite clear which parts are reality, which are stories, if Mary is real or just a figment of Mr. Fox’ imagination. Some stories are clearly told by one of the protagonists, others could be attributed to any (or none) of them. This mosaic novel is fairly complex – it needed full concentration to follow the plot, if indeed you can call it plot. I enjoy a novel that challenges me but Mr. Fox gave me headaches. Despite the fixed points of St. John Fox, Mary, and Daphne, it was difficult to find a red thread to follow. This did in no way diminish the pleasure gained from reading each short story on its own merits.

Oyeyemi’s language did not disappoint. I knew I’d discovered a new favorite after reading Boy, Snow, Bird. A writer who can weave such beautiful sentences just couldn’t have written a bad book! The style is lyrical, yet on a sentence level not overly drawn out. The complexity of these stories stems more from my attempt to ground them in reality somehow, which I probably shouldn’t even have tried. There is a fairy tale feel to each story, whether it’s the more obviously fantastical ones in which foxes dress in human clothes, or the more realistic ones (without talking animals).

mr fox alternate coverThe most interesting aspect for me was Daphne’s involvement in the strange relationship between writer and muse. At first, she feels threatened by Mary’s presence (who cares if she’s real or imaginary?), and she worries about her marriage to Mr. Fox. Daphne was an intriguing character who didn’t shy away from examining her own motives for marrying Mr. Fox, the way their marriage has gone so far, and the way she sees other women. When Mary and Daphne meet, I expected what TV taught me to expect – namely that the two would fight or bitch or put each other down. What Helen Oyeyemi did instead was pure, refreshing amazingness! In fact, all relationships between the three protagonists take interesting turns and subvert tropes. Especially the ending was  delicious.

What I was missing a bit was the exploration of Mr. Fox’ tendency to kill his female characters. Mary wants him to question his own motives but I didn’t really see this idea developed much further. The problem is that I’m not sure if I simply misunderstood some of the stories, if my language skills let me down and I missed some subtle nuances, or if Oyeyemi really didn’t want to pursue the topic any further. It took me quite a while to read the novel so it’s probably I who is to blame.

All things considered, I still enjoyed the read and will definitely pick up the rest of Oyeyemi’s books. If the next novel is just slightly more straight forward, I’ll be one happy kitten.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Other reviews:

(note: It appears I’m not the only one confused by this book. Big sigh of relief.)

Theodora Goss – In the Forest of Forgetting

I came across Theodora Goss’ name via TV Tropes. Searching for “Mythpunk”, a term coined by Cat Valente (you can see where this is going, can’t you?), Goss was mentioned as a good example of mythpunk writers. It’s easy to see why I pounced on her books once I’d heard her mentioned in the same breath as my favorite writer and even recommended by her at one point. Pouncing was a good decision, I now have another favorite to add to my list!

in the forest of forgettingIN THE FOREST OF FORGETTING
by Theodora Goss

Published by: Prime Books, 2006
Hardcover: 284 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: This rose has twelve petals.

A collection of sixteen postmodern gothic fairy tales from award-winning author Theodora Goss, first published in 2006 by Prime Books and finally made available as an ebook by Papaveria Press. These stories are a treasure for all of those who are already passionate about Theodora Goss’s work, as well as for those who have yet to discover it.

Theodora Goss’ first major short story collection showcases such stories as “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” “Lily, With Clouds,” “In the Forest of Forgetting,” “Sleeping With Bears” and many more. Also includes an introduction by Terri Windling and cover by Virginia Lee.

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I should have seen this coming but I am utterly, utterly in love. Theodora Goss is my new writer crush and this collection more than impressed me. I expected mostly fairy tales and mythology played with in interesting ways, and I did get that. But there is so much more to be found here. What struck me most was the stories’ readability. Unlike Valente’s prose, Goss writes almost as if she were sitting across from you, telling you these stories out loud. I planned to read a story or two per night and that worked for the first two days. After that, I ate up the rest of the collection in one sitting.

In the Forest of Forgetting-Tangerine-lilac.inddThe first story, “The Rose in Twelve Petals”, does exactly what it says on the tin. It plays with fairy tale tropes but, while enjoyable, didn’t surprise or overwhelm me. Except then Goss takes on cancer as a subject, and communism, and racism. Don’t think for a second that any of these heavy topics are used like a hammer or for preaching, no, they are gently played with. Goss wraps heavy themes in light words and lets her readers make up their own minds about what it all means. Both “Lily, With Clouds” and “In the Forest of Forgetting” were powerful yet very different stories about cancer, although the first one is much more about ignorant, arrogant sisters with no room for imagination. It’s also about art and how it can change a person’s life. I adored these stories so, so much.

But then “Miss Emily Gray” came along and completely swept me off my feet. Its teenage protagonist gets a little more than she hoped for – for a long time, you can’t be sure if her father’s new wife is an evil stepmother, a wicked witch, or a misunderstood lady. But it is a lot of fun finding out. I also think, Goss writes teenagers extremely well.

“Look at Alice, and Ozma. Literature, at least imaginative literature, is ruled by adolescent girls.”

Until I let Google enlighten me, I didn’t know that Theodora Goss is a Hungarian American writer – but I might as well have guessed. There are several stories that are set in Hungary or feature Hungarians (sometimes Hungarians living elsewhere) and that convey a real sense of place without long lectures or exposition. With that come references, some more obvious than others, to the Soviet Union and Communism’s effect on freedom in general and art in particular. Sometimes, it’s just a throwaway line that sets the scene, sometimes we get a fuller image of how artists were restrained in their creativity. These snippets all paint a full and bright picture – which is why this book counts as a stop on my literary world trip.

I am haunted by ghosts, invisible, impalpable: the ghosts of silver spoons and margarine tubs, the smell of paprikás cooking on Sunday afternoons. The ghost of a country.

However, this is only a small part of the collection’s diversity. One story,  “A Statement in the Case”, is a statement given to the police about a rather mysterious death, we discover distant memories of a dying ballerina in “Death Comes for Ervina”, and there is a recurring character in several stories who I suspect may not be entirely human…

As much as I loved the stories that explore culture, art, death, and cancer, it will always be one particular kind that speaks to me most: the one about the other world, existing just next to ours. In “Pip and the Fairies“, Philippa, the heroine in her mother’s childrens’ book series, returns to her childhood home after many years of being a rich and successful actress. She remembers what inspired her mother to come up with “Pip” and her trips to fairyland – or was it the other way around? Did her mother’s books create her memories? We can’t know for sure but whether it’s all pretend or real magic, it’s wonderful to read.

This is the sort of thing people like: the implication that, despite their minivans and microwaves, if they found the door in the wall, they too could enter fairyland.

The collection ends with a beautiful tale about teenage girlfriends who decide one day to become witches and take lessons with Miss Gray. Their adventures tie together some of the previous stories, but can also be read on their own. Considering that these stories all somehow fit together, I’m sure I missed at least half the connections and clues, reading a story here and there, without giving much thought to the bigger picture. But that just makes me look forward to my first re-read even more. Theodora Goss lets you travel across borders, both real and imaginary, and leads you through story after story in a light, conversational tone. She is like Cat Valente’s less flowery sister. I’ll see you after I’ve bought her entire backlist of books.

MY RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection!

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Kate Elliott – Cold Magic

It’s review catch-up time! I’ve been reading and reading but not posting any reviews. Since it’s one of my 2015 resolutions to keep up on the blog, I’m being a good bloggeress and posting reviews to all the books I’ve read this year. Kate Elliott was a completely new-to-me author and I’d heard nothing but good things about her. The Book Smugglers love her, Renay loves her, so picking up one of her books couln’t possibly be a mistake.

cold magicCOLD MAGIC
by Kate Elliott

Published by: Orbit, 2010
Ebook: 544 pages
Series: The Spiritwalker Trilogy #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.

The Wild Hunt is stirring – and the dragons are finally waking from their long sleep…

Cat Barahal was the only survivor of the flood that took her parents. Raised by her extended family, she and her cousin, Bee, are unaware of the dangers that threaten them both. Though they are in beginning of the Industrial Age, magic – and the power of the Cold Mages – still hold sway.

Now, betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage, Cat will be drawn into a labyrinth of politics. There she will learn the full ruthlessness of the rule of the Cold Mages. What do the Cold Mages want from her? And who will help Cat in her struggle against them?

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Here’s a book that takes your expectations and turns them upside down right from the start. Catherine Barahal and her cousin Bee are best friends. They study at the academy, where genders are segregated and women are clearly not taken very seriously. So naturally I’ve come to expect a steampunk college novel that explores feminist issues – which would have been awesome! Instead, Cat’s story takes a turn when she is forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage and taken from her home and from Bee. (If, like me, you don’t always read the blurb, this comes as a surprise.)

That early twist could have gone quite wrong. Like I said, a college novel with two female protagonists would have been totally up my alley, but then again, the turn the story took instead was equally brilliant so I have no complaints. Cat’s life is somewhat shrouded in secrets. Having lost her parents at an early age, all she has left of her father are his journals, telling of his expedition to the Ice Sea, and a locked with his picture in it. It’s clear from very early on that there is more to Cat than we may think, that she is somehow special, and I am so very tired of prophecies and Chosen Ones that this, too, could have gone terribly wrong. But Kate Elliott manages to just scrape past these tropes and make the story entirely her own.

The world is essentially an alternate Europe but its population is refreshingly diverse. Not only do Cat and Bee have darker skin, the rest of the population isn’t all white either. You’ll find people with fair skin and red hair, people with very dark skin, and all shades in between. Add to that the lizard-like trolls and you’ve got a nice mixture of cultures that make this particular Europe much more interesting than the usual epic fantasy stuff. But characters aren’t defined by their skin color or where their ancestors came from. Cat is her own person and her friendship with Bee was just so wonderful to read about. Friendship between women is still underrepresented in most fantasy fiction (that I read) so I was a little disappointed that the two were ripped apart so soon in the novel.

But this separation leads us to another intriguing character. Andevai, the husband force upon Cat, is an arrogant prick with little care for her comfort or well-being. He’s a snobbish, ruthless, vain sort of guy that was easy to dislike. But in best Mr. Darcy fashion, there is more to him than meets the eye. Slowly, it is revealed that Andevai is not only arrogant and snobbish, but that he does have a heart buried deep down somewhere under all the fancy clothing. I can’t say I really liked him but that ending… oh gods, that ending kind of redeemed him and gave me all the feels. Well played, Kate Elliott!

Throughout the novel, I found myself frequently annoyed at one particular aspect of Cat’s character – one that has to do with that beautiful jerk Andevai. Cat is clever and quick, handy with a sword, and she can definitely take care of herself. She gets scared as much as the next person but her actions are intelligent and make sense. However, when it comes to Andevai, she seems blinded by his beauty, constantly thinking about his full lips and what it would feel like to kiss them. After he’s been treating her like dirt, denying her food, dragging her through the country and generally being an asshole! Look, I get it, Cat isn’t perfect and Andevai is super handsome, and wanting to kiss someone does not mean you have to like them… but please girl, have some sense. There must be other hot guys out there, ones that don’t try to kill you.

cold magic detail

The plot is hard to summarise so I just won’t. Cat is on the run for most of the novel but instead of campfires and a misfit group of heroes, we meet almost exclusively interesting people and creatures that help us learn more about Cat and her past. Again, it was obvious that there is more to her than she knows, but the secrets that are revealed don’t feel cheap or trope-ish. Instead, they leave more questions to be answered in the rest of the trilogy. There are mysteries upon mysteries, politics, class differences, gender inequality – in short, there’s a lot of potential that wasn’t quite realised (yet!) and that I hope to read more about in the next book. Mostly, things were hinted at in an attempt to introduce the reader to all sorts of world building aspects. Personally, I prefer digging into one or two aspects in depth and learning about the others later (say, in the next book) but this is a small concern.

The story is well-written with a cast of memorable characters, but in the end, there was still something missing. It wasn’t so riveting that I couldn’t put it down, the aspects that interested me the most weren’t explored enough – air travel, steampunky-ness, cold magic, Cat and Bee’s relationship – but then again, it is the first part of a trilogy. It was good enough to leave me wanting more so I’ll definitely pick up the next book in the series and see where it leads me. I have the suspicion that there are very cool things in store. Plus, more Cat and Bee, which by itself makes it worthwile. And yes… more Andevai, too.

MY RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Ysabeau S. Wilce – Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories

Oh, Califa! How I have missed you. There are very few books (usually series of books) that give me this warm feeling of coming home after a long, uncomfortable journey. Harry Potter is the prime example, Cat Valente’s Fairyland books are another. After I gobbled up the three volumes published in the Flora Segunda series, I did have a huge book hangover, but I didn’t know just how much I had fallen in love with Wilce’s style and the world she created. I’m glad to be back and actually thinking about re-reading Flora during the Christmas holidays.

prophecies libels and dreamsPROPHECIES, LIBELS, AND DREAMS: STORIES OF CALIFA
by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Published by: Small Beer Press, 2014
Paperback: 262 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Ah, Califa! Cool white city surrounded on three sides by water, braced by fog and sea breezes.

These inter-connected stories are set in an opulent quasi-historical world of magick and high manners called the Republic of Califa. The Republic is a strangely familiar place—a baroque approximation of Gold Rush era-California with an overlay of Aztec ceremony—yet the characters who populate it are true originals: rockstar magicians, murderous gloves, bouncing boy terrors, blue tinted butlers, sentient squids, and a three-year-old Little Tiny Doom and her vengeful pink plush pig. By turn whimsical and horrific (sometime in the same paragraph), Wilce’s stories have been characterized as “screwball comedies for goths” but they could also be described as “historical fantasies” or “fanciful histories” for there are nuggets of historical fact hidden in them there lies.
Ysabeau S. Wilce is the author of Flora Segunda, Andre Norton Award–winner Flora’s Dare, and Flora’s Fury, and she has published work in Asimov’s, Steampunk!, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. She lives in San Francisco, California.

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Ysabeau Wilce has already stolen my heart with her enchanting, wonderful Flora Segunda trilogy (Flora Segunda, Flora’s Dare, Flora’s Fury) but it wasn’t until this collection of short stories that I realised just how talented and brilliant she really is. I’ve been following her on Twitter, hoping for an announcement of new books, so naturally I pounced when this one showed up.

What delights me more than anything is how original Wilce is in everything she writes. The historian in her clearly shines through, as does her experience with the military. Califa is a wild mixture of the Wild West, magic, mythology, Aztec rituals, crazy scientists, and so much more. If you don’t fall in love with her style – which varies quite a bit in these stories – then I can’t help you. These stories are more grown-up than the Flora books, in more ways than one. They are not all for children, first and foremost. But it is also the writing as such that has matured. Ysabeau Wilce was not idle in the years I’ve been pining for more of her writing. She has been honing her craft and I will read everything else she decides to publish. Just don’t make the wait too long, okay?

And here’s what I thought of the stories contained in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams.

The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror! [read on Lightspeed]

bouncing boy terrorSpring-Heeled Jack features quite a bit in the Flora Segunda books, although not in the capacity you might think. Even a well-known bouncing terror must begin his terrorizing at some point. This fun little story tells of these beginnings, of how a young, poor boy named Jack came into the possession of a pair of red, sparkly boots. What makes this story shine is the playful language that is strangely aware of itself.
I read the story and almost cried because I was so happy to be back. Wilce’s style is dynamic and engaging and I can’t believe that she’s not all over the bloggosphere. Everybody should be raving about her, she should be signing 10-book-deals. Oh well, I’m happy I got a little more of her magic and I won’t give up hope for more Flora books.

Quartermaster Returns [read on Tor.com]

From this point onwards, I will only become more and more delighted. In “Quartermaster Returns”, Wilce returns to the military and to Buck, earlier in her career. Set in the heat of the desert, the quartermaster does indeed return – from the dead, that is. With charming language and clever plot twists, the author magicked up a fascinating tale that is as entertaining as it is witty.
I loved every section of this little story. It has humor and darkness and clever characters, it’s told in brilliant language that made me feel like I was there. Wilce clearly knows how to create a military atmosphere without too many words. Her world-building in general is phenomenal and feels so effortless. Whether it’s the Arivaipa desert or Califa itself, they read like real places where real people (some really silly) have real adventures. And Quartermaster’s tale will make you laugh out loud.

Metal More Attractive

In “Metal More Attractive” we get to know Hardhands-  uncle to Tiny Doom and rockstar magician – and the hardships he faces a little better. Who would have thought I’d grow to like the guy so much? In order to make a life for himself and his boyfriend/lover, Hardhands is willing to go to great lengths. But things don’t go as planned and that red-headed Tiny Doom is always in the way.
Now, Tiny Doom is a character we know from the original Flora books. The appearance of the small stuffed pig was a particularly happy moment for me. Getting to know more about Tiny Doom’s past and the history of her uncle felt not only like reading a prequel to Flora’s Dare but was also a great story, all on its own. Hardhands isn’t quite Hardhands when the story starts. But he’s turning into Hardhands as it ends…

The Lineaments of Gratified Desire

This is the longest story of the collection and it follows Hardhands and Tiny Doom a few years after the events of “Metal More Attractive”. Hardhands is stuck babysitting his little niece and since it’s Pirate’s Parade Day (read: Halloween), the little red-head sneaks out, her stuffed pig under her arm, and gets into all sorts of trouble.
I loved how this story turns from quite adorable and cute into something much darker, without ever picking a side or telling the reader what’s magic, what’s real, or even what’s true. The whimsical style turns into a magical melting pot of awesome and in the middle of it all is Hardhands, whom I still quite like. He is vain and stubborn and self-centered but also strangely endearing. As for that plush pig… you’ll have a hard time not loving it.

Lovelocks

A hilarious story featuring teenaged Tiny Doom and her inauguration into the military proper. In order to be accepted she has to perform a task she’s not looking forward to. Bring back someone’s scalp… but Tiny Doom already thought of a way around it and hilarity ensues. The press gets involved, her uncle Hardhands gets embarrassed and there’s cheers all around.
If you like stories of gentlemen highwaymen or very polite thieves in general, you will love this. Tiny Doom totally rocks this tale and manages to save several innocent (or somewhat innocent) hides before the night is over.

prophecies libels and dreams

Hand in Glove

Departing from the known and beloved characters, this is a detective story with a Frankenstein-ish spin. Our protagonist detective got stuck on the most boring duty in all of Califa while the goldenboy Wilkins gets all the good cases – and the glory. But Etreyo, our heroine, just wants to promote the use of forensics in the police force, a passion for which she is mostly ridiculed. But, good logical policewoman that she is, she secretly takes finger prints and examines the crime scenes left behind by the Califa Squeeze – a serial killer who squeezes his victims to death and steals just one small item from each of them.
Hunting the killer takes Etreyo to interesting places and even more interesting people. For fear of spoiling, I will stop here. Let it be said, however, that certain scenes are quite giggle-worthy, while sending chills down my spine at the same time. In retrospect, the entire story is rather hilarious, though, and fits perfectly into the setting.

Scaring the Shavetail

This was the only story I didn’t love. It still has the signature whimsical style and feels very much like a western. Atmosphere-wise, Wilce did a fantastic job. The plot revolves around a prank which will be played upon the Shavetail in question – an annoying superior who is way too friendly with his subordinates. Trying to make him afraid and leave their post, a group of people tell scary stories of the chupacabra and how it rips people to pieces.
Certain scenes were genuinely creepy, but I didn’t feel enough connection to the characters to truly care. Plus, I was very confused to read about states like Arizona or countries like Mexico.

This is where the afterwords come in handy. After every story, a historian – A Lady of Quality – leaves comments on how much credulity each story has. She refers her readers to various works of history, noted in footnotes (oh, I do so love footnotes). These afterwords don’t really add much to the collection as such – it would have been just as fun without them – but they lend a layer of realism and another bit of biting humor to Califa.

So even though the collection ended on a meh story for me, this has still made it onto my best of the year list. It is such an enjoyable little gem that I hope will draw more attention to a truly talented writer. Ysabeau S. Wilce deserves fame and love and huge, huge fandoms. If you’re unsure about Flora Segunda, try these short stories. They give you a (more adult) taste of what you can expect. I loved it and will put these books into the hands of anyone who comes near me.

RATING: 9/10  –  Close to perfection

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Zen Cho – The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this little book but the cover and premise both intrigued diversiverse3me enough to go buy it, no waiting on the wishlist required. And since it’s #Diversiverse time, this was the perfect moment to read the story – also, I’ve never read anything by a Malaysian author before and that needed to be remedied. Zen Cho’s story had some aspects that I loved and others that left me very disappointed.

perilous life of jade yeoTHE PERILOUS LIFE OF JADE YEO
by Zen Cho

Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 81 pages
Standalaone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: I had tea with the intolerable aunt today.

 

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For writer Jade Yeo, the Roaring Twenties are coming in with more of a purr – until she pillories London’s best-known author in a scathing review. Sebastian Hardie is tall, dark and handsome, and more intrigued than annoyed. But if Jade succumbs to temptation, she risks losing her hard-won freedom – and her best chance for love.

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Jade Yeo is a young Chinese woman, making her way in 1920s London by writing for a newspaper. She deals with her insufferable (and very rich) aunt and learns, for the first time, what it is like to fall in love and fall in lust.

Since it’s the first thing mentioned in the synposis, I need to adress the time and setting of this novella. The Roaring Twenties are somewhat of a buzz word that makes me happily buy a book. Except there isn’t really much roaring or twenties in The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Sure, the time period becomes somewhat apparent in how women are viewed by society, how Jade’s insufferable aunt things Jade should behave, what is considered proper and what makes a scandal. But for everything else that’s there, this could as easily have been set in the 1950s.

The story is set in London and as a Chinese woman, Jade has to deal with some degree of cultural misunderstanding and prejudice. I don’t know if it’s because of her practical, witty character that we don’t see much of it or because the author didn’t want to turn this novella into a novel, but I expected Jade’s life to be much, much harder. A young, unmarried woman whose proper name people can’t pronounce, whose family values are completely different from what she sees on an everyday basis… there should have been more problems for Jade than just paying the rent.

Taking into consideration, however, that the novella is written as Jade’s diary, she may just not be telling us everything there is to know. And  I must say that I adored her voice. She is a practical, surprisingly modern woman with a sense of humor and a hunger for life. When famous author Sebastian Hardie makes advances on her, she just goes with it. Because hey, adventure! She knows she isn’t in love but having an affair is just so damn interesting. The problems I had with the time and the setting are probably due to the fact, that Hardie – as well as his wife – are equally practical modern people. The arrangement that married couple has would be frowned upon by a lot of people, even by today’s standards. For clever, adventurous Jade to fall into the hands of such a freedom-loving couple is unlikely and lessens any drama there could have been given other circumstances.

But the writing and characterisation are spot on. Jade has something of a Jane Austen in her, with her clever observations, her quick comebacks, her overall view on humanity. She’s charming and funny and at the same time vulnerable and real. And she has fun with words which makes me love her infintely more.

A nice Indian servant gave me a drink (I wish I could have spoken to him). I skulked in a corner clutching it and trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof, but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.

This is a novella that basically reads itself. It happily goes along, without much risk for the protagonist or much impact. Jade may think she’s in trouble but that same trouble is resolved within a matter of a few pages. Zen Cho hints at some heavy subjects but because everything turns out well for our heroine, and everything is so easy, they are somewhat lessened. Come to a different country all aloneperilous life of jade yeo, having (and enjoying) sex as an unmarried woman,  and unwanted pregnancy are just a few things that feel like they were drizzled over the story to give it some depth. Except they don’t feel like issues because EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE SO DAMN EASILY. As soon as a problem arises, somebody goes “Oh that? Don’t worry, here’s a neat little solution.”

At the very end, when Jade realises that she has fallen in love (rather predictably, one might add), that’s the only time where cultural differences really present obstacles. Of course Jade is determined to overcome them and make their love work somehow, but at least we get a glimpse of the difficulties they will face on the way to marital bliss. And even that discussion is over within minutes. But at the very least, there isn’t an immediate, pretty solution. They talk about the issues at hand and promise to find a way to make things work. But we, the readers, know it’s not going to be simple and it’s going to alienate people. Traditional, conservative families whose child wants to marry someone from a completely different culture, will be up in arms. They know this, we know this, and there’s no easy way out.

There were so many things I loved about this story, the protagonist’s voice the foremost among them. I can’t really say anything bad about it except that everything was too easy and happened too fast. A novel-length version of this story with some stakes for the characters would be perfect. If the solutions to Jade’s problems weren’t as quick to arrive, for example, that would have already made this more interesting. If her future hangs in the balance for a mere (short) chapter, I won’t get overly excited. If, however, her uncertainty and at some points, her helplessness were to last longer, that would make it memorable. That would make her little troubles real problems. I commend her for wanting to do everything herself and not relying on the help of others but again, help does come and it pretty much gets her out of any situation without much fuss.

This was only a nice and very quick read that keeps your heartrate at a steady level. No sizzling romance, no danger for our heroine, but a lot of interesting people with surprising views on love, sex, and culture. It’s a peasurable read but not one that will stay with me for long, I suspect. Who would have thought I’d ever say it but here it is: I need a little more drama in my fiction. If I don’t feel with the characters I’m not likely to remember their stories for long.

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FTF Book Review: Genevieve Valentine – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Genevieve Valentine managed to become one of my top ten authors of all time with just one book. Mechanique was so close to perfection that from the moment I finished reading, I wanted to pick it up again. Short stories by the same author had a similar effect and this second novel of hers was no different.

girls at the kingfisher clubTHE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB
by Genevieve Valentine

Published by: Atria Books, 2014
Hardcover: 277 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.

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  • The Twelve Dancing Princesses

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From award-winning author Genevieve Valentine, a “gorgeous and bewitching” (Scott Westerfeld) reimagining of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan.

Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off.

The girls, meanwhile, continue to dance, from Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they come to call home. They dance until one night when they are caught in a raid, separated, and Jo is thrust face-to-face with someone from her past: a bootlegger named Tom whom she hasn’t seen in almost ten years. Suddenly Jo must weigh in the balance not only the demands of her father and eleven sisters, but those she must make of herself.

With The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, award-winning writer Genevieve Valentine takes her superb storytelling gifts to new heights, joining the leagues of such Jazz Age depicters as Amor Towles and Paula McClain, and penning a dazzling tale about love, sisterhood, and freedom.

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Review

This will be a difficult review to write because as much as I adore Genevieve Valentine’s writing style – and it is quite unlike anything else I’ve read – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club had a very tough time competing with Mechanique. Excepting Cat Valente, no other book has hit me as hard in recent years as that steampunk extravaganza. And yet, a fairy tale retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Roaring Twenties? That sounded wonderful.

With a retelling of this particular fairy tale, the hardest part must and will always be bringing twelve – I repeat: twelve! – characters to life and giving them distinct personalities. One or the other will always have to be a little more vague, or else you need a 1500 page novel to introduce them all. Not so Genevieve Valentine. Her prose is precise and streamlined and, maybe because of that, always hits the mark. Every word is carefully chosen for the biggest effect. It is her careful word choice (and the little remarks she throws into the story within parentheses) that make her characters feel real in almost no time at all.

Jo – The General – is the strict eldest daughter of the bunch, the one who keeps the Hamilton girls together, who organises their bi-nightly outings, who makes sure nobody gets left behind. In many ways, she functions as the girls’ mother figure, but she dances on the edge of resembling her father more – and she struggles with the knowledge that she might, someday in a terrible world where everything goes wrong, become like him. For Jo, the number one concern will always be Lou, her closest sister. The relationship between the two is so beautiful and heartbreaking and as much about what’s not said as about what is. Lou knows Jo and Jo knows Lou – and so they converse without words, even without glances. It is a pleasure to read about them.

girls at the kingfisher club

The younger the girls get, the less we learn about them. But Valentine made sure to give them all a personality, even if it has little time to shine. With two pairs of twins, one sister who is a lesbian, one whose beauty far surpasses that of anyone else, and some who just really, really love to dance, you’ve got twelve heads who each dream of one thing: freedom.

The threat of being discovered always lingers in the background, and their ruthless father makes sure they know just how little he cares about them as people. He never forgave his late wife for not giving him a son and marrying off his numerous daughters, one by one to the highest bidder, seems like a deal worth making. So for a long time, this is also a depressing story. Twelve girls, locked up and forbidden to be themselves. All the more amazing when they do break out of their life.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they can flee from their oppressive father. Because what happens afterwards is not exactly a horseride into the sunset with their fairy tale prince. What comes after is hard work, learning who they are, finding a place in the world. And for Jo, it means letting go, giving the girls room to find themselves, to stop being The General. The emotional weight of certain scenes is astounding and the ending left me half laughing with happiness, and half sobbing with uncertainty.

She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is about dancing girls, sure. But it is also an emotional journey, a coming-of-age story, a tale of amazing women finding where they belong. And I heartily recommend everybody pick it up. And once you’re done, do yourself a favor and read Mechanique.

RATING: 8/10  – Excellent

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FTF Book Review: Helen Oyeyemi – Boy, Snow, Bird

Every year, I think I’m insane when I sign up for too many reading challenges. But it is exactly these challenges that lead me to books that I might otherwise have missed, that make me discover authors that become favorites. Helen Oyeyemi is such an author. Her latest novel fit beautifully into some of my reading challenges, as well as my theme of the month. And it was so good, I already put all her other books on my soon-to-read list.

boy snow birdBOY, SNOW, BIRD
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead, 2014
Hardcover: 308 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • Snow White

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Synopsis

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.

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Review

I had never read anything by Helen Oyeyemi before so this book hit me right in the feels without warning. There is so much beauty in this story, I hardly know where to start. Boy Novak flees from her abusive father and runs away to make a life for herself. She marries a wealthy man, Arturo Whitman, who has the most beautiful daughter anyone has ever seen. Snow, with her sleek hair and white skin, is everybody’s darling. When Boy is pregnant with her first child, she starts both fearing and resenting Snow for taking up her grandparents’ attention, for drawing away from her own unborn child. When Bird, their baby girl, is born, Boy sends Snow away and manages to keep her away for years and years. Bird grows up without having ever seen her own sister. Until one day she discovers a letter…

The novel is structured in three parts. The first and last are told from Boy’s perspective, the second one from Bird’s. In some genius way, Helen Oyeyemi managed to make every single character believable and likeable. I fell in love with Boy on the first page, when she runs away from her rat-catcher father whose punishments were highly original but all the more disturbing.

The easier Boy’s life gets, the more focus she puts on beauty, on her own looks, the more she worries about what she will look like when she is old. She even spins a tale with her best friend (an aspiring journalist) about a magician – ostensibly – but really about women and beauty. Boy doesn’t scream her views and fears at you but they are undeniably there, visible just beneath everything she says and does. It makes for an intriguing character, to say the least.

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During Bird’s part of the novel, I got really sucked in and didn’t put the book down until I finished. Because Bird, of course, is born with darker skin. The Whitmans are really African Americans with very light skin, passing for white. The moral implications of their actions are discussed but neither condemned nor praised. The author leaves it up to her readers to make up their own minds. My mind didn’t take long making up. If you have the choice between living a life as an equal, fairly treated, full person and a life where you tell the truth about your family lineage but where you aren’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants, buy in certain shops, go to certain places at all – I know what I would choose. But the discussion point is valid. Skin color is part of what makes the Whitmans themselves, and they have a dark-skinned sister hidden away to remind them – and they gave up that cultural identity for a more comfortable life.

In one of her letters to Bird, Snow writes about the part of the family that doesn’t pass for white:

Great-aunt Effie is like that. She thinks there are treasures that were within her reach, but her skin stole them from her. She shinks she could have been somebody. But she is somebody.

Have I mentioned at all that Bird and Snow develop a friendship via letters? When Bird finds a letter adressed to her (hidden away by her mother), she writes Snow on a whim, trying to get to know her far-away sister. She has seen pictures of Snow’s otherworldly beauty, of course, but instead of being jealous (Bird is very pretty herself) she asks intelligent questions. Like what is it like to be seen first and foremost as something beautiful? Did Snow sometimes wish she looked more average? And does Snow also sometimes not show up in mirrors?

Mirrors, while not as front and center as in the fairy tale, are important throughout the story and especially during a revelation at the end. I don’t spoil books so you can read on safely. Mirrors play a part, but I could never, ever have foreseen that ending.

I realise this review is getting long already but I haven’t even told you about the gorgeous, gorgeous writing yet. Helen Oyeyemi is an economical writer. She doesn’t embellish her sentences with a million little flourishes. Instead she finds the right words, puts them together, and they just work.

Possibly the most beautiful thing in this book were its characters. I said before that I liked Boy, Snow, and Bird – they are vastly different people with very different dreams and hopes and problems. But they each have agency. Something so many (even good) authors fail at, is writing good dialogue. Either we get the kind where every line spoken is of the utmost importance for the plot, or we get the sort of dialogue where people just talk and talk without saying much. Helen Oyeyemi finds the middle path. People sometimes just ramble, make up crazy stories with their friends, but within these ramblings they say something about themselves. Like Boy’s made-up story about the magician, it is not just a yarn spun with a friend, it is also a cloak she can put over her feelings so she doesn’t feel naked.

Boy’s decision to run away from home (“home” includes a childhood best friend she truly loves) and marry someone to be safe from her father reveals so much about her. As does her choice to bring Snow back home after years of separation, for the sake of her daughter Bird.

A week later Dad made another trip to Boston and brought me back a gift from Snow – a small, square, white birdcage with a broken door. I hung the cage from the ceiling and watched it swing, and I was happy.

Needless to say, I loved Boy, Snow, Bird with the passion of a thousand fangirls. I want a sequel and a movie and a ton of fanart. How many times can you read a fairy tale retelling of Snow White and fall in love with the princess and the evil queen at the same time, after all?

RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

divider1If you want to dress like your favorite book cover, here’s an outfit to go with Boy, Snow, Bird (via styleblazer.com)

boy snow bird

Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages – Wakulla Springs

Though written by a man-woman-team, I am counting this book towards my 2014 Women of Genre Fiction Challenge – seeing as I’ve never read anything by Ellen Klages (nor Andy Duncan, for that matter). You can read this Hugo nominated novella for free at tor.com – head over there and read it now, while it’s hot outside.

wakulla springsWAKULLA SPRINGS
by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

Published by: Tor.com, 2013
Ebook: 139 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida.

Wakulla Springs, in the deep jungle of the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. And that’s just the local human beings over the last seventy-five years. Then there are the prehistoric creatures…and, just maybe, something else.

Ranging from the late 1930s to the present day, “Wakulla Springs” is a tour de force of the human, the strange, and the miraculous.

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“Wakulla Springs” was wonderful. That needs to be said before anything else. But I am still debating whether it qualifies as speculative fiction. There is no magic, unless you count the magic of film-making, there are no otherworldly monsters, unless you count costumed movie stars. But the atmosphere of the hot Florida air, the piney forests, the springs themselves, and what draws Mayola and Levi into the water, is so gripping that it brings a sort of magical feeling to the table.

The book is sectioned into several parts but for the sake of keeping this spoiler-free I’ll stick mostly to the first two. Mayola is a young black girl saving up money for college. She finds work in the Wakulla Springs Lodge – a whites-only hotel that pays their staff excellently – and through this summer job witnesses a movie crew shooting Tarzan. People of color aren’t allowed to swim in the springs but Mayola wants nothing more than to cool down in the still, clear water.

Needless to say, with a story set in the 1930s and a black protagonist, racial issues are front and center. But the authors handle them with a light touch and never the issues take over the plot. Mayola – and later Levi – has to face injustice on a daily basis and while I gasped at certain scenes, Mayola has grown up in that time and so doesn’t dwell on it too long.

The development thorughout the novella is wonderfully done. Not only does each character evolve, but since every part shows us a new generation of people living near or involved with Wakulla Springs, we get to follow how society’s views have changed. When Mayola thinks of swimming in the springs (secretly, at night) she is filled with fear at being caught, of losing her job. Levi, in the second part, knows fully well he isn’t allowed to swim there, but he does it anyway and doesn’t give it too much thought. When a black war veteran returns home, he fully expects to be treated like a hero regardless of his skin color. In yet another, later part, we follow a young black woman writing a paper for university – and the difference between her and Mayola’s dreams of saving up money and maybe, just maybe going to college is astounding. All of this is done without exposition. Through the characters we get a sense of time and political views. In a novella where racial discrimination happens all the time, the sudden lack thereof feels almost loud – in a good way, that is.

But the story is as much about the place as it is about the characters. Through Mayola and Levi, the readers get a glimpse of the local (and other) superstitions, traditions, and a feel for the time period the story is set in. The heat is almost tangible, the smell of the trees and the constant threat of alligators makes this an entirely engrossing read. I spent my Sunday afternoon with this book and the weather outside was just perfect. I’m sure this book is enjoyable when you read it in winter, but there is something about the sun on your face, sweat trickling down the back of your neck, and characters that are experiencing a similar kind of heat.

“Wakulla Springs” is, without a doubt, an excellent book. It is beautifully written, has engaging characters, and builds up such atmosphere that you can’t put it down. I was provided an ebook version of this novella in the Hugo Voter Packet so, naturally, I am considering how to rate it for the award. As much as I loved reading it, I fail to see the speculative fiction aspects of the story. It is a coming-of-age story, it’s about race and film-making, and women, and dreams, and very personal superstitions. But except for one little scene that can be explained away in a sentence or two, and pass as mainstream, and maybe the very last paragraph, there isn’t a single thing that qualifies it as fantasy or science fiction. I’m considering my votes well and will definitely rate this novella high. But simply because I feel it’s been classified as the wrong genre, it won’t make the top of my list. (It’s really not that hard to guess who gets my #1 novella vote…)

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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