Friday Bookbag, 8.16.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’ve felt pretty out of it this month. I was sick for most of last week, but even if I hadn’t been, I suspect I would still feel groggy. August seems to do that to everyone. I’m sad that summer is winding down, but I’m already looking forward to cooler September reading weather. Are you? (If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m sure the prospect of spring sounds pretty nice, as well.)

This week I’ve got a fiery YA fantasy novel, a quirky short story collection, a novel about the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, and a novel about an ecologically anxious commune experiment gone wrong in my bookbag. I’m hoping they’ll snap me out of my summer slump. Let’s dive in!


Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Girls of Paper and Fire Cover
cover description: A banner reading “James Patterson Presents” stretches across the top. It’s a colorful illustration of a girl with golden eyes whose rainbow hair is full of sparks.

the source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.”

why I’m excited: The “James Patterson presents” label is kind of a turn-off for me–I’m not really a fan of the guy’s business practices or work. However, this story looks incredible in every way. It reminds me of a more grown-up version of The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale with a dash of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. I guess I’m impressed that Patterson seems to be using his considerable influence to lift up authors of color, especially for a book that I’ve heard has a queer romance, too. I can’t wait to read this. (Also, that cover is G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.)

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Death is Not an Option Cover
cover description: A bright red cover. A pale disembodied arm reaches out to stroke the head of a tiger.

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.”

why I’m excited: The reign of the short story collection continues in my heart! This looks fun and weird and interesting. Authors can try things in short stories that simply don’t work in novels, and I’ve been enjoying witnessing that, even when the things being tried are a little left of center.

The City Always Wins Cover
cover description: A tiny figure at the center of the cover is throwing a tear gas canister. Red smoke from the canister makes a spiral, turning the person at the center into a target. The background is stark white.

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are―they believe―fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.

From the communal highs of night battles against the police to the solitary lows of postrevolutionary exile, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts to the psychological heart of one the key chapters in the twenty-first century. Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but about a global generation that tried to change the world.

why I’m excited: This book’s title made it jump off the shelf for me. It’s pessimistic but hopeful, too, which is about how I feel about the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular. This is outside the wheelhouse of what I normally read, but it sounds terrific. I can’t wait to read it.

We Went to the Woods Cover
cover description: A colorful illustration of a forest with lots of trees and a crescent moon overhead.

We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.

why I’m excited: I love cult novels! This sounds like a prequel of sorts to History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which takes place in the ruins of a commune. This looks sinister and of the moment and great.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 7.26.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got some buzzy nonfiction about Silicon Valley and the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a fantasy novel about a desert empire and blood magic, an Afrofuturistic vampire epic, and a sweet comedy about aging band members who have all settled down together in Brooklyn. Let’s dive in!


Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Brotopia Cover
cover description: A highly stylized, colorful illustration of a woman with light skin and dark hair trying to open a locked glass door that has a sign showing women aren’t allowed.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“For women in tech, Silicon Valley is not a fantasyland where millions of dollars grow on trees. It’s a “Brotopia,” where men hold all the cards and make all the rules. Vastly outnumbered, women face toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, where investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.

In this powerful exposé, Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang reveals how Silicon Valley got so sexist despite its utopian ideals, why bro culture endures despite decades of companies claiming the moral high ground (Don’t Be Evil! Connect the World!)–and how women are finally starting to speak out and fight back.”

why I’m excited: My wife is a computer programmer and has some interesting stories about being a woman in tech, so this kind of story is interesting to me personally. And, I think everyone has an interest in understanding how Silicon Valley works, given how omnipresent tech is in our lives. This looks fascinating.

The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece by Sarah Weinman

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Real Lolita Cover
cover description: A black and white photo of Sally Horner with a red filter. There are also two illustrations of moths.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.”

why I’m excited: I’ve never read Lolita, but I’m fascinated by the cultural fascination with Lolita. Does that make sense? Anyway… I’m also fascinated by true crime, especially the ways that the kidnapping of white girls take over the media and cause massive ripple effects. This looks cool!

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Empire of Sand Cover
cover description: A photo of an ornate curved knife against a red background. A starry pattern is visible around the corners of the image.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.

Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…”

why I’m excited: This looks like fabulous fantasy. I’ve mentioned before how I have a soft spot for fantasy that invokes gods and religion (see: Jacqueline Carey’s Starless and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen), so that part looks great; anything with deserts and magic and nobility and royalty and cruel empires is also fine by me. I can’t wait.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

My Soul to Keep Cover
cover description: A blood red sunset.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami. Instead, David vows to invoke a forbidden ritual to keep Jessica and his daughter with him forever. Harrowing, engrossing and skillfully rendered, My Soul to Keeptraps Jessica between the desperation of immortals who want to rob her of her life and a husband who wants to rob her of her soul. With deft plotting and an unforgettable climax, this tour de force reminiscent of early Anne Rice will win Due a new legion of fans.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this premise looks creepy and great. Plus, who could resist that favorable a blurb from Stephen King? (The blurb from King appears on the cover and reads: “An eerie epic…bears favorable comparison to Interview with the Vampire. I loved this novel.”)

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Modern Lovers Cover
Cover description: A bright turquoise and yellow cover that has lots of tiny illustrations of people walking around in the city.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth. But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch (of sexuality, independence, and the ineffable alchemy of cool) to their own offspring.

Back in the band’s heyday, Elizabeth put on a snarl over her Midwestern smile, Andrew let his unwashed hair grow past his chin, and Zoe was the lesbian all the straight women wanted to sleep with. Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance in the same neighborhood deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease. But the summer that their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives suddenly begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose—about themselves, and about the famous fourth band member who soared and fell without them—can never be reclaimed.”

why I’m excited: This book was compared to the movie Almost Famous in promos, which, for all its flaws, is one of my favorite movies. Bands are great fiction fodder. This book sounds really fun.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 7.19.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m still cleaning out my backlog, so this is another long post. (I seriously need to stop buying/borrowing books. Good gravy.) This week I’ve got a gritty novel about a school shooting, a suburban short story collection, a novel about being sick, a surprising retelling of Robin Hood, and three novels that use fantasy and fiction to interrogate very real-world injustices. Let’s dive in!


Bloomland by John Englehardt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Bloomland Cover
cover description: An abstract design of cutouts in a black background that reveal a bright floral pattern.

source: received an ARC from the publisher

the premise: From Goodreads:

Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. When he stops shooting, twelve people are dead.

In this richly textured debut, John Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters: a disillusioned student, a grieving professor, and a young man whose valuation of fear and disconnection funnels him into the role of the aggressor. As the community wrestles with the fallout, Bloomland interrogates social and cultural dysfunction in a nation where mass violence has become all too familiar.”

why I’m excited: Dzanc Books compared this novel to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room when they sent an ARC to me, which sold me on Bloomland instantly. (You might remember that I loved The Mars Room.) It’s going to be tough to stomach reading about a school shooting, but it sounds like the emotional payoff will be more than worth it.

Bloomland will be released on September 10th, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.

Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sherwood Cover
cover description: A girl in a green cloak looks out over a medieval town while holding a bow and arrows.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this delights me. Robin Hood isn’t exactly my most cherished myth or legend, but this update to it has me completely hooked. A grieving Maid Marian who’s also a badass? Sign me up. I’ve also heard that this book has a fairly realistic medieval setting, which intrigues me. I like the idea of a non-fantasy-inflected Robin Hood story.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Book of Night Women Cover
cover description: An 18th-century style illustration of a Black woman wearing a white turban.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they and she will come to both revere and fear. 

The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link. 

Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently–and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been interested in Marlon James’s work for a long time, but I’m also someone who doesn’t do well with long novels, and both A Brief History of Seven Killings and Black Leopard, Red Wolf are extremely weighty tomes. The Book of Night Women is a little shorter (448 pages), and its premise is a little more intriguing and approachable to me. I love stories about magical women, especially about the dark side of that magic. This looks intense and gripping.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

An Unkindess of Ghosts Cover
cover description: an illustration of a Black woman’s face covered in glittering stars.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

why I’m excited: This is the kind of high concept science fiction novel I’m here for. This sounds like something Octavia Butler might have written. A prickly protagonist, a mystery, social commentary, deep space…I couldn’t ask for more out of a sci-fi novel.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Golem and the Jinni Cover
cover description: A dark figure stands in a misty archway.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899. 

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free. 

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.”

why I’m excited: Sorry (not sorry) to mention Octavia Butler twice in one post, but this premise reminds me so much of the immortal love story in Wild Seedthe first of her Patternist series, except with a different cultural twist. This came out in 2013, but it seems like an essential fantasy story for this moment, when Islamophobia and antisemitism are being set up in opposition to each other rather than being seen as interlinked oppressions. Most of all, this book looks fun. I can’t wait to read it.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Mira is a teacher living in the heart of Suryam–a bustling metropolis and the only place in the world where the fickle Rasagura fruit grows. She lives a quiet life, binge-reading the French existentialists and visiting with her aging father, until the day she witnesses a beautiful woman having a seizure in the park. Mira runs to help even as doubts begin to creep in. Was the seizure real? Or had she glimpsed the woman waiting, until just the right moment, to begin convulsing?

Soon, Mira is drawn into the lives of this mysterious woman, Sara–who suffers a constellation of undiagnosed maladies–and Sara’s kind, intensely supportive husband Rahil. Striking up intimate and volatile friendships with each of them, Mira discovers just how undefinable both illness and love can be.”

why I’m excited: I’m a chronically ill person who’s always interested in reading stories about other people being sick. It’s my life, so it fascinates me. I’m not sure whether chronic illness in this case is taken seriously or if it’s more of a metaphor, but this looks like an interesting novel regardless.

That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carianne Leung

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“Writing with incisive nuance and dark humor, Leung enlivens a singular group of characters sharing a new subdivision in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Scarborough, Ontario. The uniformity of the neighborhood is uncanny, with its smooth sidewalks and shiny cars, the streets differing only in their fruit trees–Winifred Street bears crabapples, Maud Street cherries, and Clara Street sour plums.

With teeth clenched behind fake smiles, the residents bear the truth beneath a fast clip of shocking deaths…[]

When a series of inexplicable suicides begins to haunt the community, no one is more fascinated by the terrible phenomenon than young June. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she sits hawkeyed at the center, witness to the truth of it all: the hushed affairs, the overt racism, the hidden abuses.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of suburban fiction, especially when it’s not written by men, especially when it’s written by women of color. This looks sharp and funny and interesting, like a cross between Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a short story collection, but apparently the stories are linked, which is another thing I love. I’m excited!


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Starless is a wildly ambitious fantasy adventure about a world where stars were banished from the sky after conspiring against their sun-and-moons parents, sent to the earth as gods who play games with the lives of the mortals who worship them. A prophecy foretells a devastating apocalypse, but in the Sun-Blessed desert land of Zarkhoum, such doom seems far away: warrior wunderkind Khai is too busy learning to fight to defend the Sun to his Shadow, Princess Zariya, whom he’s never met. Of course the two ultimately end up on a high-stakes quest–this is a Jacqueline Carey novel, after all.

I adored this book for a million reasons, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year. You can read my full review below.

This review contains spoilers. They are marked so you can skip over them if you want to go in completely cold.


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

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  • publisher: Tor Books
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 592 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man, and although in the end I was glad my attempt failed, I had been looking forward to the opportunity for quite some months.

Starless, page 1

Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: a fated warrior hooks up with a motley crew to fulfill a prophecy and annihilate an ultimate evil. Just like that’s the plot of a thousand fantasy books before it, it’s basically the plot of Starless. But upon this sturdy scaffolding, Jacqueline Carey builds a fantasy that’s stunningly affecting and unique.

Starless follows Khai, a young and gifted warrior raised in the desert as a fated companion to Princess Zariya. Both born during a lunar eclipse, they are Shadow and Sun, respectively, with an emotional and physical bond no one can break. Starless is a long novel with so many different settings and twists that you’ll feel a different person at the end of it than you were at the beginning.

That’s a good thing, and it’s exactly why I (and I suspect many others) love epic fantasy novels when we might not tolerate such long books in other genres. There’s something so cathartic and pure about that journey from humble to hero, and with characters as lovely, heroic, and complex as Khai and Zariya, it’s an even more satisfying journey than usual.

If you’re already familiar with Carey, it’s probably because of her Kushiel novels. Kushiel’s Dart, the first installment, introduced the world to the unforgettable courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delauney. I’m a die-hard fan of that series, and I picked up Starless looking for another fix of Carey’s sensual, intricate, unpredictable approach to plotting and world-building.

Kushiel’s Dart is known for being incredibly opulent and erotic, but I think its enduring draw lies in its goodness, almost a purity: despite its kinky, dark elements, it’s full of characters who love and seek to do good with their whole hearts. It’s a series I’ve been turning to a lot in a world that feels increasingly devoid of heroes.

To my surprise (at first worried, then pleasant), Carey takes Starless in a very different direction to Kushiel. Where those books dripped with sex and wealth and desire, Starless’s world is quieter, more stark, and more alien. The gods of Kushiel mostly watch over their own; the gods of Starless are capricious and even cowardly. The map of Kushiel is recognizable; Starless takes place in a holy (and literally starless) archipelago unlike any you’d find in our world.

Carey is clearly fascinated by the relationships between mortals and immortals, and that fascination comes across as just plain weird in Starless where it was more conventional in Kushiel. I think it’s a good kind of weird. Carey is a beloved author at the top of her game who can take big risks. They pay off.

Starless’s world is so intricate that it’s genuinely shocking to me that Carey just…came up with it, as opposed to unearthing it on a sacred tablet somewhere. Her clear inspirations range from the Middle East (complete with “veiled” women, though they veil to honor a fiery goddess and not because of Islam), to northern Europe, to the jungles of Australia and South America. But most of the cultures and histories of Starless have no clear inspiration at all. These details make unforgettable cameos and then disappear, almost as if Carey is showing off the depths of her imagination. I loved it.

Starless is also full of characters who in our world wouldn’t be considered white–there are lots of descriptions of different skin tones and hair textures, and the protagonists are described as “dark-skinned” with dark eyes–which is refreshing.

The descriptor I keep coming back to for Starless is rich: this book is a delicious, perfectly spiced, and filling meal. You don’t know how the chef made it but you can’t stop eating.

Most of all, I loved the attention Carey pays to sex and gender, which is unsurprising after Kushiel’s Dart (a true innovator in fantasy in this area) but still a novelty. What I’d like to talk about is something of a twist, so I’ve placed it behind a spoilers tag:

Highlight to read spoilers:

We find out about 1/5th of the way through the book that Khai was female at birth, but because of his status as a fated Shadow, was raised as a man while training in the desert. This is hidden from him until puberty, when his body starts to change. He ultimately develops a nonbinary identity that’s really nuanced and interesting and that felt completely true to the character.

I’m nonbinary myself and I want to buy this book for every other nonbinary or trans person I know. It’s something that’s integral to the plot and world without feeling like an after-school special “issue,” and the representation meant the world to me.

End spoilers.

There was one thing I didn’t like about Starless: Carey feeds into an unfortunate fantasy trope that grates on me, the one where fatness is equated with greed and weakness. Literally the only characters described as “fat” are portrayed as pathetic tricksters, monsters, and even child rapists. (She throws out weak allusions to other characters with “curves” who aren’t portrayed negatively, but the word “fat” definitely equals “bad” in this novel.) Fatness is not a sign of immorality! As a fat person, I was really disturbed that Carey leans on this when she’s so good at evading stereotype everywhere else. It’s infrequent enough that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but I wanted to mention it, since it’s a terrible flaw in an otherwise wonderful book.

Carey’s imagination is full of riches, and her skills as a writer have only strengthened in the many years since Kushiel’s Dart. This novel is an electric testament to what happens when you let fantasy be fantasy: the farther it gets from our own world (and the world of Tolkien-lite), the truer and more riveting it gets. It tugs on heartstrings and cuts right to the bone.

Starless is damn near flawless. ★★★★★

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My copy of Starless came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


9781250113429

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Merry Spinster came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 5.18.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got three short books in my bookbag that each carry a big, emotional, firecracker punch. Let’s dive in!


Straying by Molly McCloskey

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9781501172465the premise: Alice, a young American woman, moves to Ireland in the late 1980s, settles down, marries an Irishman…and then embarks on an affair that shatters the life she’d carefully created for herself. Years later, grieving her mother’s death and recovering from years of working in war zones, Alice returns to Ireland and discovers that her marriage and the affair that ended it may not have been at all what they seemed.

why I’m excited: I’m a big fan of stories that hinge on an affair–there’s so much inherent tension in cheating that it’s no wonder it’s such a trope. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out books set in countries other than the United States. McCloskey is a renowned writer in her native Ireland and part of Straying‘s plot is the alienation and culture shock Alice experiences when she moves away from the United States. Both of these elements add up to a novel I’m really excited about.

9781936787845Cove by Cynan James

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the premise: A man out kayaking at sea is struck by lightning in a sudden storm. He awakes with his memory gone, still adrift in a hostile sea. Relying on instincts and imagination, he sets out for home in an ultimate man-against-nature adventure.

why I’m excited: This is a tiny book: it’s made up of barely 92 pages of spare prose. That’s great for me, since I much prefer short books to long ones (Larissa Pham recently tweeted that “the novella might be the ideal form” and I relate), and I also love nature and survival stories. I’m terrified of open water, so the kayaking element promises to be especially thrilling for me.

9781250113429The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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the premise: Ortberg transforms beloved fairy tales into eleven creepy short stories in this collection–“tales of everyday horror” seems to be the perfect subtitle.

why I’m excited: Two reasons: one, I love fairytales, and two, over the course of writing this book, Ortberg came out as a trans man, in part because of the way these stories challenged him to think about gender. (For more on that, you should read this excellent interview with Ortberg in The Cut. ) I would have been sold on this book regardless without that second part, but as a nonbinary person myself, I’m really excited to read a book by a fellow transgender person that pushes gender boundaries.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!