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.


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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!

Ballyhoo #1: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a brand-new blog feature? Both, obviously!

Ballyhoo is an on-again, off-again feature where I chat about an upcoming release I’m particularly excited about. Today I’m featuring a thrilling epic fantasy from one of my very favorite authors. Let’s dive in!


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

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Coming June 12th, 2018

Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

Let your mind be like the eye of the hawk…Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

Words cannot express my undying love for Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series–the recent news that she’s planning to write a version of the first novel, Kushiel’s Dart, from love interest Joscelin’s perspective set my heart pitter-pattering–and Starless seems like it’s going to touch on everything I love about the Kushiel universe: vengeful gods, tortured-but-lovable heroes, epic journeys, and passion in all forms.

I just heard about this book this week and it’s already shot to the top of my TBR list. I think I’m even going to pre-order it to ensure that I get my mitts on it ASAP! (Money’s tight at the moment, so pre-orders are a real treat.)

Have you got your eyes set on Starless, too? What’s your ballyhoo this week? Let me know all about it in the comments–I’m always looking to add to my TBR list!

Book Review: THE TANGLED LANDS by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

The four interlinked novellas contained in The Tangled Lands document life in the nightmarish, decaying city of Khaim, a remnant of the once-great Jhandpara Empire, destroyed by its overuse of magic. The environmental and social allegory is thick, and the stories almost unbearably grim and violent, but there is beauty here, too. I’d recommend it for those with strong stomachs and stronger wills–if you’re looking for hope or diversion, you won’t find it here.

You can read my full review below.


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The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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  • publisher: Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 27, 2018
  • length: 304 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I avoided using magic for as long as possible, but Jiala’s cough worsened, digging deeper into her lungs. And it was only a small magic. Just enough spelling to keep her alive. To close the rents in her little lungs, and stop the blood from spackling her lips. Perhaps a sprig of bramble would sprout in some farmer’s field as a result, fertilized by the power released into the air, but really it was such a small magic…

The Tangled Lands, page 17

The Tangled Lands is a richly imaginative fantasy that also functions as a transparent environmental allegory: its four novellas are set primarily in Khaim, the last great city of an empire decayed by greed. Bramble, a toxic and destructive kudzu-like plant, is fertilized by magic; unsurprisingly, people kept using using magic anyway, and now, farms, roads, and whole cities are smothered beneath bramble, causing apocalyptic scarcity and a massive refugee crisis.

Sound familiar? In a sentence, The Tangled Lands is a dire warning about our future, if our present was an earthy, magical empire instead of a sleek, technological one.

Paolo Bacigalupi has built his career on imagining environmental apocalypse. The Windup Girl posited future Thailand as a repository of precious biodiversity sinking beneath rising sea water; his first YA novel, Ship Breakerenvisioned a Gulf Coast sharply divided along class lines, where poor children rip apart rusting ships for parts and rich children sail on yachts. Both are among my favorite science fiction novels.

I hadn’t read any of Tobias S. Buckell’s work before The Tangled Lands, but I do know that he’s an acclaimed science fiction author born, raised, and still living in the Caribbean, one of the areas hardest-hit by climate change.

All that is to say that I’m unsurprised that this book was written at this time by these authors. They’re both tremendously imaginative and deeply concerned with climate change–and right now, we should all be concerned about climate change. But as much as I loved The Tangled Lands’s incredible imagery and keen eye for injustice, I wish there’d been a little more hope and vibrance to string it on instead of just constant dread.

In The Alchemist novella, a desperate man discovers a way to destroy bramble and save his daughter, but the technique is quickly co-opted by corrupt officials. In The Executioness, a woman fights back against the raiders who destroyed her life–but it turns out that the raiders have a point. In The Children of Khaim, a boy seeks to protect his sister from a terrible fate after he makes a cowardly but understandable mistake. And in The Blacksmith’s Daughter, a young woman must pay a steep price for an ill-advised bargain made by her parents.

They’re all intriguing stories, and the book is cohesive despite its unusual structure. Unfortunately, it’s unpalatably grim. Khaim may smell intoxicatingly of neem and spices, glow blue with forbidden magic, and feature a lovely floating palace in the sky, but death, disease, cruelty, and terrible life-altering mistakes make up the bulk of the plot, to the point where I cried tears of frustration several times. (Not cathartic ones, either.)

This book has very interesting things to say about need and want; because magic is technology in this world, not being able to use magic also means not being able to access medicine or easy transportation or basically any conveniences at all. The society needs to stop using magic as much as individuals need to keep using it. I really enjoyed this paradox, especially as it’s explored in The Alchemist.

I was less impressed by what the book had to say about violence, however, and violence dominates the pages. There are several horrific scenes of sexual violence–bramble causes people who touch it to fall into a permanent coma, meaning it can be used to turn girls into sex “dolls” for “soft-eyed” men–and there are countless acts of physical violence, from gory axe executions to live burials to beating a person to death with a hammer.

If you’re triggered by depictions of suicide, murder, physical violence, or sexual assault, I recommend that you give The Tangled Lands a hard pass. Even if you’re not, you’ll still probably feel like you need to take a shower and watch a few hours of cat videos afterwards, which brings me to the heart of my problem with this book:

I’m sick of books that are exhausting to read, and The Tangled Lands is utterly exhausting. I admire the thought behind what Bacigalupi and Buckell are doing here, but I also kind of want to fling this book into the sun. (I won’t–I’m responsibly returning it to the library tomorrow–but still.)

Our world can be seriously grim and heartbreaking, and I’m drawn to fiction that reflects that. If you check out my book review archive or Goodreads profile, you’ll see a lot of downer books. But even I have limits. Reading a book doesn’t have to strictly be for pleasure, but The Tangled Lands doesn’t feel like edification, either–just an exercise in pessimism.

The Tangled Lands is ambitious and lyrically written, but its unrelenting cruelty makes it a slog to read, and what little literary magic there is feels as forbidding and vicious as Khaim’s. 3/5 stars.


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

Book Review: THE RED by Tiffany Reisz

The Red is a stand-alone erotic novel that follows a year in the life of Mona St. James, who swears to do anything to save her late mother’s art gallery from bankruptcy–but when a mysterious stranger offers to purchase a year of sexual carte blanche in exchange for a million dollars’ worth of priceless art, Mona’s definition of “anything” is put to the test. In The Red, Tiffany Reisz has created a near-flawless piece of erotic fantasy that dances right up to the edge of taboo while still maintaining a wickedly funny (and sexy) highbrow sensibility.

Read my full review below–and be aware that because The Red is a work of erotica, my review might get a little, er…spicy. I’ll do my best to keep it PG-13.


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The Red by Tiffany Reisz

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  • publisher: 8th Circle Press
  • publication date: May 7, 2017
  • isbn (trade paperback): 978-1537217765
  • length: 248 pages

I delight in fiction that mixes the highbrow and lowbrow, but I’ve never encountered a novel quite as cleverly subversive as The Red. If you’ve ever wanted a book where Manet and Picasso are referenced as often as the protagonist’s c**t, then this is it.

The novel’s premise is more daydream than reality: Mona St. James is a stunningly beautiful art gallery proprietor whose mother’s slow decline and death have driven the gallery–known as The Red–to the brink of bankruptcy. In the first few pages, all seems lost, but of course it is not; the tension serves only to ensure that when the dashing, British, and fabulously wealthy Malcolm sets foot in the gallery late one night, there’s no doubt as to whether or not Mona will agree to his offer to make her his “whore.”

Brooding BDSM billionaires are a dime-a-dozen in the post-Fifty Shades erotic landscape, but The Red gets to the heart of why the archetype is so appealing: with unlimited money comes unlimited safety as well as wish-fulfillment: safety from debt, safety from crummy jobs and unpleasant tasks, safety to follow our dreams.

Reisz mines every drop of erotic power from dynamics of safety and un-safety, whether it’s physical, financial, emotional, or all three. Malcolm is unfailingly caring toward Mona, meaning the sex can get rougher without seeming abusive or exploitative; when Malcolm beats Mona 100 times with a riding crop, it is foreplay for the most tenderly consensual sex scene I’ve ever read, and when he “auctions” Mona off to an audience of strange men, the act feels soul-searching instead of foul.

Why is playing at sexual submission and subservience so erotic, The Red seems to ask, when real-world oppression and chattel slavery are unquestionably horrifying? Of course, this question is secondary to the searingly hot sex that encompasses most of the novel, but its subtle presence ratchets up the tension.

The only false note here–and it’s a very minor one–is the way that The Red’s paranormal element concludes, which is speedily. The paranormal element came as a surprise to me to begin with, so the incomplete-seeming resolution gave me mild whiplash. That said, I can’t feel too jilted, as I do think Reisz was wise to keep the plot to a minimum and the sex to a maximum. On one hand, I was left with a few unanswered questions; on the other, I was rewarded with a novel so tightly strung that even a paragraph or two of extra detail might have spoiled the tension.

Guilt and shame characterize the American relationship to the erotic, but The Red pulls the ultimate magic trick, transforming these forbidden desires into a potent exploration of the human heart. This novel is a marvel. 5/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of The Red and was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HOUSE OF NAMES by Colm Tóibín

Monday Reviews

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

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publisher: Scribner Book Company (imprint of Simon & Schuster)

publication date: May 9, 2017

A disclosure is in order: I didn’t finish this book and don’t plan to. As much as I’d have liked to write a regular Monday Reads review, I can’t do that on only 1/3 of a book, and I’m going to have to give you my bitter and half-baked observations instead. Consider yourself forewarned.

As my not finishing it implies, I really, really did not like this book.

Did. Not. Like.

Since House of Names is a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon (causing her mother Clytemnestra to exact terrible revenge), I knew that horror and dread would be on the menu, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal extreme to which Tóibín steers this already brutal story. He pulls no punches from the original myth and seemingly adds punches of his own. And while I don’t mind books that are difficult to read, there’s a difference between difficult and tortuous. Every moment I spent with these astonishingly cruel characters was torture.

Compounding my discomfort with the material was Tóibín’s prose, the bluntness of which displaced me even further from characters I already despised. Perhaps this prose style would work better in a more familiar (read: modern) context, but because House of Names is set in Ancient Greece–a setting as alien to me as Middle Earth–all the words left unsaid obscured Tóibín’s meaning instead of clarifying it.

The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is full of interesting questions, the most pressing of which is What motivates a father to kill his own daughter? I imagine that there are a lot of equally interesting answers to be found, from feminist critiques to breathtaking thrillers, but all Tóibín seemed to bring to the table was, well, because humans are terrible and stupid! And that’s not good enough.

So, as much as I wanted to marvel at the ruthless beauty of paragraphs like this (told from the perspective of the furious and grieving Clytemnestra), I was left feeling poisoned by them instead:

I was ready as [Agamemnon] was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

Because House of Names contains nothing but horrible people doing horrible things, there isn’t a scrap of hope or interest to hold onto, just suffering that goes on and on and on with no promise of catharsis.

And there are better uses of my time.

No rating / did not finish.

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