Saturday, September 20, 2014

Boring, Stupid, and Terrible (and Two Amazing Books)

A few weeks ago, I went to the Decatur Book Festival and got to hear a panel of book reviewers, including Lev Grossman (who writes for TIME when he's not blowing our minds with the Magicians series) talk about why book reviews still matter. One of the threads of the discussion was about whether or not to write bad reviews. Some on the panel felt that, if a book wasn't good, why would you waste time and space talking about it in a publication? Others acknowledged that you have to fill the space and sometimes you just don't like anything you've been reading lately.

I go back and forth on this issue. On one hand, yeah, duh, we'd all prefer to only read great books, and have only great books suggested to us. It would make life a lot more pleasant if we never had to deal with anything even mildly Boring, Stupid, or Terrible (BST). So when you find something BST, why bother drawing attention to it when you could, instead, draw attention to something wonderful?*

On the other hand, I have learned a lot by criticizing books and TV. When I have to puzzle out why something is bad (or, let's be honest, why it rubbed me the wrong way), I learn more not only about the craft of writing but also about the underlying assumptions that inform my personal aesthetic. In those instances, I get to challenge those assumptions, see how they hold up to the cold light of conscious thought.

However, lately I've been reading some really BST things. Some of them are BST in new ways, so it's valuable to think about why and how they suck so much. But some are just the same old crap regurgitated and hearing me tell you about how Book 2 was just as bad as Book 1, and in exactly the same ways, is itself Boring (if not also Stupid and Terrible).

So while I'm going to continue to read and review all teh bookz over at, where our philosophy is "Life is too short to read bad books [so we'll read them for you]," I'm going to stop re-posting all of my reviews here, and only share my reviews of books that are REALLY. GREAT.


Two books that I've read recently that are the categorical opposites of Boring, Stupid, or Terrible are Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett (who is super cute, btw). I didn't review them for FanLit cause other people got to them first and I didn't have time, but I want to tell you about them here.

Station Eleven is set in a post-apocalyptic US. The book follows several characters, all of whose lives intersect with one man, Arthur Leander, an actor who dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear on the eve of the collapse of civilization due to a viral pandemic. It goes back and forth in time, showing the world before and after. My favorite character, Kirsten, was too young to have many vivid memories of the pre-collapse world; she is part of a theater troupe that, 20 years after the collapse of civilization, makes yearly tours of the upper Midwest putting on plays. Their motto is "Survival is insufficient," a line taken from an episode of Star Trek.

I can't really explain the plot of the book here; the connections between characters are deeply-felt but also tenuous and telling too much would be giving away some wonderful reveals. But I will say that, while there is danger and hardness here (Kirsten herself has had to kill two people just to survive), there is tenderness and beauty, too. Mandel's intertwining of these two halves of the post-collapse world is moving. Without losing forward motion, Station Eleven is a meditation on humanity's relationship to technology and fame, on what it means to be "civilized," and on what makes living--survival--worthwhile.

City of Stairs is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part crazy-amazing fantasy. In this world, the Saypuris, who have been oppressed and treated as slaves and subhuman creatures for centuries, have finally risen up to overthrow and then oppress the Continent, a polytheistic society with access to magic. As part of the new regime, the Saypuris have scrubbed the Continental cities, historical records, art, and public speech of any reference to the gods, who were supposedly defeated and killed in the Saypuri uprising.

Into this inheritance steps Shara, a diplomat-slash-spy from Saypur who has come to Bulikov, the holiest city of the Continent, to investigate a recent murder. Shara suspects that the Continental gods may not all be dead. She and her bad-ass Viking-pirate-prince "secretary" (he's actually her bodyguard) poke their noses into issues that both the reigning Saypur government and the underground Continental rebels would prefer remains hidden.

This book is very different than Station Eleven. Mandel left me kind of like, "Hmmmm . . . " chin-on-fist, thinking about what it means to be human. But Bennett doesn't let up; his book is action- and revelation-packed, and left me more like, "Ahhhh!" hair-blown-back-in-the-wind-of-awesomeness. (I really need some gifs here; too bad I suck at the Internet.) However, this doesn't mean that City of Stairs has nothing meaningful or lasting to say. Some of my favorite parts were the characters' debates and ideas about religion. Shara is Saypuri, but has spent her life studying the secret history of the Continent; as such, she is stuck somewhere between belief and non-belief. Furthermore, the the centuries-long Continental oppression of Saypur was sparked by religion. The Continental deities told their adherents that they were blessed and that the Saypuri were created to serve them. Bennett also calls into question the relationship between human prejudice and religious imperative, suggesting that perhaps one creates the other.

Tl;dr: these books are great, and you should go read both of them. Now. (Starting with City of Stairs).

*Other than that being snarky is really fun.

Bitter Greens: Gorgeous historical novel blended with fairytale

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is a marvelous re-telling of Rapunzel, woven together with historical fiction that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force, the French noblewoman who first published the fairy tale. Forsyth, pursuing her doctorate in fairy-tale retellings in Sydney, originally published in this novel in her native Australia. It has just been released in the US.

Bitter Greens begins with the story of Charlotte, exiled from the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and locked in a nunnery. Through her narrative, we learn that she was a vivacious courtier whose passion and wit would not be contained. Early in the novel, her mother tells the young Charlotte that she could have been a troubadour; instead, as an adult, she has left scandal in her wake and written some saucy stories that have gotten her banished from the king’s presence. Charlotte was a real person, and while Forsyth imagines many personal details, conversations, and relationships for her protagonist, the major plot points refer to actual events and historical personages.

Nested into this narrative is the storytelling of Soeur Seraphina, who begins to relate the tale of Margherita (or Persinette, which is French for “parsley,” a bitter green similar to the rapunzel plant) to the captive and captivated La Force as they work together in the nunnery’s garden. Margherita was a prisoner, too, taken from her loving parents and imprisoned in a tower where her fiery red hair is braided together with the hair of the tower’s seven previous inhabitants. She amuses herself by singing, attracting the interest of a young Italian nobleman passing by. This section of the novel differs slightly in tone from the rest, ultimately taking on a more mythical, symbolic quality like a fairy tale:
The panorama of dawn was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Vast and strange, the sky stretched above her, streaked with long clouds like a girl’s hair flying, coloured crimson and rose and blue and gold.
Finally, Bitter Greens tells the story of Selena Lionelli, La Strega Bella, the beautiful witch who captures young red-headed girls for her own nefarious purposes. It is she who kidnaps Margherita, renames her Persinette, and tries to convince her that her parents abandoned her. But despite her cruelty, Lionelli manages to gain our sympathy through the telling of her own story. Her past as an orphan, a Venetian courtesan, and the muse of the painter Titian was, for me, the most interesting part of the novel.

Forsyth’s prose is confident and colorful. The stories of Charlotte and Selena are told in first person, while Margherita’s is told in third person. This contributes to the sense of distance and dreaminess that the fairy-tale retelling demands, while allowing Charlotte and Selena a presence and reality that helps readers to connect with them on an emotional level, despite the difference in customs and cultures.

Each of these stories sheds light on the others and La Force learns about both fortitude and kindness as she listens to Soeur Seraphina’s tales. What I particularly loved about the novel was its focus on the power of storytelling and of women’s voices. Sixteenth-century Italy and seventeenth-century France were not bastions of intellectual or personal freedom for women. Despite this, each of the three protagonists uses her voice to create her own destiny, even when everyone else tries to silence her. Bitter Greens shows the historical consequences and the personal cost of speaking out against power and the dominant ideology while still convincing us to share our own stories.

*This review originally appeared at, where I gave the book 4 1/2 stars.

Egg and Spoon: Feels more like fabulist literary fiction than YA

Gregory Maguire’s Egg and Spoon is being marketed as a YA novel, and I hope that designation doesn’t drive any readers away. This book blends the humor and hunger of real life with the wonder and otherworldliness of fables, resulting in a story that broke my heart so subtly, it was like a crack developing in an egg.

Egg and Spoon follows two young protagonists in Tsarist Russia. Elena Rudina, a peasant girl from the village of Miersk, meets a young noblewoman, Ekaterina (or Cat, for short), whose train has stopped in Miersk for repairs. The two girls become unlikely friends until one day, in a bizarre series of events, Elena and Cat accidentally switch places. Elena is whisked away on the train, dressed in fine clothing, fed more food than she’s seen in her impoverished life, and taught manners and etiquette in anticipation of an expected meeting of the Tsar’s nephew in St. Petersburg. Cat, on the other hand, is stuck behind in Miersk with Elena’s sickly mother, until she sets off through the forest to find her way to St. Petersburg and her normal life. On the way, Cat encounters Baba Yaga and her cat in their house on chicken legs, and a marvelous journey begins.

Like the game from which it takes its name, Egg and Spoon also follows the precarious journey of breakable things. The egg of the Firebird, a legendary glowing bird from Russian folklore, has been lost. The future of Russia — as a nation, as an idea, as a landmass — depends on the survival of the Firebird, so much of the novel is a wild-goose chase (pun intended) to find the egg and hatch a new Firebird. But the novel is just as invested in the real-life, day-to-day survival of the Russian poor; Elena and Cat represent the next generation, the one that is born in Tsarist Russia but matures in Bolshevik Russia. They are able to forge a friendship and build trust with each other despite class barriers. This ability is as precious and fragile as the egg of the Firebird, and Russia’s people will need it. Both Elena and Cat are well-drawn characters, lovable despite their flaws. Cat is able to move past her privilege to travel with the eccentric (and possibly child-eating) Baba Yaga. She quickly grasps the enormity of the situation with the Firebird and will not give up the search for it, even when it might be easier to resume her lavish life in St. Petersburg. On the other hand, Elena’s journey to St. Petersburg is originally motivated by her desire to find her brother, conscripted into the Tsar’s army. While she never fully loses sight of this goal, her desire for the ease and luxury of Cat’s life causes her to pretend a little too long, like a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes. But it is only pretend and when she goes back to poverty-stricken Miersk to attend her sick mother, she knows she is leaving satin and caviar behind forever. Watching both of these characters as they develop compassion and responsibility was moving. It reminded me in many ways of Maia, the protagonist from Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor.

The storylines of minor characters are equally affecting. Cat’s nurse and butler, for instance, are devoted to Elena and Cat, although it endangers their jobs and neither girl is particularly grateful. At one point, Cat asks them why they are helping her. They answer that although they cannot fix Russia, they will help where they can. “That’s all that most of us who are not Tsars or witches can manage to do.” At this very Mother Teresa-like philosophy, I broke down crying while reading in the tub and almost dropped the book in the water.

Even the dangerous Baba Yaga has her moments of pathos. As the girls leave her, she shows signs of real emotion. “They could see through Baba Yaga, too. The fiendish glee had gone. Her face looked ancient, betraying that she saw worries behind her eyes as well as in front of them . . . . They could hear a sound from Baba Yaga that they’d never heard before. No one could bear to admit what it was.”
Baba Yaga is one of the delights of Egg and Spoon. Her dialogue is witty, sharp, and deliciously morbid, urging Cat to eat some borscht because she finds it “a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” It’s also full of references to literature, folktale, and contemporary pop-culture. When Cat neglects to eat her borscht, Baba Yaga says, “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” In this way, she reminded me of Merlin from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, who, because he is living backwards in time, can reference World War II in his talks with Arthur.

Another delight is the first-person narrator, whose identity we only learn late in the novel. The narrator’s voice is clearly realized and lends a meta-fictional aspect to Egg and Spoon; he seems like nothing so much as a clever, gifted storyteller, a wise and funny grandfather-type. The narration is interspersed with short meditations on the story itself and the narrator often addresses the reader directly. For instance, this passage, while Elena is imprisoned: “I suppose you could say that Elena deserved to weep; she’d made a royal botch of it. But we all do sometimes. If we’re lucky, we weep alone. The one thing captivity can be good for: privacy.”

Maguire’s writing also includes moments of poetic illumination. For instance, the first time we encounter Baba Yaga’s kitten Mewster, he is in the form of a prowling forest cat. Maguire describes him thus: “A look of golden longing in its eye . . . Its face an exotic blossom of fur.” Another example, a description of geese flying: “But every time they turned a certain way in the dawn sun, the cloudless sky became a skin like fish scales, blinking. It seemed a language, a set of signals, if only they knew how to read it. The shadow of their flight upon the ground, a word inscribed upon the earth.” I will not quote my favorite passage, both because it must be experienced in the context of the story and because it is beneath my dignity to blubber all over my computer twice in the same review.

The advanced vocabulary and intensely poetic images in Maguire’s prose, combined with the gravity and maturity of the book’s themes, made Egg and Spoon feel more like fabulist literary fiction than a YA book. I realize that, on a content level, this is a nitpicky and ultimately false distinction. YA books can be as deep, meaningful, and precisely written as books marketed to adults. I’m preaching to the choir here; most of my SFF-reader friends also read and enjoy YA.

But on a marketing level, these terms — “young adult” vs. “literary fiction” — carry weight. Some adults just won’t see a book marketed to a YA audience. Not that they have any grudge against YA, but its existence will float right past their consciousness as they tune in for books that are marketed to their readership. As a (admittedly fledgling) bookseller, I can’t really imagine the teen to whom I would sell this book, probably because, as a teen, a lot of it would have been over my head. I would have loved the folklore-inspired scenes, but I’m not sure I would have understood the deeper implications of class, wealth, and the impending Russian revolution. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I can imagine the adult that I will sell this book to — the readers of Helene Wecker, and Josh Weil, and Lauren Owen, the ones who maybe don’t know they like fabulism before they have it foisted upon them. And I intend to foist it upon them.

*This review originally appeared at, where I gave the book 5 stars.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

That "10 Books" Facebook meme . . .

I got tagged on Facebook to list 10 books that have affected me. What a broad concept, but I like it better than "your 10 favorite books." The effect these books have had on me--my reading and thinking habits, my aesthetic preferences, and my values--is more meaningful than just 10 books that I enjoyed reading. Although I enjoyed reading these, too! 

1) Sphere by Michael Crichton
My dad got me hooked on Michael Crichton when I was in seventh grade. This was the first book I remember staying up all night to read. It is also the first book since the Magic School Bus that made me think science was awesome; Harry's explanations of the black hole and the space-time continuum were so clear to me. When I went to school and told my home-room teacher about the book, he said he had read it, too, and then blew my middle-schooler mind with the theory that, maybe, at the end, Beth doesn't give up the sphere's power at all. 

2) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
I read this in college. It took me a year to get through the whole thing, and then I read it again in a week. Dillard's encyclopaedic knowledge and close observation of nature is unrivaled, and the way she ties her themes of death, decay, and nature's cruelty together at the end with (somehow!) Christian apologetics was one of the most beautiful and complicated literary dances I had encountered at that point. She made me love non-fiction.

3) Orlando by Virginia Woolf
I was vacillating between Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and then I remembered Orlando and it was no question. Woolf's novel spans centuries and is about a man who turns into a woman. The language is powerful, and so many times as I was reading I thought, "Yes! I've felt this very thing, but never expressed it!" I think this will turn into a yearly read for me.

4) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ha, um, duh. These books shaped fantasy as we know it today. They were Tolkien's attempt to create a truly English mythology, and he draws on his expertise as a medieval scholar. The languages, the songs, the poetry, the background of the world he creates--they are stunning and immersive. And I love how his writing style changes based on whether he's writing about hobbits, or elves, or men. 

5) The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is an author whose entire corpus affected me, but I chose this book because it's less well-known than some of his other works and because it gave me a rubric for thinking about friendship and love. I probably recall something from this book at least once a month, even though I read it in high school.

6) Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This is my favorite book. It starts in a monastery where the monks study science and philosophy. As such, the beginning is pretty slow (not that I personally have a problem with that; I wish every book was set in a monastery). However, by the end, the protagonist has lived through a fall into an Arctic glacial crevasse; a volcanic explosion; and a trip to space. So . . . it has everything. For some perspective on how much I love this book, I have periodically wondered if I should break up with Wil, as I'm not sure I can commit to someone who hasn't read it.

7) The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
I've pretty much internalized L.M. Montgomery's entire corpus. I think my lifelong love of nature comes from identifying so closely with Anne of Green Gables, with her naming of lakes, avenues, and forest glades. But this little book is something special. It's a little more realistic, a little more grown-up, than the Anne, the Avonlea, or the Emily books; it's also her only book set outside of Prince Edward Island. It's about freedom and individualism, the love of nature, and a marriage of convenience that turns into romance. 

8) Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Dickens is one of my favorite authors. After I read A Tale of Two Cities in high school, I started a yearly tradition of reading a Dickens novel on the beach on family vacations. I enjoyed the contrast of reading about a foggy, dirty, cobblestoned London while sunbathing in the hot sterility of a Florida beach. Bleak House is just the most Dickens-iest of the Dickens novels. The plot is complex and interlocking, like a puzzle, and Dickens strident moral tone is balanced by his endearing comic characters.

9) The Annotated Alice, by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner
Alice in Wonderland is as smart, funny, and well-crafted as Arrested Development, with just as many inside jokes. The only problem is, we don't get many of the jokes today. This book is great because it provides tons of nerdy context and explanations for all of Carroll's marvelous madness. If Sphere convinced me I could like science, the Annotated Alice made me think I might be able to like math. Charles Dodgson (Carroll's real name) was, after all, a mathematician.

10) The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen
This is the dark horse on the list, in that I have so many books I'd love to include but not enough space. I chose this one because, unlike the others I might have chosen, many people haven't heard of this one. It's a weird book: the life of Dr. Uyterhoeven as he becomes a physician and serves in the Boer War in South Africa, juxtaposed against his letters home which describe fantastical adventures in the Antipodes, a magical land peopled by live game pieces. It is definitely a weird book, but the fantasy parts in particular are like crack for my imagination; they showed me how cool and strange fantasy could be when it departed from stereotypical fairy-tale tropes and entered the world of dream-logic.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Old Money, Old Secrets

If you're in the mood for a fast-paced historical thriller set in the South, look no further! Kyle Cornelius has you covered with his book Old Money, Old Secrets. Kyle is a recent graduate of the school of business at the University of Mississippi.

I count myself privileged to be on the editing team for this, with Triton Press, a Nautilus Publication imprint. I did the developmental edit, which means that I helped Kyle work through some big-picture issues with his draft to make sure that the language was fresh, the plot was interesting and cohesive, and that readers would connect with the characters. This was my first project like this, and I was hooked right away. Editing fiction, especially developmental editing, is thrilling. It combines a lot of my favorite things: working with language, utilizing creativity and problem-solving, and talking with someone about something they are passionate about.

It was a really fun process, and Kyle was a dream to work with. I was already blown away by the amount of research and detail that Kyle put into his book. His plot and pacing was spot-on for a mystery-thriller, set off perfectly by the Memphis and Mississippi Delta setting he chose. When he started sending me some of his revisions, I was even more impressed with what a good writer he was and how adeptly he incorporated my suggestions.

I'm really proud of the finished product--of the work I did on my first fiction editing project, and of the hard work Kyle put in. So buy it already!