Book Review | Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Genre : Fiction
Date Published : January 18th, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

In what is clearly becoming a pattern, I once again heard about this book in one of my classes. My professor described it as a collection of very unsettling, but beautiful short stories, and one of my classmates turned around to look at me and said, “Sara, that book is perfect for you!” And reader, she was 100% correct.

Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, is just as beautiful as it is unsettling, with each and every of the 20 stories in the collection coming to a sudden end that made me exclaim, “Wait, what? But what happened?” And it’s not that I didn’t understand the stories (although a lot of them are definitely mind-bending), but it’s more that Schweblin leaves you wondering the fates of the characters in almost every story. Beyond that, she surrounds you in a reality that feels like the world we live in, but then drops you into something you never would have expected, and you come out on the other side with a lot to think about.

The stories in the collection have a common thread of showing the disturbance of a natural reality. Schweblin takes seemingly normal topics – parent-child relationships, traveling, pregnancy, dreams – and doesn’t so much as twist them into surprising narratives, but instead turns them completely inside out. Nothing is what it seems in this collection, and the reader, as well as the characters, are left to struggle with that and figure out a world that isn’t just confusing and baffling, but that can also be cruel.

It’s always hard for me to choose a favorite story out of a whole collection, but the ones that stood out in Mouthful of Birds were The Merman – the merman that is featured has a pompadour, some killer abs, loves eating mints, and says ridiculous things like “Stop suffering, bay, no one’s going to hurt you anymore”; Headlights – the first story of the collection that follows a jilted bride left by the roadside where she meets other women who have also been left behind, along with some other very eery, very disconcerting beings that never get faces to match their voices; and the titular story Mouthful of Birds, which, well… is exactly what it sounds like. But even with that information beforehand, you still won’t be prepared to read about a girl who eats birds.

“When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon.”

Headlights, page 1

What I loved most about the stories was how Schweblin didn’t waste any time trying to explain anything to the reader. You get dropped into each story immediately, with no time to catch up to what is already happening in the first sentence. Sometimes even the setting is unclear, as well as the relationships of the characters to each other. It’s like you are dropped into a story that has been in motion years before you flipped to the page. Again, everything feels unsettling, like when you wake up from a nap and need to take a few seconds to reorient yourself to where you are, and sometimes even who you are.

There are a few misses in the collection, but that’s to be expected when there are 20 stories in total. Overall, Schweblin creates a universe out of her stories, one that is connected by characters who seem to talk themselves out of reality and into a new – and pretty disturbing – reality. Some of the stories are a little too violent and dark for my taste (and be warned, some of them are pretty violent), but the majority of them are still lodged in my mind days after reading them for the first time, and that is what was so impressive about the collection – Schweblin doesn’t spoon feed you solutions or explanations to her stories, you have to navigate them on your own, even if they kind of creep you out along the way. The only thing I can think to compare the feeling of reading Schweblin’s stories to is when you’re having a nightmare. But I mean that in a good way, if that can even make sense.

My rating:

7.5 Birds out of 10.

-Sara

Writing Community: Writing Groups

Being a writer can, at times, feel like a very isolating and lonely pursuit. As a writer you’re going to spend many long, uninterrupted hours brainstorming, plotting, reading, making coffee, editing, procrastinating, and maybe (on a good day) even writing a little. But the most important writerly habit I’ve learned this year is the importance of building a writing community for yourself. I talk a little bit in this post about larger writing communities, the kind that extend beyond your front porch, the ones you cultivate on blogs, at conferences, or via the glorious Twitter. Today, I’d like to talk a bit about the writing group my dear friend Courtney and I started together this January and the amazing things I’ve learned from our beautiful little group over the past six months.

I met Courtney back in undergrad ~ we were in a 1800s British Poetry class together and I thought she was SO COOL! She had the most amazing punky Victorian style, her fave writer was Oscar Wilde, and she was always so thoughtful and fiery and smart. After undergrad, I moved to London for a year and a half to get my MA in Shakespeare Studies but afterwards I made my way back to Ohio (corn FTW). After about a year of me being back in Ohio, Courtney and I reconnected at the coffee shop she works at – at first casual “hellos” and “how’s it goings” but eventually we got to talking about books and writing. This was at a very difficult “crossroads” in my life (isn’t life just all crossroads all the time?) and it was so validating and grounding to be able to talk about the things I love and to be taken seriously by a fellow writer. 

Our writerly friendship continued ~ we talked to each other about MFA programs and writers block and the weird and wonderful things we were reading. This winter, we decided to bite the bullet and do something we’ve always wanted to do – start a writing group! We reached out to acquaintances and friends from undergrad, and slowly but surely a writing group formed. Since January, we’ve held monthly/sometimes bi-monthly meetings, hosted game nights, and gone on all kinds of writerly outings together.

If you’re interested in starting a writing group in your community, I’ve put together a little Top 5 list of things to consider when first starting your group. I promise – it’s not as daunting as it seems!

1. Don’t limit your writing group to a certain genre ~ open yourself up to new things

Our writing group is made up of writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry! I’m most comfortable writing and critiquing fiction, but working with nonfiction and poetry has really opened my eyes to different writing formats and new ways of thinking about writing. Sometimes I still feel silly talking about poetry or nonfiction during workshop (it’s so out of my comfort zone!), but I’m constantly blown away by the amazing pieces our writers bring to the table each month.

2. Be flexible with the format of meetings

We try to do a monthly workshop, but if people are feeling like they don’t have anything to submit, we’re flexible. In addition to our monthly workshops, we’ve hosted writing prompt days, game nights, indie bookstore runs, outings to readings/book signings, and museum adventures ~ the list goes on! One of the main goals of our writing group is to encourage and inspire our members to write ~ and sometimes that means not writing!

3. Create some sort of online group where y’all can chat – Facebook, GroupMe, etc;

Facebook has been a great way for our writing group to plan meetings, invite new members, share upcoming book events, and just talk about writing! Not everyone has Facebook, so sometimes you have to get a little creative, but I’ve found that having an online platform that allows us to collectively talk to each other when we’re not together at workshop is so helpful and encouraging!  

4. Find the right meeting spot

This is something our group is always working on. All of us live in different parts of town and have different transportation needs, and so it’s important for us to meet at a place that is centrally located, accommodating to our group size, and has lots of parking. Our current solution has been to rotate our meeting location each month to a different part of town ~ so far, we’ve met at coffee shops, libraries, and various bubble tea cafes. Finding new writerly haunts has been one of my favorite aspects of writing group! 

5. Most importantly – don’t take yourself too seriously and HAVE FUN!

A lot of the people in our writing group took at least one writing workshop during undergrad. Our first meeting, we all talked about the things we absolutely loathed about college writing workshops: the requirement that we not talk during our critiques, the fact that genre fiction wasn’t allowed, and, of course, that one guy (and it’s always a guy) in workshop who was always such a DICK. With these things in mind, we decided to make our group as chill and friendly as possible – writers are allowed to talk and ask/answer questions during their critique, all genres of writing are welcome, and kindness and encouragement are at the heart of all of our discussions! 

This scrappy little writing group has literally changed my life. When we started the group back in January, I knew that I wanted to write a novel but I had no idea what I wanted to write. Last month, I submitted the first chapter draft from the queer Regency fantasy novel I’m currently working on! I would never have felt comfortable/confident enough in my own writing to even begin this project without this group of writers to bounce ideas off of and cheer me on. Thank you guys for being so amazing these past six months!

Do you have a writing group? Are you thinking of creating one? I want to hear your thoughts/experiences with writing groups in the comments below!! 😀

The Publishing World: Grad School and Internships

For the blog post this week, I’m switching things up a little! Last week, I officially finished up my first year of grad school at George Washington University (and because of my finals/workload I may or may not have skipped out on reading the book I was supposed to read for a review lol). So instead of a book review, I’m going to write about the program I’m in and the internships I’ve been a part of throughout the years that have contributed to my love of writing and literature!!!

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a part of the publishing world, and it wasn’t until college – where I found myself editing friends’s papers regularly and taking my first creative writing workshops – that I realized just how much I loved the editing process. Reading other people’s stories, getting to dive into someone else’s mind, and experiencing the worlds and characters they create is something that anyone who reads understands the brilliant feeling of, but getting to discuss it with the person who wrote it and bounce more ideas back and forth with them was something that I wasn’t prepared to love so much. Getting to experience that in my writing workshops had such a huge impact on me that I ended up dropping my history minor just so I could fit another creative writing class into my schedule for my last semester. That’s when I knew that getting into to editing was the path I wanted to take.

I had my first editorial internship the summer before going into my junior year of undergrad, with a publishing company called Blueberry Lane Books. My main job throughout the duration was reading the slush piles – the manuscripts under consideration – that were submitted, and basically getting to decide whether the stories got to move on to the next stage of editing and ultimately get published. What sticks out the most in my memory of this internship was just how much detail needed to go into a story – I think there were like 17 categories that I needed to rate each story on – and how hard it was to get my thoughts and opinions on each story into a cohesive review to pass onto my supervisor (and just how many stories about alien sex I had to read – it was apparently a big genre at the time). But the process of editing, of learning how to give feedback and suggestions, sparked something in me that hasn’t disappeared since.

My second internship was with Ohio Magazine, a part of Great Lakes Publishing. This was more on the journalistic side of publishing (which I very quickly realized I didn’t want to do lol), but there were parts of the experience that I’m still so thankful for. My favorite story I got to be a part of was interviewing Mark Edelman about Theater League (the not-for-profit, performing arts organization he founded in 1976), because theater and broadway is something that I’m passionate about and excited about (and this was one of the first big stories I was assigned, allowing me to move away from less thrilling topics, like the different corn festivals going on that year). Getting to talk to Mark about theater and what it means to him, and what he hopes Theater League can mean for other people, as well as what musical theater has meant to me, turned into an almost hour long phone conversation. Once again, I was learning how much I loved talking to people about their projects and sharing thoughts and ideas with them until they unfold into a narrative.

Currently, I am interning with Oghma Creative Media as an editorial assistant, and I have been loving every moment of it. I’ve actually had the opportunity to communicate with authors, and do developmental edits for plot and character development on their stories as well as the final round of edits. I’ve been with them since January, and have worked on four books since then, and it is so exciting and humbling to know that there is still so much for me to learn about the editorial process, and the publishing business as a whole!!! I can’t wait to see what the rest of this internship has in store for me, and whatever comes next!

As I said, I just finished my first year of grad school at GWU. I’m in their College of Professional Studies, and working towards getting my MA in Publishing with the intent of going into their editorial track. For the first year, everyone in my cohort had to take the same assigned classes, which ranged from Book and Journal Publishing, Copyright Law, Marketing Strategies, and Production Management. I’ve learned how to make a author contract, how to do a direct mail campaign, what the stages of a book’s life cycle are, and have even been tasked with creating an entirely hypothetical publishing company, along with the products it would sell. It’s been challenging and frustrating but I have learned so so much, and being a part of this program has only solidified my determination to get even deeper into the publishing world.

While I’m relieved to be on a short break between semesters, I am beyond excited for my second year, because my second year marks the year where I can start to choose the classes I want to take (shout out to the Editorial Content, Rights, and Permissions class I’m taking next semester, and the Managing an Editorial Staff class I’ve got my eye on for the future!!!).

If you guys have questions about editorial internships or an MA program in publishing, comment below! Or if you have experiences/memories to share about the publishing world, I’d love to hear! 🙂

-Sara

ARC Review: Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells

Genre : YA Fantasy
Publication Date : July 30, 2019
Publisher : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Somehow, 2019 has gone from Hot Girl Summer to Hot Dragon Summer. I don’t know HOW it happened, but at the start of 2019 I very firmly Did Not Like Dragons and yet, here I am, seven months into the year, with 80% of the books I’ve read having involved a scaly flying fire-breather in some capacity. And honestly – I kind of love it. (Thank you NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the ARC!).

Dragons lie at the heart of Rebecca Kim Wells’ debut novel Shatter the Sky. The story opens in the mountains of Ilvera with Maren and Kaia, childhood sweethearts. Ilvera, once the land of the dragons, has been reduced to a shadow of its former glory ever since the emperor invaded and stole the dragons away. Kaia, the more bold and daring of the two, has grand plans of leaving Ilvera to travel the world. Maren, less certain of adventures, is reluctantly resigned to follow the love of her life wherever she goes. All of this changes, however, when the emperor’s band of Aurati come to Ilvera and steal Kaia away. Maren, usually timid and cautious, decides to steal a dragon from the emperor and use it to break Kaia out of the mysterious city of Lumina where she is imprisoned.

I really and truly adored the world of this story – Wells does a brilliant job at making her universe seem real and lived-in. I particularly loved all the small details of Ilvera culture, especially the focus on music and its connection to dragons. I was also super intrigued by the idea of the Aromatory and the use of condensed scents to control and communicate with dragons. Unique details like this are sprinkled throughout the book, keeping me interested and wanting to learn more and more about the characters and the world they live in. I can’t wait to learn more about the Aurati and the emperor going forward – Wells just touches the surface of these subjects in this first book, and I know things are going to get wild in the sequel!

Maren’s journey and character arc was such a delight to read, and rightly my favorite part of this book. She went from timid and cautious to fierce and independent in the span of 300 pages – and I believed every moment of it. Watching her become more and more self-confident throughout the book was so beautiful (I particularly loved all the scenes at the dragon training academy!). I can’t wait to see how her character continues to develop and grow moving forward, especially in relation to other characters like Kaia and Sev!

Shatter the Sky is 100% the kind of book I wish I’d had in middle school and high school – it has passionate and resourceful young women, beautiful world-building, DRAGONS, and of course a totally amazing and earnest love story between two girls (and a possible love triangle with a handsome prince???). Basically, this is everything I ever wanted as a kid, and I’m so delighted that young readers have access to books like this now! If you love amazingly queer YA fantasy, pre-order it now – we need to support more fantastic diverse fiction like this!!

P.S. ALSO OK I don’t know if Rebecca Kim Wells is familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender but there was a scene involving a cabbage merchant that had me laughing OUT LOUD for way longer than was necessary…….so if you’re an A:TLA fan, keep an eye out for that lol

10 Angry Bisexual Dragon-Stealing Teenagers out of 10

Book Review | Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : June 15, 2019
Publisher : Putnam Books

In her debut novel, Wicked Fox, Kat Cho centers her story around a classic Korean Folktale, but places it in the contemporary setting of modern-day Seoul. Gu Miyoung is a seemingly normal eighteen year old girl, except for, you know, the fact that she’s really a gumiho – a nine-tailed fox demon that needs feed on the gi – life force – of men in order to survive. If that’s not enough to immediately hook you in, Cho complicates Miyoung’s life even more when she stumbles across a human boy – Ahn Jihoon – during a routine hunting night. In a surprising twist, Miyoung saves the Jihoon from a goblin, but loses her yeowu guseul (her fox bead, aka her soul) in the process, and ends up linking herself to Jihoon when he picks it up and discovers what Miyoung is. And that’s just in the first 30 pages of the novel! Throughout the rest, Cho weaves together an intense and emotional story that follows these two characters as they learn to navigate the new challenges that face them after this fateful meeting. And I had such a great time following them on that journey!

Understandably, being a nine-tailed fox demon brings a lot of angst to Miyoung as a character, but what I really love about her is the compassion and silliness that breaks through her seemingly rough exterior from time to time. We learn that she binge watches Korean dramas, and knows the tropes of them so well that she can predict what will happen in almost every episode of one. She likes the reprieve they bring from her day-to-day life, because, let’s be honest, her life is pretty stressful. She’s had to move from place to place to keep her true identity a secret, and the fact that she has to kill in order to survive keeps her from wanting to form attachments to people. Even her relationship with her own mother is cold and distant for most of the novel. Cho does an amazing job of showing how detached Miyoung needs to be, while also showing how much she craves companionship and connection – all of which she finds in Jihoon.

Cho gives Jihoon his own chapters, alternating them with Miyoung’s, which is a choice that I loved! Getting into Jihoon’s mind was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel! Jihoon has a tight-nit friend group made up of Somin and Changwan (two amazing side characters!!!), contrasting Miyoung’s solitary life, and his relationship with his halmeoni (grandmother) was the relationship that got me the most teary-eyed. But even with this seemingly charmed life, Jihoon is not without his own demons (metaphorically speaking). Jihoon is kind and funny and so naturally open and caring with those he values, but he’s also such a typical teenage boy who makes stupid mistakes and holds grudges. I am so so impressed by how well-crafted he and Miyoung are, and their relationship throughout the story was definitely a strongpoint.

“Miyoung didn’t like how Ahn Jihoon talked to her. Like he was her friend. He’d fallen into the casual speech of banmal without her permission. She wondered if he even realized it. But more important, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t put an end to it.”

Chapter 12, page 113

What I loved most about Miyoung and Jihoon was how Cho flipped the typical trope of “angsty boy and the girl who changed him”. In Wicked Fox, it is Miyoung who is mysterious and detached and complicated, whereas Jihoon is goofy and kind and often takes on the caretaker role. What’s even more impressive is that Cho also managed to steer clear of the manic pixie dream girl trope by making Miyoung a main character and giving her a voice, and making sure readers know that, despite being a gumiho, she is still a person. While Miyoung and Jinhoo’s stories certainly center around each other and their growing relationship, Cho also creates space for each of them to tackle their own problems. We get to see them both struggle with wanting to chase after their own desires, while at the same time wanting to stay respectful towards their families and honor the bonds they already have formed.

The plot of Wicked Fox overall is fantastic! There are unexpected alliances and betrayals, and the perfect amount of plot twists that keep the story exciting without it ever feeling Cho is tricking the reader by hiding facts from them. Cho also does an amazing job of slowly piecing together the pasts of the characters so that, when the time is right, everything clicks into place in a satisfying conclusion. My only complaint is, at times, it felt like issues/conflicts got resolved a little too quickly. Without spoiling anything, Miyoung and Jinhoo experience events and losses that would definitely leave lasting effects, but not enough time is given to working through them. While I really did love the book (so so much!), I think the pacing towards the end was a little rough, and I found myself wishing that Cho had split this book into two so that more time could be spent on some revelations that occur towards the end.

The good news is, there will be a sequel! The second book in this series is slated for summer 2020, and I already can’t wait! Cho sets up a nice cliffhanger at the end, and I know that I will definitely be in line to grab the sequel as soon as it comes out. I recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, but who wants something new and exciting from the genre.

My rating:

8 Fox Beads out of 10.

-Sara

ARC Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Genre : Science Fiction
Date Published : July 16, 2019
Publisher : Saga Press

In honor of Pride month being over but continuing on in our hearts forever and ever and ever, this week I’m reviewing the delightful ARC of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Amal Eh-Mohtar is one of my all time favorite short story writers (see: The Truth About Owls ) and I had the pleasure of taking part in Max Gladstone’s class for a Writing the Other workshop this winter. Needless to say, I was over the moon when I heard these two brilliant writers were collaborating on a queer time-travel story! Thanks NetGalley and Saga Press for the opportunity to read this amazing ARC.

This beautiful little novella is set far in the future (and the past, and the present, and the alternate timelines of all three) where two warring civilizations – Garden and The Agency – are trying to gain control over the universal timeline. Garden is an ecological society, controlled by a plant-based organism called Garden that grows the organization’s agents. The Agency, in direct contrast, is a technological society lead by Commandant and comprised of cyborg and robotic agents.

Red, one of The Agency’s most prized agents, first encounters a rival from Garden early in the book. Her name is Blue, and she leaves behind a letter for Red that reads “Burn before reading.” This delightful exchange kickstarts a series of encounters between Red and Blue in which they thwart one another’s missions and leave behind increasingly playful (and serious) letters to each other along the way.

This novella is comprised of short scenes from the POV of both Red and Blue and the letters they exchange with one another throughout their rivalry, friendship, and (eventually) loooooooove. The prose was unbelievably beautiful – each chapter read like a sort of poem! I found myself putting this book down every chapter or so. Each scene felt like eating a really delicious slice of cake – I had to sit in silence afterwards to digest how brilliant it was!

I truly LOVED this book. Red and Blue’s relationship was such a delight to watch unfold – Enemies to Lovers is the trope I will stand behind ’til the day I die, and I’m so happy I got to read it here! Beyond Red and Blue, the universe that El-Mohtar and Gladstone created here is unbelievably delightful – from the Napoleonic Wars to Victorian London to the Mongol Empire to the time of the dinosaurs and beyond, this books takes you on a mind-boggling journey through both time and space. I loved how some scenes, like the one set in the fancy tea shop in Victorian London, felt so familiar and tangible. These scenes contrasted brilliantly with other more unusual settings, like the one set in Garden, which was the most otherworldly and alien setting I think I’ve ever read (it was also one of my favorite scenes from the entire book!).

If you’re as excited about this queer time-traveling ladies as I am, I definitely recommend pre-ordering your copy of the book ASAP! It’s out in North America on July 16 and the UK July 18 (only a few weeks away!!) ~ I can’t wait to fangirl with y’all about Red and Blue it when it comes out!

10 Queer Time Traveling Ladies out of 10

-Emory

Book Review | Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Genre : Literary Fiction
Date Published : May 14, 2019
Publisher : Knopf Publishing

For this week’s review, I changed what book I wanted to tackle so many times. First it was G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King (which, so far, is amazing, but is close to 400 pages, and I decided to put it down until I could give it my full attention). Then it was my ARC for The Beholder by Anna Bright, which also has a strong beginning, but I just couldn’t seem to focus on it. Then I stumbled upon Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories on Friday, and I finished the whole thing in one day. My fixation on it was a combination of my attention span needing to focus on short stories instead of a novel, and Russell’s amazing, weird, and beautiful story telling.

Orange World is built up of eight short stories, each weirder and more fascinating than the one preceding it. One story, “Bog Girl: A Romance”, centers around a boy who happens to have a crush on a 2,000 year old girl he uncovered in a peat bog who, you know, isn’t exactly alive (exactly being the key word here). Then, in “The Bad Graft”, the soul of a Joshua Tree “leaps” into one of the characters, their souls intertwining. If none of that seems weird enough to you yet, the title story is about a young mother who agrees to breast-feed the devil. What’s even more impressive than these strange, fascinating ideas is that Russell manages to fill them with a surprising amount of emotion. After finishing each one, I found myself having to take a moment to collect my thoughts and prepare myself for whatever the next story had in store.

My favorite story of the collection was the first one, “The Prospectors”. The setting is the Great Depression, and the story follows two young women, Clara and Aubby, who think they are taking a chair lift up to the Evergreen Lodge to attend a party (and maybe steal a few things from it). Instead they find themselves at the Emerald Lodge, attending a different kind of party – one where only dead men are dancing.

“The cage was a wrought-iron skeleton, the handiwork of phantoms, but the bird, we both knew instantly, was real. It was agitating its wings in the polar air, as alive as we were. Its shadow was denser than anything in that ice palace. Its song split our eardrums. Its feathers burned into our retinas, rich with solar color, and its small body was stuffed with life.”

Page 36

The prose in this story (and in all of the stories) was so, so beautiful. Russell strings words and sentences together to create such profound pictures and moments, and the relationship between Clara and Aubby was my favorite part of “The Prospectors”. You feel the love they have for each other, especially when the two of them are in grave danger at one point, and it is only the worry for the other that pulls them back into their own minds and allows them to make their escape from what surely would have been their own deaths.

What I found most amazing about this collection of tales is how much each one contained. They were love stories, horror stories, satirical stories, stories about the bizarre and the grotesque, and about how none of us are impervious to the terrors that life sometimes contains. Sometimes those terrors lodge themselves inside of us, but Russell – in her own unique and formidable way – also shows us the importance of humor in relationships, and the power it can contain, especially when it that humor is found and shared with someone else.

Author of Swamplandia, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and another collection of short stories, Karen Russell has been a big name in the literary world for a while now, but Orange World still surpassed my expectations. I couldn’t put it down, and I’m already wanting to re-read it so I can start to pick out all the details that I missed during my first read through.

My rating:

9 Bog Girls out of 10

-Sara

June Bookshelf

HAPPY JUNE!!!

Sara:

  1. Stronger Than A Bronze Dragon by Mary Fan – The title itself was enough to grab my attention, especially since Emory has been on a dragon binge with her books. This one promises not just your every day dragons, but mechanical dragons! Sounds like a cool twist, and I can’t wait to read it!
  2. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson – This book sounds like it has everything – evil sorcerers, magical books that transform into monsters made of out ink and leather, unlikely alliances, and sabotage! It already has great reviews on Goodreads, and I’m so excited to get it!
  3. Wicked Fox by Kat Cho – Out on June 25th, Cho’s debut novel takes on the Korean myth of the gumiho, a nine-tailed fox who must devour men in order to survive. I mean…do I need to say more? (No, but I will!). The protagonist, Miyoung, is one of these gumihos, hunting in secret in modern day Seoul when she decides to spare the life of a human boy – Jihoon – and loses her fox bead (her gumiho soul) in the process.
  4. The Girl in Red by Christina Henry – This book is right up my alley. It’s a post-apocalyptic twist on the classic fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. Desperate to get to her grandmother to ensure her safety, Red braves the dangerous forest that is packed full of monsters (wolves and humans).
  5. The Outside by Ada Hoffman – Ada Hoffman has been making strides to include more autistic characters in speculative fiction (check out her Autistic Book Party). The Outside features Yasira Shien, an autistic physicist whose work on a space station backfires when it explodes, throwing her into a confusing set of events that includes cyborg servants of God, her long lost mentor, and traveling beyond reality itself.

Emory:

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – A novella co-written by two of my favorite authors! Out in July in the US, but I managed to snag an eARC on NetGalley! I started reading last week and it is truly breathtaking!
  2. Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells – Bisexual dragon-stealing ladies! Need I say more? (Apparently I really do like dragons now!!)
  3. New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color ed. by Nisi Shawl – A brilliant anthology featuring work by some of my favorite short story writers (Jaymee Goh, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Steven Barnes to name a few!). And, of course, an intro written by THE Levar Burton!
  4. The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi – A reimagined 1880s Paris feat. a gang of unlikely friends (a hotel owner, a engineer, a historian, a dancer, and a fighter). I can’t wait to start reading!
  5. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – As I embark on my journey to read every Regency fantasy novel out there, I must confront the fact that I only ever read 1/4 of this book and then watched the TV series instead. Time to dive back into this delightful brick of a book!

ARC Review | The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Genre : Historical Fantasy
Upcoming Publishing Date : August 6, 2019
Publisher : Harper Voyager

SPOILERS BELOW – READER BEWAAAARE!

This is my very first ARC review (yeehaw!) – thank you Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review!

As with so many other amazing authors, I first heard about R.F. Kuang while attending Sirens Con this year. People were raving about her first book – The Poppy War – and I finally had the chance to start reading the series in April. On GoodReads, Kuang describes the series as: “If you liked Avatar: The Last Airbender but always wished it were a little darker and more fucked-up, you might like this.” And fucked-up it is!

Grimdark wartime fiction isn’t usually my ideal genre, but Kuang is just so good at constructing the world of her story and the characters that inhabit it. I didn’t find The Dragon Republic to be as overwhelmingly violent as The Poppy War (which grapples with The Rape of Nanjing, an extremely violent massacre during the Second Sino-Japanase War) but the sequel definitely doesn’t shy away from the violence and horrors of war. Kuang does an excellent job of balancing the fucked-up things with a lot of darkly funny dialogue, which I appreciated so much (the character interactions were really what kept me going when I got too overwhelmed by the violence).

The first half of the book took about two weeks for me to get through – there’s a lot of necessary fallout from the ending of The Poppy War that Kuang has to deal with before moving us forward in The Dragon Republic. The Third Poppy War is over, but no one is satisfied by its conclusion. Vaisa, the Dragon Warlord (and Nezha’s father), wants to conquer Nikara, unseat Empress Daji, and turn the country into a Republic. Rin and the Cike have been trying to assassinate Daji on their own, and so after a bit of convincing they join forces with Vaisa and begin their military campaign against the Empire. As this unfolds, we learn two very important things: 1) the Mugenese army is still alive and 2) the Hesperians (the verrrrry untrustworthy Western powerhouse mentioned briefly in the first book) arrive and may/may not agree to assist Vaisa’s army.

While all of this geopolitical maneuvering is happening, Kuang also forces Rin to grapple with her addiction to opium, come to terms with the destruction she wrought on Mugen, and deal with her grief from Altan’s death. I’ll admit it – I really hated Rin’s character in the first half of the book (though I think we’re supposed to!!). She’s impulsive, irresponsible, and sooooo self-centered. There were quite a few times where I felt like throwing my ereader across the room, because she was being so freakin’ reckless!! But, this being said, all of this made me love her so much more in the latter half!

When I reached the 60% mark (thanks ereader) the pacing of The Dragon Republic really picked up again and I had such a hard time putting it down! Rin has a truly breathtaking character arc in this book, and it was beautiful watching her evolve throughout the story. I particularly loved the way Rin’s relationship to the fire/the Phoenix (and, in effect, her own anger/rage) matured in this book – there were quite a few moments where I got all teared up thinking about how much Rin had changed since The Poppy War.

Of course, Rin couldn’t have done any of this without the help of the Cike, Kitay, or Nezha (!!!), all of whom I was soooo excited to have back on the page. Ramsa, Baji, and Suni were such a delight to read, and I was so thrilled to get more backstory for Chagan and Qara. Nezha and Kitay in particular take center-stage in The Dragon Republic (both in terms of plot and their relationship to Rin), and I’m very excited to see what happens with them next.

The Dragon Republic is such an amazing follow-up to The Poppy War. While it was a bit of a slow burn at the beginning, I was internally screaming throughout the entire final quarter of the book. (Seriously – shit gets WILD). I’m so excited for the third installment in the series (whenever that is!). But for now, I’m content with filling that void by crying about Rin/Nezha and daydreaming about firebending. Pre-order your copy of The Dragon Republic ASAP!!

9 Tiger’s tits out of 10!!!

-Emory

Book Review | Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : April 9, 2019
Publisher : Albert Whitman and Co.

I read Joan He’s debut novel, Descendant of the Crane, for this week’s blog post and (spoiler alert) I absolutely loved it. It came to my attention when I was searching up-and-coming YA novels, and the cover – which is so beautiful – immediately caught my eye. Then there was the plot description – magic, assassinations, secrets and lies, political turmoil. You name it, this book has it, and it accomplishes everything that it sets out to do.

I almost don’t even know where to start for this review, because there are so many good things to talk about, but He’s ability to weave words together and create a story and a picture to go along with that story deserves to be praised first and foremost. I started reading the book while I was at the pool, lounging in the sun, and He’s prose pulled me in so effectively that I sat there reading for an hour without even realizing it (and got an impressive sunburn on my leg as a result). In just the first couple of chapters, He introduces the plot, the characters, builds the world and the history of that world, and does it all in such a seemingly simple way. Everything flows together beautifully, and I felt as if I knew the characters so well even though I had just met them a page or two ago.

Speaking of the characters, the ones that are brought to life in this book are some of my favorite characters to date. They all feel so real and so alive, and each of them have their own distinct personalities that you come to depend upon and look forward to throughout the story. At the forefront is Hesina, the protagonist of the novel and whose POV the book is told from. Then there is Sanjing, Hesina’s younger brother who commands the Yan military. Caiyan and Lilian, two twins that Hesina’s father adopted when they were young, are two of the most delightful characters of the story, with Lilian never failing to make me laugh out loud, and Caiyan having one of the more surprising character arcs in the book. Then of course there is Akira, the convict turned representative as he tries to assist Hesina solve the mystery surrounding her father’s death. And these are just the main characters – there are countless side characters who have just as much depth and importance to the plot!

The death of Hesina’s father is what drives most of the story. He was ruler of the kingdom of Yan, and when his death appears more suspicious than natural, Hesina sets out to find the true cause, and the person behind it. And she has to do all of this while preparing to become queen. If that doesn’t sound stressful enough, it quickly becomes clear that the royal court is full of liars and power seekers who do not have Hesina’s best interests at heart, and Hesina finds that she can’t even trust those who are supposed to be closest to her. And her conflicted feelings over the sooths – people who can use magic to see the future, and are therefore scorned and feared for their abilities (asking for their aid is a treasonous act in itself) – makes all of this even more complicated for Hesina.

Her father had filled her nights with shadow puppets, dress-up, and maps of secret passageways. Year after year, he boosted her onto his shoulders – her very own throne – and together they’d watch the queen’s carriage fade into the mist.

Chapter 3, page 35

While the plot of Descendant of the Crane revolves around politics and morality, there is the underlying plot of family and loyalty that is just as impactful. Even though we never get to see Hesina and her father interact, He does an amazing job of utilizing flashbacks or brief memories to show readers the deep bond the two shared, and how losing him has affected Hesina greatly. That loss is what makes Hesina’s remaining family so important to her. It was reading about those relationships that really kept me turning the page (and of course the couple of plot twists that occur throughout the story), because I couldn’t wait to get more background on these characters and what they mean to each other. Whether it was seeing how Hesina’s somewhat broken relationship with Sanjing would turn out, or experiencing more comedic scenes between Liliana and Caiyang, or seeing if Hesina and her half-brother, Rue, would ever move beyond the bitterness that Hesina felt towards him for being a reminder of her father’s infidelity.

As I said before, there are endless things to praise about this book, and I wish I had endless time to talk about all of them. Joan He constructs a beautiful and detailed world, and fills it with characters I couldn’t get enough of! I almost wish that the book had switching POVs, just so I could get into everyone’s heads, but then again, following Hesina on her journey step by step is not something I would want to miss out on – she’s such a strong character, and I was rooting for her the whole way through. And I suppose multiple POVs might give away a few of the major plot twists that had me gasping out loud.

Descendant of the Crane is a masterful debut from Joan He, and while it doesn’t seem like she has a sequel in mind for it, I would definitely be one of the first in line to buy it if she does (especially with that ending, I mean come on!). However, He does have a second book set to be published in the fall of 2020, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, which follows the story of two sisters – one stuck on an island with little memory of who she is, and the other fighting to save the earth with no clue that her sister is alive. It sounds like it is going to be just as big of a hit as Descendant of the Crane was, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

Rating: 9 Crane Hair Pins out of 10.

-Sara