A Phoenix First Must Burn

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A while ago I made a list of fantasy books by people of color, primarily women of color, that I wanted to focus on. This blog doesn’t have a huge audience, but I felt that I should do my part (however small) to spread the word about books that aren’t as mainstream and/or books by people of color. And of course I’m always looking for new and unique voices for my own personal reading enjoyment. It’s been a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories, but in general I find them to be one of the best ways to introduce yourself to new authors. With all of these considerations in mind, I chose to read A Phoenix First Must Burn, and I was very happy that I did.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump for most of this year, and one of my favorite ways to get out of one is to read books that are lighter or to read a book that I can dip in and out of over time, so a YA short story collection was perfect. But despite this collection being YA fantasy, I wouldn’t say that every story was particularly light. I believe every story has a black or brown female main character, and several stories feature LGBTQ+ main characters as well. Common themes and topics in the stories include, love (romantic and familial), slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia, and many stories reference black myths, folklore, and history. Some of the stories hit hard, but there is a good mix of writing styles and thematic tones throughout the collection.

For example, one of my favorite lighter, more humorous stories was “Melie” by Justina Ireland. This one was in your typical fantasy setting. It has a black female protagonist who wants to become a magician but is discriminated against because of who she is as well as her body size. I enjoyed this story’s fun dialogue and the small twists. Melie is smart and resourceful and goes on a grand adventure where she confronts mermaids, dragons, and betrayal with wit and grace.

Another favorite was “Letting the Right One In” by Patrice Caldwell. I would call this one an urban fantasy set in modern day Louisiana. It is a sweet love story between a bookish girl with depression and a female vampire. Both main characters are black (Yes, a black vampire!). I liked the parallel between feeling like an outcast and being a vampire and how race, class, and history tied into the story. The romance was a little too quick for my taste, but it is a short story. Despite that I loved how the sweet budding romance formed, the characters, and I really wished it had been longer so that I knew what happened to them! After reading this story and a few others in this collection, I think I really like sweet female/female romance.

I also enjoyed some of the more serious and hard-hitting stories, like “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo. I would classify this as a historical magical realism story, and the plot involves a slave uprising. The main character struggles between the chance of buying her freedom through working hard for her master or by helping her friends and taking freedom for herself.

I could go on, but hopefully you can see the range of different stories within this collection. There is likely something for everyone here if you like fantasy, magical realism, or sci-fi. I didn’t love every story, but the collection as a whole is very strong, so I gave it four out of five stars.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month

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It is Black History Month, but how long ’til Black Future Month? N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I’ve been slowly making my way through her other books and series, and I’ve honestly liked or loved everything, so I decided to pick up her new-ish short story collection. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised with so many great stories that feel familiar but are at the same time completely outside of the box.

Many of the stories deal with very old but very important themes, like love, family, loss, loneliness, etc. But I’ve never read stories that look at these themes from such different and unique perspectives. If I had to say one central theme that permeates all of the stories to some extent, I might go with the word survival. There are stories about hurricanes destroying towns and dragons helping out, a story based on her Broken Earth series where the land itself is shattered and unstable, stories about making sacrifices for the greater good, survival of alien species and other planets, and even a story about humans dying out completely (from the perspective of Death no less)!

Obviously, you could also comb through it and discuss the social, political, and environmental themes and how they relate to being African American or just any person of color. As I said, a lot of these stories contain things we can all relate to, but seeing it all through a lens of primarily characters of color was eye-opening to me on a social, political, and historical level, and it changed how I view sci-fi and fantasy by authors of color. Things have gotten a bit better in recent years, but it is still a struggle for authors of color to even get published, let alone become famous enough to tell the stories they want to tell (see Jemisin’s introduction to the collection in which she explains feeling like she had to write standard Western fantasy to get her foot in the publishing door).

Getting back to the collection, I did not fall in love with every single story, but the majority of them were very entertaining and have kept me thinking about them long after I turned the last page. If you’ve read the collection, my favorite stories were probably “Red Dirt Witch,” “The Effluent Engine,” “Walking Awake,” “On the Banks of the River Lex,” and of course the stories based on her other fantasy series, “Stone Hunger” and “The Narcomancer.” Many of her characters are fully rounded and memorable, and many of her plots were engaging and inspiring. The collection has moments of humor, sadness, justice being served, and a whole lot of heart. I’ve read several short story collections, but this one stands out to me. It is rare for me to give short story collections five stars (I feel as if I have to love every single story to give the whole collections a 5), but many of the individual stories in here blew me away, so I would give How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? a well-deserved 4.5 star rating on my blog, but I had to round up to 5 stars on Goodreads because it was that good.

Invisible Planets

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I know the subtitle of this blog is “spoiler free reviews (almost) every Saturday,” but just know that every time I have to skip a week… I feel guilty about it. Despite the delayed post, I actually read this book quickly when I had time to read it. Invisible Planets is exactly as the subtitle says: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. I am still new to science fiction, so maybe my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if you’re also a “newbie” to the genre, I hope my perspective helps. Settle in though. This will be a long one.

I chose this collection because I have enjoyed Ken Liu’s past work, and I believed that he would translate and put together an interesting collection of work from various authors. I was not wrong. There are a variety of writing styles, settings, and themes between the stories. Seven authors (most are also newer voices in the genre) are featured in the collection, and each author has 1-3 short stories. I found myself easily gravitating toward some authors and confused by others, but there should be a little something in here for anyone.

If you’re unfamiliar with fiction in translation or have some reservations about understanding any cultural/political nuances in Chinese sci-fi, this is actually a great collection to start with. In the introduction of the collection, Ken Liu explains that he has selected short fiction that he thinks Anglophone readers will appreciate. Still, he urges Anglophone readers to try not to view the stories through a “lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics […] Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their work through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.” And, if you want a little extra information about Chinese science fiction, the anthology includes three essays at the back of the book on the subject. As I said, this is a great place to start for Chinese sci-fi. It just feels “dummy proof” for an English reader.

I find it difficult to review any anthology collection in a broad way because there are so many different authors and stories, so I will briefly discuss the authors, my impression of their styles, and a little bit about their stories that appear in the collection.

Chen Qiufan:¬†“The Year of the Rat,” “The Fish of Lijiang,” and “The Flower of Shazui”

Chen Qiufan’s stories may not have been my favorites, but they certainly made me think. Ken Liu described his work as “melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China’s traditions¬† and complex historical legacy.” I found some of his stories disturbingly real. For example, in “The Year of the Rat,” the protagonist is at war with genetically engineered rats with human-like characteristics. The near-humanness of the rats was contrasted against humanity’s and society’s often barbaric side, so it made me uncomfortable in a thoughtful way. Chen Qiufan’s stories feel smart; there’s a lot to unpack and examine in each one, but you can still enjoy them without doing much deep reading.

Xia Jia: “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” “Tongtong’s Summer,” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”

Xia Jia’s work was what drew me into this anthology. According to Liu, she describes her own style as “porridge SF,” apparently meaning that she considers herself a mixture of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I was drawn to Xia Jia’s work because of her lyrical and descriptive writing style. “Tongtong’s Summer” was a heartfelt tale about an injured grandfather and the summer that he had to stay with his granddaughter and her parents. Grandfather and granddaughter initially have a hard time getting along, but their relationship blossoms into something very sweet. “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” was another of my overall favorites in the collection. It felt like a fairy tale about the passage of time and the how memories can transcend time. I found her stories to be hauntingly beautiful, and I would very happily read more from her if I could.

Ma Boyong: “The City of Silence”

“The City of Silence” was the only story by Ma Boyong in the collection, but it felt like a full length novel. (Or, because of the ending, it could also be a prologue to a great sci-fi novel…) The story focuses on a protagonist who lives in a society with very strict censorship. It is so strict that there is a list of “Healthy Words” everyone must use in their writing and speech, but every day the list of acceptable words grows smaller and smaller. The story discusses the relationship between humans, language, and freedom of expression, but it also goes deeper than that. The characters and how they live in the cracks of this increasingly silent society are extremely interesting. It showcases humanity’s adaptability as well as our limits of what we can endure.

Hao Jingfang: “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing”

Both of Hao Jingfang’s stories were a bit surreal. “Invisible Planets” is structured as if the narrator is talking to another person and telling them about different planets and their inhabitants. The “meaning” of the story is hidden between the planet descriptions and the conversation between the narrator and listener. “Folding Beijing” takes place in a Beijing that can fold itself away at certain times of the day, flip completely over, and unfold itself for another set of residents on the other side. A man in a low class part of the city attempts to illegally travel between the Beijings to deliver a message for pay. Both stories were beautifully written and very creative in both their themes and world building.

Tang Fei: “Call Girl”

“Call Girl” is about a young call girl, but she isn’t really that kind of call girl. I think. She does something with dreams… maybe? I was a little confused by this one, but it was pleasant to read. The point likely flew over my head.

Cheng Jingbo: “Grave of the Fireflies”

“Grave of the Fireflies” felt like a fairy tale. Despite the first person narration, I felt distanced from the characters because of the history-book tone. It was a love story on a planetary, thousand-year scale. The writing was very descriptive with often surreal metaphors. The story felt familiar because it read like an Arthurian tale but with an Eastern flair and some technological/scientific influences making it wholly unique.

Liu Cixin: “The Circle” and “Taking Care of God”

Liu Cixin’s stories were some of my favorites. They have interesting plots with deeper underlying themes. “The Circle” takes place during the reign of the first emperor and involves mathematics, betrayal, and history. It was a very entertaining and smart story. “Taking Care of God” is also very intelligently crafted. Many elderly human looking beings visit Earth, all claiming to be God and requesting food and shelter from humans. Is it a critique on how society treats the elderly? Is there some religious debate in there? There’s certainly some analysis of humanity in it. No matter what meaning you draw from the story, it is humorous, introspective, and sad.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees

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A few years ago, I heard about this book from one of my favorite Booktubers. I put it on my Amazon wish list for a while because I could not find it in any bookstores near me. When I went to Toronto a couple of weekends ago, I finally found it in Bakka Phoenix. Support an independent bookstore and get a book I have wanted for ages? Yes, Please.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is a short story collection that includes animals, nature, Japanese mythology, and some analysis of humanity. Some stories are a bit bizarre, others are deeply emotional, many contain humor, and most contain a little bit of everything. Some are very short, and a couple are so long that they could probably be turned into novellas. There’s a story about a fox who falls in love with a man, dogs that can talk, a cat who walks a thousand miles, a man who builds a bridge over mist, a pregnant warrior woman, and man who’s wife turns into a bird.

I would easily give the majority of the stories in this collection five stars. In fact, when I was about halfway through the collection, I was pretty sure the collection as a whole would get five out of five stars from me. However, there were a couple of stories that I completely disliked (or just didn’t understand the point of). The one I liked the least involved a female astronaut and an alien. She and the alien had sex constantly, and there was a lot of description about the alien’s multiple holes (“Spar”). Perhaps a metaphor for rape? The struggles of feminism? I don’t know. Some of the stories are pretty dark (“Ponies,” “Spar”), while others were pretty wholesome and cute (“The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles,” “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”). There is a lot of creativity and originality in this collection. Some of the fantasy or sci-fi worlds that the author created felt very complex. They could easily be expanded upon for a novel or have other stories take place within the world. This is just a very “me” collection with all the animal stories and magical realism. So, overall, I rated this collection 4 or 4.5 stars.

Still on the fence about this collection? Read or listen to some of the stories before you buy!

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night

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I would say that this is one book you can judge by its cover. It is beautiful inside and out. The smaller pictures making up the heart on the front cover correspond to images in the stories. I’ve mentioned Jen Campbell here before. She has a YouTube channel where she talks about books, writing, and diversity. She has a few books out already: a children’s book, some poetry, and now a short story collection with a very long name.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a collection of stories that are influenced heavily by fairy tales. Of course, that got my attention as a fellow lover of fairy tales. There are twelve stories in the collection, and they deal with a variety of topics and wild characters. There’s a man who buys his lover a new heart online, there are literal flower children at summer camp, there’s a coffin hotel, and much, much more. When reviewing short story collections, one of my criteria for judging how good the collection is as a whole is to reflect on how well I can remember individual stories. Sometimes a collection blurs together because the stories are too similar or dull. There is a lot of uniqueness here. The collection feels fresh and surprisingly informative about fairy tales themselves.

If you go into the collection with no knowledge of fairy tales beyond the Disney versions, fear not. Interspersed throughout the stories are facts about fairy tale history and myth. This is, like I said, informative and very interesting, but sometimes the facts interrupted the flow of the stories. My only other complaint is that I wanted more. A few of the stories really felt like they could be a novel with a little more work. There are some great plots, themes, and characters that feel bigger than the short story they appear in. This collection is only around 200 pages, and I felt like many of the characters deserves a little more time on the page. Since I rated this collection 4/5 stars, I really enjoyed the majority of the stories. There were a couple that were not my cup of tea, but there is definitely more good than bad in here. (As always, your mileage may vary though.) Happy reading!

 

Starlings

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Look at this cover! Moon, stars, birds? Yes, yes yes. Disappointingly, I didn’t like what was inside the book quite as much as the cover. Starlings is a collection of short stories and poems that usually sit in the realm of sci-fi or fantasy. As with most short story collections, the pieces in here are a mixed bag of good, OK, and not so good. Ultimately, I didn’t enjoy the collection as much as I wanted to.

As I mentioned, most pieces are sci-fi or fantasy. Me being me, I enjoyed the stories that were more in the fantasy genre. A couple of my favorites were one story about a man made of moonshine and two rhymes and another about a magic mirror that felt like a prequel to Snow White. The narration was often distant which does feel fairy tale-esque, but sometimes makes it hard to connect with the characters. The ideas and themes in this collection were often great, but most stories left me feeling pretty hollow. The sci-fi stories were sometimes a bit weird for my taste, but often offered good commentary on society/humanity. The poems were good and often painted beautiful images, but I am not much of a poetry fan or critic.

This was one of those “just OK” reads. Some parts stood out, but most of it was forgettable. My feelings about the collection aren’t strong either way though. I gave it a very middle of the road three out of five stars.

Starlings is expected to be published February 13, 2018.
Thank you to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Christmas Days

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I’m late with this review, I know! I got this book as a Christmas present myself, so it was impossible for me to review it before Christmas. This is a short story collection/cookbook. There are 12 Christmas-themed stories and 12 Christmasy recipes. Some of the stories are a little dark or sad, and most have a touch of magical realism (of course they do– Christmas is the most magical time of the year). The recipes aren’t in exact measurements, and they are written so casually and conversationally. This collection just feels so genuine.

I find short story collections harder to review and rate than novels. Not every story can be a winner. There is almost always a mixture of strong and weak narratives. I usually give the collection a rating based on an average of how I would rate each individual story. Thus, it is rare for me to rate a collection 5/5 stars, even if it is written by one of my favorite authors. I also factor in how much I can remember about each story. Sometimes stories blend together after I finish the collection (especially if I read the stories one after the other with no downtime between them). If I can recall specific plots and characters weeks after I finish, I call the collection a success. With all that in mind, this collection sits at a solid 4/5 stars.

I know I haven’t said much about the stories themselves, but they are well-written and often heartwarming. There were a couple that were a bit similar, but most of them offer a refreshing take on often overused Christmas-y themes. There is also a lengthy introduction on the history of Christmas that is worth the time it takes to read it. Oh, and the book itself is absolutely stunning to look at on your shelf. So, if you have bookish gift cards or are still in the Christmas spirit, you might want to pick this one up!

After the Quake

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So, I will be honest here. I have not been reading much these past few months because I just haven’t felt like it. The end of the year is fast approaching, and Goodreads is reminding me that I am behind on my reading challenge. That means you’re in for short book reviews until the end of the year!

After the Quake is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is known for his surreal narratives, but I found these short stories a bit more grounded than some of his other work. All six stories in this collection have some connection to the Kobe earthquake. Most deal with the aftermath and psychological trauma that the characters face. It is an interesting look at how characters not directly in the path of natural disasters can still be strained or even hurt by the event.

I would say that this is my least favorite Murakami so far. Since I loved both novels I have read by him, that isn’t to say I disliked this collection. None of the stories or characters really stuck with me. This is such a short collection (134 pages in the edition I read), so that could be part of it. I felt like I only got a small taste of the plots and characters. Each story was unique and evoked emotion in me, but I find it hard to remember details about all but a few individual stories. Basically, I wanted more development all around. I’m a greedy reader.

This may not be my favorite Murakami or my favorite short story collection, but it is well worth your time if you want to explore Japan or have interest in exploring the effects of disasters on regular (if surreal) people.

The Paper Menagerie

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If you recall, this was one of the books I really wanted to read this year. And finally, I did. And I’m glad I did. This is a wonderful collection of short stories. It is filled to the brim with creativity. The stories range from sci-fi to historical fiction to a mix of the two. These stories approach many deep topics and some of the stories absolutely ripped my heart out. The best part is that his stories center around Chinese, Japanese, and other east and south Asian cultures. (I especially loved all his mentions of Hong Kong.) He somehow blends politics, mythology, history, and the future of humanity together. I really cannot recommend this book more.

Ken Liu is an amazing writer. He is able to invent new worlds and societies with considerable depth in just a few pages. He very successfully writes about topics that are tough to tackles in a 500+ page novel. In “The Waves,” humans are given a chance at immortality. They do not age after the procedure, but are biologically the same. Some take the chance while others choose to pass on. Later, humans are given the choice for a different kind of immortality if they upload their consciousness into a hive mind. They sacrifice their human bodies for limitless knowledge and the option of having a machine body if they want to walk around. Liu asks us to consider the meaning of humanity and how it would feel to watch loved ones make these choices for themselves. In the title story, “The Paper Menagerie,” Liu writes about an interracial family and how the son of the family deals with his mixed heritage. That’s all I will say about that story. Just know that it was my favorite and made me cry my eyes out.

So, I’m a Ken Liu fan now. I have the first book of his fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, and I am eager to read it. Liu is a voice we need in literature. He is extremely creative and talented in his own right, but the Eastern influence and historical/mythological nods in his writing are desperately needed in the Western world.

The Heaven of Animals

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This is a great collection, but it is very, very sad. I got this book at a bookstore’s going out of business sale for super cheap and all I knew going in was that it was supposed to be good and from the title I thought it would be about animals or animalistic qualities in people. Something of that sort. While animals do appear in most (all?) of the stories I would say that the most prevalent theme in the collection is grief. And maybe that is the point? In one story a character yells out something like, “animals don’t mourn!”

I think I made the mistake of reading this collection in about two sittings. The amount of death and just plain sadness really got to me. I teared up a few times, but by the end I felt emotionally exhausted. I guess my other mistake was reading this so soon after the perpetual tragedy that is Brothers… Still, I really enjoyed these stories. Most were memorable and stood out well, but there were a few (mainly the very short ones) that could have been left out without me missing them. I do think that the narrative voices sometimes ran together. Quite a few of the stories feature a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man dealing with the aftermath of something bad that happened to him. This got a little tiring and when a story was told from a woman’s point of view I was surprised, but found very little difference in the feel of the narration.

I would definitely recommend this collection though. Poissant often writes with a dry, sarcastic tone which I found enjoyable. It helps to ease the sadness many of the topics in this collection. He writes about relationships ending, losing loved ones old and young, and about making up for lost time. I would not suggest reading the collection all at once, but if you want to laugh, cry, and really think about life– pick this up.