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The Emerald Circus | Book Review

34218720I requested this book from Tachyon Publications for review, as retellings are something I enjoy immensely, and they kindly sent me a copy. Many thanks! This collection will be published on November 24, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.

The Emerald Circus is an excellent collection of fairy tale ‘retellings’ written by Nebula Award-winning author Jane Yolen. Although I use the term “fairy tale retellings” since it is a labelled sub-genre, Yolen’s collection incorporates the retelling of more than just fairy tales. Children’s books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are also retold in this short story format from different perspectives, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle and inspiration. The third category of retellings in this collection is of medieval legends of Camelot and Robin Hood. “The Quiet Monk” is the story of the hidden grave which supposedly had Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies in it which falls under Arthurian Retellings along with “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” and “Evian Steel.” Some of the short stories in this collection have been previously published in anthologies, or individually. For instance, “Lost Girls” the feminist retelling of Peter Pan where women riot and protest for their rights in Neverland won the Nebula Award in 1999 and has been published in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

The Emerald Circus is a great introduction to Jane Yolen as it incorporates works from various points in her writing career. This anthology includes all the stories that haunt us past childhood and stay with us in a collective imaginary space. Arthurian Legends, Children’s Literature, and 19th Century American gothic poets share a fantastical quality that remains a point of comparison when reading contemporary literature. At the end of the collection of retellings, Yolen takes a few pages to explain how the idea for each of these stories came about. I will focus on one of her stories to give you an idea of how Yolen’s stories come through. As a big fan of Peter Pan and Neverland retellings, “Lost Girls” was the story that stayed with me most.

Yolen explains:

“I wrote ‘Lost Girls’ because I couldn’t forget the uneasy scene in which Peter Pan is weeping because he can’t re-attach his shadow. When Wendy sews it on for him, he crows and cries out ‘Oh the cleverness of me!’ As if Wendy had done nothing and he had done it all.”

Yolen’s research led her to Alison Lurie’s study of Peter Pan in a 2012 essay where she compares Peter’s existence with what we currently know of child psychology. He is easily distracted, has little understanding of the future, and lives in a world where real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. Peter might be “gay and innocent and heartless” as the last words of Peter and Wendy suggests, but according to Yolen:

“he [Peter] is also deeply self-centered and without remorse…Peter might be eternally young in his looks, but his eyes betray his real age. He has seen so much, he would have an old and narcissistic soul.”

Yolen takes this analysis and applies it to her story “Lost Girls.” In it, the main character is a young girl named Darla who has been raised by today’s Western standards of feminism and equality. As Darla reads Peter and Wendy she finds it unfair that “Wendy only did the housework in Neverland and that Peter and the boys got to fight Captain Hook.” Darla arrives in Neverland that night and Peter immediately sees her as “a regular Wendy” —as all women are interchangeable to him, in fact he refers to all the women he comes in contact with as “The Wendys.” As celebrations continue with Peter and the Lost Boys, the girls would obediently stand behind the boys “like banquet waitresses.” When Darla cannot stand being called a ‘regular Wendy’ she asks the girls why Peter refuses to call them by their actual individual names, to which the girls respond:

“Because he can’t be bothered to remember…and we can’t be bothered reminding him…it’s all right…really. He has so much else to worry about.”

The injustices present in Neverland and children’s literature are highlighted by Yolen in this story as she pinpoints examples in narratives that follow us and we enjoy without questioning. Yes, Peter Pan is about adventure and fun but who gets to have most of it, and who ends up hurt in the end as she must put up with his moods, flaws, and inability to adapt to circumstances? Innocence and living in the moment as ‘fun’ children do results in selfish behavior and unbearable cruelty to others.

This story is just an example of the kind of excellent work that Yolen accomplishes by creating alternative possibilities in this collection of retellings. Such attention to detail is present in all the stories in The Emerald Circus and it is a collection I would recommend to everyone.

May Wrap-Up | 2017

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Books I read for Reviews (with links)

  • Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell. A poet/professor wakes in a town where he must teach a syllabus on dead poets, and the dead poets come to life (To be published in August of 2017)
  • Matter & Desire by Andreas Weber. Academic text exploring the relationship between our existence and nature through erotic experience (To be published August 3, 2017)
  • The Man Who Loved Libraries by Andrew Larsen. This is a very short children’s book about Andrew Carnegie (to be published August 15)
  • Thin Places by Lesley Choyce. Free verse poem telling the story of Declan Lynch who can hear voices and follows them. (To be published July 29, 2017)
  • The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. This is a travel satire with a very grumpy main character (published May 17)
  • The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle. A collection of new fantasy short stories (to be published August 18, 2017)
  • Scion of the Fox by S.M Beiko. Young adult book with magic, battles, family traditions and history, and is very much entwined with the natural realm (out for publication October 17, 2017)
  • Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith by Shaun Hume. Pleasant children’s adventure about Ewan Pendle who receives a special education. (published)
  • How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley – book on navigating through nature and reviving the connection between ourselves and the natural realm (out for publication August 22, 2017)
  • Of Men and Women by Pearl S. Buck – short essays comparing the American household to that of China, published/written in 1941, currently being republished in a newer, updated eBook edition (out for publication June 27, 2017)
  • Ex Libris – Anthology of Sci-fi and Fantasy short stories with Librarians, Libraries, and Lore (out for publication July 11, 2017)
  • The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory by Chris Banks – poetry collection (out for publication Sept 5, 2017)
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay – a memoir; a history of Roxane Gay’s body and experience with weight gain (out for publication June 13, 2017)
  • Up Against Beyond by Jason Holt –Poetry collection (out for publication July 20, 2017)
  • Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid –academic book, short biography, close analysis/reading of Iain M. Banks and his works published both as ‘Iain M. Banks’ and ‘Iain Banks’ (out for publication May 30, 2017)

Books I read for Myself

I had a great reading month mostly because I had all the time in the world: no work, no school, no exams.

According to my Audible App I also spent about 8 Hours listening. The listening included a variety of dramatizations of classics, or some audiobooks for the things listed below where I would follow along in the text while listening to an audiobook.

I read two short stories:

“The Machine Stops” – by E.M. Forster which already made it onto my ‘favourites’ list. The story is written in 1909 but it’s highly prophetic and describes a time where people are glued to conversation machines and lose touch with the organic. It’s like a “pre-WALLE” critique of our attachment to screens.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story took me a while to get into, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was happening for the first few pages. A man wakes up tied, in a pit, where a pendulum swings above him (one of those with a blade) and he doesn’t know why. He spends the story figuring it out. It didn’t really strike me in any way and it’s not as memorable as “The Black Cat.”

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

9200000000656014I then read my monthly classic. This month I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Again, this didn’t sit with me quite as well as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. What I’m saying is: I can see why it’s important, I can engage in conversation about many aspects of it BUT reading it wasn’t a very exciting experience. Anne looked at domestic abuse and the ways women would put up physical barriers like Wildfell Hall itself. I liked the many perspectives in this work but I had one major issue with this novel and that was the characterization of Gilbert Markham, the first narrator. Gilbert as a first narrator to me was so feminine that I had a hard time imagining this man as a (straight) man. Everything he said was something I could never picturing a man caring about like the way a woman’s eyebrows look like, or the fabric of their clothing. It sucks that in my head I kept comparing Markham to manly Rochester and Heathcliff but one cannot help but lump the Brontes together. I would have no problems with bending gender norms and stereotypes but I think in this case Anne Bronte just didn’t know how to capture a masculine voice. I did enjoy that Helen was a painter and the descriptions of her paintings got to me in a very heartwarming way. Helen’s character is very interesting.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

sleepinggiantsI am not sure how to describe the synopsis without spoilers. I’m going to briefly borrow parts from the synopsis at the back. Rose Franklin falls through the earth when she is a child and ends up in the palm of a giant metal hand. She spends her life studying physics and gets involved with a military/science team in search for other remaining parts of these giant metal giants which are scattered worldwide. The book is written in interview format. Interviews are conducted with Rose connecting her personal experience to the expeditions, with Kara Resnik (a military leader on this mission), and with other members involved in this investigation. I sort of imagined it as someone from the Pentagon interviewing all the people involved or around anything relating to these robot parts showing up all over. There are romances hidden, mysterious components to the robots or “giants” and it’s definitely not boring. I read this book with the text in hand and with the audiobook. It is an experience I recommend mainly because audible has different voices for the different characters and you really experience their presence. Lastly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of A Monster Calls, The Iron Giant, and most of all the giant guardians that are dormant in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I don’t know if anyone remembers those but as a kid I watched Atlantis so many times and the moment when the giants pop out from the ground to protect the city is a scene forever ingrained in my memory. I don’t know if I’m alone in making this association.

FotorCreated

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

river-of-teethThis is a small novella that just got published by Tor.com. In the early 20th century America had a plan to import hippos to supplement the meat shortage. The plan was scrapped but Sarah Gailey re-imagines an alternate 1890s where hippos are present in the U.S. It’s a weird hybrid of fantasy and a westerner. This is the story of Winslow Houndstooth who rides his hippo. Every rider in this book has a hippo. Tor.com published an article introducing every hippo by name here. The novella is only 170 pages and a very easy read. The cover art is done by Richard Anderson and designed by Christine Foltzer. I’ll put together a better review for this on Goodreads later tonight.

Concluding Thoughts and Announcement

My favourite reads this month were Drinks with Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell and Ex Libris: Libraries, Librarians, and Lore. I’ve also been reading Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan which I have not yet finished so it will be featured in next month’s wrap-up.

announcement-clipart-cliparti1_announcement-clipart_09BIG ANNOUNCEMENT! Along with Ennet House I will be reading Infinite Jest from June 1 to September 18 (along other books of course). If you would like to participate there is still time to get the book and join our community. More details on this HERE. Everyone is welcome!

The New Voices of Fantasy | Review

33838972The New Voices of Fantasy is an anthology compiled by Peter. S. Beagle (famously known for his work The Last Unicorn) and Jacob Wiseman. All the stories in this collection have been previously published between 2010 and 2017 in short story magazines like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. In 2010 Beagle edited another anthology The Secret History of Fantasy exploring the merging of genre fantasy and mainstream markets into a new form of literary fantasy. Wiseman asserts that “this anthology constitutes something of a sequel.”

Beagle begins his introduction to this anthology with a block quote paraphrasing an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination:

“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”

The older generation constantly unwilling to accept the young/new. What Verne could not accept was that Wells invented machines beyond what was mechanically possible—unlike what Verne did in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with the submarine—Wells expanded by creating a time machine. Beagle relates an anecdote from his experience as a young writer where one of his older teachers, Frank O’Connor, could not accept Beagle’s storytelling in the writing class back in the ‘60s because he was a fan of realism and classics. Beagle writes: “I was outraged at O’Connor’s rigidity.” The resistance from the older generation is not the only thing keeping young fantasy writers back–there is also the hierarchy, favouring ‘literary works’ and ‘realism’ above the innovations brought forward by fantasy. Ursula K. Le Guin tells Beagle:

“all of us [fantasy writers] feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’”

Realism is not everything, and fantasy under a different name does not become more ‘literary’ or significant. Beagle and Le Guin ask us to open our eyes and see that it was Fantasy all along.

What Beagle does with this anthology is an elegant passing of the writing pen to a younger generation of fantasy writers, and he presents them to us, the readers, without rigidity as his teachers before him have. He accepts them as they are and is in awe of their risk-taking, creativity, and courage. I cannot imagine how many works Beagle must have read through to select these top 19 stories, but I had a hard time selecting my favourites, as each one of them brings something completely unique to the Fantasy cornucopia. His selection includes a great balance of men and women writers, as well as various backgrounds.

The stories featured in this anthology are as follows:

  • “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
  • “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
  • Tornado’s Siren” by Brooke Bolander (opening line: “Rhea is nine years old when she first meets the tornado that will fall in love with her”)
  • “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” by Sarah Pinsker
  • A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone (featuring Dracula as a suburban dad so worth reading)
  • “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
  • “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu
  • The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A.C. Wise
  • “The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” by Hannu Rajeniemi
  • Here Be Dragons” by Chris Tarry
  • “The One they Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval
  • “Tiger Baby” by JY Yang
  • “The Duck” by Ben Loory
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar
  • The Philosophers” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
  • “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers” by Eugene Fischer
  • “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
  • “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

I linked some of my favourite ones, but in support of Beagle and his work I would recommend this anthology as an individual codex because it is cohesive and works well as a collection with the choices Beagle has made.

I recommend this anthology to anyone who loves fantasy and wants to try some of the new emerging voices. I have no doubt that each one of these writers will continue to write and publish larger works in the future, and this anthology is a great introduction to them. I would especially recommend this to readers who are new to fantasy and want to sample shorter works without committing to an entire series and/or trilogy.

Many thanks to Tachyon Publications for sending me an ARC for review. This anthology is currently scheduled to be published on  August 18, 2017 (though books are always subject to having dates pushed back). Regardless of publication date, it is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore | Book Review

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front coverI requested this book for review when I saw the word ‘librarians’ in its title. I did not expect to love it as much as I did. This book is 5 Star rating for me, and I pre-ordered the hardcopy from Amazon after reading the introduction. This is by far my favourite anthology. Sci-Fi & Fantasy on the topic of Librarians and Libraries. Need I say more? Okay I will:

Paula Guran, the editor of this anthology, has compiled 24 short stories that have been previously published in Sci-fi and Fantasy magazines like Uncanny, and Clarkesworld which have at its core the topic of libraries and librarians. Some of the authors include Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Ray Bradbury, Ken Liu, and Xia Jia (the last two were in a short story anthology I reviewed last month Invisible Planets). These writers are contemporary giants in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, and I was pleasantly surprised by the stories they wrote.

In library school the subject of “the image of the librarian in the public sphere” was a topic that was frequently discussed. We often looked at film adaptations and the usual depiction of a librarian was either the frumpy/spinster librarian like Marian the librarian in The Music Man, stern-shushing librarian figures like the librarian in Monsters University (Pixar Film), and real-life elderly librarian figures like Nancy Pearl (who is now an action figure), or the sexy librarian like Evy from The Mummy, Tammy Swanson from Parks and Recreation, or seductive library-figures in ads like Margot Robbie’s skit on SNL.

What Paula Guran outlines in the introduction is that librarians in fiction tend to be unhappy or stereotyped, but since this is science fiction and fantasy, the librarians expand beyond that. She writes:

“Science fiction and fantasy, is thank goodness, not ‘serious fiction’ (whatever that is). The troubled, gloomy librarian does, of course, occur in speculative fiction, but librarians are also characterized in many other ways.”

She explores libraries and librarians in sci-fi and fantasy works that have been published with the exception of the stories in this collection. She explores Borges’s Library of Babel, The Library of Dream in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman, to Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library Novels, Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series, and even projections of future libraries like in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, to give just a few examples. I was so intrigued that for the first time, a discussion of librarians explored literature that entertained possibilities rather than capturing stereotypes. Guran provided me with a bibliography of the many books I must read with a library at its core (added to my TBR).

I must admit that I read the Ray Bradbury story “Exchange” with a lot of passion—particularly since Bradbury is famously known for having been made a writer by the public library. He said in an interview with Sam Weller:

“I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old. So that’s why I’m here tonight—because I believe in libraries. They’re more important than universities. They’re more important than colleges. Libraries are the center of our lives.”

My favourite story in this anthology however is “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Kloges. It’s about a small child who is left at the doorstep of a library where seven librarians ‘live.’ Library space and time are explored in a way I have not yet encountered in literature. These are just a few lines that stayed with me:

“Librarians are guardians of books. They help others along their paths, offering keys to help unlock the doors of knowledge.”

“knowledge is not static; information must flow in order to live.”

“Books were small comfort once the lights were out, and their hard, sharp corners made them awkward companions under the covers.”

“time had become quite flexible inside the Library. (This is true of most places with interesting books. Sit down to read for twenty minutes, and suddenly it’s dark, with no clue as to where the hours have gone.)

I recommend this book to everyone, particularly librarians, people who love libraries and book descriptions, and lovers of science fiction and fantasy. This book will be published on August 15, 2017  and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Many thanks to Diamond Book Distributors and Prime Books for sending me and ARC.

Invisible Planets | Book Review

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Jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. Photograph of spiral galaxy M81 (detail) by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage team.

Invisible Planets is a 2016 TOR publication. The thirteen short stories had been previously featured in short story publications like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com. The short stories are written by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. All the stories are translated by Ken Liu whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” is the first work of fiction, of any length, to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and who also translated The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy written by Liu Cixin.

Each author’s stories are preceded by a brief biographical note on the author. At the very end of the collection there is a series of non-fiction essays on Chinese Science Fiction. I have never read any contemporary Chinese literature. Like most people in the West, I was introduced to a few translated fairy tales, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and translated philosophies like I Ching, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. We are missing out on much of China’s contemporary artistic output due to lacking translated works. As a reader, I feel embarrassed for how little I know of China’s contemporary literature in general, let alone specific genres. I had only heard of Liu Cixin because of the Three-Body-Problem which I still have not read. Ken Liu urges the reader in the introduction to read the stories as they are without trying to morph them into what we think Chinese literature should be. He writes:

“Given the realities of China’s politics and its uneasy relationship with the West, it is natural for Western readers encountering Chinese science fiction to see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics…I would urge the reader to resist such temptation. Imagining that the political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous.”

He continues:

“Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”

For instance, Liu urges us not to read Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” as a critique of the Chinese education system and the labour market. As I was reading the story I couldn’t help but smile through several parts like this one:

“I sat next to Pea by coincidence. I was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese literature; he was a graduate student in the biology department. We had nothing in common except neither of us could find jobs after graduation.”

I think that problem is quite universal right now. This thought is prevalent here in the West as well. That is just a small example of the warnings Liu gives us when reading contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in translation. Read it like it is, and don’t think of any of it as a critique of China alone.

I found the stories to be varied in content. Qiufan’s science fiction is more about dialogue and character with very subtle airs of science fiction, while some of the later stories are hard science fiction, or futuristic. This book is an introduction to Chinese Sci-fi and it’s well-put together. Bits of non-fictions, introductions, and summaries contextualise the sci-fi stories and give the reader a good overview of Chinese Science Fiction.

I would strongly recommend this to anyone interested in exploring literature from a different country, expanding one’s horizons (quite literally for some stories), and for those interested in Science Fiction. I have personally become mesmerised by both Ken Liu and Cixin Liu that I am very much looking forward to reading their other works.