Countdown to Christmas Day 8

Five Books That’ll Keep You Warm in Winter

by Lynn E. O’Connacht

For many of us in the northern hemisphere, December is often cold and dreary.
Personally I always feel that there’s too little snow to make suffering through the cold worth it, but at least we always have books. December is a great month to read books and I wanted to share some of my favourite December reads with you all. Hopefully they’ll lead you on to discover some fantastic new-to-you authors!

These five books are in no particular order, although there’s a definite ‘includes snow’ theme going on, but I hope you’ll find at least one that makes a great present for yourself or others this month.

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Speaking of snow, this is a delightful wintery novella set in an alternate Earth setting where fairies and magic are real. This is a light read, perfect for those days when you don’t want to go out. Though it’s a gentle story with a strong romance, it also tackles some deep topics, such as the way women are often treated in academia. It’s a perfect balance, ensuring a lot of reread value.

As a bonus, it’s the first in a series, so if you enjoy it, there’s more to explore!

The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher

We’re not done with the combination of winter settings and utterly warm writing yet. The Raven and the Reindeer is a brilliant retelling of The Snow Queen. Unlike some of Kingfisher’s other retellings, this one stays fairly traditional and, in doing so, enhances the smaller ways in which the story subverts the original tale. This story is worth it just for Mousebones alone. Add in a discussion about abuse and depression as well as a cute f/f romance and it’s sure to brighten up any dark December day.

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Set in the heart of winter, this is the darkest book on the list, dealing as it does with mental illness, but the prose is so lush and pitch-perfect. I couldn’t imagine a better time to read Wintersong than in the heart of winter, which is currently is where I’m  located. Liesl is a powerful protagonist, determined to save her sister from the Goblin King.

This is the first in a duology, so if you reach the end desperate for more Jae-Jones has got you covered!

Wingborn by Becca Lusher

What’s this? A book with no snow?! Well, there may be some, but there are certainly plenty of clouds. Reminiscent of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels, Lusher deftly weaves a narrative of girls joining a previously male-only institution (yes, plural) with a Regency-inspired setting as Lady Mhysra struggles against social norms to follow her heart and care for her feathered companion. It’s lush and gorgeous and this series will make you long for the open skies.

Wingborn is the first in a series – and there’s a companion series – so readers who love getting stuck into a setting will find plenty to enjoy. (Lastly, this book also contains winged puppy antics and TEAM BUMBLE FOREVER.)

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

From clouds back to forests in this queer retelling of Swan Lake where nothing is exactly what it seems. If you’re looking for something to accompany Disney’s The nutcracker and the Four Realms as a seasonal fairy tale, do check this out. It’s very different, but touches on similar themes. The characters in this book were a delight, especially Princen Alexis and their relationship with their best friend, Tatiana. It’s a very sweet polyamorous story with some great twists on the original tale.

And that’s it. Five books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and find comforting in months when the days are short, the wind is howling and there’s just not enough snow to make all this cold worth dealing with. If gifting any of these to yourself, add in a nice hot beverage of your choice, snuggle up in your favourite reading spot and enjoy!

Happy holidays!

Countdown to Christmas Day 6

by Michele Fry

I love The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’ve never read a novel written wholly in verse before, so that was a treat, as was Xiomara’s strong, fierce, and powerful voice. I fell in love with Xiomara from the very beginning and was willing her on, wanting her to find a way to voice her feelings and questions, her fears and her experiences of being a young black woman who’s talked over, talked down to, or simply ignored at every turn. This book made me cry, made me cheer, and made me happy to have met Xiomara, a beautiful, brave, black girl. I cannot
recommend it highly enough.

I extra love (!) Passing Strange by Ellen Klages a fascinating and compelling historical love story with supernatural/fantastical elements about a bisexual artist and a lesbian singer. Set in San
Francisco in 1940, it looks at the ways in which queer cis and enby women try to express their queerness and/or nonconformity to the gender binary [sic] while still complying with the law. It’s a tragedy with a happy ending.

The Green Man’s Heir is EVERYTHING I love about Juliet McKenna’s work:
a skilful, careful, and seamless blend of folklore, mythology, and fantasy sensibilities with a modern setting and modern concerns regarding ecological & environmental issues, masculinity, news reporting, and policing, but without a single moment of hectoring or lecturing. And all wrapped up in a compelling tale that will make you want to read all night.

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is totally immersive (I read it in less than a day), full of well-crafted worldbuilding (of the alternate Black history kind), intriguing mythology, engaging and well-rounded characters whom I found utterly fascinating, and it was at once exactly the right length (for the story it told), but far too bloody short (because I need more, more, MORE (please!) about Jacqueline and Captain Ann-Marie of the airship Midnight Robber.

When the Letter Comes by Mx Sara Fox is a story about magic, growing up, being left behind, becoming someone different, with a transgender protagonist whose younger sister gets invited to go to magical school while Henry (she hasn’t decided on a new name yet, but she will one
day) is left behind. Then a war comes, and Henry meets Caden, who’s non-binary and who brings Henry to where her sister Gabrielle is involved in a war between those who think technology is destroying magic, and those who don’t. And all the time Henry is struggling to feel comfortable in her skin, to accept who she is, and struggling with others, particularly her parents’, difficulties with accepting who she is. This is a beautiful, compelling short story that gripped me from the first line.

Aunty Fox Reads…. quite a bit really

I have been asked about books. Not the ones we publish, but what I buy outside of Fox Spirit and specifically what other small presses I look to for my reading material.

I went for quite a long time since starting FS without reading much outside of it, then I changed jobs. Just over six months ago I found myself with a commute by train and it has been heaven. So let’s start with a list of books I have read and enjoyed since August and the reasons I read them.

A note before I start, every one of these books was excellent and I would recommend them all so assume high stars all round. I am bad at reading books that don’t draw me in quickly.

books delicious books

13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough – I know Sarah a little and have read her work before, so was happy to buy and read her recent releases, confident I would enjoy them.
The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – Zen did a story for us which was superb. I like to support writers who have supported us with their stories by buying their books, add to which, I really like reading all the writers we work with so it’s a low risk strategy.
Burning Embers by James Bennett – James is a friend, a Fox Spirit writer and a fantastic story teller. No brainer.
Sparrow Falling by Gaie Sebold – I loved Gaie’s earlier novels, I nearly died of squee when she did a story for us so obviously I had to have this.
The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Adrian is a fantastic writer and again, has worked with FS.
Alice by Christina Henry – The original Alice always struck me as darker than people think, I was intrigued. I was also looking for interesting novels by women.
Lost Girl by Adam Nevill – Apt 16 terrified me, Adam is a great writer and a lovely man, we must try and weedle a story from him one day.
Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney – this one just looked interesting and Paul’s name is one of those where I am always a bit, have we met? Or have I just come across his name so many times I think we have met?
How to be Dull by Basil Morley Esq – Basil Morely is actually K.A. Laity who writes and edits for FS among others and never fails to entertain me.
The Red Tree By Caitlin Kearnan – Picked this up years ago because it looked interesting, and it languished on the shelf. I thought I would give it a try as part of my bid to make my reading more diverse and I was rewarded richly.
Geekerella by Ashley Poston – recommended and indeed supplied by a publicist friend who knows what I like
Escapology by Ren Warom – Ren is amazing, which I know because we published her novella so obviously I had to read this.
How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – Rare occasion where I actually got around to the book group choice but a fantastic book that has set me off collecting up more feminist non fic.
Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac – Part of my personal challenge to be more diverse in my reading. Joseph is a Native American writer and I loved the sound of this particular book. It’s great btw.
Nemesis by Agatha Christie – I love Christie, I love this story, charity shop comfort read.
Clockwork Heart by Dru Paliassotti – Bought this forever ago, and it appealed when I did a shelf search.
Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Briggs– enjoyed the film but was curious as a friend who loves the books was very cross about the changes.
Love across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahini – A friend was involved in editing and producing this and so I had great confidence in it being excellent. It was.
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – see previous Pinborough. Also one of the main characters is called Adele, how could I resist?
The Red Queen by Christina Henry – Sequel to Alice which I loved.
The Ocean at the end of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – again it’s been on the shelf a while, but I have read a number of Gaiman’s books over the years and had no doubt I would enjoy it. 
The Stars and Legion by Kameron Hurley – Read God’s War as a BFS judge, loved it, read the next one, love Kameron’s fiction and will just keep buying and reading them.

 

Books I am dipping into

They do the Same things Differently Here by Rob Shearman – Shearman is an incredible short story writer and possibly the loveliest man alive.
Nasty Women by various – Saw a lot about this and with the world as it is it felt like a must read.
Frazzled by Ruby Wax – Because I am basically.
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla – Part of my efforts to challenge my reading habits. Enjoying this greatly.

So you will start to see a pattern.

I like to support writers I know, especially ones I have worked with or who I enjoy chatting with on online of F2F, which is helped by the fact that I am confident I will enjoy their work.

I buy from small presses and indie authors a lot at events, it’s not well represented here but I have a stack of books I have read or want to read from the likes of Grimbold, Kristell ink, Newcon and others both past and present. Things I look for in small presses tend to be that people running them I know share some of my tastes or values, or writers in common as that is a good sign I will enjoy the stuff they put out. Some of the presses I love, like Boo and Jurassic sadly closed, which I talk about at length in the Sisyphus post, so I won’t go back over it here. Not all indie presses are so small of course, Angry Robot and Titan, along with Abaddon and Solaris often make their way onto my shelves, I recently discovered Quirk and will be going back there again. Then there are specialists, like 404Ink and Dhalia who offer something more specific but from time to time overlap with my genre preferences or just hit my needs in the moment and who are doing high quality work. There are lots I haven’t mentioned but browse the dealer room at any genre con and you are surrounded by people I would buy from. 

At bookstores I have a system. Check for new books by people I know/like already either F2F or from reading their work. Then browse for writers that expand my reading, so at the moment looking for books by non white writers is a big part of my store search technique for or openly LGBTQIA writers, writers of colour or non fiction books. Finally, anything that just looks interesting or a bit different (harder than it sounds tbh). I have been known to purchase books for their covers, or indeed because of the cover artist.

Waxing Lyrical : Reading to Save your Soul

Reading to Save Your Soul
Alex Bean

A few nights ago I noticed a recent shift in my reading habits.  In a post on Facebook I mused that since the US Presidential election in November I had begun reading a lot more fiction than usual. My habit generally being rather massive works of non-fiction and history, this seemed notable. In the comments on my Facebook post a friend, himself a writer, told me to keep it up. “Read all the fictions. Fiction will save your soul, if not your life.”

That idea has really struck a chord with me, especially in a domestic political climate mired in the toxic racism and incompetent xenophobia of a populist demagogue. To that end, much of the fiction I’ve been consuming at a faster-than-usual pace has incidentally turned out to be the perfect antidote to the uninformed hatred and suspicion permeating from the White House.

In November, right after the election, I felt completely unmoored. My whole sense of the foundations that underlie my society felt undone. So I went all the way back to the source and re-read Gilgamesh. It’s always sort of awesome (in the Old Testament sense of the word) to go back and read texts from the very origins of human civilization. Glimpsing the formal and dramatic power of literature already being harnessed so far back in the fog of time is intimidating and impressive. I also couldn’t help but be amused that the city vs. country divide made so stark in the election can just as easily be found in the wrestling match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

As I finished the work, one particular passage stuck out and seems especially relevant in the pursuit of saving my soul via fiction.

“What you seek you shall never find. 
For when the Gods made man, 
They kept immortality to themselves.
Fill your belly.
Day and night make merry.
Let Days be full of joy.
Love the child who holds your hand.
Let your wife delight in your embrace.
For these alone are the concerns of man.” 

Those lines echoed through my mind as I reflected on two pieces of fiction by people being actively persecuted by the short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office. One of them is The Moor’s Account, a novel by Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami, which I first read a few years ago. The moor in question is Estevanico, a once-successful slave trader in Morocco who sells himself into slavery in Spain and eventually becomes the first recorded African to immigrate to the Americas. \

Seeing the arrogance and violence inherent to European colonization of the Americas from the eyes of a Muslim from Morocco fundamentally alters the whole American idea. It lets the reader re-imagine this country means by finding the stories in the gaps and ellipses of history. I’d like to imagine that reflection like that might be enough to save the soul of my country if enough people read it and took it to heart.

The other work of fiction, which I started the week that Trump signed his odious Muslim Ban, was Interpreter of Maladies by Jumpa Lahiri. The Pultizer-winning short story collection mostly focuses on Indian immigrants to the United States.  What struck me, again and again, throughout the nine stories in the collection, is how Lahiri uses her understated prose to sketch out characters with thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams that are at once universal and highly specific. As with Gilgamesh, a quote (or two) may best illustrate her effusive powers.

“While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

“In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to believe that all was right with the world, that all struggles were rewarded, that all of life’s mistakes made sense in the end.”

We may be doomed to live in interesting times and I still find myself full of worry and outrage. But reading those lines made the whole sad, fearful displays which dominate the news shrink from my mind. Fiction, perhaps more than any other format, has the power to cut through the noise and make you look at yourself and the world in a new light. We’re all seekers like Gilgamesh and strangers in a strange land like Estevanico and ordinary people whose achievements are beyond imagination. No one man, no matter how foolish can steal that from us. That’s what will save our souls and that why I’m reading fiction right now.

Waxing Lyrical : We shouldn’t have to be Fat Amy about books.

First of all some context. I was talking on twitter with @gavreads and @Alasdaircookie about some of the apologetic terms we use about our reading habits. Then there was a sneering article in the Guardian by some nobody snarking at the beloved Sir Terry Pratchett for, basically not been hard enough to read to be considered literature. So discounting his nothing opinion as clickbait tripe, we shall move on. (This is a rebuttal also in the Guardian, so who knows what is going on there)

So who is Fat Amy? If you know Pitch Perfect, you already know, if not, all you need to know is we love Fat Amy. She is absolutely her own woman and she introduces herself as follows:

Aubrey: What’s your name?
Fat Amy: Fat Amy.
Aubrey: You call yourself Fat Amy?
Fat Amy: Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.

Fat Amy makes no apologies for being herself.

So where is this leading?
It’s about guilty pleasures. We love the books we love. We love them for all sorts of reasons, the familiar and comforting, the new adventures, the worlds we visit and lives we lead through them, the new things we experience, the feels, OMG the feels! We can be anything ‘We can be Heroes, just for one day’ through books.

http://saturtron.deviantart.com/art/I-Love-Books-289176423
http://saturtron.deviantart.com/art/I-Love-Books-289176423

If I want to read something that seems silly or frivolous or god forbid mediocre (still bitter about that Guardian douche) because it makes me happy, because I enjoy how it makes me feel, or I like the character or the story then why should I apologise for it? Why should I start out introducing my book as Fat Amy? If you are wondering, the writers of feeble Guardian opinion pieces are the twig bitches in this analogy, except with out the redeeming qualities of the characters in the film.

Why do we need to apologise for our pleasures not being deemed worthy or literary? If a book bores you rigid in a wood and there is no one there to impress is it still literary or is it just a massive time waste?

Guilty pleasures, chick lit, all that stuff about people liking kindles because other people can’t see the cover and judge you, too old for young adult, too old for children’s books, escapism, not literary. I want to burn all these things out of our vocabulary because there is really only one question that matters? Why do you read? I read for pleasure and mental stimulation, the fact that I am also enriched, educated and made a more empathetic person as I go is a bonus to me, a happy side effect of doing something I want to do. If you read to be challenged that’s fine, if you read purely for new knowledge, also fine, but honestly don’t use your choices as a reason to look down on mine! Have a fat heart, love books, love reading, love it your way, let me love it mine and stop with this whole ‘this is better’ and the ‘more literary than thou’.  fatamy

Reading is a private pleasure but a shared passion, don’t apologise for what you love, just love it and share it and celebrate it. When I closed the cover of Sir Terry Pratchett’s final book yesterday I didn’t think about it being fantasy, or a young adult protagonist, I thought about how it made me laugh and how it hurt my heart, about what happens to people when they get too old to be seen as useful, and the expectations we put on our families and they on us. I also thought about the thousands of other people feeling the same things around the world as they read it too. Of course I also grieved a little, because my relationship with Sir Terry was purely through his books and this is the last.

Fat Amy has an awesome life, she’s a great singer, she has an excellent love life (we see her in a pool surrounded by super hot guys) and she has all the best lines in the film, yet she still introduces herself as Fat, so people don’t say it behind her back. Stop apologising for what you enjoy. Stop introducing your books as Fat Amy. Stop prefixing them with scorn so other people can’t. No more guilty pleasures, just pleasures please people, and if people do judge them stuff them, let them sneer and miss out, we don’t need to care, we read what we read and we love it, it’s aca-awesome.

pitch perfect

 

Waxing Lyrical : Reality is just the consensus anyway

 

I have talked about the importance of diversity in writing before, in detail, so I won’t go into that at length again today. I mention it only because it does relate to what I want to talk about today, which is how stories are given and received.

I often say you need to study English Literature while you are young. That’s because as you get older and maybe a little more jaded, you start to realise that writers are people. Worse, they are people with deadlines and insecurities and tea addictions and family problems and hospital appointments and crummy landlords and all the same crap we have. Actually it’s not a bad thing, in fact if writers weren’t real people they’d be way less interesting. There is something of a loss of mysticism though and that makes it harder to really believe that the placement of the cigarette in the mug instead of the ashtray meant something deep and symbolic about how the character felt about themselves and the state of their relationship and you know the economy or puppies or something,  (like your eng lit teacher would tell you) and you start to suspect the writer forgot they had put an ashtray within reach, but remembered the character hadn’t quite finished the coffee (because that happened loads when you were a student). My dear Mrs Chapman (my eng lit teacher) I am truly sorry, but it turns out that the vast majority of the time the curtains are simply blue.

curtainsareblue

This leads me on to the point that intersects neatly with why I love diversity. Everything we read goes through two key filters (putting aside agents, editors, proof readers, etc etc ). The first filter is that unique element of every story, the story teller. If you give a dozen people the same brief you get a dozen different stories (essentially this is how anthologies happen) because everyone has a different experience of life that they bring to their work. The more varied you want your reading experience to be, the more varied your writers should be. If your shelves are full of writer type a you are experiencing fiction through dozens/hundreds of very similar filters. Try something different. I promise it makes it much more interesting.

The second filter then is equally unique. The second filter is the reader. Which is interesting because it means not only do no two people write the same story the same way, but neither do any two people read the same story the same way. Not exactly. We all affect it through our experience the same way the writer affects it with theirs. However as a reader you will only truly experience your own reading, so you must look for your diversity in writers. I know, it’s a drum I keep banging, but that’s because it matters. And I’m right.

This throws up an interesting question. If the writer simply forgot about the ashtray, but the reader takes meaning from stubbing a cigarette out in the mug is the reader wrong? Can the curtains only ever be blue?

found on zazzle
found on zazzle

I’d suggest not. I think its ok to read more into it.  That if the reader finds it speaks to them in a different, deeper way then actually that’s great, they’ve got something they needed or wanted. I have never believed that stories need to have a deeper meaning. I have always held that stories are important for their own sake and the idea that a tale has to have a purpose, a message or moral is a disservice to the importance they play in our lives in the first place. I would never deny anyone the right to find more in a story though. I am quite sure I have.  It’s ok to take whatever you take from a story.

That the writer wasn’t cleverly concealing more meaning in an action or a choice in no way negates that the reader gets that from the story. I don’t generally ask ‘did you mean for your book to have this impact’ because it doesn’t matter. It had the impact whether it was intended or not.

So after all that do I have a point?

I think I do and I think it goes something like this.

The writer will write the story they want to write. That may not be the story the reader reads. That’s ok.

I’d also add, because it can never be said too much in my view, that stories matter because they are stories and really, they don’t need to be anything more.

Aunty Reads : The Night Circus

For the longest time I’ve struggled to finish books, to read something unrelated to Fox Spirit for my own pleasure. I am starting to reclaim that pleasure. Since I started out reviewing, I thought I might share my thoughts on those books I manage to complete here, with you.

I picked up The Night Circus after a number of friends recommended it to me. They were right!

night ciurcus

The Night Circus is beautiful, complex and enchanting. A story of multiple layers, based around a magical contest whose contestant are committed without their consent and not told the rules. The game must be played and they are tied to it until it is complete. Everyone who works for the Circus or falls for its enchantments is also, more subtlety but just as irrevocably bound to it.

The combatants actually show a frustrating lack of curiosity about the game itself, while as a reader I was initially impatient to understand it better. It isn’t long though before the book casts its spell in full and I was lulled into the nightly life of the circus, less concerned with how or when it will end but rather wandering endlessly down the ouroboros like paths, gawping and gasping as each new marvel is revealed, but never quite shaking the unease fully, knowing that something is not quite ok here.

Two magical prodigies battle, using the Circus as their stage and while Marcus and Celia work and spar their respective mentors manipulate and protect the secrets of their ego driven with little regard for who is harmed or at least forever altered by the process.

The writing is beautiful, the story gently compelling, the characters never fully revealed in their complexity, everything is done so beautifully. The Night Circus is a masterclass for aspiring writers in how to create an atmosphere with every aspect of the book that reflects the tale you are telling.

I fell fully under the illusions of this book, absorbing it, watching it unfold slowly like the living statues that adorn its paths. Holding my breath as the illusions unfold ever more intricate and dangerous. What will become of Marcus and Celia as the game inevitably concludes and can the circus survive? Why is Poppet no longer able to read the stars and what is the role of young Bailey in all of this. With workings more delicate than the complications of the Circus’ amazing clock this is a book that draws you in and binds you to it gently, from which you cannot simply walk away before the game is done.