Book Review: Toil & Trouble

toil & troubleToil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft
Edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe
YA Anthology/Fantasy
405 pages
Published August 2018

Toil & Trouble was a much-hyped anthology of YA stories, and I think it lived up to that hype. I really enjoyed almost every story in this book – only one or two of them were less than awesome. And they still weren’t bad! Anthologies like this keep introducing me to yet more authors that I want to read, and just keep growing my TBR list! Some of the authors in this book I was familiar with; while I hadn’t read her work yet, I met Zoraida Córdova at the Baltimore Book Festival, and she was amazing. I’m familiar with Brandy Colbert’s work, and have not yet read Anna-Marie McLemore but desperately want to, and her story in this work (Love Spell) only increases that need.

I read this book just before Halloween, and it was a perfect choice. I’m not a fan of actual horror novels, which seem to be what everyone else is reading this time of year. Give me my strong witchy women! The stories in this book are all young women – teens to early adulthood – learning to rely on themselves. They embrace what family traditions mean to them, or break free of them entirely if they’re the wrong path. They break social taboos and fall in love where they will. They FIGHT for what they want.

I think my favorite story in this book involved a woman whose powers had been bound by her coven until she was old enough to use them wisely, but had to watch her father die in an accident when she could have healed him if she’d had access to her magic. She went to an ancient place of power in the mountains and broke the binding, horrifying her coven. The story is actually about her defying them further in refusing her destined soul mate for the girl she’s been in love with since she was a child, and Fate’s punishment for that. The two girls fighting for each other and for their own magic was amazing. (The Heart in Her Hands, Tess Sharpe.) Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s part of a larger story, I was hoping for more in that world!

As far as I can tell, only one of the stories is part of something larger – I’m pretty sure Zoraida Córdova’s story is part of her Brooklyn Brujas world. Other than that, they all appear to be standalones, which is a little sad as I’d like to see more of many of these worlds!

Toil & Trouble is an outstanding anthology of magical women, and I loved it.

From the cover of Toil & Trouble:

SCORN THE WITCH.
FEAR THE WITCH.
BURN THE WITCH.

History is filled with stories of women accused of witchcraft, of fearsome girls with arcane knowledge. Toil & Trouble features fifteen stories of girls embracing their power, reclaiming their destinies and using their magic to create, to curse, to cure – and to kill.

A young witch uses social media to connect with her astrology clients – and with a NASA-loving girl as cute as she is skeptical. A priestess of death investigates a ritualized murder. A bruja who cures lovesickness might need the remedy herself when she falls in love with an altar boy. A theater production is turned upside down by a visiting churel. In Reconstruction-era Texas, a water witch uses her magic to survive the soldiers who have invaded her desert oasis. And in the near future, a group of girls accused of witchcraft must find their collective power in order to destroy their captors.

This collection reveals a universal truth: there’s nothing more powerful than a teenage girl who believes in herself.

Book Review: Guardian Angels & Other Monsters

guardian angels other monstersGuardian Angels & Other Monsters
by Daniel H. Wilson
Sci-fi short stories
280 pages
Published 2018

So I obviously didn’t read the description of this book closely enough, because it wasn’t until I hit “One For Sorrow – A Clockwork Dynasty Story” that I realized this was the same author that wrote Clockwork Dynasty, a book I read last year! We’ll blame it on my goldfish memory. My goldfish memory is a large part of why I keep this blog, so I can look back and remember what I’ve read and what I thought about it! I randomly plucked this book off the New Book display while grabbing my holds from the library; I didn’t recognize the author’s name at the time. So I’m highly amused.

These stories are . . . hard to quantify.  Some of them I really enjoyed – “Miss Gloria” is probably my favorite – she’s a little girl with a robot guardian. When kidnappers disable the guardian and take her, the guardian’s programming jumps to the closest possible hardware – being the getaway car. From there to one of the kidnappers’ smart helmets, and so on. I very much disliked “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” but to say why would spoil it entirely. The Clockwork Dynasty short story was quite good – I’m still hoping he’ll write another full-length novel in that world.

I haven’t read his other novel, Robopocalypse, and I wasn’t thrilled with the short story from that universe, but the synopsis of it sounds amazing. I don’t know if I want to read it or not!

This was a fascinating, if weird, collection of stories. I like how he explores the possible consequences of things like teleportation, AIs, robots, and battle armor. As a race, our capacity for invention tends to outpace our consideration of the consequences. We try to figure out how to do a thing before stopping to consider if we should. In this book, over and over again, I feel that Wilson is asking us “Is this the future we want?” which has often been the case with truly visionary science fiction. That’s why people complaining about politics in science fiction make me laugh – science fiction has ALWAYS been political!

This is a book for mature audiences. There are deaths, sacrifices, pain, sex, war, and other mature themes – it’s definitely not the lightest of reads. But it’s good.

From the cover of Guardian Angels & Other Monsters:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Robopocalypse and The Clockwork Dynasty comes an enthralling and fantastic collection of stories that explores complex emotional and intellectual landscapes at the intersection of artificial intelligence and human life.

In “ALL KINDS OF PROOF,”  a down-and-out drunk makes the unlikeliest of friends when he is hired to train a mail-carrying robot; in “BLOOD MEMORY, ” a mother confronts the dangerous reality that her daughter will never assimilate in this world after she is the first child born through a teleportation device; in “THE BLUE AFTERNOON THAT LASTED FOREVER,” a physicist rushes home to be with his daughter after he hears reports of an atmospheric anomaly that he knows to be a sign of the end of Earth; in “MISS GLORIA,” a robot comes back to life in many different forms on a quest to save a young girl. Showcasing the brilliance and depth of Daniel H. Wilson’s imagination, Guardian Angels & Other Monsters is a masterful collection that probes the profound impact of the rise of digital intelligence in a human world.

Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties

her body and other partiesHer Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Fantasy/Magical Realism Short Stories
241 pages
Published 2017

This is another book off my Wronged Women list – women who have been part of the #metoo movement. Specifically the ones that have come out against Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie, but I hope to expand it to others as well. Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of eight surreal stories. Magical Realism is probably the best categorization for them, as they’re not really fantasy. Real World stories with a touch of magic, or events that we’re not sure whether they could be magic or are just in the narrator’s head.

The Husband Stitch is the first story, and it’s a retelling of an old children’s story that I recently saw being discussed on Twitter – the one with the woman who had a green ribbon tied around her neck. Her husband always wanted to ask about it, but she refused to answer any questions about it, and wouldn’t let him touch it until she was on her deathbed. In Machado’s version, it isn’t just the narrator that has one. Every woman does. It’s different colors, in different places, but it’s still never talked about. I think she means it as a metaphor for trauma. It works well.

Eight Bites is a particularly haunting piece about self-hate, body acceptance, and peer pressure. It’s probably my second favorite story after The Husband Stitch.

The only one I didn’t love was Especially Heinous. It was written as episode synopses of a television show, and it was interesting, but it just went on too long.

All of the stories are written well, though, and each one makes a different point. I think this would make an amazing Book Club book, because I’d love to discuss the meanings of the stories with other people. Other women, specifically. It would definitely be a great book for discussion.

From the cover of Her Body and Other Parties:

In her electrifying debut, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Here are eight startling stories that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies. Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties enlarges the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Book Review: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

a thousand beginnings and endingsA Thousand Beginnings and Endings
Edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman
Retold Asian Mythology Anthology
328 pages
Published June 2018

This is one of the many new releases I have been eagerly awaiting from the library, and it did not disappoint! There are fifteen stories here, reimagining Asian myths, legends, and fairytales. Each story has an author’s note following it, giving a little bit of background information on the inspiration for the story. I didn’t realize until reading the author bios in the back of the book that three of the authors (including the two editors) are from the We Need Diverse Books team, which is one of my favorite book twitters! (@diversebooks) Their book recommendations are always fantastic. One of the editors is actually local to me, so that’s pretty neat, too!

I think my favorite stories were the last two in the book – Eyes Like Candlelight (by Julie Kagawa), about a Kitsune falling in love with a mortal, and The Crimson Cloak (Cindy Pon), about a goddess falling in love with a mortal. Stories range from Japanese mythology (Eyes Like Candlelight) to Filipino, Hmong, and Punjabi-inspired tales. The diversity in both culture, style, and time period of these tales is fantastic. I really enjoy Asian mythology, and I love seeing more and more books exploring it. (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was another semi-recent one.)

Because it’s a bunch of short stories, it’s an easy book to take in small bites – a story here, a story there. I like mixing short story collections in with my longer reads; they make for nice breaks. I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be looking up the authors to find some of their other works! (That’s another reason I love short story collections – they introduce me to authors I might not otherwise read!)

From the cover of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings:

Star-crossed lovers. Meddling immortals. Feigned identities. Dire warnings.

These are the stuff of myth and legend. Add a dangerous smile, a game that pulls players out of one world and into another, a ghost town, a never-ending war, a night of dancing . . . and this collection of inspired and original retellings is only just beginning. Fifteen acclaimed authors reimagine tales from their own East and South Asian cultures. Classic epics, lush fantasy, inventive science fiction, sparkling contemporary – there is a story here for every reader to devour.

But beware . . . not every tale has a happy ending.

Book Review: Confessions of a Falling Woman and other short stories

confessionsConfessions of a Falling Woman and other short stories
by Debra Dean
224 pages
Published 2008
Contemporary fiction

I picked up this book because the title intrigued me. I was expecting a book of short stories on a theme, being Falling Women, and instead I got a book of short stories by an author, one of them being from a divorced, adulterous ex-wife. For all that it wasn’t what I was expecting, and was not my usual fare, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and the emotions behind the stories. Most of the stories are tiny vignettes – glimpses into other people’s lives. The last story is a much longer story about a washed-up actor. The book is short, but still manages to cram in nine stories in 135 pages, with the tenth consuming 90 pages on its own.

The book begins with “What the Left Hand Is Saying,” about the people living in an apartment building coming together to form a community. “The Queen Mother” descibes a Southern Matriarch getting an intervention for her alcoholism. “The Afterlife of Lyle Stone” is a bizarre little story that I’m still not entirely sure what to make of. “A Brief History of Us” reads like a woman talking to her shrink about her family’s history. “Another Little Piece,” “Romance Manual,” “The Best Man,” “The Bodhisattva,” and “Confessions of a Falling Woman” all deal with varying aspects of love and romance. The crowning story of the collection is “Dan in the Gray Flannel Rat Suit” about a washed-up actor realizing he’s washed-up.

This was a decent collection. It’s not my normal cup of tea, though her novel looks vaguely interesting (The Madonnas of Leningrad). I’ll probably only pick up Madonnas if I happen to see it on the library shelf when picking up other things. If you’re into contemporary fiction, though, this might be worth a shot.

From the back of Confessions of a Falling Woman and other stories:

A surprised Southern matriarch is confronted by her family at an intervention… A life-altering break-in triggers insomniac introspection in a desperate actor… Streetwise New York City neighbors let down their guard for a naive puppeteer and must suffer the consequences…

In this stunning collection of short stories – five of which are being published for the very first time – bestselling, award-winning author Debra Dean displays the depth and magnitude of her extraordinary literary talent. Replete with the seamless storytelling and captivating lyrical voice that made her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, a national bestseller, Dean’s Confessions of a Falling Woman is a haunting, satisfying, and unforgettable reading experience.

Book Review: Tortall and Other Lands

TortallTortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales
by Tamora Pierce
369 pages
Published 2011

This is a collection of Tamora Pierce’s short stories, some of which have been published in other collections. There are six stories set in Tortall, four fantasy stories set elsewhere, and one contemporary non-fantasy story. I really enjoyed getting glimpses into other parts of Tortall – seeing stories of a few ordinary people, not just the extraordinary ones that star in her sagas and trilogies.

In one story we revisit Numair and Daine from The Immortals quartet, and see their foster dragon, Kitten, get into trouble and rescue a wild mage and her son. In another we see an apple tree turned into a man as a consequence of Numair turning a man into an apple tree half a world away. Another story shows us the birth of Nawat and Aly’s children. (Aly is the daughter of Alanna from The Song of the Lioness quartet, and has her own duology, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen.) We see a girl learn to fight by watching animals squabble, and another girl learn to become an adult by rescuing a baby dragon.

I very much enjoy collections of short stories for a few different reasons; collections by one author show glimpses into rarely-seen parts of their established worlds, while collections around a theme introduce me to new authors. I also don’t feel bad about setting the book down between stories to go to bed! Tortall and Other Lands was a wonderful addition to the stories of Tortall, and has me even more eager to read The Immortals quartet and the Trickster set.

From the back of Tortall and Other Lands:

Years ago, the novel Alanna introduced fantasy lovers to the magical kingdom of Tortall. In Tamora Pierce’s subsequent fifteen books set in this medieval realm, readers have gotten to know generations of families; legions of friends, foes, and fantastical creatures; and much about the history, magic, and spirit of this extraordinarily well-drawn locale.

But epics do not always provide the smaller, more intimate tales. Collected here are six wondrous shorter tales from the land of Tortall, featuring previously unknown characters as well as old friends. These stories, some of which have never been published before, will lead old fans and new readers more deeply into one of the most intricately constructed worlds of modern fantasy. There are four more fantasy tales not set in Tortall. Two are historical and set in an unknown town; one takes place in a remote desert; and one is set in a very well-known town, New York City, in our time. 

And as a bonus, there’s one nonfantasy set in contemporary Idaho that proves that Pierce’s multilayered characters, finesse with dialogue, and impeccable storytelling are not limited to lands inhabited by dragons and magic.