Thursday, June 9, 2022

Mini Reviews of Short Story Collections: How Strange a Season & Sword Stone Table

Megan Mayhew Bergman is a short story writer whose previous two collections received great acclaim. I really enjoyed her 2015 collection Almost Famous Women, so I was intrigued to see what she would do in this book as she wrote about women who are learning to chase what they want and overcome tradition and history. While these aren't connected stories, I have the feeling that a discerning reader who read through the collection a second or third time would find a lot of threads to follow. 

In "Wife Days," Farrah negotiates with her husband for some days to just be her own person instead of following his whims, or those of her trainer or family. After Holland's girlfriend leaves for a research project, Lily decides to take on her own project with a conservation group in North Carolina and tries to come to terms with her mother leaving their family when she was young in "A Taste for Lionfish." Bergman's novella "Indigo Run" might be my favorite piece in the collection. Helena-Raye Glass finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and married as Skip Spangler considers selling her family home generations later. Each of these protagonists is wondering what it would mean and what it would feel like to put themselves first, to follow their own desires, and to leave the burden of care and the expectations of others behind them.

How Strange A Season
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
Scribner March 2022
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

In the introduction to Sword Stone Table, editors Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington wrote about their search for Arthurian retellings. They wanted tales that bent the race or gender of the characters, or introduced queer characters to these beloved stories. So they set out to create their own, and asked sixteen writers to contribute their own takes on Arthur and the Stone Table. Writers from Sarah MacLean to Alexander Chee said yes, and Sword Stone Table came to life.

As with almost any collection of short stories, I found some stories excellent and some only okay. The authors set their tales either in the past (once), the present, or the future. Roshani Chokshi reveals a new side to the tale of Elaine and Lancelot in "Passing Fair and Young," Waubgeshig Rice places a young Arthur in an Anishinaabeg community where he learns about his culture and traditions from his mysterious Uncle Merle in "Heartbeat," and Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes of a woman in a a tower many years in the future who savors memories from a beautiful young man she calls Lancelot in "A Shadow in Amber." There are two kinds of readers who will be wowed by this collection--people who are looking for new-to-them science fiction and fantasy authors, and those who are die-hard Arthurian nerds. Kudos to the editors and writers for bringing new life to these well-loved stories and characters.

Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices 
Edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington 
Vintage July 2021
480 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Review: When Women Were Dragons

Alex Green is a girl who is growing up in the 1950s. She is navigating many familiar things--going to school, having a first crush, fending off an overly protective mother, and looking out for her younger sister. But in this version of America, things are a little different than you might expect. On a seemingly normal day, thousands of women suddenly turned into dragons and flew away, including Alex's Aunt Marla. Alex's "sister" Beatrice is actually her cousin, but no one is allowed to talk about the women who turned into dragons or the pain and confusion their leaving caused. Alex sets out to find the answers about just what happened that day, for herself, for her aunt, and for her beloved Beatrice who is showing signs of becoming a dragon like her mother.

For readers who like all of the answers, this might be a frustrating experience. Alex's own failed attempts as a child and young adult to get more information are interspersed with a scientist's reports as he tries to research the phenomenon of turning into a dragon and is thwarted at every turn by politicians and other scientists who want to keep everyone in the dark. But it rings very true to that experience of knowing that something bigger is going on and having your questions ignored because you're not old enough, or it doesn't concern you. 

Kelly Barnhill's writing is excellent. She clearly depicts the anger of a girl and then a woman who is kept from answers, left without support, and then belittled as she tries to use her intellect and skills. This is obviously a book about feminism and female anger. In America in May 2022, when women are dealing with parenting during a multi-year pandemic, a formula shortage, multiple mass shootings, and the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, many of us are very angry. Reading When Women Were Dragons can give readers hope that they are not the only ones who are angry; in fact, women have been angry for a very long time. But it also reminds us that we aren't alone, and that we can make bold choices to protect and defend ourselves and the women we love. 

When Women Were Dragons
By Kelly Barnhill
Doubleday Books May 2022
352 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Mini Reviews: The Perishing and Long Division

Lou is a Black teenager who wakes up in a Los Angeles alley, with no idea who she is or how she got there. She is arrested and ultimately placed with a foster family. Years later, she lands a job writing newspaper obituaries for people who are often ignored. She also makes friends with a Chinese-American actress named Esther. The girls spend many of their days at Esther's father's boxing gym and that is where Lou sees a Black fireman named Jefferson Clayton. Lou has never met Jefferson, but she realizes that she has been drawing his face for years. 

We know early on that Lou is not like other people; she is immortal and this life is just one of many she has lived. But Natashia  does such an excellent job of planting us firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s that the more fantastical elements and the flashes of Lou's other lives are jarring. The Perishing takes elements you think you've read before, and uses them to ask if a timeline exists where we finally stop ignoring the pain and trauma of people of color. 

The Perishing
By Natashia Counterpoint LLC November 2021
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

City Coldson is going to stay out of the limelight for a while. After an on-air meltdown at the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence finals, he is sent to stay with his grandmother in the small town of Melahatchie, Mississippi. Before he leaves, he starts reading a book called Long Division, The book has no author listed, and the main character is also named City Coldson. The City in the book lives in 1985 and finds out that he can travel through time. When the character in the book encounters a girl named Baize Shephard and City discovers that a girl of the same name in present-day Melahatchie has gone missing, it's clear that things are about to get strange. 

Long Division is a book where you have to be content with not always understanding what is going on. City (and Kiese Laymon) are not concerned with explaining things to you or making you comfortable; they're just telling you how things are. The characters mirror Laymon's precision with both the construction of story and the words used to tell that story. On one level, this is the story of a teenage boy navigating who he wants to be alongside friends, enemies, and first loves. On a totally different level, City is trying to find out where and when he belongs in a world that is not kind to Black boys--even when he is allowed to compete in the competition, he is seen as a "token minority" and assigned the word niggardly. Long Division is unlike any story you've read before. 

Long Division
By Kiese Laymon
Scribner June 2021
301 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Where There's a Whisk

Peyton Sinclaire can't quite believe that she is a competitor on the TV show Top Teen Chef. The winner will get a full ride to any American Culinary Institute and for Peyton, it would mean the chance to leave her family troubles and small town life behind. The story starts right in the midst of the action, as Peyton walks on set for the first time and the camera crew captures her reaction to the beautiful appliances and fully-stocked pantry. They also record her walking right into the swinging doors that lead to set. 

We all know that reality shows are not all that real. Peyton and her fellow competitors know that too, but they are trying to impress the judges, impress the audience, and maybe even make a friend or two along the way. The show begins with eight competitors and each one has a type--one is a vegan surfer boy, another is an Italian teen from New Jersey, and there is even a girl whose family is cooking royalty. While it might seem a bit obnoxious to have such obvious types, it certainly rings true for a reality show where each contestant would be encouraged to play along with a specific narrative. 

Sarah Schmitt does a great job of writing characters who want to be authentic, but also want to win a competition where perception is at least as important as your plating skills. Their frustration is palpable when they are required to act in ways that aren't natural to them, and Peyton is the most devastated of all when she discovers the show will be portraying her as the "rags to riches" girl whose father is in jail. 

Sometimes you need to read a book that my dad would call "fluffy;" the stakes are relatively low and you know that everyone will learn something and end up with a somewhat happy ending. This story is fun, moves quickly, and the reader truly feels that they are on set alongside the teens, scrambling to finish each challenge on time. If you love binging The Great British Baking Show or trying to perfect your pie recipe on the weekends, Where There's a Whisk is the perfect book for you. 

Where There's a Whisk
By Sarah J. Schmitt
Running Press Kids October 2021
400 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Prayer When You Don't Have The Words: Mini Reviews of To Light Their Way and A Rhythm of Prayer

When Kayla Craig's daughter was three years old, she was hospitalized with a respiratory virus. Sitting by her bedside, Craig discovered that she could not find the words to pray. When a friend sent her a book of prayers, she found comfort in praying words that had already been laid out for her. As she continued to raise her children, she found many moments when she just did not have the words for the joy or sorrow or doubt she was experiencing. So she wrote a collection of prayers for parents, for the ones who are overwhelmed, for those smiling and crying as they send their little love off to kindergarten for the first time, and for the ones who are feeding a baby in those dark early morning hours.

This collection of prayers and liturgies is beautiful and varied. Craig writes in the introduction that these are not prayers that ignore reality; instead, she includes prayers for the one who parents alone, a prayer for receiving a diagnosis, and one for when your child is the bully. Some are meant for a caregiver to pray by themselves, and others are meant to read with your child. There are even simple breath prayers intended to help parents connect with God in the midst of school pickup, getting everyone to practice, and ensuring every child has brushed their teeth. To Light Their Way is a beautiful reminder that it is ok to not always have the words, and it would be a fantastic gift to give to any parent or caregiver. 

To Light Their Way
A Collection of Prayers and Liturgies for Parents 
By Kayla Craig
Tyndale Momentum October 2021
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sarah Bessey had a similar moment of not knowing how to pray. She recalled the prayer circles of her youth, missing both the confidence of knowing that others were praying for her and the many different ways they reached out to God. Bessey asked a group of women who teach and challenge her to contribute prayers to this collection. These prayers are not necessarily meant to be read and repeated verbatim.  Instead, they are intended to inspire you to find your own new ways to pray. 

The prayers in this book are angry cries about injustice or a guided prayer for when you don't know what you want. Some selections are not prayers themselves; they are letters to a future self or musings on the power of a mother or grandmother's prayers. One of the prayers in this book even sparked controversy when the Black author prayed that God would just let her hate white people instead of having her heart broken over and over by people who won't address their racism. It is good for us to be reminded that prayer doesn't have to look just one way and sometimes the anger or grief we feel is uncomfortable to confess. A Rhythm of Prayer is exactly this reminder and a powerful tool for anyone who calls out to God. 

A Rhythm of Prayer
A Collection of Meditations for Renewal
Edited by Sarah Bessey
Convergent Books February 2021
176 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Review: Wicked As You Wish

Tala Warnock is eager to leave her small town in Arizona, and use her ability to negate magic on more than her father's training exercises. She didn't expect the wider world and powerful magic to show up on her doorstep when Alex, a prince in hiding, moves in down the street. No one is supposed to know who he is, but the appearance of the legendary Firebird tells everyone just where they can find the heir to the throne of Avalon. Tala and Alex must team up a group of talented magic-users known as the Order of the Bandersnatch to claim his throne and restore magic to the world. 

Books are often about family dynamics or about a hero or heroine assembling a group of friends to fight alongside. Wicked As You Wish does both, with teens who can transform into animals or wield a magic whip and a family of magic-wielding martial artists. And that's not the only balance Chupeco strikes--she writes about experiences with immigration and genocide while naming her chapters things like In Which Carly Rae Jepsen Songs Make Excellent Training Tools and In Which Someone Gets Slapped Because of Dante's Divine Comedy. 

Rin Chupeco might be one of the most audacious fantasy writers working today. If you have a favorite fairy tale or myth, it probably appears between the covers of this book. There are aspects of Alice in Wonderland, King Arthur, Russian folklore, and Filipino mythology, to name just a few. There is a lot going on here, and readers may just have to hold on and enjoy the ride. It's a lot of fun (and a lot to keep track of), but I hope later books will develop some of the characters further and give us some more insight into the different kinds of magic. 

Wicked As You Wish
(A Hundred Names for Magic #1)
By Rin Chupeco
Sourcebooks October 2021
432 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Mini Reviews of Books in Translation: Where You Come From and The Pastor

A man applies for German citizenship, and one of the requirements is to write a short history detailing where they lived before and why they want to live in Germany. Our narrator writes a few sentences and discovers they are all wrong. What follows is a meandering, imaginative look at how we define ourselves and our histories and how to talk about a home that no longer exists.

Stanišić has written a somewhat autobiographical novel about a man, much like himself, who grapples with his family history in the former country of Yugoslavia. He writes about going back to his family's home and finding that things are very much the same and very different. He realizes that his grandmother's memory is fading, and any chance to learn the stories of his ancestors will be lost along with it. This book jumps from half-formed memories of the past to musings about the present, and even has a choose-your-own-adventure portion towards the end. It is written in a way that may be difficult for Americans to read, but it will be very familiar to people with a father or grandmother who likes to tell stories that start in one place and wander far and wide before concluding. 

Where You Come From
By Saša Stanišić
Translated by Damion Searls
Tin House December 2021
364 pages
Read via Netgalley

Liv is a pastor in a small Norwegian town. Her life is somewhat quotidian--she plans her sermon for the upcoming week, thinks about the impact of words and colonial history, and eats meals with the family that lives downstairs. Liv is desperately trying to help the people in her small town navigate the ups and downs of life, while grieving her own loss. The Pastor is a tale of a woman searching for sure footing in her faith, in her community, and in the endless, freezing landscape that surrounds them all.

This is a story with more feeling and memory than plot. Liv spends a lot of time wondering "what if?" She wonders if she could have saved her friend, she wonders if she will have an impact on these people she is ministering to, and she wonders how she can use words to bring meaning to this life. This quiet novel takes place over just one week, as Liv ponders the injustices of a local indigenous rebellion in the 19th century, working in a male-dominated field, and losing a loved one to suicide. If you are looking for a slow, thoughtful read for dark, cold winter nights, this might be the perfect choice for you. 

The Pastor
By Hanne Ørstavik
Translated by Martin Aitken
Archipelago Books October 2021
280 pages
Read via Netgalley