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Read Along with Faye: Books I Read for the 2018 Reading Challenge

Success! After not meeting my goal last year, I’m proud to share that I’ve completed this year’s Sirens Reading Challenge: 26 books. Because it’s a reunion year, I had more books to read than a usual Sirens year—often, I’ve already read a few of the books on the required theme list and can get a bit of a boost. But with four themes to revisit, I was forced to abide by the asterisked rule per category: books I’d read previously, and authors I’ve read previously, were ineligible. That Amy Tenbrink, she’s sneaky.

Reading Challenge Collage: Faye Bi
*Unpictured: Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel, as I made this list prior to the change. But I have read it, though!

Here are some stray observations I offer to you, fellow readers, which you are welcome to discuss with me in the comments or in person at Sirens:

  • Novellas reign supreme in adult fantasy and science fiction. I like reading them, and publishers seem to like publishing them. Perhaps readers like myself—and publishers putting them out—are catching on that you don’t necessarily need a doorstopper to get a great fantasy book. It’s no surprise I chose to read them for this challenge; they’re quicker to read, are the perfect length to truly explore a concept and focus on craft, and you can really sink into it over short stories (some of which are over too quick!). Some of my favorite reads this year were novellas: Passing Strange and The Black Tides of Heaven.
     
  • I’m hard to impress in YA. YA has been rough for me for the past few years now. I refuse to lower my standards for YA books, having worked in children’s publishing for the last eight years. I have my favorite standbys, Laini Taylor and Megan Whalen Turner, who are ineligible for the challenge. Contemporary YA has been really exciting lately; I think I’m looking for diversity, worldbuilding, and craft in fantasy YA, and I couldn’t quite find a book this year—by a new author eligible for my challenge—that hit all three.
     
  • More pictures, please. One of the best books I read this year was The One Hundred Nights of Hero, which I’m a little surprised seems under the radar (or maybe it isn’t and I need new book friends?) But I didn’t get as much graphic novel love as I did last year, and I miss it.
     
  • I need to pace my reading for next year. What happened, inevitably, is that I inhaled all the books I was looking forward to reading at the beginning of 2018, and then stalled, and stalled, until late August when I realized I still had ten books left to go, none of which I was super looking forward to (though there were some surprises!). Because if I had, I would have read them earlier. It made for a pretty frantic last month.

The quick five-question survey, modified for reunion year.

Favorite Book: Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which matches the rage I so often feel, especially this last week. Probably the best book I’ve read in the last five years, if I’m being honest.

Favorite Reunion Category: This is a tough one. Rebels and revolutionaries is my favorite theme that we’ve ever had, but this year, all the hauntings books I read were pretty great: The Walls Around Us, The Memory Trees, and Sing, Unburied, Sing. Followed by lovers, a category that was never really my favorite—but I loved The One Hundred Nights of Hero and Passing Strange.

Favorite New (Or New-to-You) Author: Angela Slatter and her collection A Feast of Sorrows. This is how you write a collection of fairy tales!

Favorite Female/Nonbinary Character in a Book: Mary and Ada in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, because they complement each other beautifully and are so freaking awesome. Also known as the Most Delightful Duo.

Book that wasn’t what you expected: Food of the Gods was certainly the biggest surprise, as it’s the most absurd. I also had expectations going into Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Poisoned Apples, and Caraval, which none of them really met. I was also a bit surprised by The Geek Feminist Revolution, which I very much enjoyed, but seemed to be written primarily for a writerly audience that I am not part of.

Here’s the full list of what I read:

Guest of Honor Books: Required

Kameron Hurley, The Geek Feminist Revolution
Violet Kupersmith, The Frangipani Hotel (read in a previous Sirens year)
Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours (read in a previous Sirens year)
Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone (read previously)
(also Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad)

Hauntings Books: Pick Three

Nova Ren Suma, The Walls Around Us
Kali Wallace, The Memory Trees
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

Revolutionaries Books: Pick Three

Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough
Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes
Christine Heppermann, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

Lovers Books: Pick Three

Isabel Greenberg, The One Hundred Nights of Hero
Heidi Heilig, The Girl from Everywhere
Ellen Klages, Passing Strange

Women Who Work Magic Books: Pick Three

S. A. Chakraborty, City of Brass
Rin Chupeco, The Bone Witch
Mary Rickert, The Memory Garden

Middle Grade/Young Adult Books: Pick Five

Melissa Bashardoust, Girls Made of Snow and Glass
Lindsay Eagar, Hour of the Bees
Stephanie Garber, Caraval
Jordan Stratford & Kelly Murphy, The Case of the Missing Moonstone
Ibi Zoboi, American Street

Adult Books: Pick Five

Cassandra Khaw, Food of the Gods
Fonda Lee, Jade City
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Angela Slatter, A Feast of Sorrows
J. Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven

Now please excuse me as I read all of the sequels and author favorites in the next month before the 2019 challenge comes out!


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

The premise of Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass is stunning: a feminist retelling of Snow White where the queen stepmother and the princess are pitted as rivals, but realize they are more similar than they are different. They eventually recognize each other’s strength and power, and rule the realm together. If someone gave me this elevator pitch, I would ride it all the way up to the penthouse! It’s certainly why I picked this up in the first place.

And that is partly the reason why I was so lukewarm towards the actual execution. It feels as if someone had said, “Hey, do you know what would make a really great book?” but then only gave an outline—or fable, perhaps?—instead of a full-length novel. The outline is pretty good: in a cursed land where the snow falls year-round, Mina has married King Nicholas after the beautiful queen dies, now a stepmother to his infant daughter. Though their marriage is loveless, Mina has ambitions of her own, and plans to build a university in the South, where she is from. Lynet grows to be sixteen, the absolute spitting image of her late mother, and seen by everyone—her father the king, the council, etc.—to fill her delicate, dainty shoes in both looks and personality.

But here is the twist, and it’s a good one. Mina and Lynet are actually close. Lynet wishes to step outside of her dead mother’s shadow and be her own person; Mina has always wanted that for her, even though her husband the king would rather his daughter copy his dead wife. They have a well-established mother-daughter relationship at the beginning of the novel, even when everyone else expects them to resent each other. More yet, they both share a secret: Mina’s heart is made of glass, fashioned by her magician father Gregory, and Lynet—well, Lynet was created by Mina’s father as well. The former queen did not die after giving birth to Lynet… Lynet is fashioned completely from snow. As a consequence of such magic, both Mina and Lynet have power over their glass and snow respectively, including the power to conjure and shape inanimate objects and animate beings.

While the magic is not particularly well fleshed out—Lynet conjures a cloak from snow, but can she create food that’s truly nourishing? Does vanishing something mean it’s destroyed? How do you create organic matter out of thin air? Etc. Etc.—it does have a crucial limitation: life requires blood. Gregory gave his own blood to give Lynet a pulse, so yes, she is a real person and not a hollow body like the Huntsman, and that’s the only indication of magical cost and the crux of the novel’s conflict. But given the misunderstandings galore in this novel, one truly wonders why either Lynet nor Mina didn’t just conjure a bird with a message to fly to the other person and get this Shakespearean drama (including a fake death!) sorted out once and for all.

Ultimately, however, my biggest complaint with Girls Made of Snow and Glass is the lack of specificity. The setting, for instance, feels incredibly generic, lacking the details that make Arendelle Arendelle, or Winterfell Winterfell. We know it’s cold, and there’s a curse. Most of the court politics and personality descriptors are told rather than shown, and while they’re relevant to the main plot, they feel like unsatisfying filler. So, the reader must hinge on something else, perhaps the characters? Well, there are only five characters total: Mina, Lynet, the king-who-eventually-dies, Mina’s magician father with his own motives, and the young surgeon, Nadia. Seven if you count the Huntsman and the head Pidgeon/court lady whose name I forget. As such, it feels small. That means that a lot of the novel is focused on the inner lives of these characters and their emotions—is my stepmother planning to kill me? Who could ever love a girl with a glass heart? I was going to sell you out but you changed everything for me!—without any textual examples to sink into and make me actually feel those emotions.

Still, that said, there is plenty to like in Girls Made of Snow and Glass. Bashardoust was successful in pacing two perspectives in different timelines—contemporary Lynet and past Mina—and weaving them together for the last act. The romance between Lynet and Nadia is a lovely idea, but the focus between Lynet and Mina is front and center, as it should be. It reminds me much of Malinda Lo’s Ash, with much of the same strengths and flaws (great, underrepresented premise, yet lack of specificity in setting, characters, and plot). I can only hope that, as Bashardoust’s first novel, her subsequent efforts will be more what I’m looking for in my reading.

Next month: A recap of Faye’s 2018 Reading Challenge!


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

The Memory Garden

As in much capital-L Literary fiction, Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden is light on plot but heavy on atmosphere. Let’s set the scene. In a nondescript (Midwestern?) town, people believe the old woman in the cottage with the wild garden may, or may not be, a witch. Nan’s garden is described absolutely beautifully: wild, a life of its own, full of thriving plants that shouldn’t really thrive, in orphaned shoes thrown by passers-by. Each chapter begins with a flower or herb, as well as their practical, magical or medicinal use.

Though well-past her childbearing years, Nan has a teenage daughter, Bay, who she chose to raise when Bay appeared on her doorstep in a shoebox as a baby. And as Nan turns 79 at the outset of The Memory Garden, she invites two very old friends, Ruthie and Mavis, for a visit. The reason is unclear… but it’s evident that all three are haunted by what happened to their girlhood friend, Eve, and they have not seen each other in a really, really long time.

And here, dear reader, is where I interject with, maybe I’m just too young to appreciate this book as it deserves. In my review of Her Body and Other Parties, I talk a little bit about landmark books: the books that influence and shape you because you found them at just the right time in your life. Maybe I’m too early with The Memory Garden, because while Bay is only fourteen or so, she was my lens into this story. She also has no idea why, after all these years, her mother has invited these old friends over. She knows her mother is acting oddly—grappling with guilt and memories—but she doesn’t really know what’s going on, except that Ruthie is really good at cooking and Mavis is really imposing and confident. She hears the line, “How do the girls with dreams as big as the world end up old women with regrets?” but doesn’t quite understand why it’s so heartbreaking… yet. Or when she deduces what actually did happen to Eve, only to have Nan tell her, “You young people know so much more about these things than we did.”

But The Memory Garden is told from Nan’s perspective, not Bay’s. And I did love having Nan’s point of view. She’s so incredibly guarded and complex as a character, and the number of secrets she keeps from the reader (besides what happened to Eve), like: Who is Mrs. Winters? Is Bay actually a witch? means that the novel is structured much like a mystery. And while I did find it somewhat difficult to connect with Nan, Ruthie, and Mavis, I still cheered for them, felt sad for them, and wanted them to forgive, grow, and heal. I wanted Mavis to get to go to Africa! I wanted Ruthie to open her restaurant and get revenge on her bastard husband! (She did.) I wanted Nan to make peace with her decisions—not all of them good ones—but knowing that they were in good faith. I definitely fist-pumped Mary Rickert’s author’s note where she sets out to reclaim the word “witch” as a positive one, as witches are maligned throughout history for being eccentric, old, outsider women with power.

While I very much enjoyed Rickert’s poetic language, plant symbolism, strong female relationships, rich descriptions of food, and subtle hints of magic, I can’t help but shake this feeling of determined neutrality. It was fine! It was good! It was… familiar, and not precisely in an exciting way. It was slow-going at first and somewhat confusing—with the multiple uses of present tense in various timelines—but once the mystery began to unravel I found myself racing until the end. It did not feel particularly intersectional. I hear that fans of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen will enjoy this, but having read little of either I can’t make an official recommendation. Maybe ask me in a few decades, and I might have a different answer.

Next month’s book: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

The Case of the Missing Moonstone

One word jumps to mind when describing Jordan Stratford’s Wollstonecraft Detective Agency novels, which is: delightful.

But here are some others: freaking adorable. Positively charming. If these books were animals, they’d be big-eyed puppies, ones that I would want to snuggle forever. The first book, The Case of the Missing Moonstone, introduces our two heroines: precocious, socially awkward, and brilliant eleven-year-old Ada Byron, and adventurous, emotionally intelligent, story-loving fourteen-year-old Mary Godwin. Stratford has reimagined the world’s first computer programmer Ada Lovelace and the world’s first science fiction novelist Mary Shelley as young girls who form a secret constabulary apprehending clever criminals in 1826 London—and, more importantly, as best friends.

While an author’s note at the end of each book explains the liberties Stratford has taken with the timeline—real-life Mary was eighteen years older than Ada—as well as the numerous homages to the time period, historical figures and various Easter eggs, young readers will be won over by Ada and Mary themselves. Both tutored by Peebs, an in-disguise Percy Shelley who remains a friend of Lord Byron but with no funny business with Mary, the two decide to form a detective agency, named after Mary’s deceased mother (of course the famed Mary Wollstonecraft). When Ada discovers a thing called the newspaper and that only unclever criminals get written up as they’ve gotten caught, she locks poor Peebs in the distillery closet while she and Mary take on their first case—clandestinely, of course! Book nerds will delight in the fact that their case is based on the very first detective novel published in English in 1868, The Moonstone.

Stratford has rendered Ada and Mary wonderfully. He’s captured Ada’s mathematical genius and isolation, with references to her BLE (Byron Lignotractatic Engine), her friend Charles Babbage, her hot air balloon, her illness (in later books), and her evident difficulty with names, people, and social situations. Mary then, is her foil: not just older, but empathetic, keenly aware of social interaction, and with a drive for drama and Romanticism. The Watson to Ada’s Sherlock, except better because these are tweenage girls who are very, very choosy about their cases! They must be interesting enough to keep Ada’s attention, and—as she is brilliant and easily bored—run-of-the-mill cases just will not do.

I must say, I barely got to enjoy Kelly Murphy’s illustrations, as I listened to all the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency novels on audio with voice actress Nicola Barber’s expert narration. (A glimpse of the illustrations in a library copy confirmed they were super cute!) Barber captures Ada’s willfulness and Mary’s reason, Peebs’s lilting confusion and Charles’s (yes, that Charles Dickens, I didn’t realize until the end!) wry humor with variety and skill, with different regional accents for the servants (northern, of course). Listening to the first book was such a pleasant way to pass the time, I immediately downloaded the next two books.

If I had any complaint, it would be that—except for the references to the Georgian period and technologies of the time—there is no reason that Ada and Mary need to be based on real-life Ada and Mary, given the liberties taken with the timeline and characterization. Ada doesn’t really use her mathematical prowess to solve any cases, but rather her logic and reasoning skills. The references, though, are a huge part of the series’ charm, and their lives are so reimagined it certainly feels more like fiction than real-person fanfiction. Even more so when the cast enlarges with book two, The Case of the Girl in Grey, bringing on Ada’s sister Allegra and Mary’s sister Jane—real-life Jane was actually real-life Allegra’s mother.

The publisher has compared the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency books to the Mysterious Benedict Society and Lemony Snicket, which, I guess, if you’re going to go down the puzzle-solving mystery novels for middle graders lane, makes sense. I found it better than both of those series, and the voice spiritually similar to Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia, but for a slightly younger age group. Similarly charming. Similarly delightful.

Next month’s book: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Matilda at age nine. The Protector of the Small series at ages 12–14. Daughter of Smoke and Bone at 22.

These are landmark books for me, books that I found at exactly the right time in my life, that now comprise my reading identity. At each of these moments, they were definitive—formative, even. They represented not just what I liked to read, but what I looked for thereon after. At nine, I wanted witty, plucky heroines who were whip-smart and got revenge on mean people who didn’t understand or care about them. In my early teen years, I wanted strength against bullies, deep friendships and family relationships, and a strong ethical core in my protagonists. When I had just graduated college, I was unsure about pretty much everything—as an ambitious person who didn’t know what the next chapter held, I wanted beauty, magic, and a feeling of wonder, even if it was beyond my control. I still love all these books like I love my limbs.

These days, I have a full-time job, a spouse, and a dog. I have bills to pay, white supremacy to dismantle, and patriarchy to smash. My time is limited; between sharing (and negotiating sharing) household management, working, keeping up with our social calendar, and planning for the future, gone are the days when I could read 100 books a year. So, there are books I no longer pick up if I don’t have to: books by men or unwoke white women, books that are super sad or pretentious, or books that do the same-old, same-old.

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties is brazenly none of those things. The stories are punch-you-in-the-face, unabashedly feminist. Darkly hilarious. Sex-positive. Queer. Smart as hell. More often than not, brutal. Her protagonists are easy for me empathize with and to cheer for. The stories, as I suspect Machado does too as in “The Resident,” know exactly what they are and do not have the time—or patience—to beat around the bush.

Having just turned 30, I consider Her Body and Other Parties a new landmark book.

I could wax poetic about several of the stories, and indeed, I will be presenting a paper at Sirens on “The Husband Stitch,” so I’ll be brief here. I read it, then made my husband read it, and then waited until my (male) friend visiting for cocktails also read it. The symbolism, voice, literary and cultural references, raw emotion, and agony of truth made it one of the best stories I’ve ever read. “Inventory,” a catalog of the narrator’s sexual encounters set against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, was so clever and tender I could only bow my head in awe.

Over and over again, Machado addresses the fears, insecurities, and horrors women and queer people often have. In “Motherhood,” a woman’s female ex-lover confronts her with a baby they’ve conceived, possibly out of their imagination. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” Machado creates a world where a pandemic renders no-longer-young-and-beautiful women invisible. (This one hit me like a metaphorical ton of bricks.) “Eight Bites” made me weep; as someone whose friends are starting to have babies, I can see just how fragile and toxic it can be to pass on your own self-loathing to your daughters. In “Difficult at Parties,” a young woman turns to pornography to cope and heal after her sexual assault. The only slight misstep, for me, was “Especially Heinous,” the Law and Order: SVU parody, which was funny after a few pages but went on a bit too long after that.

There’s too much to unpack in the confines of one review—each story deserves its own paper. There could be the running thread of gaslighting, body image, the female realm of domesticity, the influences of fairytale and folklore, or the grand tradition of ghost stories handed down by Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. For women and queer people, the fears in Her Body and Other Parties are a day-to-day reality, and Machado’s stories give them validity, truth, and wings. Of her collection, Machado said in a previous interview, “I think of it as surreal, liminal horror about being a woman or a queer person in the world.” For men, shut up. Listen. Believe us.

Next month’s book: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Going into Food of the Gods, I knew absolutely nothing except that Amy Tenbrink said this was her favorite book of 2017. Amy and I are book friends most of the time, so I knew I would pick this up eventually… and I now know so much about her in why she loves this book.

Rupert Wong is a cannibal chef for the gods by day, and a pencil pusher for the Diyu (the Ten Chinese Hells) by night. He does this to work off his karmic debt, having done some very bad things in his life so far, in the hopes that by the time he actually dies, his soul might not be condemned to eternal damnation slash Even Worse Things. And Rupert, bless him, is supremely talented as a chef, and also supremely witty as an employee, so much so that he’s (dare I say) kept around for both his skills and entertainment for the benefit of his divine employers.

But first, an aside: wow, I wasn’t sure how to feel while reading Food of the Gods. It’s obvious that Cassandra Khaw loves food as much as I do, but Rupert is literally preparing flesh—a deceased adult film actress features in a memorable scene—as he slices, dices, spices, reduces, seasons, smokes, and otherwise prepares feasts for his deific masters. I didn’t know whether to feel revolted or hungry, because Khaw does not hold back on the exceedingly gruesome detail, but all that flesh simmering in a curry, hmm… “Human is very similar to pork, after all.”

What Khaw also does fabulously is her modern, occasionally fourth-wall breaking mythology. It’s the cooler, hipper version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with a similar idea of the gods of different faiths being at war with one another, but with way more panache and way less pretentiousness. (The modern gods include a YouTube cat.) I didn’t know that Food of the Gods was a combination of two novellas, but after the fact, it makes sense that I’ve read two separate Rupert adventures that have two different, episodic plots.

Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef takes place mostly in Kuala Lumpur in the first half, where Rupert has to solve the mystery of who murdered the ocean god Ao Qin’s daughter—with a cast of ghouls, gods, spirits and divine beings you don’t normally see in fantasy (Rupert convincing a legion of kwee kwia spirits not to unionize is the funniest). This is followed by the most hilarious plane ride—those with annoying flight companions will relish Rupert’s revenge on a snotty teenager—and then Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth, which is set in London where the Greek pantheon has set up shop. There, Rupert is on loan for his cooking skills, but finds himself in the middle of a Sisyphean gambling ring and the family drama the Greek gods are well-known for.

As a reader who prefers less commonly-explored settings in urban fantasy, I preferred the first installment, but I appreciated Khaw’s lens of showing us London through Rupert’s eyes—he absolutely doesn’t understand how these Greek gods can be so callous and uncivilized. Some of the plot was lost on me, as I found myself distracted by witty zingers and descriptions of food and cooking. But the writing is so delightful, and Rupert, despite being a genuinely selfish asshole, still tries to do the right thing and often does, even for the “wrong” reasons (wanting to be a better person for your lady friend is not that bad, Rupert!). And even though Rupert’s the main character, most of his good deeds involve helping women do what they need to do on their own terms. It nearly kills him to take a compliment from Demeter, who tells him that he is a good person.

Will you like Food of the Gods? I don’t know, but I did. It’s truly absurd. It’s most definitely unique. (It’s not an easy read, especially if you’re reading a print copy and the page margins are smaller than average?) But if you love wordplay, clever mythology, copious descriptions of food, a plethora of witticisms and a bumbling, yet somehow endearing hero, you’ll overlook the out-of-left-field plot and enjoy the onslaught of detail. And most definitely, if you’re a lawyer, this is totally your jam. By the end of the novel, Rupert essentially gets his freedom through lawyering! And contracts! Two opposing gods with claims on his employment can’t decide which contract supersedes the other. Lulz.

Next month’s book: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Have you ever fallen into a reading slump? Sometimes, all I want to do is inhale romance novels or immigrant middle grade stories, and I’ll read a dozen one after the other before needing to catch a breath. Other times, the sight of yet another book feels daunting. Or the next read is bound to fall short of expectations. In the case of YA fiction, I’m afraid I find myself in the valley of the slump.

I first came back to YA as an adult in 2010. Since the start of high school, I’d mainly read books for coursework, and I was blown away by nearly every YA novel I read; I was reading the best of YA fiction from the ten years prior. And while I don’t admit to being magnificently well-read in a number of genres, in YA, and in fantasy, thanks to this conference—I am in this instance. And that’s when Christine Heppermann’s slim collection of poems, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty just didn’t make it up the hill.

In today’s realm of Instagram poetry, Poisoned Apples is an antecedent—accompanied by high-contrast, black and white photographs—and could be a companion of a sorts to Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Originally published in 2014 and using the familiar framework of western fairytales, Heppermann’s poems address body image, toxic female friendships, eating disorders, beauty standards, sexual agency, and other topics that would typically concern a (probably) white, (probably) cis-gendered “modern” teenage girl in a (probably suburban American) high school. (I can’t confirm these details for sure, but with so much focus on self-image, the reader has to picture what kinds of girls are the subjects of these poems. And given a careless Romani slur in the collection’s sole villanelle, one has to assume…)

Which isn’t to say those are necessarily shortcomings. The book is a handsome tome, pocket-sized with art and text laid out just-so, and Heppermann is clearly talented, even if her poems don’t speak to my experience as a former teenage girl. “Red Handed,” a sexy retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, is a highlight, but I find Hepperman’s non-fairytale poems the strongest, which are interspersed between poems with fairytale inspirations. “If Tampons Were for Guys” is a sardonic, witty musing: “For pads with Wings, Kotex shows jet fighters. / For Heavy Flow, ninjas surf a tsunami.” “Nature Lesson” challenges readers to rethink school dress code policies for girls in order to not distract their male classmates: “We say / that if a hiker strays / off the path, trips, and / winds up crippled, / is it really / the canyon’s fault?” Best of all is “Photoshopped Poem,” which is clever as it is hilarious: “I took out most of the lines. / I left in a few / so it wouldn’t look unnatural.”

For the right readers, Poisoned Apples is a winner. I can picture (some) teenage girls quoting lines to themselves, excitedly sharing it with their trusted friends, and keeping it near to them in their backpacks. Though slim, I wonder if it isn’t meant to be read in one sitting, for the themes of body image and eating disorders came up quite often—more than the others—and felt over-emphasized.

For my personal fairytale itch, I would rather turn to Emma Donaghue’s Kissing the Witch or Francesca Lia Block’s Roses and Bones. For YA books with main characters facing eating disorders, I recall Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls or Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen. Poisoned Apples felt too much like trod ground, and my reading material these days is far more diverse and intersectional. I think, ultimately, I was looking for a very different type of book than what I read.

Next month’s book: Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

As someone who works in the publishing industry, I know a few things about what it takes to make a big book. Particularly, a big, popular, bestselling YA book. Have a fast-paced, competently plotted manuscript. Include elements that are immensely popular at the time: dystopias, revolutions, mythical creatures, love triangles, school stories, settings in Ancient Rome or Ancient Persia, athletic tournaments, an “edgy” quality. Have a spec’d out, shiny, eye-catching cover. Take an engaging author, and put her in front of gatekeepers and teens. Send plenty of early copies out for review. Time those ads, promotions and media pitches. Get buy-in from major accounts. Make sure that around the time of on-sale, anyone interested in YA, fantasy, or buying books sees this book everywhere.

I saw An Ember in the Ashes everywhere when it first came out. The book is wildly successful, with healthy sales, widespread media coverage, a full trilogy planned, and a movie deal. It is good to muse on why certain books do so well, so that the success can be replicated for other books. But this is, alas, not a campaign analysis. It’s a review.

I can easily see the strengths of An Ember in the Ashes: I read it in one huge gulp, eager to keep flipping the pages and find out what happened next. At the start of the book, Laia’s family is murdered and her brother is taken to prison; in order to save him, she ends up spying on the most ruthless, dangerous person in the empire—the Commandant, the head of the military training academy—who maims loved ones to discipline those who displease her. Despite my general indifference towards reluctant heroines, I like that Laia’s resistance isn’t flashy nor does she have any experience whatsoever at spying—she’s no Alianne of Pirate’s Swoop. She is insecure about her abilities, yet does everything she can to survive. Laia’s relationships, too, with her fellow slaves Izzi and Cook, are refreshing.

But, as someone who has read a lot of fantasy, a lot of YA, and a lot of fantasy YA that has this book’s basic premise, it’s disappointing. Absent are worldbuilding details that go beyond surface-level, most notably linguistic ones: The Martial Empire conquered the Scholar people (those are the names in the book), with a glimpse of tribes and magical creatures such as djinn, efrits, and ghuls; the military academy’s name is Blackcliff, there’s a character named Keenan. I know the Roman Empire reached the land of the Celts, but this struck me as far more modern than the historic era presented in the book. Absent is a consideration of technology—we know the Martials have steel, but that’s about all. Magic exists only to serve specific plot points or to deus ex machina a way out of a tricky situation. Absent, too, is a thoughtful contemplation of colonialism, and how resistance movements might actually gain steam and succeed.

But perhaps, I’m completely mistaken. Perhaps, you could argue, the main audience for this book doesn’t care about these details. But, as a reader who sees An Ember in the Ashes widely lauded for its worldbuilding, I think teens can and do recognize these failings. It bothers me when people cast down YA fantasy for being more simplistic and less rigorous than adult fantasy, with worldbuilding just the backdrop for the kissing, the angst, and the feelings.

I won’t even begin to touch on the eyeroll-inducing romantic subplots, particularly the—what does one call this? A love parallelogram?—where there are two simultaneous love triangles involving the two main characters. What troubled me most is the constant threat of violence against women, so ubiquitous that it practically becomes background noise, and the suggestion in writing by a sympathetic character that a girl’s chances of getting raped are directly correlated to how attractive she is. Contrasted starkly with the rather chaste romantic developments—there’s some dancing, and one consensual kiss—it leaves the reader with absolutely no examples of sex-positivity in this book.

Finally, as much as I did like elements of Laia’s point of view, An Ember in the Ashes also features the perspective of Elias, a privileged guy and the eventual love interest. I do think Tahir succeeded in that she captured Elias’s melodrama and whininess (really, he thinks that absolutely no one else in this rigid military academy thinks the way he does?) to a tee. The problem is, I think the reader is supposed to like him, and I would have much preferred his best friend Helene’s narration. As racist as Helene is, you don’t get to be the only girl in a generation to train at this fancy military school and not question some stuff, even if your one big failing is falling in love with an anguished privileged dude who thinks only he can save the Empire.

For me, there are too many books that do this age group, genre, and premise better. I recommend turning to Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives instead, which didn’t break out in the same way but improves on my complaints in An Ember in the Ashes on nearly every count. But I’m only one reader, and given the immense success of these books, there are plenty of readers who disagree.

Next month’s book: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

What can I say about a book that’s won every accolade there is, including this year’s National Book Award?

Well, if you know me, you know I have an opinion on just about everything. I had the great fortune of convincing my local book club to read Sing, Unburied, Sing with me this month, and I confess I wouldn’t have picked it up—at least not for a long time—if it weren’t for peer pressure. The consensus of my book club was that, while none of us particularly considered it a book of our hearts, we were all glad we’d read it.

I’m very selective of my capital-L literary fiction, which I consider a bogus genre. To me, categorizing a book as literary means that hegemonic tastemakers have decided certain books are important and worthy of acclaim, and they’re not usually books I love. As an avid reader of fantasy, romance, and books written for children and young adults, I’m not impressed with Sing, Unburied, Sing’s widespread media coverage and fancy awards. I’m impressed with its lyrical, economical prose, its somewhat archetypal but expertly drawn characters, and its deft handling of the many challenges plaguing black communities in the rural south.

Set in rural Mississippi, Sing, Unburied, Sing centers around one family and two point-of-view characters: thirteen-year-old Jojo and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla are biracial, as Leonie is black, and his absent, incarcerated father Michael is white. He lives with his grandparents Mam and Pop; Leonie struggles to be a good mother but is too-often stymied by her drug addiction. Like many young black boys in his situation, Jojo has had to grow up quickly. His Mam is ill. His mother is an inconsistent influence in his life—when she’s there, she’s impulsive and often physically abusive. His paternal grandfather, Big Joseph after whom Jojo was named, refuses to even acknowledge his existence. The only father-figure Jojo has is Pop, who tells him stories of a young boy, Richie, whom he protected like a younger brother while they were both imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary decades before.

What follows is a relatively straightforward tale in terms of plot—when Leonie receives word that Michael is about to be released from prison, she rounds up Jojo and Kayla and drives there to pick him up—but so richly complex in atmosphere, theme, and detail. The novel begins with Jojo assisting Pop in gutting a goat, with unravelling innards and a smell to make anyone retch, and proceeds to Leonie’s meth-induced hallucinations. In Jojo’s, Leonie’s and occasionally Richie’s perspectives, the novel weaves together devastating truths about family, domestic violence, drug addiction, police brutality, the disproportionate incarceration of black men, prison conditions, and the most hateful kind of racism and cruelty inflicted on the young. And ghosts, who only appear after violent death: the kind that Richie experienced fleeing from prison, and the kind that Leonie’s brother Given experienced, being shot by Michael’s white cousin after beating him at a game. It tells these truths with gorgeous writing that feels emotionally detached in the way that you sometimes need to be, when you are wearied by generations of pain and loss. At the same time, Ward’s writing is so deeply empathetic, never making a clear villain of Leonie or even Michael, choosing to show the reader the various ways they are trapped in their circumstances but never absolving them of blame.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not well-read in the literary lineage Sing, Unburied, Sing descends from—I’ve read Beloved and some of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographical work, but I know I have a gap. I’m not familiar with voodoo practices or Maman Brigitte, so there were parts of the book where I was actively confused. Was it magic, or was it a spiritual practice I don’t know? I had pointed out to me Ward’s deft use of imagery common in the shared imagination of African Americans, such as trees for lynchings or water symbolism alluding to the Middle Passage. My friend, a scholar of 20th century African American literature, says it’s an easy book to plop on a syllabus, since the lineages can be clearly traced. (There is a Beloved-like reveal near the end of the book, which, even if I knew about, I still would not have been ready for.)

Sing, Unburied, Sing also forced me to consider Hauntings as a theme, which I hadn’t fully engaged with back in 2014. I’d written off ghost stories as horror—perhaps revealing my failures as a reader, as I’m not well-read in that lineage either—but I now better understand the power of a ghost story. Why do ghosts come back to haunt? What compels them to attach to a person, or a place? In Ward’s novel, it’s the unburied voices of those unjustly killed, singing enraged songs of retribution and unrest, and seeking the peace they never found in life.

Next month’s book: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

We’re back, Read Along! January was cold (insert your favorite bomb cyclone pun here), it was dark (it’s finally still daylight when I leave the office, but barely), and it was bloated with the aftermath of rich holiday food and the promise of reading resolutions. I thought we would ease our way into this year’s challenge with Isabel Greenberg’s brilliant, irreverent, pure delight of a graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero. It’s perfect for long winter nights in a cozy reading chair and a big mug of tea, and it won’t take long to read—perhaps a few glorious hours if you can prevent yourself from being transfixed by every page—and it will be so worth your time to go back and savor it all over again.

The title alone might have you believe this is an homage to Scheherazade, and it is, in a way. The prologue starts almost more ambitiously: with the god BirdMan (gendered male, mansplainer extraordinaire, whom fans of Greenberg’s previous work The Encyclopedia of Earth may recognize) messing with a perfectly good thing a woman has created. In this case, it’s Earth, which was created by his daughter, Kiddo. She’s fascinated by these perfect humans she’s made, who grow up, eat, sleep, love, and eventually die. But of course, BirdMan, a foil for a certain kind of blowhard every woman knows, decides that Kiddo’s Earth is boring and that the humans should worship him instead. So he creates religion, which leads to disciples (who are . . . you guessed it, dudes) called the Beak Brothers and by the time the main story starts, Earth is a weird medieval theocracy-dystopia ruled by the patriarchy. Sigh.

It is in this world that the heart of the story begins. Two dudes, real POS dudes, decide (of course!) that they should have a bet. Manfred bets Jerome that he can seduce Jerome’s wife Cherry while Jerome is away for hundred days. Jerome is like “omg no way, my wife is way too faithful, she’s the pinnacle of purity blah blah let’s compare dick sizes” (not an actual quote) but needless to say, they make this bet and Manfred starts his quest. Little does he know that Cherry is totally in love with her maid, Hero, who is part of the League of Secret Storytellers. Hero does the Scheherazade thing where she saves Cherry from Manfred’s advances each night by weaving a tale he’s desperate to hear the end of. And Manfred, because he’s a cocky dude, just goes, “oh, well I’ll just rape Cherry the next night, no biggie” (also not an actual quote) except this happens for all the nights until Jerome comes home, because Hero lives up to her name.

There’s so much more I could say about Hero’s stories. They’re lovingly illustrated, and Greenberg draws from folklore, mythology, ballads, and fairytales. There’s the story based loosely on the Twelve Dancing Princesses, one based on the child ballad Two Sisters, and one where a man falls in love with the moon and she just goes, “Oh, well I’m the moon. What did you expect besides heartbreak?” (still not an actual quote). Stories of women who lived their lives defiantly, despite jealousy, rage, forbidden love, and accusations of witchcraft; stories of super brilliant, crafty women who find ways to resist and fight back against the oppression they’re expected to endure; stories of “brave women who don’t take shit from anyone” (actual quote). Stories of women who paid for it.

There’s a kind of dark humor and light sadness Greenberg’s gorgeous book portrays in the fantastical, whimsical illustrations. Her the dark line art and limited palette aren’t unlike those of Emily Carroll or Kate Beaton, but I find Hero and Cherry’s clapbacks harder and funnier. And yet for me, there’s so much truth to these stories not-so-buried under the rapid-fire witticisms each page offers, like these gems (all actual quotes): “Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it. Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.” And “Whatever we say will make no difference. Our fates are set. They always were.” And my favorite, “No, I’m not finished yet. I’ve had quite enough of staying quiet thank you very much (sic).”

I won’t say too much about the ending, but Hero and Cherry live in a dystopia, and things don’t always turn out the best for women who dare to dream beyond the confines of their societal roles. Still, their actions and legacy spark something greater-a storytelling revolution among the women of this weird beaky world.

It’s hard to imagine another book that speaks as strongly to Sirens’s themes as The One Hundred Nights of Hero. Present in it are lovers, revolutionaries, many tales retold, various women who work magic, and probably more if I think about it hard enough. Save it for a particularly tiresome day when you’ve had enough of, oh, everything, and you need to rail against another ridiculous, unconscionable patriarchal standard. Or read it again, using Hero and Cherry’s strength as a balm when you need to feel inspired and a little less helpless about the world. You won’t regret it.

Next month’s book: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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