Review: Vassa in the Night

“What did I borrow from myself, and how will I ever get it back?”–Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night

I found this book at McKay’s Used Books, read it in two days, and foisted it onto my roommate the moment I got to school. She read it in one day–something I really should have done, because it does take fairly constant immersion/attention to hold on to all the strands of this story at once.

Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, is an bizarre, whimsical, and [some other word that won’t do it justice] retelling of the Russian folktale Vassilissa the Beautiful. Only it takes place in Brooklyn, and Baba Yaga owns a murderous 24-hour chain store, and it’s one of the weirdest and most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Any retelling of myths/folktales/fairy tales that haven’t been done a million times in the last few years immediately catch my eye, as does the striking cover. But more attention-grabbing that is the the surreal magical realism that Porter wields as if painting a watercolor.

Contained within this book is an eccentric cast of characters, even more eccentric events that will make you pause to ask if that really just happened, and a protagonist who must discover her ferocity, her history, and her missing piece, or be lost.

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Excursion at the Rock ‘N Roll Emporium (and Used Book Store)

We have a very cool shop in Boone, NC called the Rock ‘N Roll Emporium. It hosts, among other things, an impressive collection of used books. Most are absurdly hilarious old sci-fi, high fantasy, and romance novels–and of course about seven shelves full of Start Trek novels. There are two main ways to have fun in such a place: reading each other excerpts from the ridiculous romances, and appreciating the astounding and outlandish cover art of the sci-fi and fantasy. I did both of these with two good friends the other day, and took pictures to boot.

Here are some of the best selections. (If you’ve read any of these books, please comment on their quality and/or hilarity.)

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“An all night beer session at the end of the cosmos” is a compelling description if I ever heard one. Even more compelling is my new rabbit/roly poly friend.

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This one folded open into this absolutely lovely picture–now this is what I’m talking about.

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GREAT TITLE, GREAT COVER. Look at him go, those birds don’t stand a chance at stopping him.

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Eric Brighteyes looks like a guy I’d want on my dodgeball team.

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Honestly, this cover is beautiful and I want to read this book. The colors, the people…yes. If only it wasn’t the third in the series.

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OUTLAW OF MARS. We have a viking-like warrior on the back of a t-rex, on mars (?), facing a majestic mountain + eagle duo. A masterpiece.

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This one wins coolest cover. Look at that fire snake. Check out that boob armor.

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Not the most sensational cover of all time, but the enticing blurb made it worth it. “The most beautiful and erotic courtesan in the galaxies of tomorrow” sounds like someone I’d want to meet.

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My personal favorite, I think. The colors. The style. The horse-dragon’s incredibly proportional legs.

In all honesty, these covers are amazing, and I would love to see the outlandish, saturated style make a comeback. There’s something very honest about it, as if to say, yeah, my protagonist harnesses a bunny-centipede and rides it off into the sunset, and I’m proud of it. 

Literary Influences

I am always thinking about how authors have shaped me, as a person and as a writer. Every so often I write a line of dialogue or use a turn of phrase, look at it, and realize that’s not me, it’s another author speaking through me.

I’ve tried to go for non-obvious options (so not Riordan, Colfer, Rowling, Lewis…) and steer towards subtler influences. I find it endlessly fascinating (and a little upsetting) that something which rocked my world to the core didn’t touch another’s life.

Naturally, most of them are concentrated in my childhood, which is why I personally believe MG and YA to be some of the most important literature out there. In no particular order, and with no discrimination towards genre, here are five authors + books to whom I owe quite a bit.

  1. Diane Duane and the Young Wizards Series: the dregs of Duane’s writing will probably be forever apparent in my own, in both tone and theory. I have met one other physical person who has read these books not of my urging, a beloved religious studies professor and kindred spirit.
  2. Wendy Mass and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life: the first realistic fiction book that really made me stop and think dang, that was a good book.
  3. Pat Murphy and The Wild Girls. This book had a level of influence on my life and writing that I cannot quite comprehend. I keep finding plot elements of it that I’ve subconsciously incorporated into my writing. It’s a book about a girl learning to write, which can be hard, but it’s also much, much more than that.
  4. Elizabeth Kay and The Divide series: a cooler feat of magical worldbuilding I have yet to find. The ending devastates me to this day, but in a good way.
  5. Francis Hardinge and Fly by Night: this book was my artistic muse as a child. I really do need to re-read it. I am left with the barest memories of geese, musty books, and a claustrophobic city.

I have of course read more books that have profoundly impacted me, and I hope I never stop meeting them along the way. But childhood books are different. They get you while you’re still malleable, and they change you. It’s kind of magical.

✴This has been a queued post, as I am currently in the Amazon with no Wifi.

 

 

More Barn Than House

“When a house is completed it is such a disappointment. No rafters. No mysterious hollowed-out shadow spaces above them. And nothing to hang the hammock onto and swing–which is why we like barns and sheds and find unforgettable that house raised twelve feet in the jungle with a palm-thatch roof and only two walls, open to the forest, complete in its incompleteness. (Maybe that’s what makes a great book, being more barn than house?)”

I just finished I Swear I Saw this–Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own by Michael Taussig, in an effort to wrangle some inspiration from someone I deeply admire (and whom I have already written about) for my own fieldwork, which is fast approaching. However, I was unable to completely separate my mental categories for ‘fieldnotes’ and ‘fiction novel’, because about as much effort goes into each one. With a little mental twisting, though, Taussig’s ideas for fieldnotes absolutely apply to the creative process of plotting and writing a novel.

It’s a wonderful little book about those moments when drawing supersedes writing in your fieldnotes–moments of such high intensity beneath which an iceberg of depth lies, a world of meaning in which only a drawing–visceral, corporeal, immediate–can evoke, etching the artist into the moment as writing cannot. Taussig takes a turn towards evaluating the entire fieldwork notebook, weaving together bizarrely disparate examples and people in an enactment of the very subject of his writing–fieldnotes as the halfway products, the undersides, of chance and fate.

“Maybe that’s what makes a great book, being more barn than house?” As I read this wondering in chapter four, I underlined it, then added a star, and then a heart for good measure. Little markers to myself that I had found something truthful on page thirty-three. A novel that is too complete is boring. I have always loved best those with room for interpretation, and been struck by how, if no room is given, I (or others) will make room for interpretation–the growth of fandoms is certainly testament to that.

Completed houses are white painted walls, working plumbing, fresh tile or carpet, and price tags. Barns are lofts, hay bales, little streams running beside them, the smell of animals, a horseshoe nailed above the door. Novels begin by the exchange of a house for a barn–mundanity for adventure.

So I will keep in mind that a good novel has cracks in it. It has squeaky hinges and rickety ladders and places for ambiguity. Places to hang a hammock.

Review: When the Moon Was Ours

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When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, number one on my 2017 must-reads list, has been read! As I have been waiting to read this book since before it was released, I consider this a victory.

The crux of the story is the changing relationship between two strange inhabitants of a small town: Miel, a girl who was found in a water tower, and Sam, the boy who paints moons and hangs them everywhere. It’s a story of identity, love, fear, and family.

The book is incredibly beautiful. The prose is poetic, and the plot moves along gently. I was surprised and pleased at the fairy-tale like quality the story has the moment I opened the book. McLemore did a stellar job with the two transgender characters in the book, which I learned after I finished was due to her experience with her husband, who himself is trans. I’m glad she included this note at the end, because the tone of the book upon reflection took on the aura of a long, carefully crafted love letter.

Beauty and delicate nature aside, I did struggle at times with the passivity of Miel, the main character. Quiescent protagonists have never quite been my cup of tea: the ease with which Miel lets the people around her manipulate her life drove me quite frantic. In addition, at times the drowsiness of the plot left me unmotivated to continue until about half-way through, when the conflict truly started to pick up.

On the whole, however, the book is beautiful and poignant, with excellently represented characters. There was one scene involving a rose and a wrist that to this day, a month later, makes me cringe and hold my own wrist, and if that isn’t a mark of good writing, I don’t know what is. If you’re looking for diverse characters in every respect and beautiful, etherial writing, this book is for you.

Mini Review: Half Bad

So I finished the book Half Bad by Sally Green today. It was refreshing, because I haven’t had a book that’s nearly made me miss class in a while. I’d almost forgotten the panic/rage that accompanies skidding down the hallway a minute late to class while also filled with sheer blinding rage that my conscience won’t allow me to just skip and finish the damn book.

So it’s great. I read it in a day and a half, and only that slowly because of the aforementioned school. I picked up the last two books today. (Maybe not the best idea, considering it’s only Tuesday.) A seriously compelling writing style, despite the anguish that starts from pretty much page one, and intriguing characters (I dearly hope we meet Bob again along the way).

I’m off to read Half Wild now.

Genre Mash-Ups

I’ve read a couple books recently that meld distinct genres in ways I’ve never considered before, and the results have been pretty awesome.

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Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton, is a gunslinger set in the fantasy Middle East, with a sharpshooter protagonist who’s the child of a djinni. There’s dialogue reminiscent of old westerns and several almost-train heists, amid a backdrop of a corrupt sultan and international intrigue. The best word for it would be ‘rollicking’.

Steeplejack, by A. J. Hartley, reads like a victorian mystery happening in a fictional, industrial South Africa-inspired country. It’s rife with intersectional conflict and political espionage, as well as the politics of a post-colonization state, but also strongly Sherlock Holmes-flavored.

I enjoyed both books, but was constantly struck by the contrasts in setting and genre. It made for two very fun reads.