I picked up The Hunger by Alma Katsu while I was in Portland for the weekend, and I finished it within a few hours of getting home. The book is a fictional account of the Donner party’s entire ill-fated adventure. It makes a pretty solid horror story, as you might imagine.
She clearly did a huge amount of research, and her writing made the setting and characters feel very real. That made it even more interesting that we got some female perspectives, since their lives and interests tend to get glossed over in the history books. The cast of main/focus characters is fairly balanced between men and women, but not racially diverse, in spite of the fact that some non-white folks do get involved at points.
She does a great job of showing just enough about each character to make you curious about them, but not enough that it bogs down the story. Sometimes it was a tiny bit aggravating, since most of the characters clearly had deep dark secrets and their brooding refusal to think about them in complete sentences could feel a bit contrived after a while. Regardless, she did get me pretty invested in a handful of them, in spite of the fact that I knew going in approximately what happened to the Donner party (Historical spoiler: It was unfortunate) so I tried not to get attached. She dragged me in anyway, and it was a weird and interesting ride.
In conclusion, The Hunger was legit creepy and well-written, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes horror and history.
Content warnings for the book listed below the photo, so people who want to avoid story spoilers can do so.
Content warnings: Descriptions of violence and some gore. Descriptions of sexual assault. Portrayal of suicidal thoughts and actions. Racist comments against Native Americans. Use/appropriation of Native American myths and beliefs. Personally, I was most bothered by the internalized homophobia of one of the characters. Unlike the other potentially triggering things, that self-hatred wasn’t as clearly framed as a bad thing. Given how hard that would have been to portray, I kinda wish that aspect of the character had just been omitted.
So, my little sister gave me The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale many years ago, and then it sat on my shelf and moved from apartment to apartment with me for so long that I completely forgot where it even came from, and I almost tossed it out when she was helping me sort my office. She kindly reminded me that she had given it to me, because she’s a very nice person, so I finally sat down to read it. It’s a little bit slow to start, so it took me a few sittings to get through the set-up, and then I hit the part where the story really takes off and binged the rest in one night. It was pretty great. I totally regret not having read it sooner.
First off, I think anyone who is not neurotypical has a good chance of finding the main character, Ani, highly relatable. She doesn’t connect easily with other humans, but not for lack of trying. She doesn’t have an instinctive grasp of social interactions and protocol, so it feels like everyone around her is understanding and communicating things that aren’t accessible to her. She doesn’t read people super well, so she tends to take what they say fairly literally and at face value. She’s naturally honest and forthright, and has a strong sense of justice. She has a deep interest in animals, and feels stifled when she’s forced to focus on all the things that people think are more appropriate for her. She tries her best to fit into a mold that isn’t made for someone like her, and feels like a failure because she can’t do it. She’s pretty much every autistic or ADHD teenage girl, basically.
I kind of love Ani.
I also love that the story doesn’t frame her as a failure, even though she often feels like one. Her differentness isn’t portrayed as the problem, her unsuitable environment and the people who take advantage of her are. She doesn’t need to change who she is in order to succeed, she needs to find a place where she can heal, grow, and be appreciated for the kind of person that she already is.
The set-up: Ani, short for Anidori-Kiladra, is the crown princess of a small kingdom. Some people in this world have different magical gifts which allow them to understand and speak the languages of animals, elements, or other people. Her mother the queen is a skilled people-speaker, but Ani has a talent for understanding animals rather than other humans. Her aunt helps her to develop this skill when she’s very young, but soon Ani is pressured by her mother to focus only on her future duties as queen and to put aside her “childish” interests.
When it becomes clear that she’s not well-suited to the life that her mother had originally planned out for her, she is sent away to marry a prince from a neighboring kingdom, but she meets tragedy and betrayal along the way. In order to survive, she has to run away from everything she’s ever known and learn to trust her own judgement.
Content warnings after the picture, if you’re interested.
CW: Emotional abuse, some physical violence, and animal-related tragedy.
(If you’re the kind of person who breaks down when bad stuff happens to the dog in the movie, you’re gonna have a hard time with some parts of this book. There’s no dog, but you get the idea.)
I’ve started watching the Tidying Up show with Marie Kondo, not because I’m actually planning to follow her method at the moment, but just because she’s such a delight to watch and listen to. I also loved her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and would highly recommend it as a very relaxing read. It’s an excellent bedtime book.
In spite of all the totally legitimate criticism of the minimalist movement, Marie is really nonjudgemental and seems to be purely motivated by a desire to help people make their own environments comfortable for themselves, not to make them fit into any particular image. If that box of Star Wars memorabilia makes you happy, she wants to help you display it, not guilt you into throwing it away. She really strikes me, above all else, as a person who has completely leaned into who she is, her own unique view of the world, and what matters to her. I think that’s pretty special.
I have a slowly growing little list of shows that are both positive and relaxing, and Tidying Up is going on it. The Great British Baking show and Queer Eye are also pretty high up there. I never realized how starved I was for just seeing basic kindness on TV until I first found myself watching a baking competition where the contestants would often stop work just to help each other. Even the comedians on GBBS give out hugs and encouragement in equal measure with their kindhearted teasing and jokes.
Queer Eye offers something even more rare, which is a group of men doing emotional labor for other men. Many straight men rely almost entirely on their female partners for that kind of emotional processing and support, and it can be terribly isolating. The men of Queer Eye are gentle and encouraging, and they provide a great image of non-toxic masculinity. Plus, the show offers a lot of body positivity for men, another rarity.
Side note: There was a great discussion I saw a while ago about how this heavy reliance on their female partners can encourage men to believe in the mythical Friend Zone. Men tend to view any kind of emotional labor as something you only exchange with a romantic partner, whereas women usually also give and receive that kind of support from friends. Thus, basic supportive friendship for a woman looks, to a straight man, like a relationship. This is not a good thing. It wears women out, trying to keep up with the needs of a person who isn’t getting emotional support from anyone else in their life, and is part of why older men tend to die soon after losing their partners. They have no emotional support networks to take up the strain, unlike most older women. Plus, it encourages men to ruin perfectly good friendships by putting their female friends in The Girlfriend Zone. Knock this off, dudes. Being friends isn’t a consolation prize, y’all just need to learn how to do it right.
Here are some of the shows on my kindness porn list:
This one is not a TV show, but Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has a youtube channel, Jessica Out of the Closet, that is pretty much like distilled sunshine. She’s a disability activist, vintage beauty vlogger, and she shares stories about her life with her wife and their two dogs. Sometimes she also talks about her beliefs as a quaker, and about queer and disabled historical figures. She’s one of the most positive and intentionally kind people I’ve ever seen in my life.
Big Dreams, Small Spaces is a British show about renovating small gardens so that they’re more functional and beautiful for the families who need them. They often feature disabled people, with a focus on accessibility and tailoring those spaces really well to the people who will use them.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a short one, but very fun to watch. The host, Samin Nosrat, is incredibly passionate about good food, with none of the usual quibbling about calories or creepy talk about guilty pleasures. She enjoys herself, teaches about the important basic elements of flavor, and she goes out and talks to people who make amazing food around the world. She also has a book.
If anyone has any suggestions for more shows I should add to this list, I’d love to hear them.
I just finished Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. I have to say, I’m not as wild about it as I was about Deerskin, her retelling of the Donkeyskin fairy tale. I really liked Deerskin (reviewed here,) but I did not enjoy Rose Daughter. I wanted to, but it was just so slow.
She lays the fairytale style on pretty thick. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, especially in the beginning. That, along with the old-fashioned language, multitude of dream sequences, unnecessary descriptions of random objects, and messy or missing dialogue, mean the story really isn’t nearly as gripping as it could be. Beauty isn’t the most inspiring heroine, either. She’s supposed to be the sensible one in her family, but doesn’t come across as being sensible as much as being a bit bland. Her stronger and more appealing trait is that she’s kind, to the point of having very little sense of self preservation. That last bit is kind of necessitated by the story, but I still feel like it negates her sensibleness somewhat.
The story is set in a generic fantasy land, complete with griffins, fire salamanders, and unicorns, but the fantasy creatures aren’t really any more relevant than real critters or human characters would’ve been, and I found it weirdly distracting to suddenly have to stop and wonder how one trains a hydra to answer the front door. One, more unique, touch is that roses are incredibly rare in this world, because they require either magic or love to bloom. Despite this, there are more roses in this story than I think I’ve ever actually seen in my life.
We don’t even meet the beast in this rendition of Beauty and the Beast until about halfway through. I like the elements that felt like they had been inspired by older stories, rather than Disney. The magical servants aren’t personified household objects, for example. Beauty’s sisters, Lionheart and Jeweltongue (yep, those are their names,) have their own plot lines, both of which are honestly a bit more relatable and compelling than Beauty’s. I would absolutely read a whole book written about Lionheart. She was fun. I did like the relationships between the sisters and their father, but they didn’t change much. I would’ve enjoyed more focus on them all growing together through their hardships, since so much time was already spent on setting the story up.
She managed to create a beast who doesn’t give me heavy domestic abuser vibes, so that’s cool. Beauty is still weirdly chill about him having essentially kidnapped her, though. Her shifting opinion of him makes about as much sense as all the other conclusions she draws about the mysteries around her, in that it all has very little to do with the evidence we’re actually shown. That was what bothered me the most, by the end. She jumped to conclusions sometimes, and other times actively avoided answers that seemed obvious. When it was convenient, she would just forget things. It was also rarely clear what the stakes were, in this world that was so densely populated with magic and magical creatures. None of the rules for how the magic worked were remotely consistent, nor were they ever explained. I couldn’t even tell if the characters themselves had any better sense of how magic normally worked. Half the time, Beauty would come out of some trance or dream sequence and staunchly deny that it had been real. Of course, right after denying that her visions could be real, she calmly accepted being dressed by magical invisible servants, strolled through a constantly changing palace, and had dinner with a dude who had been turned into a giant monster. Her constant confusion and disbelief were pretty annoying, given that she had zero reason to doubt anything she saw or heard in this world where magic apparently has no limits.
I am, possibly, being overly nit-picky about believability in a story where the magic itself was clearly not the point, but if the point was the romance, then that also missed the mark. I was on board for a nice romantic story, but she had better chemistry with her sisters and the roses she tended than she did with the Beast. It was sweet, but not worth all the empty dialogue, deliberate misunderstandings, and odd side-plots that did nothing to advance or explain the main story.
I often recommend the audiobook versions of the stories I read, but in this case I think it just slowed everything down and made the dialogue more frustrating. I’d pick it up in print or as an ebook, unless you’re looking for something to help you sleep. That’s not snark, just a suggestion. This might be a great book for listening to at bedtime. It’s not violent, particularly action-filled, or creepy, and it has a fairly soothing rhythm. That’s rare enough to warrant mention.
I just re-read Snuff, by Terry Pratchett, and I was struck again and again by the fact that Vimes’s wife, Sybil, is one of the best examples I can think of of a fat woman just casually existing – in a romantic capacity – in a story. She’s not fetishized, but she’s not desexualized, either. No one is especially sexualized in Pratchett’s books, but she’s in a healthy romantic relationship, and it’s implied that there’s plenty of mutual physical attraction there. There are a few humorous references to the impressive effect of her expansive bosom on impressionable men. She’s attractive, and she takes up a lot of physical space, and it really feels like there was no conflict there for the author. That shouldn’t be so rare, but it is.
There’s a sweet scene where she and Sam are in bed together that paints a great little picture of realistic intimacy. She rolls over to talk to him, and this shift in her weight causes the already very fluffy bed to bury Vimes. Her bigness is never depicted as something wrong – It’s just part of her presence. It’s a part of her charm, but not all of it.
She also takes up a lot of social space. She was already the richest person in Ankh-Morpork when she married Sam, and she has a massive social network. She’s extremely generous, opinionated, and confident. She breeds incredibly dangerous dragons as a hobby. She’s fierce as hell when she needs to be, and doesn’t apologize for knowing more than others, whether that’s about dragons, etiquette, or history. She calls Lord Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, by his first name. She proposed to Sam, not the other way around. Sam may not always be the most attentive or responsible of husbands, but he loves Sybil and never seems to resent her for being so powerful. He maybe resents her a bit for taking away his bacon sandwiches, but he still worships the ground she walks on.
She’s just an awesome character, constantly popping into the narrative to say something insightful or hilarious, and she once again makes me wish that I had read these books when I was a teen, because I desperately needed more examples of women who take up space and don’t say they’re sorry for it. Too often, we teach young women to shrink themselves into as small a space as possible, and then are shocked that they don’t thrive. Women are almost exclusively rewarded for smallness and delicacy, and our largeness is rarely celebrated, even though it can be an absolutely glorious and powerful thing.
I really enjoyed Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It sets a very satisfying pace, has lots of action interspersed with some real sweetness, and it kept surprising me all the way through (in good ways.)
First off, if you have an issue with words like “fuck” and “cock,” don’t even bother with this book, because you won’t have fun. Or, do give it a read, and maybe it’ll help desensitize you.* That said, if you find (contextually appropriate) dick humor entertaining, this is the book for you.
Tobias, our main dude, gets drawn into a massive tournament to win the heart and hand of his country’s ruler, the Savior. She’s the magically ordained leader of Thessen, but hasn’t been seen by anyone outside the palace for most of her life. Tobias is a former artist’s apprentice who has been forced to become a laborer in order to support his mother and sister. He doesn’t have any personal interest in the Savior, or in the power of being her consort, but enters the competition for his own reasons. The tournament consists of a series of inescapable challenges, many of which are life-threatening and violent. He struggles to survive and protect the people that he loves, but also to hang on to his sense of who he is.
The narrative style was sarcastic and fun, and a nice break from the overly stilted language you sometimes find in fantasy. Her world-building was creative and also really broke out of the typical fantasy mold. Overall, the story just frequently didn’t go the way I expected, and that includes the romance, which turned out to be my favorite part.
Tobias goes through some very understandable emotional struggles because of the disturbing situation he’s been forced into, and that was very skillfully and responsibly portrayed. Jenna did the same with consent and communication in the romantic situations, which was awesome. I really liked the diverse cast, too. There are several non-straight characters, and the women in particular have a good range of appearances and personalities. One has a physical disability and another is developmentally delayed, and neither felt like a stereotype to me, although I’m not disabled, so please take that with a grain of salt.
I’m really excited to read the next book in this series.
CW: There is some discussion and portrayal of sexual assault throughout the story, but it is strictly shown in a negative light, not tolerated or perpetrated by people we’re supposed to like. The storytelling is also fairly gory and visceral, so if violence is a trigger for you, you might want to approach with caution – though again, the violence is not glorified. Some ableist language, always used by the uncool people.
* Regarding all the damn swearing: The thing is, limiting one’s vocabulary to avoid curse words doesn’t mean a person is better, cleverer, or even nicer. You can swear up a storm while uplifting others, and you can easily tear them down without ever stepping outside the bounds of “polite” language. In fact, one constant refrain I hear to protest swearing: “It’s just low class!” Is… You know, classist. That’s not a good thing; it’s actually an insidious form of prejudice. It’d be wise to examine your personal shit around language, whether you pick this book up or not.
One of my favorite recurring themes in fantasy is the protective threshold that forms around homes, shielding the inhabitants from supernatural harm. An unoccupied space has no protective threshold, but a home does. It just feels intuitive, that homes would have power to them beyond the physical walls that they provide. Feeling like I have a home, verses just a place to sleep and hang my proverbial hat, is really important to me. It can be a hard feeling to hang on to when renting, never really knowing when the next move might come, and especially when living in a city that’s far away from family and friends.
I particularly appreciate magic systems with thresholds that don’t just automatically pop into place when a place becomes occupied, because that doesn’t feel quite right. Just like it takes a while for a new dwelling to become familiar, it should take a while for that special homeness of it to grow and become strong enough to protect the people inside. That sort of power feels like something that’s built by the love and care of the people living there, and I’ve noticed that a lot authors include something of that in their particular twist on this theme.
Everyone does handle it differently, which is really cool. We all know that vampires can’t come into a house without being invited, but there’s a lot of variation on the idea. Depending on the author’s magical system, thresholds might just protect against the undead, or they may protect against all sorts of supernatural threats. In The Dresden Files, thresholds provide basic protection against supernatural threats, and are also a framework onto which more sophisticated magical protection can be built, like a scaffold. Inviting someone to cross the threshold often binds both guest and host to certain ritual responsibilities to each other, which is a very old idea, deeply rooted in folklore.
Homes have, historically, been a place of refuge in a dangerous world. Family mattered, of course, because who else would protect you from outer threats? Under good circumstances, (which, unfortunately, is not a given) family creates a sense of safety that’s almost palpable, whether it’s a family of two, or a large and extended family – whether they’re blood relatives, partners, or other people that you’ve chosen to be close with. People who live together may carry shared grief, as well as good memories, and can draw comfort from that. On the lighter side, homes are ideally shared with people who won’t judge you for your goofy jokes, because you share a sense of humor. Familiarity is a form of safety that makes it easier to relax and be yourself.
Beyond family, there’s also the love and care that’s put directly into a space. A person living alone could strengthen their threshold by caring for houseplants, organizing their bookshelves, cuddling with a pet on a rainy day, filling the place with their favorite things, cooking and cleaning, or just by loving the familiar chaos of their own messy little nest. Boundaries – the ability to decide who you share your space with, and when – are fundamental to the idea of a protective threshold. A home can be a powerful place, even (or especially) if it is just one person’s cherished sanctuary.
Magic generally comes from the energy within people, and so much emotional energy is expended in and on the places in which we live.
I finally got into both of Tad Williams’s new books in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn world, Osten Ard. For those who aren’t familiar, this is an excellent fantasy series, and very worth checking out. The original trio came out in the early 90s, and I love them.
Interestingly, they also are credited with inspiring George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Having read both, the common elements can be pretty striking, even though the stories are completely different, as is the tone. If you’ve only read Martin’s series, and aren’t a big fan of the gore and sexual violence, you should definitely check out Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Tad doesn’t go in for that gratuitously gritty feeling, and I really appreciate that about his work. His stories and characters don’t feel unrealistic – much the opposite, in fact. They’re believably flawed and interesting, and his non-human characters in particular are uncommonly rich and personable. His focus in general is just a hell of a lot more uplifting than seems to be popular in epic fantasy these days.
It took me a little while to get around to these new books, but I finally did. I just finished The Witchwood Crown, and I’m so ready for the next book.
The first and shorter of the two that are currently out is The Heart of What was Lost. It’s set right after the climax of To Green Angel Tower, and introduces some new characters that become relevant in The Witchwood Crown, while laying some more world-building groundwork. It delves much further into the Norn culture than before, which is really cool, and even gives us some POV Norn characters for the first time. (Norns are the eternally pissed-off northern cousins of the Sithi, a race of elf-like people that share Osten Ard with humans, trolls, giants, dragons, and the changeling creatures called Tinukeda’ya.)
The Witchwood Crown is set many years after all the previous events, when the main protagonists, Simon and Miriamele, are much older. It focuses on a mix of other familiar characters, and new ones, including their grandchildren and Binabik the troll’s daughter. Overall, it feels very much like the original books, although Simon has been replaced as resident mooncalf by his grandson, Morgan.
My one complaint would be that The Witchwood Crown has a pretty slow build, and that’s really less of a complaint and more of an observation. I really like how full Tad’s stories tend to feel, even if it does make the main plot move a little bit slowly. There are a lot of different characters and stories to follow, and I found it a really relaxing read, although there were some pretty tense bits, and I was surprised by how genuinely nervous I felt when my favorite characters were at risk. He really knows how to build up that tension and toy with the reader’s expectations, and I never feel quite certain that I know who’ll make it through to the end of his books.
Depending on your preference, of course, I’d highly recommend checking out the audiobook versions of these books. I quite enjoyed the voice acting, especially for the trolls. It gets a little silly, but it’s fun.
This one’s been going around, but I found it through Jenna Moreci’s vlog. It’s pretty cute, and you should check out her video. The idea is to share your three favorite book-related memories.
First memory: My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was a little kid, and it’s still one of my absolute favorite books. At this point my actual memory of the experience is pretty hazy, but it definitely left an impression. I believe this is the exact copy he read to me, and it has been extremely well read and loved since then. I couldn’t find it on my shelves earlier because the spine is so damaged at this point that it’s unreadable. Still, the story is all there.
Second memory: As a kid I used to love to tuck myself into little hiding places to read. I had several of these spots over the years, but my favorite memory is of the time I got grounded and my mom took away all my books. Or rather, she tried to take all my books and failed. My weird behavior had paid off, and I still had The Swiss Family Robinson hidden in a linen cupboard, along with a little book-light. I could curl myself in underneath the bottom shelf and pull the door closed and read in the dark. It was awesome. I don’t even remember it being uncomfortable, although it must have been. Totally worth it, though. There was another spot underneath my grandparents’ kitchen bench where I read Julie of the Wolves and kept a stash of lemon drops. Books where people ended up surviving alone in the wild were totally my jam at the time, like My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Hatchet.
Third Memory: It was really hard to pick just a few once I started, but I’m gonna go with A Brother’s Price for this last one. I’ll link my review, but it’s a great little romance/adventure set in a steampunk wild-west kind of setting. I don’t remember how I originally stumbled across it, but I’m constantly buying new copies because I give them away so much. It was basically the first really good polyamorous love story I found, and that just warmed the crap out of my heart. The main character, Jerin, is so likable and sweet, and all the gender roles get turned on their heads in satisfying and creative ways. I felt represented, albeit in super cheesy romance novel fashion, but that’s what made it so cool. Inclusive books that still fit into a wider genre and aren’t all about being queer or poly or whatever else can make a big difference in a little package.
Finding A Brother’s Price also made it easier to start my own book. It was different and fun and it was a satisfying stand-alone novel. Before that, I had mostly only read trilogies or longer, and as much as I do love a good fantasy series, the idea of starting out by writing one was daunting. So, after I read A Brother’s Price, this weird quirky little book that I totally loved, I felt more like maybe I could do my own thing, in my own way, and it could turn out okay.
P.S. I am too awkward to tag anyone specific, but if this seems fun then you should do it!