Christmas stories

Hot Toy
by Jennifer Crusie
2015

This made me giggle wildly to myself while reading it on a plane. It’s ludicrous and hilarious and I just love the way Crusie writes her characters. The story is about Trudy’s search for the hot new toy that her nephew asked for from Santa (a soldier toy named Major MacGuffin. Hahahaha!) but that is, of course, impossible to find on Christmas Eve. Then there are the spies and the smuggling and the insane banter.

I’ve enjoyed books by this author before and the main character here, Trudy, reminds me a lot of the main character in her book Bet Me, Min, in the way she’s determined, quick witted, and has a massive chip on her shoulder that she is absolutely going to take out on the guy who can either take it or go away. It makes me happy.

I described it to Anna as similar to a Connie Willis story in the general ludicrous insanity of the plot and the banter, and she pointed out that there’s a fabulous Connie Willis Christmas story that I still hadn’t read yet:

Just Like The Ones We Used To Know
by Connie Willis
2003

This felt very much like the movie Love Actually, except good. It’s funny and sweet and skips around through a vast cast of characters who are each dealing with their own issues, but also dealing with the main premise of this story which is that it’s snowing on Christmas Eve. It’s snowing on Christmas Eve *everywhere*: Minnesota and New York is normal, Florida and Hawaii is not normal at all. But in this story, *everyone* is having a white Christmas Eve and it is wrecking havoc. And mostly that havoc is excellent and results in improved situations for everyone we like.

I’ve never read anything by this author that I disliked but I’m also careful with what I read from her because she ranges from side-splittingly hilarious to heart-breakingly depressing. This story is definitely on the funny side, but I don’t guarantee any of the other stories in an anthology.

J.J. McAvoy

BlackRainbowMcAvoyBlack Rainbow
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

ThatThingMcAvoyThat Thing Between Eli and Gwen
by J.J. McAvoy
2016

SugarBabyMcAvoySugar Baby Beautiful
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

 

So I wavered on writing these books up because they’re in a genre I don’t generally admit to reading: the short, extremely self-indulgent, quite graphic, romance novel. It’s a genre that pretty much defines the guilty pleasure book for a lot of women (it’s a money-maker genre in the publishing industry.) They’re not, generally speaking, good books, but they can be intensely satisfying and relaxing brain candy.

J.J. McAvoy might have managed to break the mold for this genre, though, because I think her books might be genuinely good. They are certainly significantly better than any other books in this genre that I’ve ever read. The issues the characters deal with are relatively believable and sympathetic, but more importantly her characters are all smart and witty and just a bit mean without ever being cruel.

Reading these books really highlighted for me how my favorite characters are all at least a tiny bit mean. I don’t like cruelty, but neither do I like a milksop. These characters, they talk and they bicker and they’re in their partner’s weight-class as far as those fights go, and they genuinely apologize on the rare occasions they go too far or hit an exposed nerve. The books transcend the self-indulgent fantasy by being about characters who are enjoyable in their own right.

And then McAvoy modified the standard plot arc in a way that I’m really impressed with. I’m going to put that beneath a spoiler cut, although there won’t be any specific spoilers.

I won’t recommend the books to everyone, because you do have to enjoy the genre first, but if you do, then you should absolutely try these.

Plot arch spoilers:

Continue reading

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

Sorcerer to the Crown

By Zen Cho

This has been a trying couple of weeks – I’ve been obsessively reading twitter and facebook until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I read fiction until I can’t stand being away from social media. Zen Cho, however, has been a real comfort during these times, though.

jade-yeoThe novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo features a Malaysian woman trying to make a living as a journalist in Victorian-era England. It is short and funny and touching, all told through her journal entries. It just felt very much like a story by a woman for other women.* The male characters, both good and bad, are only given context in relation to Jade, and the story focuses primarily on her growth as a young adult trying to establish her sense of self. So, this was extremely comforting in these worrisome times.

sorcerer-to-the-crownSorcerer to the Crown, the full-length novel, starts slowly and in very high-fantasy fashion, set in a magical version of Regency-era England. It reminded me almost immediately of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but luckily it picks up the pace much more quickly. Zacharias Wythe, as a very young boy, proves his extraordinary magical ability in front of a large panel of sorcerers, who promptly all lose their shit. This is not because Zacharias shows such promise so early, but rather because he is a freed African slave. The lead sorcerer adopts him and trains him to be his successor as Sorcerer Royal, the position he holds at the time the book.

A large contingent of white sorcerers actively work against him, even against their own self-interest, solely in order to oust him from his position by spreading outrageous rumors and innuendos. As the story revolves around an extremely thoughtful and conscientious black man trying to navigate the world of magic through difficult times, while surrounded by white men who are actively rooting for his failure, it became much less of an escapist fantasy.

Zacharias then runs across a young woman who shows strong magical abilities, and decides to train her, in the face of all traditional lore saying that magic is beyond women’s understanding. Reading about this black man conquering his enemies and silencing his naysayers, while working with a woman to do the same with hers, just about broke my heart. We didn’t get the ending we deserved, but at least this fictional world did.

the_dressmaker*If I can be excused a diversion for an additional recommendation – a few months ago I saw “The Dressmaker,” and I absolutely loved it! It is an Australian film that didn’t get a lot of showings, even though it stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. The preview looked amazing to me – a haute couture dressmaker has to move back to her very rural Australian town in order to take care of her elderly mother – but the reviews were mixed. The negative reviews all tended to revolve around uneven storytelling and shifting mood, and I started to formulate a theory that this movie might be telling a story in a more traditionally female way, one that focuses on relationships and character growth, rather than a single-trajectory action sequence. Seeing the movie absolutely confirmed that for me, and it felt amazing to see a movie that was so clearly by women about women and for women.

 

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

61ku6qro0cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2016

Bujold is one of the few authors who I absolutely trust. I enjoy every single thing she has ever written. Some more than others, of course, but everything is good. One of the amazing things about her is that she clearly refuses to let herself or her writing stagnate. She’s constantly exploring new styles and genres.

This is particularly obvious in her Vorkosigan series, which is currently at sixteen books (of which this is the most recent) plus a number of short stories and novellas. They’re all in the same science fiction universe and to a large extent about the same characters and yet they are often written as wildly different genres: light science fiction, hard core science fiction, murder mystery, psychological exploration, comedy of manners…. Bujold has tried it all and succeeded at it all.

Most of the books follow Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in his various adventures around the universe, getting himself into and then out of a variety of troubles. The first two books that I read, however, are about his mother, Cordelia Naismith, before and immediately after having Miles. This book returns to Cordelia, giving an interesting perspective on what has gone on before that Miles just never noticed, but focusing on where she is going now.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Memory, the eleventh book in the series, in which Miles, age 30, must confront a drastic change in his life and decide how to deal with it (while investigating shenanigans in the capital city!). Except that this time, it’s Cordelia at 76 who is looking at changing her life while in the center of small town life. Admiral Jole, who has previously been an extremely minor character, is also brought into focus as he is confronted with a crossroads of his own as he is swept up in the changes she is making.

One of the really amazing things about this book is that it reads more as character-driven non-genre literature than science fiction. While it’s set in this science fiction universe, it’s also set in what is essentially a backwater boomtown. There are a large number of moderately eccentric but utterly relatable characters. Our two main characters are both mature adults with successful careers. This isn’t high adventure, it’s living your life and making choices and dealing with other people.

It’s beautiful and I loved it.

The Royal We

royal

One of my favorite places on the internet is Go Fug Yourself, which you could describe as a celebrity fashion blog. However, the site is so much smarter and kinder than that makes it sound. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, the two women who run the site, do post pictures of celebrities and discuss their clothes, but a few things make them very different from TMZ or some of the other less savory celebrity sites:

  • They are VERY careful to criticize the clothes and not the person, so their comments often end up being along the lines of, “You are so much better than this is outfit!”
  • There is really no body shaming at all
  • They are interested in fashion as an industry and an art, and cover fashion shows as well as celebrities
  • Their Friday links round ups are great
  • They are legitimately good writers, so their commentary is smart and often spins off on these hilarious tangents. Like, they’ve created a whole persona for Jennifer Lopez, so whenever they cover one of her outfits, the commentary is all from her (fictional) point of view, and fictional Jennifer Lopez is a total badass.

While Go Fug Yourself is still going strong, in the past few years Cocks and Morgan have turned their writing skills towards books, starting with a YA series that includes Messy and Spoiled. I thought those were nice if not exactly my cup of tea, but I am all in for the recent adult title The Royal We.

First you have to know that Cocks and Morgan are obsessed with the various royal families around the world—they will happily review the fashions at the wedding of minor royals from Luxembourg—but with Will and Kate specifically. They’re not alone in that, certainly, but they turned their obsession into a charming romantic novel. Their premise is that a fun American college student went to study abroad at Oxford for a year and met, and fell in love with, a young Englishman who just so happens to be in line to be king. The tabloids go wild, but what is actually happening behind the scenes? What is it like to be the focus of all that attention?

The book walks a careful line, in that it’s clearly inspired by Will and Kate and the current House of Windsor but it changes enough to keep from being a flat-out Lifetime movie retelling or feeling exploitative. (They branch off from official British history around Queen Victoria.)  And Cocks and Morgan have done their research—the story includes details about life at Oxford and in Buckingham Palace, and the descriptions of dressing for the cameras and running from paparazzi clearly reflect their years of writing about celebrities. And they manage to make the characters, including the Queen, feel like real people.

My sister read this book before I did, and her entire review was: fun, but a little too long. And I think she summed it six words what it is going to take me hundreds to do here. While things could have been a little tighter at the end and the story spins off into an unnecessary sub-plot with the Kate character’s twin sister, overall the book was a very enjoyable way to spend some summer afternoons. If you spend as much time reading People and Hello magazines as I do, you’ll especially enjoy matching the fictional characters to real people. But even if you’ve never gotten at 5:00 in the morning to watch a royal wedding on TV, the story is still chatty and fun, with a sweet love story at the heart of it. Also, how cute is that cover image?

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Sharp, sexy, and sweet.

You might also like: something by Meg Cabot (she’s written about a zillion, but the Size 12 is Not Fat series has a similar flavor) or Liane Moriarty (What Alice Forgot is my favorite) for more smart rom-coms. If you like how-the-1%-live stories, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is fun. If it’s the British aristocracy that catches your attention, the non-fiction To Marry an English Lord is a super-entertaining history of the rich American girls (including Winston Churchill’s mother!) who went to the U.K. and married cash-poor British nobles after the snooty American upper crust snubbed them for being new money. And if you just want more celebrity fashion discussion, Genevieve Valentine (an author Anna has talked about here before) writes fabulous red carpet rundowns that discuss pretty dresses and how celebrity fashion is actually an elaborate, coded form of communication.

Not Actually Fanfiction

As should be obvious, I really enjoy fanfiction. They are (often) fun stories by (presumably) amateur authors who can sometimes do amazing things unconstrained by thoughts of salability. They write because they have ideas they want to get out. And sometimes, it’s not actually fanfiction. Sometimes an amateur author, in the same spirit of fanfiction, will write an original story and post it online for anyone and everyone to enjoy.

There are even a few archives specifically for these types of short stories, presented like fanfiction except for being entirely original. The parallel for Fanfiction.net is FictonPress.com. ArchiveOfOurOwn simply added a category for Original Fiction.

Here are a few recommendations for original short stories presented online:

Suite for the Living and Dead
By Inland Territory
Summary: When he was twenty three years old, Mike Lafayette took it on himself to write an oratorio for a people without a god.
Why I like it: This is just beautiful. A beautiful concept and beautifully written, but also speaks directly of the particular pain of seeing a deadly and important conflict happening in front of you and, for one reason or another, not joining the fight.
Extra comment: This feels a bit like a fanfiction story in that it references a much more epic story with main characters who are minor characters here. It makes me wonder if there is a book out there this is connected to but I haven’t been able to find. My current assumption is that it is that the author of this short story has an idea for a book and maybe she’s even half-written it, but it’s not available anywhere.

Toad Words
By Ursula Vernon
Summary: Terri Windling posted recently about the old fairy tale of frogs falling from a girl’s lips, and I started thinking about what I’d do if that happened to me, and…well…
Why I like it: One of the problems with traditional fairytales that I (and many other women) are increasingly aware of is how they often reward young girls for being quiet, polite, beautiful, and awaiting rescue, while punishing young girls for being outspoken, ugly, and actively attempting their own rescue. This takes one such fairytale and shows the repercussions, and how a curse can ultimately be made a reward and a blessing can ultimately be a punishment.

Never the Same
By Polenth Blake
Genre: science fiction
No summary, but the first paragraph: Everyone thinks my brother is nice. He set up a rescue centre for birds, after the terraforming accident poisoned the lake. That’s always the image of him, holding a bird covered in sludge. The birds are never the same after they’re cleaned, but the gossips never talk about that.
Why I like it: This is a lovely little mystery, with a main character with mental health issues. With a somewhat unreliable narrator investigating a situation in a highly biased community, the story looks into the difference between right and wrong actions and right and wrong motivations.

The Emperor’s Last Concubine
By Yamanashi Moe
Warning: this has explicit sex in it
No summary, but I bookmarked it as: a story of love and politics
Why I like it: This story has the standard Cinderella structure but focuses on what happens after the handsome prince whisks his beloved away and the difficulties faced by both prince and beloved as they both become aware of the golden cage the palace makes.