Book Review: Occasional Magic – True Stories About Defying the Impossible, edited by Catherine Burns

The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible

The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible by Catherine Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Moth has a way of creating the ideal moment for stories to come out from quiet spaces. In this compilation, the anticipation of a waiting audience and the vulnerability of the speaker in the spotlight is put into the written form, and it’s really as magical as the title implies. The selections here are full of moments that defy disbelief and capture the true serendipity of wandering around the earth as a human. Each one is a once-in-a-lifetime snapshot, and I’m so grateful that the diverse voices assembled here agreed to part with them.

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Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang


Exhalation by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Ted Chiang’s sparkling collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I knew I had to pick up this new volume. These stories are also quite good, solidifying Chiang as an important modern voice in science fiction. His writing is spare and efficient, but packs an incredible punch. His concepts are lofty and complex in a way that will satisfy science fiction classicists. Several of these stories will remain in my mind, predominantly because of the way they approach really important ethical ideas. My favorites were…

“Exhalation”: There’s a reason this is the title story. It’s really gorgeous, melding the concept of body and machine in a fascinating way.

“The Lifecyle of Software Objects”: We are on the threshold of a society that will have new ethical problems concerning the human relationship with AI. This story takes that age-old science fiction trope and explores it in a very personal way.

“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”: This story was written for a science fiction short story collection based around objects from an imagined museum exhibit. (I’ve since learned that it’s called The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and I really want to read it.) This story manages to feel historically authentic, be completely heartbreaking, and be a little funny too.

“Omphalos”: The overlap between ardent faith and scientific discovery is one that I find very compelling, and this story explores that idea in a very satisfying way.

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Book Review: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the serious large-scope fiction writer, this guide is a treasure. Lusciously designed, packed with different perspectives, humorous and hyper-serious at turns, it’s a fabulous textbook to turn to when muddling through the task of bringing the fantastical to life through writing. Jeff VanderMeer really lays everything he’s got on the table–generous to a fault with comprehensive inclusion of information on his process and philosophy as a writer.

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Book Review: How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

How to Make Friends with the Dark

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many YA novels, this one starts with a protagonist whose mother dies. But what makes this title stand apart is the way it lingers and sinks into the grief that actually accompanies such a monstrous loss. Grief is not an aspect of the plot line in Glasgow’s How to Make Friends with the Dark; rather, it is the plot line… the horrible, inescapable plot line that all of us must follow at one time or another. As such, it’s a painful read, but also a revelatory and important one. I applaud Glasgow for having the bravery to go here, in such a realistic and three-dimensional way. This book is about death and the aftermath–no sugared-over love story among the rubble, just the truth.

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Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood is a writer who we need, for so many reasons, and she proves that yet again in The Testaments. Both satisfying and unnerving, true and false, saccharine and scathing, this book gives fans of The Handmaid’s Tale a little more time to look around Gilead and to imagine how we might act were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. There’s a veil between this dystopian reality and our own which, at times, can feel quite thin. We’re lucky that Atwood is the one pulling the curtain back for us. She is a consummate storyteller, one of the finest of our age.

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Book Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Neverworld Wake

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was not prepared for everything that I got out of Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake. It’s a genre-defying YA title, mostly realistic but somehow also mostly fantasy, a little sci-fi, a lot mystery, and just an extremely interesting ride. Pessl takes the concept of a time loop anomaly and applies it to a group of wealthy, privileged college kids who all have something to hide. When they get trapped together in a recurring day inside a kind of half-alive limbo with a ticking clock, all manner of possibilities provide themselves. It’s a thrilling and satisfyingly fun read. The plot is admirably complex, and will delight fans of unpredictable stories with larger than life characters. In other words, this book is like the hippest game of Clue ever played.

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Book Review: After the Fall by Kate Hart

After the Fall

After the Fall by Kate Hart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the Fall is a gossipy YA read with a real beating heart behind it. The way that the narration plays with our perceptions of the characters ultimately reveals a criticism of stereotypes, a reminder that people are rarely what we think we know about them. I appreciate the way Hart refuses to shy away from edgier content–her treatment of sexual assault from multiple perspectives has important and strong messages for her young adult readers. This book could be the difference that makes a kid speak up about something important.

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Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best YA books capture what it really feels like to be young, and The Poet X does that with a hand so light you didn’t even know it touched you until you close the back cover. The book verges on metafiction, as it’s written in verse, essentially representing the notebook full of poems that the main character Xiomara carries with her everywhere as she comes into her artistic identity. Acevedo is so good at capturing the overwhelming crescendo of adolescence–suddenly we have to figure out about God and love and who our parents really are as people and what to do with an adult body and terror and pride and what we’re willing to risk ourselves for. Xiomara has all of that chaos right in front of her, and we get to ride along as she figures it all out, full of doubt but also full of power. A resounding celebration of the solace and strength that comes from writing.

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Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anytime science fiction and literary fiction become one, I lose all sense of time and spin in, captivated. That’s exactly what happened when I read this stunningly beautiful novella. It feels so old and so new at once. It is a war story and a love story. It is about the parallels and tension between nature and machine. It is a philosophical treatise. It is funny, fresh, and packed with lyrical language. But most of all it feels like longing and honors a gentle way of seeing the reality, time, and the role we play within it. It’s a story that honors reckless hope.

As soon as I finished, I handed it off to someone I knew would love it. He gave it back the next day, already finished, and said, “I’m going to buy my own copy and eat it.” That pretty much sums up the impact of this book for the right reader. A new favorite for me.

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Book Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Parable of the Sower does anarchy and terror very well. The power of Butler’s story comes from the future envisioned here, one that could certainly sprout from the seeds planted by today’s social ills. Her main character’s spare, emotionless narration is a function of the debilitating fear and trauma she has known all her life. I did quibble a bit with her “hyperempathy syndrome” (strictly limited to respond to physical pain), in that it didn’t seem to impact the plot at all and was therefore superfluous. But I really appreciated how this book made me question what would be necessary to survive in a world where our abilities to protect ourselves, provide for ourselves, and feel confident in the future were decimated. Butler presents us with a character who does what she must, at all times, to redefine faith in an era when God has forsaken humanity, in order to teach others how to survive.

**Another note: This cover does nothing at all to suggest the true essence of this story. It’s about an androgynous, badass young woman who is wearing jeans that she took off a corpse as she leads a group through an apocalyptic landscape. Who designed this?! Also, there are several basic errors in editing in this edition–inexcusable, and an insult to Butler’s genius that they did not do a thorough job in making sure the prose was fully represented as intended.

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