What I Read in June

Happy July, everyone! My summer is off to a pleasant, if not incredible, start where reading is concerned: I read 10 books this month, with a tad more sci-fi and nonfiction on offer than usual. This month’s books showed me distant planets, mathematical oddities, and re-imagined monsters, and I thoroughly enjoyed (most of) the experience.


45. Spinning Starlight by R. C. Lewis

Holding this book against the author’s wickedly fun space-opera “Snow White” retelling, Stitching Snow, there’s really no comparison: Spinning Starlight is less focused, less adventurous, and suffers from a truly dreadful case of supporting character soup. When it breaks the yoke of these flaws, however, there are some marvelous ideas in store, and R. C. Lewis’ use of alien technology, coupled with her intriguing variations on the original fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” make for a fascinating sci-fi, if not always a thrilling one. I was also rather fond of the predicament of our main character, Liddi, who’s a tech heiress with no preternatural engineering abilities to her name, though, like a few other of Lewis’ intriguing concepts, Spinning Starlight would’ve done well to explore it more. (Reviewed here.)


46. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Absolutely packed with examples and brimming with the author’s careful study of pop culture, this writing enchiridion proved to be one of the month’s unexpected treats. In breaking from craft-book tradition, The Anatomy of Story tackles symbolism and setting before it even touches plot, and the resulting approach––deeply concerned with meaning, and content to wait for structure to emerge organically from there––holds an allure that almost makes up for the fact that I had to read a 20-page scene-by-scene summary of a movie I have not, and will never, see. Almost.


47. The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

As an early foray into adult sci-fi (I’m trying to branch out), Becky Chambers’ warm, inviting, expansive first Wayfarers novel is a wonderful choice. In it, we meet a hodgepodge, banter-y crew and journey with them on a politically dangerous (but financially rewarding) mission to war-torn territory at the heart of the galaxy, with stops at sketchy black markets and deserted outposts along the way. The book is rip-roaring and eventful when it needs to be, but it’s also great at letting its characters slow down and bond with one another. Like with most of my favorite spacefaring science fiction, it’s in the combination that it shines.


48. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This wildly popular work of literary fiction is so far from my cup of tea it’s almost Sisyphean to fully articulate my quarrels with it, but here goes: I could not finish this book fast enough. The supporting cast is nothing but a shallow cluster of canvases for the fears and neuroses of our romantic leads, said romantic leads seem to have nothing to live for or want besides each other, and the book employs time travel in only the most basic of ways, that last strike being so extreme as to render its trivial complications the fatal ones. Ultimately, I found it to be hardly a compelling sci-fi, and even less a stirring love story.


49. Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson

Being so attached to the animated series, it’s near-impossible to separate it from its source material, particularly where it concerns an expansion on theme, and the addition of some marvelous supporting players. Against the series, the graphic novel feels wanting in scope and emotional intensity, but its fresh use of familiar fantasy concepts and enticing, eerie setting make for an absorbing reading experience nonetheless. Author and illustrator Luke Pearson’s keen sense of whimsy unites the cozy and the creepy in a magical world that’s always beckoning to be returned to, for both its familiar comfort and its exciting possibilities.


50. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection explores the Asian American experience with both a broad sweep and a concentrated punch, just as personal as it is political, and deeply concerned with the potent harm contained in white America’s thoughtlessness. Minor Feelings isn’t content to let any flippant remark rest, not where are you really from, not Asians are next in line to be white, and not the U.S.’s supposed “post-racial” state. Armed with the potent language of poetry and the careful eye of cultural criticism, the book is both engrossing and revelatory, right to its searing final page.


51. Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Katrina Leno’s magical seaside coming-of-age story holds all the trappings of a grounded, atmospheric work of contemporary fantasy––and none of the substance. The start is subtle and intriguing enough, but after an inciting incident near the halfway mark (!!!), a failure to fully articulate the stakes sends the book into a tailspin. Whatever charm Summer of Salt held at curtain is lost in a climax that feels forced and a halfhearted grasp at theme that skips the most promising aspects of the book’s concept in favor of the straight and narrow path.


52. Captive by Aimee Carter

The sequel to Aimee Carter’s 2013 YA dystopian, Pawn, this second installment in the Blackcoat Rebellion trilogy was always going to be steeped in the tradition of The Hunger Games‘ many imitators, but that’s precisely how I like it. The soapy dramas of future America’s treacherous ruling family, coupled with a syrupy-sweet love triangle and the revolution-lite vibes of its climax, make Captive compulsively readable fun for those who still linger at the literary graveyard of the frothy teen dystopian––and an inexplicable choice for everyone else. Still, its emphasis on blaming evil on the system rather than on the bad actors it created is refreshing, and save for its trite parent reveal and numerous death-cheats, it’s a great time.


53. Flatland by Edwin Abbott

This slim volume of mathematical fiction is hardly more than a day’s worth of reading, but Edwin Abbott’s explanation-over-plot style made it a trial to finish. We follow A. Square as he guides us through his home world of only two dimensions for several dozen pages of digression, clarification, and elaboration before finally getting to the “good stuff.” (At what cost?) Anyhow, the book clearly isn’t intended to be an adventure or a character study, but even held as a work of hypothetical curiosity, or satire, it’s wholly unfulfilling, and burdened by a straight-laced, rote approach to worldbuilding, besides.


54. Hilda and the Mountain King by Luke Pearson

It is pure serendipity that the only graphic novel out in the current Hilda series yet to be adapted is far and away the best. Though it follows a huge cliffhanger, Hilda and the Mountain King is, on its own, a complete and fulfilling tale, re-examining the role of stone trolls, one of the series’ magical staples, for a conclusion that’s as satisfying as it is challenging, and as dark as it is fanciful. Bolstered by a careful use of color and Pearson’s trademark visual charm, it’s hard to imagine the fun but simple first volume exploding out into something this complex, but that’s all the more reason to start there and savor the series as it grows. (Besides, of course, waiting on more from Netflix.)


Thank you for reading! If you’re so tempted, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How was your reading month?

“Spinning Starlight” an Imaginative, if Inconsistent, Sci-Fi

The author of Stitching Snow, (Snow White in space with cobbled-together droids as the dwarves, a deeply underrated favorite of mine) returns with an inventive science fiction fairy tale retelling in Spinning Starlight, an alien-rich, portal-traveling take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.”

Though the tale lacks the conviction and focus of Stitching Snow, R. C. Lewis still has a truly promising eye for the weirder staples of sci-fi and where they fit. For various reasons, teen sci-fi tends to play it pretty safe: for a long stint in the early 2010s, the niche was taken up by fairly grounded dystopians in step with The Hunger Games, and later in the decade, when space adventures saw a small boom, things were similarly tame––aliens were limited, concepts for worlds and technology didn’t stray too far from the expected, and weirdness was rather solidly contained.

This, like every ebb and flow in publishing, produced some wonderful books, but I found myself longing for the truly zany, something like what you’d find in the vast, chaotic, oddball universe of Star Wars, with a comfortably familiar hero’s journey framework set against the strangest of supporting characters and set pieces.

Spinning Starlight, for all its faults, is at least that: where we start isn’t all that strange, but the later setting boasts a galactic milieu, with quirks in worldbuilding that veer towards the abstract and a space-opera sensibility that shines through even when we’re standing still.

The fun Lewis has in crafting the world of Spinning Starlight is the book’s greatest asset––besides, of course, the clever integration of the fairy tale. (With just a few tragic missteps, alas!)

For a popular story like Cinderella or Snow White, the twists and subversions are there to enrich every reading experience, but here, the reflection doesn’t come into full relief until you get your hands on the source material. Where “The Wild Swans” features a princess who must free her brothers from a curse (and can’t speak in the meantime, at pains of putting them in danger), Spinning Starlight swaps the princess for a tech heiress in Liddi Jantzen, and in place of a curse, traps her brothers in limbo between dimensions with a malfunction in the conduits, a system of efficient interplanetary travel.

What’s really of note, though, is how the elements in the middle of the fairy tale, not integral to its setup nor strictly necessary for its resolution, find their place here in turn. In “The Wild Swans,” the princess finds herself in a soaring mythical kingdom, bound by a not-entirely-honest relationship to its king, and the shifting trust between them makes a fascinating appearance in the middle of Spinning Starlight, with an ethical and spiritual dilemma that heightens the tension between Liddi and an intriguing supporting player. Instead of a crown, Lewis gives him a position of power on different terms, forcing him to grapple with the accompanying responsibilities in a way that both comments on and enriches the third-act threat in the original fairy tale.

Sadly, though, some weaknesses are carried over in the retelling as well: Liddi’s brothers, though they all have names in this version and there are eight instead of twelve, blend together in their limited page time into a dull character soup. There are some attempts made, in interludes of flashback, to give us glimpses of the specific brothers and reinforce the bond Liddi’s supposed to feel with her family, but they’re clumsy, brief, and jarringly different in style from the rest of the prose. I didn’t skip any on my way through the book, but they felt utterly skippable.

Lewis’ take on the Evil Queen, a character who is only mentioned and never shown in “The Wild Swans,” is mercifully sparse, but her flatness and lack of life is so potent that it sucks almost all the vigor out of Act III. Not entirely surprising, as villains tend to be the Achilles’ heel of these sorts of things (Queen Levana of The Lunar Chronicles comes to mind), but Lewis’ noble effort to make the distant conflict in the fairy tale an immediate conflict in the retelling results in a deafening irony: had Spinning Starlight followed its inspiration and pushed the Evil Queen to the background instead of bringing her to the fore at the opening and end, it would’ve benefited by what is ostensibly a structural weakness.

In contrast, “The Wild Swans” does something unconventional yet deeply satisfying with its ending. Where most fairy tales in its stride come full circle and confront the bringer of the original curse, “The Wild Swans” is more interested in the heroine’s place in her new world than a triumph and return to order in the old one.

The princess’ story hinges not on her defeat of the queen who put her brothers under the curse, but on the trust of the new kingdom where she makes a life in the middle of the story. Her greatest danger lies in the fact that her subjects will turn on her if she doesn’t dispel the false charges brought upon her by a misunderstanding––the belonging she risks losing in this is Andersen’s chief concern as a storyteller.

Spinning Starlight bucks this opportunity, likely for the very good reason that readers would find it frustrating to watch a main character fight for the respect of her love interest’s home above that of her own, but Lewis’ vision of that world far outshines the one we start with, and things dry up as soon as we step back through the portal to face the Evil Queen.

Much of the tale, of course, is skillfully adapted, but that one omission comes at a steep price: Spinning Starlight, for all its imagination, fumbles the ending. And if you know fairy tales, you know that that’s fatal.