Are you interested in investing some time in your writing now that you have some extra time at home on your hands? In the age of the internet, it can feel like an infinite amount of learning is at our fingertips—but something about the vastness of search engine results can make finding the right resource daunting. Luckily, ASU’s own Professor Matt Bell has a new feature on his website where he sends writing exercises right to your inbox. These exercises often make reference to a published piece of fiction and so far have ranged from writing suspense to character development.
To sign up for the writing exercises, and to check out the existing exercises, visit Matt Bell’s website here.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 512 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 5/5
The Overstory is a vast novel with a dynamic cast of characters; at its core, it is the question of humanity’s compatibility with other forms of life. It is a novel that turns around the idea of man versus nature, where man is the protagonist and nature the antagonist, and makes it nature versus man, with nature as the protagonist and man as the antagonist. This is a story about trees, but it is not told from the perspective of trees, but rather those who have lived their lives alongside trees—and knowingly or not, formed a relationship with the objects that at some point they might have believed to be nearly inanimate. It explores complex crevices of our relationship to nature and shows that, like relationships between people, there is a give and a take. And also, just like relationships between people, imbalance in that give and take can be disastrous.
What was most striking to me about this novel was the way its form mirrors that of a tree. It starts with the seeds that would one day grow into the characters that it focuses on. Patiently, it nurtures those seeds until they pop up from beneath the soil and begin to intertwine around one another as they grow upward. As the characters form a trunk together, they continue to grow, and just as a trunk they begin to diverge from one another. Branches grow out in other directions, some fall off, but like a fallen tree in a forest, they cultivate a plethora of life, even after the life that they have known has transformed into something different. This carefully crafted novel feels groundbreaking in the way that it grows, and is breathtaking in the overall image that it is able to craft.
On several levels this novel is epic in proportion—in its vast and dynamic cast of characters and in its actual length, but there is something else too. Reading it felt like a fantasy novel set in the modern world, particularly during the middle portion. There is a natural magic at play in this book, the whispering of trees, but also a sense of good and evil that goes beyond such a simple binary. This was another aspect of this novel that stood out as interesting to me. While I would certainly categorize it as a literary work, I think that it successfully borrows from tropes present in a lot of genre writing and manages to subvert and disguise them in a way that makes the story exciting while still feeling like a work of art.
I have always appreciated and admired trees while knowing relatively little about them. This novel changed that, not only because it is dripping with interesting facts about trees and the ecosystems they build, but because it made me curious to go out and learn more on my own. If you have ever felt even a slight connection to nature, this novel is likely to foster that connection and awaken something inside of you that you didn’t know was there. That is not to say that it stands on its stumps and pontificates about the preservation of the natural world though. Instead, it examines various relationships to trees and to nature from an empathetic viewpoint that reeled me in and kept me wanting more until the very last page.
I have nothing but praise for this novel, and I cannot recommend it enough. I think that it is a beautiful work of art that would enrich any reader’s life. With that said, I do have to make a note about how it took me over a month to finish it. When I said it was epic in proportion, I meant it. This was not an easy novel to consume, but it was well worth it.
Times might be strange right now, but the book publishing industry is still bringing forth promising reads. While the current moment likely has your TBR pile stacked to the ceiling, I say half the fun of being an avid reader is looking for future books to salivate over. With that in mind, and just needing a break for the stress of life moment-to-moment right now, I’ve curated a list of five science fiction and fantasy books that are forthcoming in the fall of 2020.
While August might not technically be the fall, that does not make me any less excited for this book! Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Were Wife, a modern retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s mother; and this new translation seems like it will be equally tantalizing. This translation is said to have an eye gear toward gender, genre, and history, and I can’t wait to revisit this classic tale through the scope of the twenty-first century!
It is hard to believe that it has been sixteen years since Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was published! That book has remained in my heart since the first time I read it all those years ago, and is one that I go back to often. So, maybe I am being dramatic, but I feel like I have waited my whole adult life for Susanna Clarke to publish another novel. While Piranesi is said to be much shorter than Clarke’s debut, it does not sound any less enchanting. It is a tale of a man who lives in an endless magical house that contains countless corridors, an infinite amount of statues, and even an entire ocean, and is about a newfound truth turning his reality upside down.
Versatile author extraordinaire V.E. Schwab will be back this fall with her new adult fantasy book. The story is said to be about a young woman who trades immorality for being forgotten by everyone she meets. The young woman carries on this way for over three hundred years, until one day, a man remembers her name. I have never read anything by Schwab that did not have me instantly hooked, and this book does not sound any different.
Author Nicole Glover’s debut novel, from JJA Books, is about a magic wielding African-American couple in post-Civil War Philadelphia who use their powers to investigate a murder that the police won’t touch. Said to be a mash-up of The Dresden Files and Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, this book combines elements of traditional fantasy, mystery, and history. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, as it combines some of my favorite things, and because the narrative sounds so exciting and fresh!
What would a list of forthcoming science fiction and fantasy novels be without the genre’s darling, Brandon Sanderson? The uber-successful author will be publishing the fourth installment of TheStormlight Archive this fall.Coming in at over one thousand pages, this book should keep readers busy, at least for a few hours. It is said to pick up with the human resistance taking on the enemy, only to find that the situation is a stalemate. From there, the war with the enemy develops into an arms race that begins to unveil secrets of the past. Sanderson can almost do no wrong, and I am sure that this book is going to be fantastic!
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Short Fiction Collection Ranging in Genre
My Rating: 4/5 Stars
Flying on the Ground, is a collection of the previously published short fiction of Richie Billing. The stories that make up the collection range in genre from fantasy, historical fiction, general fiction, horror, and crime. Thematically they explore notions of poverty, gentrification, addiction, hunger, survival, and much more. In all, it is an impressive collection that shows the author’s range, ability to build a compelling world, and his skill at placing characters who are just as compelling into that world.
As I was reading Flying on the Ground, schools were closing statewide as my community braced for whatever the coronavirus was going to bring our way. The circumstances were changing hour by hour, and while I did not witness any panicking, the tension and stress of uncertainty was palpable. This collection was the perfect distraction from all of that. Full of useful tropes and colorful characters, these stories don’t reinvent the wheel, but that is because they do not need to—this collection is entertaining, fun and well worth the read!
I most enjoyed the fantasy section of the collection and was drawn in by the way Billing seamlessly builds the world around his characters. Some of these stories take place in a shared world, and the overflow of the stories into one another was delightfully done and contributed to a larger arch. I thought that it was interesting how each story can stand on its own as an enjoyable tale, but was also a piece of a larger picture.
If you are looking for a quick read that will distract you from all of the things unfolding that we currently need distraction from, this collection is for you!
I would like to thank the author for this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Meet Jenny Irish, an Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of the new short story collection, I Am Faithful, published by Black Lawrence Press. Staff writer Edward Dolehanty had a chance to talk to her about her new book, names characters, dogs, and more!
1. How would you describe I Am Faithful to a potential reader?
First, thank you so much for these wicked smart questions. I love what you all are doing with The Spellbinding Shelf!
Second, that’s a big first question! Okay! Buckle up!
I Am Faithful is a collection of stories about the experiences of the working, lower class. As a writer, I want to challenge stereotypical representations of Americans living at the edge of poverty and engage the complexities of human experience and the effects of multigenerational poverty. These are stories posing questions about privilege, power dynamics, and the consequences of the choices and compromises people make when attempting to improve their conditions. And I also try to ensure that every story avoids simplifying things that are knotty and entangled.
Across the stories in I Am Faithful, there’s also a focus on the experiences of girls and women. It’s common for girls and women find themselves preyed upon because they’re physically desired, because of the body they inhabit—but that same physical desirability, in a certain context, also gives them a degree of power. What happens, then, when a woman who is dependent on being desired—who commodifies her sexuality out of necessity or choice—becomes a mother, her body altered and her freedom encroached? What happens to the children of these women, especially their daughters, who may become viewed as competition?
2. One of the things that I most enjoyed while reading I Am Faithful is the way that a lot of character’s emotional ranges are shown through their relationship to dogs. How did you come up with the idea to so creatively incorporate dogs into your work?
*whispers* I wanted to be a Rottweiler when I was little.
I think for many writers there are things that appear in their work consistently. Whether these elements make it into the “final” version of a piece or not, the majority of my writing will have dogs, snow, and PBS in it. Some of it is because of familiarity, some of it is because of curiosity, and some of it is because it’s what feels right in the particular piece.
I love dogs. With the exception of a sad, short stretch in graduate school, when it wasn’t financially possible, I’ve always had dogs. My first favorite book was the AKC Complete Dog Book, with all the pictures of breeds, and diagrams, and descriptions of temperaments. And dogs are amazing because they direct back the energy that they feel from a person. In that they’re a kind of magic mirror that can show what’s inside someone.
I also think it’s incredibly telling how people treat things that are dependent on them: children, seniors, strangers they could help, animals in their care. So, I try to address this in my work. I also think that it’s important to recognize that there are different motivations for similar actions. The story “I Am Faithful” is very much about this.
3. So many of the stories in I Am Faithful feel delightfully uprooted from time through the use of flashbacks to inform the present moment. Does this relationship to time come naturally to you in your writing or is it something that you think about a lot in the drafting process?
This is just the way that I tend to write, without thinking about the work or having a plan. Most of the stories don’t follow a straight path, chronologically. Instead, they’re moving associatively. I think there’s a relationship between how elliptical stories can be “uprooted” from chronological time and the operation of memory. Associations carry us from one place another, and that movement isn’t necessarily be linear.
4. Something that stuck out to me about I Am Faithful is how most of the narrative characters go without a name. For me, as a reader, this allowed who the characters are to shine as opposed to highlighting what they are called. Could you discuss your relationship with naming characters in your writing?
There is something entirely mortifying to me about naming characters. In I Am Faithful, I think there’s only two characters with names, girls who have the same name, and much of the story is dependent on their shared name because of the comparison it invites between the two.
For me, characters are representative of real people, experiencing things that happen in the world, but they could be anyone. These things, or things like this, they happen to a lot of people.
5. One of the themes that resonated most with me in your collection is the sacrifices so many of the characters make in the name of independence. How they are willing to put themselves into compromising situations physically, socially, and morally, for the satisfaction of having something to call their own—no matter how small. In the story, “Worry,” the opposite is true of the narrative character, who is willing to make these sacrifices in the name of dependence. Did you find that the process of writing this story differed greatly from the others in I Am Faithful?
Thank you for telling me you appreciated this story. I’m proud it, but it hasn’t been particularly well received.
In “Worry,” a young girl disappears, and her mother is largely unconcerned. The mother’s smitten boyfriend—who is the narrative lens—was witness to the hostile relationship between his girlfriend and her daughter. He desperately wants to believe the woman he worships wouldn’t have harmed her child, but struggles with what he’s seen. This is a story, for me, about how complicated sexual commodification is and how powerful a motivator loneliness is. It’s also one of the longest stories, because it needed to be.
Love is complex and love isn’t always healthy. I think, when we talk about sacrifice, we often link it to punishment, but sacrifice can be a true act of love. In the collection, there are mothers who experience the sacrifices that parenthood demands—whether they choose to make those sacrifices or not—as a punishment and their relationships with their children reflect that feeling. I hope that there are other examples who see love in the sacrifices they make, and in that have the potential to be affirmed by their choices, even as they’re struggling.
I’ve already said a version of this, but I think it’s worth repeating: I hope to always avoid good/evil binaries, which I think are dangerously simplistic and generally false. Though there is one unquestionably “bad mother” in the collection—the mother in “Worry”—I think there are more people who are trying to be better than their circumstances, but making uncomfortable compromises along the way.
6. Each one of these stories strikes me as authentic and true even though they are fiction. I think that this in large part to the way in which the characters are presented as they are and, unless intentional, without the prejudice for impoverished people that is quite prevalent in society. Is this something that you were conscious of while writing this collection?
The very first rule of fiction, or, the very first rule of fiction workshop, is that we never ever conflate author and story. That said, like many writers of fiction, I do draw on my own experiences in writing.
When I was child, I always had an awareness of my class positioning. The reminders of it were constant. I always had an awareness that my mother was struggling to make ends meet. There was a perpetual anxiety about how to scrape things together in a way that would allow a precarious situation to keep going. I watched the people around me beg, borrow, and steal, and I understood that it was my job to conceal that. Hiding how bad things were was huge part of my childhood.
So yes, a goal of I Am Faithful is to be authentic and in that, capture the anxiety and varied forms of violence, desperation, and hope that come with living a life scraped together from scraps. Too often, I feel like these experiences are grossly simplified and fetishized. I’d rather they be honest and as ugly as they need to be.
7. A question we love to ask of our guests here at The Spellbinding Shelf is, what are you currently reading?
Ahhhh! I love books! I just finished We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer, and re-read The White Book by Han Kang, and right now I’m reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart and Blood Box by Zefyr Lisowski.
Thank you so much for reading I Am Faithful and this conversation!
For more information about Jenny Irish, click here. Buy I Am Faithful locally here.
Thank you to Black Lawrence Press for providing an ARC and making this interview possible.
Publisher: Vintage Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 206 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores the undoing of a young black girl, Pecola, who cannot imagine herself as anything but ugly. The story is told by giving voice to members of the community as they experience Pecola’s story and by slowly unfolding the generational trauma done unto her family. Employing brilliant and beautiful language, Morrison explores the depths of poverty, sexual violence, cultural perception, and the vicious cycle of harm perpetuated by those who themselves are wounded.
From the first page, it is clear that Morrison has a power with her words that is unrivaled by most other writers. Equal parts poetic and challenging, this book has a way of slowly climbing back toward its central figure in the most gratifying ways possible. Even when exploring events that happened many years before Pecola’s birth, the book is always working to highlight another aspect of the harm that has been done unto her by her father and mother, her community, and herself.
While the subject matter is devastating, there is something that can be described as nothing less than joyful when reading Morrison’s work. Her deep vocabulary and creative license takes the reader far, and there is a sense that she is always in control. This, combined with the great empathy that pours out of this book for its characters, makes something that is spectacular to read and hard to put down.
If I had to say what my favorite part of reading this book was, I would say that it is the cast of characters that Morrison assembled to tell Pecola’s story. While what has happened to Pecola is enough to drive the novel all on its own, Morrison uses this instance to bring an entire community to life. In doing so, she paints a fuller picture of exactly what led Pecola to wander the streets muttering to herself.
While reading The Bluest Eye, it quickly became apparent why Morrison is so beloved. If you have not had the opportunity to read her work yet, there is no better time!
Publisher: Doubleday Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction Pages: 224 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In this novel, Whitehead examines the potential of youth and shows how corruption and injustice can so easily crush that potential. By all accounts, Elwood Curtis is a formidable young man—smart, curious, hardworking, and determined—he is even enrolled in college courses while he is still in high school. When Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car to get to those classes, he finds that he will have to adapt to a harsh new reality if he wants to survive. Elwood discovers the strength to do so through his dedication to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has engrained a deep sense of moral justice within him. At Nickel, however, injustice is bred into the very fabric of the institution.
What most entranced me with this book is the way in which Whitehead masterfully intertwines personal history with the history of an institution. Many chapters of this novel start like the slow panning of a camera until it zooms in on the narrative focal point. No words are wasted, though at times it can feel to the reader as if they are far from the places that the book has previously taken them. Many times I did not think that what I was reading could have anything to do with the Nickel Academy, and then the book would whisper in my ear “trust me.”
I did not feel the full weight of this book’s emotional impact until the epilogue. When I closed the book’s final chapter I was ready to give it a four star rating because I felt somewhat confused and dissatisfied. I could not have felt more different when I turned the final page of the novel. Hold on, this is an emotional and tumultuous ride worth seeing through to the very end.
Are you a student writer at Arizona State University who is seeking out a small, but growing, community of writers who are as passionate about writing as you are? A place devoted to helping you further your craft and generate ideas? Then look no further than The Sun Devil’s Writing Network, an online creative writing workshop that meets online using Zoom on the second and fourth Monday of every month. The Sun Devil’s Writing Network seeks to develop member’s craft through peer review, honing their eye as critical readers, and fostering a sense of community.
Date: The 2nd and 4th Monday of every month, starting January 27th Time: 3:00-4:30 p.m. Location: Online using Zoom meeting code 802-685-7310 or by clicking this link. Cost: Free
For more information about the Sun Devil’s Writing Network, click here.
For as long as stories have been being told on our screens, novels have been mined as source material. While often the product is far from the original text, adaptations can breathe new life into a story and illuminate a new aspects of some of our favorite fictional worlds. With the advent of popular streaming services and ever increasing production budgets, now more than ever books are being turned into films. Here are some of my favorite television shows based on books.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. This book has it all—intricate history told against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, political intrigue, battle scenes, magicians, fairies, and books—so it is no surprise that it would be adapted into a stellar TV show. This seven episode mini-series produced by BBC One boasts an impressive cast with actors Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan in the titular roles. Of all of the adaptations on this list, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell stays as close to the story portrayed by the book as it can.
Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin. It seems like a given that Game of Thrones would be on this list. HBO’s mega-hit series has changed everything I thought possible when it comes to creating a TV show—especially a fantasy TV show. While the response to the last few seasons of this show was not as enthusiastic as when it was originally released, there is no denying the cultural impact it has had. This show is full of slow burning plot lines, unexpected twists, and makes for an experience that cannot be described as anything less than entertaining.
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin. In 2019 Netflix released a star studded revival of Armistead Maupin’s popular series Tales from the City. This miniseries is a continuation of three previous miniseries based on Maupin’s work and features some of the same characters. This incarnation of the show goes even further by way of diversity and inclusion and gives a voice to many characters who are extremely underrepresented by the media. All the while, a riveting and emotional mystery unfolds that will have viewers hooked until the end.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. In 1985 when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, there was no way of knowing that the story would draw so many parallels to the coming world. In 2017 when season one premiered, it seemed as if there was no show that the world needed more. The Handmaid’s Tale shows just how fine the line is between freedom and a strict totalitarian regime. It emphasizes the danger of discrimination and valuing one type of human life over another. Most importantly, in my opinion, this show highlights the danger that some women face every day simply for existing.
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson. I started this list with an adaption that stayed fairly true to its source material, and so it feels only natural that I end it with something that deviates from the original in a big way. Like so many adaptions of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the 2018 Netflix show is a far cry from the novel. This fresh take on the Hill House, however, is one of those cases where the story is given new life. As terrifying as it is compelling, this show will suck you in until its final episode. I only have two pieces of advice about how best to watch it: with the lights on and not alone!
Publisher: Okay Donkey Press Genre: Flash Fiction Pages: 176 pages Format: Paperback My Rating: 3/5 Buy Local
In this flash fiction collection a myriad of victims come alive and show themselves beyond the circumstances they find themselves in. Each piece is set in motion by another murdered woman—including a girl, teacher, mermaid, and others—but there is more to each story than just the inciting tragedy. These stories are laden with grief, intrigue, occasional mystery, and ruminations of what might have been. These are stories of murdered women, but there is more here than meets the eye.
This collection was thought provoking through and through. It is not often that we see something that seems so familiar, in this case the victim, given new life and dimension. Yet that is exactly what Ulrich has done, she has given a compelling voice to characters who in the past would have been hard to cast as anything but flat. Each story, no matter its length, feels both diverse and dynamic and these pieces are in heavy conversation with one another.
While this collection was overall both interesting and innovate, there were times when it felt too repetitive. When reading one story after the next they start to bleed together and the murdered mermaid becomes hard to tell apart from the murdered babysitter and the murdered girlfriend. That is not to say that there is no joy to be had from reading this collection, but it is perhaps a read best done over an extended period of time.
I would like to thank TNBBC Publicity for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.