Book Review · Film Review · Uncategorized

Books I Read & Films I Watched in 2019

Total Books Read: 33

Egg & Spoon – Gregory Maguire: A+

This book draws heavily from Russian folklore featuring a “prince & pauper” kind of swap between two young girls, a wise-cracking Baba Yaga, and an ice dragon that serves as a potent metaphor for climate change, all told from the perspective of an imprisoned monk. It also addresses issues of class, power, how greed and altruism are both intrinsic parts of human nature, and how children are naturally predisposed towards magic. I loved that the theme of the novel is essentially that we can’t save the world as individual people, but we can try to save what we can each day that we’re here – and if enough of us try our best, grand things can happen.

A Dance with Dragons – George R.R. Martin (audiobook): B

Finally got around to the fifth book in the series (I read the original four books in high school). Since I no longer have time to read 1,000+ page books like I did as a teenager, I checked the audiobook out from my local library. It was good, but damn…I forget how triggering the books can be, much more so (in my opinion) than the show. Proceed with caution.

The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington: A

I think this might be my new favorite surrealist novel. We are introduced to Marian Latherby, a 92-year old woman whose family ships her off to live in a nursing home where the buildings are shaped like birthday cakes, igloos, toadstools and sarcaphogi. Armed with her a trumpet that allows her to hear even the most minute sounds, a small army of her fellow inmates, and guidance from the Queen Bee and the portrait of a mysterious winking abbess – with a special appearance from the Princess of Werewolves –  what follows is a quest for the real Holy Grail unlike any other you have ever read. Magical realism is a difficult genre to write, but Carrington is truly a master.

Merlin’s Harp – Anne Elliott Crompton: C+

This is the story of King Arthur, told from the perspective of the Faerie folk. The Mists of Avalon used to be one of my favorite books, but upon learning what a terrible person Marion Zimmer Bradley actually was…well, it’s one of those cases where you have to decide what to do with good art made by awful people. I was really excited to read another feminist reimagining of the Arthurian mythos, especially one where we get the Fae’s side of the story. Sadly, I was underwhelmed: I loved the lyrical quality of the prose and artful world building, and there were several exciting and original plot twists, but the characterization left a lot to be desired. The protagonist was extremely flat, many of the secondary characters were underdeveloped, and there were much deeper layers of characterization that the story hinted at but never fully explored, which could have enriched the narrative. (And I was HUGELY disappointed that Morgan le Fay only makes ONE appearance.) I’d say it’s worth a read if you enjoy the Arthurian cannon or Faerie lore, but for me, once was enough.

I Was Anastasia – Ariel Lawhon: A+

You know those annoying history buffs who are obsessed with the Romanov family? Yeah, I’m one of those people – not because I’m obsessed with royalty, but because the story of the Romanov family and the Russian Revolution is fascinating to me for its socio-political connotations, and how the complex, interwoven narratives of the family members, revolutionaries and the everyday people of Russia are still very relevant today – especially given the current political climate.

This novel is a brilliant piece of historical fiction told in a dual-narrative structure, from both the perspective of the real Grand Duchess Anastasia and Anna Anderson (birth name Franziska Annalie Schanzkowska), the woman who impersonated the youngest tsarevna for four decades. You come to see Anna not as a villain, as history has painted her, but as a complex human being with complicated motives. As for Anastasia herself, we get an intimate close-up of this teenage girl and her family during the last eighteen months of their lives: we see that the royals and the Bolsheviks were people with flaws and virtues, capable of great cruelty as well as honor and nobility. For me, it served as a stark reminder that children should never be forced to pay for the sins of their parents. Even though I knew the truth from the get-go – all seven Romanovs have been recovered since their gravesite was discovered in 1991, and American, British and Russian DNA tests have confirmed that none survived – I still found myself wanting so badly to believe that seventeen year old girl somehow managed to make it out of that basement alive. How these two womxn’s lives managed to collide and captivate the world’s imagination is something truly inexplicable and extraordinary. Ariel Lawhon is a skilled author who tells the stories of these highly mythologized womxn with great empathy, and uses the trappings of history to examine why we make the choices that we do. As she states in her Author’s note: “There are two sides to this story: one shimmering with privilege and affluence and nobility, the other blunted by sorrow and privation and neglect. What we forget as a culture is that both stories are worthy of our attention.”

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett: A+ (Re-Read)

My all-time favorite book. I try to re-read it at least once a year.

Oceanic – Aimee Nezhukumatathil: A+

Lovely collection of poems. I wrote a review of it here.

Fierce Fairy Tales – Nikita Gill: A+

I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Nikita Gill before I read this book, but she’s officially my new favorite poet. If you want poems that will make you believe in faerie tales again, you must read this collection.

Psyche in a Dress – Francesca Lia Block: A (Re-Read)

This is a very long prose poem (but a very quick read) that is a modern retelling of Psyche and Eros, told in Francesca Lia Block’s magical realist style. I especially recommend if you’re a fan of Greek mythology!

After the Witch Hunt – Megan Falley: A+ (Re-Read)

Gutsy feminist poems.

Said the Manic to the Muse – Jeanne Verlee: A+ (Re-Read)

Jeanne Verlee is one of my all-time favorite poets (I even got the chance to meet her when I went to NYC in 2016). This is an absolutely stunning collection of poems about her experiences with trauma, addiction and living with bipolar disorder. Highly recommend.

The Twelve Faces of the Goddess – Danielle Blackwood: A

Astrology from a Goddxss-centric viewpoint. Fabulous in depth discussion of signs and corresponding Goddxss archetypes, with wonderful ritual, craft, and recipe ideas. It is heavy on the Divine Feminine, which I know isn’t everyone’s jam, but I do think it’s worth a read if you’re interested in astrology.

Sea Magic – Sandra Kynes: B

As the name implies, a primer for those new to sea/water magic. Honestly, if you’re an intermediate to advanced practitioner, I’d skip it, even though there are some good exercises and journal prompts. But if you’re a newbie (nothing wrong with that!), it’s a lovely resource to learn the basics.

Queen of Pentacles – Audrey T. Carroll: B

Feminist poetry with a Witchy flavor.

Queer Rock Love – Paige Schilt: A-

Memoir of a Queer Texas family. The family ties you create yourself are the strongest of all – something Queer folks understand all too well.

A Whole New World – Liz Braswell: A+

HOW did I not know that Disney Twisted Tales was a thing?! This series of novels from Walt Disney Press takes the classic Disney stories that we know and love, but retells them with darker, more adult themes. A Whole New World is a novelized version of the 1992 animated Aladdin film. The plot is essentially the same as the movie up until Aladdin enters the Cave of Wonders. In this version, Jafar becomes sultan and Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Street Rats of Agrabah form an anti-fascist resistance movement. It is a MUCH better – and timely – story than the 1992 film, and my favorite version of the Aladdin story that I’ve ever encountered.

Queer Magic – Tomás Prower: A+ (Re-Read)

My all-time favorite book on magic and witchcraft. Even if you’re not Queer or a magical practitioner, I highly recommend this book. You can read a review by me here.

When the Glitter Fades – Dino Foxx: A+ (Re-Read)

Queer Latinx poetry. Read my review here.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood – Rena Rassner: B-

Retelling of The Goblin Market based in Jewish and Eastern European folklore that blends prose and poetry into one narrative. I really enjoyed this shape-shifting tale of sisterly love; the characters were very well developed and the world building was superb, and I loved how the author integrated so many different elements into a strong narrative. However, I felt like some of the magical elements could have been more artfully explained/expanded on, and the plot contained a few logistical issues.

The Taming of the Queen – Phillipa Gregory: B

A work of historical fiction told from the first person POV of Katherine Parr, the last of the Six Queens of England under Henry VIII. (I refuse to refer to the Six Queens as “the wives of Henry VIII”. They were six individual womxn with their own unique stories, who each achieved great accomplishments during her reign – Katherine Parr was the first womxn to publish a book under her own name in English, all under the nose of her sociopath husband! But I digress.) It was very engaging and fun to read, although the ending felt rushed.

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc – David Elliot: A+

Joan of Arc’s final hours are recounted entirely in verse and interspersed with actual statements from the Trial of Condemnation and the Trial of Nullification. We get to hear the voices of Joan, her Saints, important people and even objects in her life – and of the fire itself, which sings directly to Joan in an almost erotic way. We see a Joan that was not a myth, but a girl – a girl who struggled to feel comfortable in her own skin and to make sense of the strange experiences that were happening to her, who defied the convictions of her day, and died at the hands of men who didn’t like the fact that she refused to conform to their small-minded ideas about gender and religion, and Elliot seems to sympathize with the notion held by some modern historians and gender theorists that Joan may have been a transgender man. It’s an intimate look at the final hours of her (his/their?) extraordinary life, and an immense poetic achievement.

Once Upon a Dream – Liz Braswell: A+

Another installment of the Twisted Tale series. In this version of Sleeping Beauty, Aurora doesn’t wake up when Prince Phillip kisses her: HE falls asleep, and together they must navigate a dream world that is far scarier than any faerie curse – the darkness of Aurora’s own mind. I highly recommend this read for a very adult take on this classic Disney film. It reminds us that we can fight the dragons of depression and despair, and we can win.

Stepsister – Jennifer Donnelly: A+

A sequel to Cinderella told from the perspective of Ella’s stepsister Isabelle. Turns out, there’s a reason Isabelle has been so cranky. Told with some surprising twists and some delightful feminist sensibilities. I also love how it avoids “the hero was actually bad and the villain was actually good” trope that’s practically become a cliché in faerie tale retellings.

Dark Goddess Craft – Stephanie Woodfield: A+

A fantastic primer on working with the most stigmatized, misunderstood aspect of the Goddxss (even within the Witch/Pagan community). This is the book that really solidified my path as a Dark Goddxss devotee.

Water Witchcraft – Annwyn Avalon: A

Water witchery and lore from the Celtic tradition. Great read!

Witch – Lisa Lister: C-

A primer on witchcraft and the archetype of the Witch in what is essentially a radical feminist manifesto. I have very conflicted feelings about this book. I enjoyed reading it – I admire Lisa Lister’s passion and her evocative writing style, and I think that she makes a lot of compelling points about history and modern uses of witchcraft to topple oppressive power structures, and there were many passages that really resonated with me. However, I’m sad to say that the book is also very TERF-y. 😦 Lister is very much in the “all womxn bleed” camp, and even states at the beginning of the book that she was afraid to write it because “I’ll piss off the transgender community for not including them.” Although the book is not explicitly anti-trans, it’s definitely trans-exclusive. While there were things I liked about the book, as a cis person who strives to be an accomplice to trans/NB folks, I can’t in good conscious recommend this book. I hope that Lisa Lister comes to understand that cis womxn will never be free if trans womxn and non-binary folks aren’t free.

The Girl in Red – Christina Henry: B

This a creative post-apocalyptic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Read my full review here.

Queen Up! Unleash the Power of Your Inner Tarot Queen – Angela Kaufman: C+

This book introduces the reader to the Four Tarot Queens (Queen of Wands, Swords, Cups & Pentacles, respectively) and how to connect with each archetype. It also offers practical rituals and exercises, as well as a 52-week primer on connecting with your inner Queen (for all that, it’s a surprisingly slim book!). While parts of it are a bit too “Law of Attraction”-ish for my taste, I still enjoyed it and gained a lot from the exercises.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke: A+

First, Guillermo del Toro is my all-time favorite film maker, and I’ve been a Cornelia Funke fan ever since I read Dragon Rider as a middle schooler (it remains one of my favorite fantasy novels to this day). So naturally when the two teamed up to write a novelized adaptation of one of the greatest dark fantasy films ever made, you can bet I let out a loud squeal in the middle of the bookstore and didn’t care who heard! And I have to say, I loved the novel just as much as I love the film. In fact, I dare say that in some ways the novel is even more enjoyable: it offers more background information on the characters that provides more context for their behavior and actions (without bogging down the narrative), and it also provides a backstory for the main plot told in chapters written in an actual faerie-tale style. You don’t need to have seen the film to read and enjoy the book, either – although if you’re a fan of the movie like me, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. (And as a bonus, it comes with really cool illustrations!)

Queering the Tarot – Cassandra Snow: A+

Y’all, I’m serious: every serious Tarot practitioner needs to have a copy of this book. Whether you’re Queer or not, Cassandra Snow provides such a fresh, modern and inclusive interpretation of the Tarot that we can ALL benefit from. I’ve been reading the Tarot for 15 years, and this is by far the best book on the subject that I’ve ever read.

Hexing the Patriarchy – Ariel Gore: A+

Likewise, every Witch needs to have a copy of this book. It’s jam-packed with fun and practical spells, rituals and invocations for destroying the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that’s hell bent on killing our world, one letter at a time!

His Hideous Heart – edited by Dahlia Adler: B

This is a fantastic anthology of 13 of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous short stories…retold with modern twists! Some of the retellings were stronger than others, and there were a few that I did not care for at all, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. My personal favorites were the retellings of Annabelle Lee (a Queer love story between two womxn), Hop-Frog (changelings are afoot) and The Masque of the Red Death (set in a modern day nightclub).

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens: A (Re-Read)

Forever a classic.

Movies I Watched in 2019

Battle Angel Alita – A

I don’t like action movies, and I really was not expecting to like Battle Angel Alita. But that sweet little cyborg angel has completely stolen my heart. (Yes, strong female protagonists can be tough AND tender at the same time, get with the program please!) I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Dumbo – A+

I hate everything about the original Dumbo movie, but I was blown away by how good the remake was. Unlike the original film, the abuse animals experience in circuses and theme parks is not watered down or sugar coated, and the film takes a very strong feminist and anti-capitalist stance.

Aladdin – A+

Even though the aforementioned A Whole New World is my favorite version of Aladdin, I ADORE the remake. In fact, I wrote a whole Thing on why it’s far superior to the 1992 film here.

The Lion King – A+

Unpopular opinion: I loved The Lion King remake. Character development went much deeper than in the original, the effects were stunning, the voice talents could not have been more perfect (although I was thrilled that James Earl Jones reprised his role as Mufasa – really, there’s no one else who could bring what he does to the character), and as a bonus, we get an original song (as well as an inspired album) by Beyoncé.

Also, everybody who complained about Beyoncé voicing Nala can cut the misogynoir and go home.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – A

Loved this big-screen rendition of my childhood nightmares. Read my spoiler-free review here.

Downton Abbey – A

Wouldn’t expect anything less than stellar from the Downton Abbey crew.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – A+

I love Maleficent with a passion, and I was not disappointed by this amazing sequel.

Frozen 2 – A+

I’m one of those people who loves Frozen so much that I got “Let It Go” tattooed on my body (no, I’m not sorry for it). The sequel is a wonderful continuation of the story that deepens the characters, comes with some amazing new music, and addresses very mature themes such as colonialism, painful family histories, and depression in a way that both adults and kids can relate to. I highly recommend.

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