Reviews: a January round-up

NEW SUNS ed. by Nisi Shawl. 5/5
This is an absolutely fantastic collection of short stories set in non-Eurocentric/white American worlds. I loved it and am recommending it to everyone i know who enjoys speculative fiction. The stories and settings include Asian-inspired cultures in which translators collude to save vast populations; a stunning South America under a Nazi-like rule by the Spanish; numerous tales in which colonizers get their just desserts (including a euthanasia-vacation tropical island); and erotic encounters that question traditional roles and cultural norms. I want to read more stories set in all of the realms introduced here. And LeVar Burton’s foreword is a gem, a beautiful piece of writing about the long-needed support of non-white writers in the genre.

THE OUTCAST HOURS ed. by Jared Shurin & Mahvesh Murad. 5/5
I really enjoyed this compilation of stories. While some weren’t exactly my cup of tea, enough were well-written and plotted enough to keep me reading. I especially enjoyed the deliberate focus on non-Western/non-North American cultures and writers, and on speculative writing from unique points of view. Many of the ideas–a babysitter for especially difficult children and parents, a story you think will end in gore but has a radically hopepunk ending instead–are new to me and fun to read.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. 1/5
I know this has gotten a lot of positive press and a lot of hype but it felt too much like Ann Leckie or Mur Lafferty fanfiction to me–clones and permanent, immortal memory, and uprisings and politics and etiquette. It often dragged and the characters weren’t terribly interesting. Protagonist Mahit Dzmare veers from being merely unprepared to being ridiculously silly in her actions and choices, and the thriller aspect–who killed her predecessor?–turns out to be revealed in one of those non-mysteries wherein the villain reveals themselves after the protagonist can’t figure it out, making them all look dim. I never truly got a sense of the culture or the why behind many of the events and intrigues conjured up.

Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) by Lorna Landvik. 3/5
This is a sweet book that will find appreciative readers in book clubs, especially those that include parents and their kids, or are for high-school students. When the long-time columnist–the ‘Radical Hag’ of the title, so-called by one of her detractors–of a paper in a small town has a stroke, the paper begins reprinting her old essays and the responses they provoked. The essays touch on everything from politics to gardening to theater to abortion, and are always personal and unique. People in the town and students at the local high school begin reading the old columns, and gain insights about themselves, their community, and their neighbors. While it was all a little too simple and tidy for me, a lot of people will enjoy this one. And the recipes are pretty good.

Douglas Fairbanks by Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks; Edited by Kelley Smoot. 1/5
A light and glossy coffee-table biography of Douglas Fairbanks, this book is long on anecdote and short on reflection. While relatives of famous stars often pen romanticized accounts of their better-known family members’ lives, this one manages to completely ignore the problematic nature of early Hollywood, its people, and its films. And the author seems to have significant biases as well. D. W. Griffith’s horrific racist film Birth of a Nation is simply described as “famed and revolutionary”; Mary Pickford is written of as “unlike many career women who develop an almost masculine aggressiveness, she remained entirely feminine.” Early film pioneers are “social misfits” and women actors are “bathing beauties” and “sirens,” and perhaps worst of all, the phrase “Southern mammies” figures in a sentence about superstition. I expect this kind of sexist, racist, and utterly unaware language when I’m reading magazines published in the 1920s about the film business, but it has no place in a modern book that uses it without offering context and a reason for doing so. While I’m sure fans of Fairbanks will be drawn to the book because of its numerous photos and the involvement of his niece as a co-author, I cannot recommend it to anyone.

A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn. 4/5
This is a new installment in a series of period mysteries, but requires no previous knowledge of the earlier volumes in the series to enjoy, a big plus for me. Veronica Speedwell and her mystery-solving partner Stoker become embroiled in a mystery that includes elements of the Victorian ghost story The Mistletoe Bough, pirate lore on the Cornish Coast, Spiritualism, and poison gardens. As Veronica and Stoker try to figure out the disappearance of a bride who vanished on her wedding night, they must also contend with Stoker’s brother’s interest in Veronica and their own slow-burn romance. While the mystery solves itself when the murderer announces themselves, the story is still entertaining and a fun read with good characters and little details that charm the reader (Chester the felt mouse, among others).

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe. 1/5
The first book in this series annoyed me for the author’s apparent need to mix up both accurate and totally fantastical things about academia and present them as if they somehow represented real life. She does it again here, and in this case it’s much more irritating because it plays into her plot, which is, even on its own, totally non-sensical, even in a setting where witchcraft is real and people are magic. In addition, the characters are all cardboard and stereotypical, from the witchy mom who knows her daughter is pregnant before the daughter knows; to the daughter, who is a disorganized academia; and to the daughter’s her sassy black friend, er, graduate student. There’s also The Man Who Does Not Understand Academia, despite having had an academic partner for a long time, and the Madman/Old Professor. Also, apparently everything the work of this book is pale: people have pal skin, pale eyes, and there are pale stains on a table. Please hire a copyeditor who knows about academia, can read for sensitivity regarding the Black Sassy Friend, and knows synonyms for “pale.”

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