Reviews: a good handful

The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. 2/5
I have mixed responses to this book. On the one hand, it’s a very important study of how race is used, viewed, and created in children’s and YA literature. Thomas discusses various authors’ approaches to race in their works and in the adaptations and fan creations made of them, with studies on Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries. This discussion can be nuanced and thoughtful, but at times it is repetitive and superficial, relying on single statements by fans that are cherry-picked to fit Thomas’s hypothesis, On the other hand, Thomas’s work is clearly influenced by her involvement in HP fanfiction and is still smarting from being criticized for using another writer’s texts in her own FF. In any other field this would be outright plagiarism, but Thomas makes the case that in FF, it is acceptable. Her argument is weak, though, especially as now she is a PhD who should have some scholarly and personal distance from her own, younger, naive understanding of how ethics in fiction works, fan or professional. In any case, I found the book to be unready for publication: it needs better-integrated discussions of theory (not just dropping in a useful quote here and there, but real, deep engagement); it needs more clarity and focus in each chapter/case study (these read like student papers that had not been outlined well); and it needs editing, both developmental and copy-. The book feels rushed, unpolished, and rather simplistic. Thomas has a lot of important things to say about race, fantasy, and fanfiction, but this book was a big disappointment.

Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge by Kimura YĆ«suke, translated by Doug Slaymaker. 3/5
This pair of twin novellas examines life in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear 3/11 disaster. The first, Sacred Cesium Ground, is more successful: it follows the thoughts and actions of a young woman who has left–at least temporarily–an abusive marriage to help take care of cows abandoned when they were dosed with radiation. As she mucks and feeds them, and interacts with the others who live at or regularly visit the remote area where they are kept, she muses on the nature of animals and the human-animal connection, its responsibilities, and its function. The language is often lovely and the entire work is thoughtful and meditative. Isa’s Deluge, on the other hand, is a rambling account of men seeking to understand their relative, Isa. Isa is violent and a sexual predator, and through memories and interviews, the protagonists seek and understanding of him, but there is none. The novella may be trying to point to human connections, the ambiguous natures of family and familial behavior, work cultures, and/or Japanese culture in regard to men, but I was anxious to finish it and be done.

Brides in the Sky by Cary Holladay. 5/5
This collection of short stories and a novella is a wonder and a delight. Focusing in part on middle-class Americans in the 1960s and in part on women’s experiences in westward expansion, the book is full of astonishingly original and evocative description and character realization. In every piece included here, Holladay captures historical contexts and deftly weaves them in with personal crises, concerns, and changes. The women in the stories come of age, detach from family, and grapple with identity in fascinating ways. The historical settings and use of real-life figures mirrors in some ways Emma Donoghue’s books like The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits, but the writing is uniquely Hollday’s. Revel in this book.

Underground by Will Hunt. 5/5
Will Hunt writes about being underground so well that I actually experienced a touch of claustrophobia reading this book. It’s a terrific read: one very individual lifelong interest in what lies beneath our cities, fields, farms, mountains, and deserts. Hunt goes caving and lives with the dark in numerous places and with complete respect for the cultures into whose caves he ventures.I loved learning about how cave spirits are universal, that the worship of cave deities is common, that caves have preserved far more art and archaeological information than just cave paintings. My only complaint is that the photos desperately need captions. In the Kindle version I read, none of the photos were captioned, so I often wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Add those in, and you’ve got a book everyone who has ever wondered about what’s under their feet will love.

A Tear in the Ocean by H.M. Bouwman. 5/5
This is a great book. I love that it’s both an adventure story and an allegory, that it shows readers why history is important and talking to each other is crucial without being pedantic or preachy. I love that the characters are not white. I love that each character has their own special competencies as well as a bunch of common ones. I love that it’s full of terrific description and resists easy answers and has character growth and doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. It’s a perfect book for kids and for parents and for kids and parents and families to read together.

Clade by James Bradley. 5/5
An astonishing and compelling novel of climate change and the effects–physical, emotional, practical–it will have on human life. Set in Australia, Clade is an outstanding companion to Nevil Shute’s classic On the Beach, which is about the end of human life on earth. Clade, with its survivors and vision of the future, addresses many of the same responses and feelings, couched in an entirely modern and well-researched manner. By following a single family line through the 2020s and forward, Bradley creates unique characters who clearly learn from and are influenced by their progenitors and their actions. I’d love to teach this novel in conjunction with Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and On the Beach, as they all offer distinct and endlessly fascinating ideas of what will come.

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