Starting with the best things I’ve read recently and moving down:
When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. 5/5
This is an outstanding book about queer Brooklyn, organized by time and including insightful but never pedantic commentary on the area’s development; its famous inhabitants, particularly those who helped make parts of the borough a safe space for queers; the role of the military and industry in Brooklyn’s queer lives, and the contributions queer Brooklynites have made to American and world arts and civil rights. Author Hugh Ryan writes in a clear, accessible, and personal style that is a pleasure to read. I learned a great deal from this book not just on the topic of queer Brooklyn, but also about the fantastic resources Ryan used, the ways in which a book dealing with histories of overlapping place, people, and society can be crafted, I highly recommend this book for school, college, and university libraries in addition to individual readers.
The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch. 5/5
A delicious entry in the Rivers of London series, this novella introduces readers to the German equivalent of Nightingale, Grant, and the Folly denizens. Tobias Winter, one of Germany’s only two practitioners, is paired with Vanessa Sommer to investigate the supernatural death of first one man, and later several, near a vineyard struggling to make a comeback. Readers get to learn about German magic traditions, werewolves, river goddesses of Germany, noble rot, and more. It’s a fantastic treat for fans of this series and can be an introduction to the series for newcomers.
Lust on Trial by Amy Werbel. 4/5
This is a great account of Anthony Comstock’s career, one spent obsessing over and trying to shut down sexual freedoms ranging from masturbation to birth control. Comstock notoriously raided bars, art studios, the mail, and private homes in search of what he considered obscene material, which could be paintings of nudes, sculptures, pornographic photographs, and erotic novels. Werbel examines Comstock’s motivations, his successes, failures, and legacy in America in a highly readable and entertaining manner, including images of many of the items Comstock sought to suppress.
Aristophania, Script by Xavier Dorison / Art by Joël Parnotte. 3/5
I liked this first installment in a French graphic novel series. This volume establishes the setting in 1900 France, and provides us with an origin story for the three protagonists. These are impoverished siblings, Victor, Basile, and Calixte Francoeur, whose father is killed and whose mother has been sent to prison. Enter a mysterious older lady of considerable wealth and power, Aristophania, who takes the children to her estate . After the children witness magic and unexplained events, Aristophania explains that their father was a member of the same magical order as she, and they can choose to join her in it or continue in their mundane lives. I’m a little leery of the rich-person-fixes-it-all trope indicated by this first volume and the somewhat stereotyped and as-yet mostly undeveloped children–the fighter, the scholar, the innocent–but I’d like to read more. The art is gorgeous and evocative.
The Poison Bed by Elizabeth Fremantle. 3/5
A well-constructed novel about the real-life trials of Robert Carr and Frances Howard, figures in the court of James I. Their stories are told here in alternating viewpoints, allowing author Fremantle to create not just one but two unreliable narrators. Details about the trials and the lives of those involved are rich and interesting, but the pace drags a bit. For readers not familiar with the court, Jacobean naming conventions, and other historical matters, the novel may be a bit confusing.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. 2/5
An interesting intellectual exercise in questions of IA autonomy, emotion, motivation, alternate history, and self-reflection, but also kind of a drag to read and a bit preachy. In an England where technology is far more advanced than the present, and where Alan Turing lives as a 70-year-old, highly decorated celebrity, AIs in human-like bodies have become available for sale. The novel follows the purchaser of one such AI and in time finds that, predictably, some AIs can become more like humans and some humans more like AIs. I finished it because I usually enjoy McEwan’s work, but this was a chore to read.
Nation of the Beasts by Mariana Palova. 2/5
I understand that this was a huge hit when it was published in Spanish a few years ago. It didn’t really work for me, and I’m not sure how much of that is how the book is constructed and how much might be attributable to translation. Set in New Orleans, the story involves a white teenage orphan whose father abandoned him at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet as a baby. The orphan, Elisse, grows un in India, and then makes his way to America to search for his father. Once in the US, he’s taken in by a Buddhist center in New Orleans, but is quickly pursued by rival forces who are shapeshifters and what the author calls “voodoo” practitioners. Elisse is told that he has shapeshifter-type ancestry, and tries to learn more about this before a loa, or vodun god, comes after him seeking Elisse’s death. Along the way there’s a slow-burn possible-romance building between Elisse and one of his shapeshifting “brothers.” The novel switches POV frequently, and while these different voices make for unique perspectives, it’s not always clear why they’re used or why the author found them necessary. Elisse’s own voice is inconsistent throughout the novel, moving from a formal tone to slang and back again without rhyme or reason. Elisse’s backstory about being a blond American kid turned monk/acolyte doesn’t seem to be very relevant, and his interactions with the Buddhists who take him in don’t seem to matter much either. The use of stereotypical tropes surrounding the treatment of “voodoo” is pretty insensitive, as is the treatment of New Orleans culture. The writing makes it seem as if the author visited NOLA once, during Mardi Gras, did lots of touristy things, and never learned anything else about the city. This is the first in a projected series, so maybe the following books will be better, but I’m not inclined to read them based on this one.
The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse. 1/5
A mystery set in the Catholic-Hugenot wars of the sixteenth century, this novel is unfortunately a total bore. The history is presented pedantically; the main characters are a tired stereotype of lovers from different religions, the kind aunt/nursemaid, and evil priest; the plot is absurd; and it is all overwritten, slow-moving, and long. Mosse’s previous works also generally involve absurd plots and French history, but none have ever seemed as slow or as dull or as full of non-developed characters as this one.
Readymade Bodhisattva by Sunyoung Park and Sang Joon Park. 1/5
This might be the most tedious collection of short stories I’ve ever encountered. The introduction tells the reader all about what they’re going to read, then the intro to each story does the same. The stories themselves are mostly political comments dressed up as SF, and are dull and badly written (pr perhaps badly translated?). In any case, I can’t recommend any of the stories in this collection, much less the collection as a whole.