Reviews: alternate histories, multiverses, and new takes

Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon. 5/5
This is a great read. In a society where leaders who die are entombed with three young women as sacrifices, a young healer is trying to hold her father together after the death of her mother in childbirth. When her sister is chose to accompany the dying leader to the grave, the healer knows she has to cure him to keep her sister from dying as well. But the palace is full of intrigue and plots, and it takes skill, cunning, and a group of excellent friends to put together a plan to save all of the women. The world-building is good, the characters are strong and real, and the novel is filled with glittering details and bits of lore I found fascinating.

If, Then by Kate Hope Day. 5/5
This is a lovely meditation on the possibilities of the multiverse and the incalculable potential lives we all lead. Told through the stories of a group of neighbors in Oregon living under the shadow of a volcano, Day’s storylines weave in and out of different timelines and paths. Each neighbor has visions of what might happen–or be happening–in their lives in alternate universes, and the entanglements of their lives and visions propels them into new beginnings, new outlooks, and new ideas. A doctor sees herself falling in love and living with a coworker; her husband sees himself as a homeless, unstable ex-academic; a woman who has left academia and had a baby sees herself with different children and careers. The book is elegantly and often beautifully written, and the characters–and their different selves–are well-drawn and developed. This would be perfect for book clubs and groups of friends to read together.

Small Kingdoms and Other Stories by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
I absolutely loved this collection of stories about a former professional trainer of spies and special ops teams turned high school principal. The twists were excellent and often unexpected, and the characters were smart and sharp. Harris captures the environment of the small town, Southern school with wicked precision. Anyone who enjoys thrillers will like this book.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. 5/5
This is a brilliant reimagining of superheroes and super-villains, set in the many wars of the twentieth century. When an experiment causes a small number of the world’s population to become changed, governments rush to snap up those who can serve best as weapons. The novel follows two heroes, Oblivion and Fogg, from their training as young adults through their service in WWII, Vietnam, and other conflicts. Along the way they work with other changed people, men and women with widely varying powers and abilities and motivations, negotiating lives no one else will fully understand. This is an intelligent novel, a superhero story with deep philosophical roots, with a great sense of history and the consequences, historically speaking, of action and inaction, and a fabulous read with fascinating characters and ideas.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz. 4/5
Both a send-up of an homage to the private school novel, The Swallows details what happens when the girls at a school find out about the crass and cruel contest the boys run in ranking the girls’ prowess at oral sex. Told from multiple viewpoints, The Swallows is a testament to girl power, a self-mocking parody, a story of trauma and abuse, and a novel of self-discovery. Recommended for anyone who has previously enjoyed this genre, including books like The Secret History or Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch. 3/5
A decent reversal of traditional fairy tales. In the world of the Darkwood, the government’s Inquisitor-like Huntsmen use a magic mirror to hunt down witches–people with magic powers. But the witches are often helpful and sometimes fairly useless in their powers–one turns everything she touches into baked goods, for example. When Gretel–who does math, something no girl in this world does–is branded a witch, she flees to the Darkwood, where she quickly finds comrades to help her fight back against the Huntsmen, who are intent on destroying her village, family, and friends. It’s a cute read, although the constant use of “trousers!” as a swear word is grating after a few pages. Good for elementary school-age kids and family to read together.

One Night in Georgia by Celeste O. Norfleet. 3/5
I have very mixed feelings about this book. In 1968, three college women and an initially-unwanted college man decide to drive back to school from New York. Naive Veronica, whose father is forcing her to marry against her will for business reasons, takes her brand new, bright red Ford Fairlane convertible and packs it with her friends Daphne–a fragile flower–and Zelda, the novel’s protagonist and a putative lawyer for civil rights. Daniel, attending college near the women, goes along to ostensibly protect them. But this isn’t a simple road trip, because driving through the South in 1968 while black is incredibly dangerous, and Zelda, Daphne, and Veronica are headed to Spelman College, and Daniel attends Morehouse University. Passing through sundown towns and dealing with racist and brutal cops, gas station attendants, restaurants, and more–and encountering a few decent white and black people along the way–Zelda and Daniel fall in love, Veronica and Daphne realize the importance of Zelda’s work in civil rights, and things go wrong and stay that way when the group is involved in the shooting of a white man.

On the one hand, this novel does an excellent job of illustrating just how dangerous it was–and often still is–to be black in the American South, On the other, the characters in this novel make such unbelievably foolish choices and do such vacuous things that I wanted to yell at them all. The story is a tragedy, and one based in racism, but the author could have written the same tragedy without having made the women all be so dismissive or ignorant of their surroundings.

The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman. 3/5
Although I felt that this novel got off to a slow and rocky start, I ended up enjoying it. In a world where a large part of the population have powers, political extremists are trying to take away their rights. Some individuals have elemental powers–like the characters in Avatar: the Last Airbender, to make a pop culture connection–while others can see possible futures or sense and alter emotions. A group of friends with various powers finds itself trying to prevent multiple deaths of those in the group while also mentoring young people with powers, navigating their own complex personal lives, and dealing with state and police minders. As the group works to protect its own from targeted attacks, the pace and intensity of the novel picks up, and races to a satisfying end. While it’s set in Tel Aviv, I didn’t get much of a sense of the city, and there are some grammar and syntax errors that result in some confusing passages.

After Yekaterina by K.L. Abrahamson. 2/5
The premise–a murder/conspiracy mystery set in a tiny, autonomous, Russophone country in an alternate reality–is a good one. But the writing is repetitive, sluggish, and needs a heavy copyedit, and the descriptions of women throughout are sexist and off-putting. The male gaze is overwhelming. There are also a few too many echoes of Gorky Park in this as well, which will inevitably invite comparison–and this book will not come out the winner in that.

Becoming Beatriz by Tami Charles. 1/5
I am not sure I have the right or enough words to express how much I loathed this book. Beatriz is a gang member, selling drugs in schools and on the street. Her brother runs the gang until he’s killed by a rival gang. Beatriz becomes depressed and takes a hiatus before resuming her gang activities. Oh, and Beatriz is a dancer who loves Debbie Allen on Fame! and wants to become a professional dancer. And apparently in the world where Beatriz lives, you can do just that–or at least get a great start–with a few tough dance classes and supportive teachers and friends. I learned more about dealing drugs in this novel than about Beatriz’s efforts as a dancer, because the dance parts are all glossed over with exclamations of dance terms–plie! Jete!–and banal descriptions of Beatriz’s happiness dancing. It demeans the intense training and work dancers do in the real world, and it’s terribly facile and often silly. While the author tells the reader that Beatriz faces real danger in leaving the gang, this too is mostly ignored. Beatriz herself is an entirely unlikeable, immature, egocentric character, and the other characters in the novel are created as such obvious foils for her—such as Nasser, the brilliant new Haitian arrival to the neighborhood who represents everything Beatriz distrusts but is also perfect, and Amy, the vicious leader of the rival gang who ordered the hit on Beatriz’s brother–that everything is very obvious and lacking in subtlety. Another few drafts, some workshopping, and some realism in the dance portions of the book would strengthen it immensely, but as is, it’s not ready for prime time.

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