Book review: Poetry, the Kopp sisters, graphic novels, and the outstanding Rebel Girls

Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein. 2/5
This fantasy novel started off with promise and some beautiful writing: in a grove in the woods, a girl incorporates a sprite into her body, and has to learn to control it and when to let it take control. The grove is owned by her great-aunt, a recluse who write a best-selling fantasy novel herself but became plagued by fans and hides from them. So far, so good. But then the story’s development gets unfocused and the writing changes, becoming flat and dull, and the plot becomes ever-more complicated and full of nonsensical actions on the parts of the characters, who also fail to develop beyond the two-dimensional. The sprite-carrying protagonist soon finds her life infiltrated by an obsessed fan of her great-aunt; soon the fan has killed Ivy’s dad and taken over control of Ivy and her three younger sisters, Ivy leaves, and there are gaps in the story where she simply says “years went by.” The sprite in her body comes and goes in mentions so inconsistently it’s as if it’s not really part of the story, and Ivy’s sisters, the evil guardian, and other characters do seemingly random and bizarre things that are unrelated, or, equally strangely, pick up conversations ended seemingly months or years before as if nothing had intervened. The book reads like it needed a lot more developmental editing and another year or two to be fully cooked.

The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois. 1/5
This novel, intended possibly as a latter-day, more grotesque Lord of the Flies, is unfortunately poorly written . badly conceived, and almost unreadable. I don’t know what the intended audience is, I can’t tell what the purpose of some of the asides are, and I can’t figure out why anyone published this as it is. I thought perhaps it was the translation that is bad, but I read a few passages of the original French online, and it’s terrible too. Don’t bother with this one.

The Library of Lost Things by Laura Taylor Namey. 5/5
This is an outstanding YA book in which–and I am grateful–no one gets pregnant or raped or is a cutter or drinks too much, but in which young adults are smart and thoughtful and good friends to one another and deal with challenges and problems with honesty and humor and intelligence. Darcy is a reader with an unusually good memory; her best friend Marisol is the only person who knows that Darcy is also dealing with a mother who is a hoarder, a manipulative grandmother, and the stress of trying to keep the landlord and property manager out of the apartment she shares with her mom, which is packed high with hoarded stuff. In her last year of high school, Darcy is forced to deal with all of these things, and survives, and even blooms, thanks to Marisol and a new friend, Asher, who is recovering from a car accident and has trauma of his own. There’s a slow-burn romance, a reckoning with the grandmother and mother, and more, as Darcy grows into a stronger and better-equipped adult.

A Midnight Clear by Sam Hooker; Seven Jane; Alcy Leyva; Laura Morrison; Dalena Storm; Cassondra Windwalker. 2/5
An ok collection of horror and horror-ish stories set in late December. None of these seemed particularly great to me, but others might like them. There are elves and murder and Cthulhu and werehumans and kids dealing with winter gods and the Stanley Hotel.

Working Juju by Andrea Shaw Nevins. 5/5
This is an excellent academic study of how beliefs about Caribbean magics and the fantastic have been treated by whites and used in film and fiction by both Caribbeans and non-Caribbeans. Nevins provides a thorough and fascinating introduction to the varieties of supernatural belief and syncretic religions in various parts of the Caribbean, and then illustrates how they have been received, first by colonists and later by creators in popular media. The discussion of zombism and ghosts in legend and film is clear and thought-provoking, as is the consideration of the Caribbean paranormal in the works of Tobias Bcukell. I recommend this highly for anyone who works in religion, popular culture, diaspora, or Caribbean studies, and for general readers who are fans of movies or books in which the supernatural Caribbean appears.

Hotel Dare by Terry Blas. 3/5
This graphic novel has gorgeous artwork that uses traditional Mexican figures and styles, but the story is a bit of a mess and very heavy-handed in its message of family unity, although it also includes chosen family with blood family. Three siblings travel to their grandmother’s hotel in Mexico where they discover portals to other worlds. Each travels to a different one, making new friends who all then join together in a quest for the siblings’ grandfather, who disappeared into a portal years ago and for whom their magic-using grandmother has been searching. Some of the plot lines are worthy of a telenovela, which is probably deliberate given the early reference to telenovelas in the book. With a little editing and a lighter touch on the moral of the story, this would have gotten a higher rating from me.

Book of Beasts by Edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond. 5/5
A lovely and fun collection of the creatures that adorn medieval manuscripts, tapestries, and other media. A great source for teachers, artists (including needleworkers, stained class-makers, and sculptors in addition to the more obvious illustrators), and writers and gamers. The context and explanations for the different mythological and real animals is useful and interesting.

Footnotes by Peter Fiennes. 2/5
I have very mixed feelings about this book. Once, it might have been described as “delightfully bitchy” or some such, but nowadays the kind of sniping the author Peter Fiennes engages in just seems petty; and it’s inconsistent and silly, too. He repeatedly notes that one of his sources for the book, Celia Fiennes, was a bad speller; but she was born into a time when spelling, although becoming regularized, was still not standard, and certainly not so across all of England. He enjoys taking the wind out of people’s sails on the smallest of matters–the cost of a haircut in Wales vs. in the London suburbs, for example. But at the same time the writing is often beautiful and about places where the atmosphere and sense of history is difficult to convey to readers. He communicates what I think is a common reaction to pollution and the end of species and great forests: a mixture of rage, urgent desire to fix things, and the sense that doing so won’t make a difference. He’s selected interesting writers with whom to interact and follow, but all of them are white and financially comfortable. It’s a very English book–I dare anyone who has ever lived in England to read it and not hear the author’s accent as they do–in that Fiennes seems uncomfortable with delving into the more complicated or emotional contexts of the writers’ lives and travels, instead smoothing over much of it with sarcasm and unfunny snarkiness.

Modern Sudanese Poetry by Translated and edited by Adil Babikir. 4/5
This is a much-needed book, as there is almost no other Sudanese poetry in English translation on the market. While the introduction is repetitive and the translations often awkward, the poems are nonetheless striking and urgent. I was especially struck by the sense of mortality and the horrors of the recent civil war in Sudan and the ways in which many of the poets navigated this trauma through a combination of direct address and metaphor using nature imagery. I recommend this to casual readers of poetry in addition to scholars and those interested in the land and its people.

Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart. 5/5
Hurrah for the return of the Kopp sisters, who in this latest book are off to a women’s national service camp on the eve of WWI. Constance soon finds herself in charge of the operation, while her sisters throw themselves into their various passions with gusto. Constance soon finds that she enjoys teaching hand-to-hand combat and firearms safety and skills, and by the end of the book has decided where her future might lie. Along the way, there’s the story of a former sex worker who rose to fame as the “other woman” in a murder case, and her fears of being discovered, which of course she is, albeit only by Constance and a few trusted others. As always, the book is well-written and engaging, and historically engaged. Readers don’t have to have read the previous books in the series to enjoy this one, although it would help to explain a few things glossed over in this book. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Half Way Home by Hugh Howey. 3/5
I mostly enjoyed this novel, in which colonists raised in tanks are awoken early by the AI that governs their lives. Of 500, only 58 survive, and, only half-trained in their various areas of specialization–psychology, farming, geology, mining–they make a go of living on the planet they’re supposed to colonize. But politics and alliances and the development of power groups appears immediately, and it’s only by leaving the colony at great peril do some of the colonists discover the truth about the planet, the AI, and how they will need to function to live. There’s a lot of action and thinking (and some scenes that feel a bit like they were written for a film treatment) that works, but there’s also quite a bit of gender essentialism, and none of the characters really feel developed or even individual. There’s room for improvement, and since this seems like the beginning of a series, I hope those improvements come about in future installments.

Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler. 5/5
This is an excellent and detail-oriented adaptation of Butler’s classic Parable of the Sower. Like the recent release of her novel Kindred in the same format, it omits very little of the original dialogue and internal thoughts of the protagonists, and captures the fear and excitement that the novel so beautifully balances.

Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan. 5/5
This is a great book. Everyone ages 9 and up should have this put in their hands to read ASAP. When her anti-choice younger sister Helen is rumored to have had an abortion by their Catholic school’s mean girls clique, her pro-choice, riot grrrl sister Athena and her friends build a campaign to counter the accusations and to make everyone rethink their positions on shame, privacy, and autonomy. Along the way, Athena, whose collections of zines and punk rock albums is a solid reading and playlist for anyone interested, deals with a romance with a jerk (her ultimate response to him is empowering, y’all. It’s a terrific scene), her relationship with a black football player who’s been admitted to the school for his athletic prowess and is the victim of blatant racism and manipulation, and the desire to become a stronger person (her mantra, “What Would Kathleen Hanna Do?,” referencing the singer of Bikini Kill, is one I am totally adopting.) Keenan deals with difficult topics in a sophisticated way, captures the feeling of being a young woman in high school in the 90s, and the politics and behavior–and the fashion–of the time with aplomb. Go read it, give it to the kids in your life, recommend it to your library patrons, teach it in your classrooms. Go.

Trinity Sight by Jennifer Givhan. 1/5
Calliope, a professor, is driving when she experiences what she thinks is an earthquake. But she finds almost all of the population in her area missing–empty cars litter the highways, her neighbors are gone, as are her husband and son. Taking charge of the six-year-old girl from next door, she embarks on a long and nonsensical road trip. Along the way she encounters people turned to stone, Coyote the Trickster, and some very angry Zuni gods, who appear to be getting revenge on the atomic bomb testing of the 1940s. Throughout, Calliope protests that she’s a scientist and that none of this can be real. She also falls in love with a traveling stranger, apparently giving up on ever finding her husband again. But through magic and fighting, Calliope and her fellow travelers are returned to the world they know. This could have been a good read, but the prose is positively purple throughout and horribly overdone; the plot has holes the characters walk through, the “science” Calliope and others cite is mostly BS and badly presented to boot, and the characters have no depth. A good developmental edit could have made this a fun and interesting book, but it’s too messy and wordy by half.

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