Book reviews: fantasy, travel, autism

Given by Nandi Taylor. 2/5
In this fantasy novel, a young woman, adept at her culture’s magic, goes to a different country to study at its magic academy, which is run mostly by people-dragons who have two forms. Mostly bullied by her professors, she does find allies, and a young man who insists upon seeing her for the first time that she is his “Given”–his predestined life mate, with whom he will have “dragonlings” and continue his line. Although the protagonist initially pushes back against this concept, she and the man grow closer through a series of adventures and eventually she decides she loves him and takes him back to her country. There are some good ideas in this book (although predestined love interests are all kinds of problematic), but also numerous similarities with other recent fantasy fiction (Genevieve Coogan’s series, for example; every book ever that send an undertrained magical person to a snooty magic school) but lacking a good bit of the more compelling aspects of those books. This read to me as a manuscript that needed some heavy editing before it can really shine.

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 4/5
In decided contrast to her fantasy novel Gods of Jade and Shadow, which I criticized for its protagonist’s utter lack of agency and personal fortitude, this excellent new non-fantasy novel by Moreno-Garcia is all about a young woman taking control of her circumstances and using them to further her personal goals. Viridiana is eighteen and resisting her mother’s push for her to get married and start a family when a wealthy family comes to her small Mexican town and hires her as a translator and secretary. As she becomes more involved with the family, and begins a relationship with one of them, she also begins to discover that all is not as it seems with her employers. Using her wits and local knowledge, Viridiana manages to get out of dangerous and difficult situations, losing her naïveté and becoming a survivor, if a cynical one, in the process.

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham. 2/5
A mostly feel-good story based on the historical cases of the British children who were sent to Canada to serve as farm workers in the 1920s. The focus of the story is a group of children who survived together on the streets before being placed in children’s homes; the author gives them each unique lives and ultimately reunites several in different ways. the story is framed by a narrative of a woman finally telling her granddaughter and great-grandson the story of her life. A bit milksop and obvious. Content warnings for rape (which the author never plainly names, which I find ridiculously squeamish and a disservice to the many young women and girls who were raped during their service) and suicide, PTSD, alcoholism, and brutality.

The Festival Murders by Mark McCrum. 1/5
A snarky mystery packed with famous literary names, set at a book festival. A famous critic dies, followed by a journalist, and a mystery novelist decides to play detective. Lots and lots of mostly tedious confessional passages by the other characters and an extremely long monologue by the author-cum-detective at the denouement. Catty and misogynist and ageist; not something I’d recommend.

Taaqtumi by Aviaq Johnston, Richard Van Camp, Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley, Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, Thomas Anguti Johnston, Repo Kempt. 5/5
This is an outstanding collection of truly horrifying and fascinating tales by indigenous authors. Drawing on Inuit myth, legend, and lore, the authors have created unique stories that offer glimpses of their culture and practices. I am recommending this to all of my friends and to readers who love horror and are interested in diverse takes on the genre.

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide by Siena Castellon. 3/5
Written by a British 16 year old, this book has good intentions, offering support for autistic girls and young women. I am an autistic woman, and read this with the question in mind of whether this would have been helpful for me. The answer is complicated. Castellon’s approach is upbeat and encouraging, but is often problematic as well. She repeatedly recommends autistic kids turn to their parents for help, based on what appears to be a positive and supportive relationship with her own parents, but many autistic kids won’t have that kind of parental relationship. Parents—and other adults and authority figures— are often focused on cure, and nowhere does she address how to handle the ongoing issues that stem from that. She also embraces the idea of calling her aspects of autism “superpowers,” which is a compensation narrative many autistic people reject, and rightly so, because it further Others us and makes us seem abnormal. She cites Greta Thunberg as a role model, but seems unaware that much of Greta’s success comes from her privileged parents—something few of us have. The book is full of anecdotes that share Castellon’s experiences with bullying, bad friends, and uneducated educators, but her message that by working with parents and finding mentors you can trust (and buying certain products, which she recommends by name) will make everything better is naive and Pollyanna-ish. I’d like to have a book about living with autism that is more realistic and isn’t afraid to tackle the much darker issues and problems of being an autistic girl or woman in our patriarchal, racist, sexist, capitalist society, with real advice for the hard times.

Take Us to a Better Place: Stories by Madeline Ashby, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Calvin Baker, Frank Bill, Yoon Ha Lee, Karen Lord, Mike McClelland, Achy Obejas, David A. Robertson, Martha Wells. 2/5
This is a collection of short focusing on health and society. Some are more successful than others, but all of them are mildly preachy and don’t contain understanding of disabilities, aging, and significant physical difference in people. I was also disappointed by what seems to be poor editing in a number of stories that were rambling or disorganized.

Faces in the Crowd by Feng Jicai. 2/5
A series of vignettes about the people of a Chinese port city. A bit tedious and dull, unfortunately, although these are occasional gems of phrase and description.

Spartanburg by Richard Fleming. 1/5
An excruciatingly badly written book that wants to be about race and class in the American South, but is instead weirdly focused on menstruation and marred by an unfortunate use of “dialect.”

The Sky Done Ripped by Joe R. Lansdale. 2/5
A rip-roarin pastiche of various 19th century authors and genres: talking animals, time travel, ape people, Tarzan, H. G. Wells….not bad, but not really good either. A fair bit of women who are monstrous or need saving, heroic men, and a bit too much over-the-topness.

The Book Ghost by Lorna Gray. 2/5
Written in a stilted, perhaps-emulating-the-period style of the 1940s, this novel follows a young widow in her post-WWII life, where she’s trying to recover from losing her husband, establish her own professional identity, and look after the aunt and uncle who raised her. The plot involves Lucy’s relationship with her uncle’s second-in-command at the publishing company where they all work, a mystery regarding a publishing project, and possible black marketing. Perhaps because of the reticent narrative voice of Lucy, I found this rather painful reading and found Lucy’s descriptions of the emotions of everyday actions and thoughts inexorably melodramatic and overwrought. The romance is one that takes place with little communication, and the mystery ends up being a misunderstanding caused by jumping to conclusions. The characters and plot ideas were all fine and could have made for a really stellar novel, I can’t say this was a pleasure to read.

The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn. 3/5
An okay set of short, connected narratives about Rick from Vaughn’s Kitty the werewolf series. Nice background and origin stories, a mildly entertaining read, but it does feel like it should have been parter of a larger work with a strong plot, rather than just exposition.

Edison by Edmund Morris. 1/5
Just because he’s Edmund Morris and famous as a quasi-biographer doesn’t mean he should get a pass on using offensive language (“gypsy”), fatphobia, or sexualizing the women in the history. Where was his editor? In addition, it’s clear from his descriptions of the technology he writes about that he doesn’t quite understand it fully, and this means that there are errors of both omission and commission. Finally, Morris’s adoration of Edison is tiresome after the first page. I wanted to read a biography, not a hagiography.

Death in Trout Fork by D. M. O’Byrne. 1/5
An unfortunately rather dull mystery set in a tiny town in Colorado. The characters are either entirely one-dimensional (and not terribly personable or intelligent) or are intended to surprise the naive reader by breaking (the author seems to think) stereotypes, like college professors who drive motorcycles. The narrator is a young journalist who although striving to be independent still apparently is on her rich parents’ auto insurance. A possible romance is utterly passionless; the plot plods; and there are no surprises in store for the reader–the author drops hints that are far too wide and broad as if readers aren’t paying attention. Not a great use of reading time.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd. 5/5
This is a beguiling and fascinating mystery, combining forensics and myth and the supernatural in ways that both sit uneasily with one another and complement each other perfectly. Bridie, trained to understand the causes of death, is tasked with searching for a missing child who is not entirely human. Accompanied by a ghost and the traumas of her own past, Bridie seeks out justice while grappling with the implications of her youth and those she knew. The language is beautiful and the plot is masterful; a gothic gem.

Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony. 5/5
A very funny and very sad book all at once, with many long and beautiful sentences on the nature of things, especially animals, in the world and how evolution has worked and what the results have been and how those very results influence even the smallest aspects of our lives, with two tragic romances at the heart of the story and a condemnation of societal and personal hypocrisy and lack of truth and this is a very different book that I highly recommend to just about everyone.

A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
An excellent alternate reality Western and romance and mystery. The second in a new series by Harris, A Longer Fall finds a team of hired guns embroiled in a job that unexpectedly involves the Holy Russian Empire, civil rights issues and rebellions, and magic. This is a richly imagined and detailed world full of nuance and thought and great characters. I need to go back and read the first in the series while waiting for another installment.

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi. 2/5
A quick read of mostly novelty pieces centered around the holidays. While a few of the short stories are solid, the interviews with elves and whatnot are often awkward and not much fun to read, like bad SNL skits.

Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders. 2/5
It really never occurred to me that there might be a genre of Christian mysteries, as there are Christian romances, but this apparently is one of a series in just that niche. A woman, the widow of a vicar, takes on PI work for friends and family. In this installment she seeks to reconcile estranged brothers, but instead finds herself amidst murders in a community in strife over Catholicism vs Protestantism. While the narrator is supposed to come across as pious but with a sense of humor, she just seems immensely privileged and intolerant of others and highly tolerant of her own foibles and those of the people she finds acceptable. By the end, I was rooting for certain characters to become atheists, shake off their religious brainwashing and baggage, and run away to live happier lives elsewhere.

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau. 2/5
A naive young woman from a wealthy family becomes embroiled in murder, set against the backdrop of Coney Island’s heyday, workers’ rights movements, and women’s suffrage. The descriptions of the various amusement parks and their workers was interesting, but the characters were fairly one-dimensional and ultimately the plot was slow and predictable.

On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux. 2/5
I was a little wary of this book, having gotten thoroughly fed up with Theroux’s misogyny and snobbishness in his earlier travel books and novels. And while those elements are certainly still present–he mentions a few women writers, but cites primarily men, and the male gaze is ever-present and often unpleasant–On the Plain of Snakes was nonetheless an interesting read. Theroux travels the Mexican-American border seeking out stories of border crossings, NAFTA’s effects, the gangs that control the trafficking of drugs and people, the desire for different lives, and more. The Mexico he presents is a brutal and vicious one with little recourse due to corruption and fear. He learns Mexican Spanish and runs a writing workshop, is beset by cops seeking bribes, and compares his experiences with other writers who have traveled the area. There’s some value here despite the drawbacks, I think, although I’d love to know what Mexican readers think.

The Lost Child by Emily Gunnis. 2/5
A convoluted novel about postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, in which all of the women–save a saintly, conveniently dead one–are unstable and dangerous to their children, and in which the men are either complete brutes or gentle but slightly confused and not terribly capable of thought. The book is written in a naive style and is over-full of cliches, neither of which make the story, characters, or issues compelling. A further rewrite and some editing would have made this a much stronger book.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear. 3/5
A solid space opera in which salvagers discover that an alien race, supposedly long-dead, isn’t, and that the historiography of their universe has been covering up quite a bit of information. There are some invented terms and jargon for readers to work out and get, as well as some physics, and the characters didn’t feel completely developed, but a lot of SFF fans will enjoy it.

18 Tiny Deaths by Bruce Goldfarb. 5/5
An utterly absorbing account of Frances Lee, a wealthy society woman who became fascinated with early forensic science and assisted in developing the medical examiner system in the US, while also creating a library for the study of “legal medicine,” as it was known, and for making numerous, painstakingly-detailed dioramas of death scenes for investigators to learn from.

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