Book reviews: a fascinating alternate Elizabethan England, more Foxfire, and Scarlett Thomas’s newest novel

Foxfire Story by Foxfire Fund Inc. 5/5
Another excellent entry in the Foxfire series, focusing on the methods of story-collecting that young ethnographers did to gather the materials for the series, and in-depth bios on the storytellers. Full of folklore, ghost stories, and stories about life in the Southern Highlands.

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas. 4/5
A devastating morality tale about eating disorders, young women, manipulation, and self-worth. Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, is sent to boarding school in England. where he already-growing obsession with her body and appearance is fed by the anorexia and bulimia of her fellow students, also the neglected daughters of rich families. When one student dies, the faculty–all with their own body issues–seems to unintentionally bungle the job in teaching the students to avoid further disordered eating, but there are sinister motives propelling everyone involved towards horrible ends. Content warning for disordered eating, body issues, anorexia, bulimia, fasting, and other similar topics.

Mayhem by Estelle Laure. 3/5
Mayhem and her mom finally leave her abusive stepfather and go to California, where her mom is from. They find sanctuary with her aunt, and Mayhem soon learns that she’s part of a long line of magical women in the family who protect the city they live in from violent men. That her aunt has adopted three kids and hoped that they too would become magical complicates things, and Mayhem has to find ways of helping her family by blood, her family by adoption, and her chosen family through both magical and non-magical means. There’s a lot of violence and killing, but also some excellent girl power material, and smart readers will be attracted to Mayhem’s conflicts of conscience and do some thinking about vengeance, violence, and protection on their own. Could be a good book for a book club or reading group of teens and tweens.

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag. 1/5
In the world of this novel, certain women are Grimm Sisters, capable of powerful magic and feats. They don’t always known who they are until provoked or threatened. A group of men hunt and kill these women. The author provides a set of Grimm sisters from various backgrounds and follows them through their trials in regular life and their awakenings into their powers. I found the writing a bit plodding and pedestrian–setting up a woman named Scarlet–who the author tells us used to be called Red–being hunted by a Mr Wolfe is rather tired, don’t you think? There’s lots of diversity on view, but it feels like lip-service–pen-service, if you will–and none of the characters are anything but flat paper cutouts who tick off the boxes on some list. There’s so much better out there–you can give this one a miss.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton. 3/5
This has gotten great reviews, and while I don’t agree with all of them, it’s obviously a book that will resonate with a lot of readers. I found the writing to be imitative of–but not as strong as–that of Toni Morrison’s, and the jagged, non-linear form of narrative was more of an annoyance than a device for building and sustaining tension and anticipation.

The Killing Tide by Jean-Luc Bannalec. 1/5
This mystery, set in Brittany, was incredibly boring and poorly plotted. The most interesting things were the legends and myths about the country related by the supposedly-boring assistant to the main character. An editor could have tightened this up with a heavy developmental edit, but as it is, this book is slow and drags rather interminably.

My Long List of Impossible Things by Michelle Barker. 4/5
In this book, a young woman and her older sister must each find their own ways of surviving in post-WWII Germany, and must examine and develop their own personal ethics, beliefs, and senses of guilt and responsibility. Initially accompanied by their mother, they leave home when Soviet soldiers arrive, trekking to the home of a friend of their mother’s from long ago. Once settled in a small town, they seek work, safety, and daily necessities while trying to negotiate the occupying Soviets, the black market, and other threats. The narrator isn’t particularly smart or likable, but she comes across as very real, and that’s what makes this book work. I think readers will wince at her immaturity and celebrate her moments of cleverness, and mourn with her and feel her confusion and ultimately have to decide how they feel about her actions and culpabilities and acts of bravery. This would be good for a book group, especially one for younger readers.

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi. 5/5
This is a great book! Set in a slightly different world but one much like our own early modern period, a young woman is forced to take on the job of Sin Eater. Sin Eaters hear the final confessions of the dying and assign foods the Sin Eaters must eat in order to absolve the dead. When the new Sin Eater begins finding accusations made through the foods left on the coffins of women in the court of the queen, she begins to investigate who is making the accusations and why. This is a terrific and smart riff on the Catholic church, the courts of Mary and Elizabeth I, ritual and its meaning in society, the treatment of women, and much more. Campisi gets top marks for creating a rich and compelling alternate world, for playing with rumors and myths surrounding her real-world models, and for developing fascinating characters.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed. 1/5
I should have loved this book. It has everything I like–smart, diverse protagonists who are worldly and curious; secret history; lost artworks; fascinating clues; bilingual jokes. But I have to pan it. Because despite all of these good things–and a fun story about two young people tracking down a missing painting on the estate of Alexandre Dumas–at the end one of the characters reveals that he’s stolen a sketch from a state archive. He claims that no one knew it was there and that no one will miss it, but scholars and archivists know better. It wasn’t lost–it was in an archive. archives know what they have. And despite the admirable realism the author gives to the discover of the missing painting, she should have known, too, that every sketch, every scrap, is just as important to scholars. So while this should have gotten 5 stars and a rave review, it gets 1, because those of us who do research–we need those scraps, those things that arrogant teens think no one else knows about, that they think we won’t need.

Blood Countess (Lady Slayers) by Lana Popovic. 1/5
This is a brief telling of the crimes committed by Elisabeth, Countess Bathory, in Hungary, as narrated by a young and naive woman who falls in love with the Countess and is manipulated by her. I don’t understand why this book was written or who the intended audience is. Bathory is a notorious figure in history, and it’s not as if there are any justifications for her actions and there is obviously no way a fictional narrator could change history. As it is, the history presented in the book is wildly erroneous and counterfactual. Are readers supposed to understand how Bathory manipulated people? Or are we supposed to identify with the narrator, who is utterly without any redeeming qualities? What is this book trying to be, and why on earth would someone publish it as it is?

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