Book reviews: Florence Price bio, space travel, mysteries

Shielded by KayLynn Flanders. 1/5
A princess in love with her brother and her brother’s friend must survive when enemy forces attack her homeland and the country adjacent to it, all while hiding a distinctive white stripe of hair that indicates that she’s magic. There was so much in this that was inconsistent and didn’t make sense that I can’t even begin to list it all. Filled with stereotypes and “plot twists” visible for miles, this book screams “bad Disney film treatment” all over it.

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars by Kate Greene. 1/5
In this under-edited memoir, author Kate Green describes her experiences as a test subject for NASA, living in a simulated Martian colony for several months. This would have been fascinating if not for Greene’s self-pity and her repetitive laments about the end of her marriage and search for self following her break-up with her wife. Greene’s account skips from topic to topic, not all of which she makes relevant or interesting in relationship to the rest of the book, and her apparent lack of interest in the other crew members makes this come across as an exercise in self-ego-stroking.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam. 2/5
In this novel, five women astronauts steal a rocket and travel far into outer space, hoping to be the first to land on a Goldilocks planet–one that has just the right conditions for human survival. But the manipulations and lies of the team’s leader wreak havoc on the ship and endanger everyone’s lives. I found the writing melodramatic and the story soap-operaish: life and death decisions daily! couples torn apart! allegiances shifted! misplaced trust! engineered diseases! The whole thing is overdone and there are few reasons given for the decisions some of the crew members make other than that they create more chaos and trust issues.

Elysium Girls by Kate Pentecost. 2/5
This novel takes place in a world in which magic exists, along with unending Dust Bowl conditions, and in which goddesses use humans and constructs to play out decade-long power games. Told from several mostly unnecessary points of view, the plot involves Sal, a young woman with strong magical capabilities, her friends, exiles in the desert surrounding their protected city-home, and a daemon in the form of a man. The plot is rather weak and the author relies on hero fights for tension and character-building. Ultimately, none of the characters were compelling enough to make me care about their fates.

In a Field of Blue by Gemma Liviero. 2/5
Following WWI, a young man must try to determine whether the woman claiming to be the wife of his presumed-dead brother is who she says she is. Things are complicated by the fact that she has a child, who she claims is the brother’s, the fact that the young man’s older brother is threatened in terms of inheritance by this child, that the mother of the man and his brother is unable to take any kind of action, and that the young man is falling in love with the woman. We get the story from the young man, up to a point, and then from the woman, which dispels all mystery. This form means that the book peaks early, and finishes weakly with a lot of plodding narration that confirms much of what readers will suspect early on.

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry. 4/5
This begins much like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides–narrated by the boys in a neighborhood who spy on a house full of sisters, all of whom are trying to escape–until one dies. After the death of their oldest sister, the remaining girls each try to find paths for themselves–through work, relationships, religion. But none of it really works for them until everything comes to a head when the ghost of their sister appears. The reaction of the neighborhood to her appearance gives the remaining sisters the energy they need to leave their abusive father, abusive boyfriends, abusive schools, and to seek out a new path together. A good book about women making do for themselves, about empowerment, about standing up to abuse. Powerfully written and beautifully constructed.

The Indigo Ghosts by Alys Clare. 3/5
A nice period mystery. Set in Stuart England, this mystery grapples with the Atlantic slave trade, syncretic and indigenous religions, and the everyday threats to life in a time when medicine was still in its infancy. The novel is told primarily from the POV of Gabe, a doctor in a small town who is called to help an old friend and finds himself seeking out the answers to sightings of ghosts, the presence of a mummified body on a ship, and the presence of strangers in his town. Asides told in third person broke up the flow of the narrative and added little to it, but for the most part it’s a well-told story with interesting characters and historical lore.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas. 4/5
In this novel, students with traumatic pasts are nurtured, encouraged, and, if they challenge the school, experimented on. Set in an alternate reality in which Catherine House is a mysterious and exclusive North American college, turning out brilliant graduates, Ines is a depressed student who begins looking into the institution’s most famous research, on a material called plasm. Said to heal, mend physical objects, and serve as a conduit between all existing things, plasm is used by Catherine House to make students content and hard-working, but as Ines discovers, those doing research on the substance are implicated in more dangerous applications. A nice SFF thriller with a hefty dose of college-novel-conspiracy added in, this book should appeal to readers of Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, and similar writers.

Figure It Out by Wayne Koestenbaum. 4/5
Any book by Koestenbaum is a dip into his kaleidoscopic mind, where we might encounter anything from musings on size queens to anecdotes about encounters on the subway to beards to art to music to celebrities to fashion to imaginary events and dreams. This collection brings together essays, lists, journal entries, and other short writings that provide the reader with an excellent overview of Koestenbaum’s mostly omnivorous thoughts (although there is a definite focus on white people, Jewishness, men, and gay idols) about his life and life in general. If you can overlook what is omitted and revel in what he does think about and how he does it, this latest entry into the Koestenbaum library is dazzling and thoughtful and entertaining and frustrating and a good sampler of his work.

The Heart of a Woman by Rae Linda Brown. 3/5
This is a very solid and well-written introduction to the life and works of composer Florence Price. Extensively researched over the course of Rae Linda Brown’s career, The Heart of a Woman (despite the sentimental and cloying title) is primarily a biography of Price with a bit of music analysis. Non-musicians can easily skip over the short, more technical sections, and still gain an understanding of Price’s music and the context in which it was written. While I find there to be a little too much supposition without evidence in the book for my comfort and wish there had been more and deeper analysis, the book serves its purpose as a first stop in getting to know Price and her works. A lot of research has been published–and many excellent recordings issued–on and about Price’s work in the last ten years, but Brown’s contribution to the understanding of African American composers in the twentieth century cannot be overstated.

The Burning by Laura Bates. 2/5
In this YA novel, a young woman who has had her nude photos shared throughout a student body relocates with her mother to a small. Town, hoping to start fresh. But of course her past catches up with her, and she has to deal with new harassment. This takes up the bulk of the book, which is too bad, because if the act of resistance the protagonist does at the very end of the book had come earlier, the author could have focused on strategies for pushing back against such bullying. The protagonist and her mother—who is an incredibly naive and inattentive parent—need a lot of therapy, and while the author provides links to anti bullying resources at the end of the novel, none of those actually appear in the book, which is a terrible missed opportunity. A structure and approach that focused more on combating the problem, instead of reveling in the kinds of messages harassers send and what they do, would have resulted in stronger characters and a stronger book overall. A side plot about a historical figure in the protagonist’s new town is okay but not really compelling.

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey. 1/5
I found this YA novel really disturbing. A group of high school girls with magic abilities uses their powers to cover up the accidental death of a boy. While there is great non-white and queer representation, the girl responsible for the death never worries about what she did to kill the boy, and the other girls are equally self-centered in their help in the cover-up. The boy who dies is just an object, and is treated as such by the girls. I’m not opposed to immoral characters, but the cast here seems entirely amoral and without compassion or a thought for anyone outside their circle. The threat posed to the magic girls by an outsider girl turns predictably into an epiphany for all of the group, and ultimately none of the girls ever confronts the very problematic nature of magic or the fact that none of them really know what they can do or how it works.

Trouble is What I Do by Walter Mosley. 3/5
A short thriller featuring PI Leonid McGill and his family, a wealthy racist family, and a long-buried family secret. McGill is hired to deliver a letter to a young woman that tells of her family’s true, Black ancestry. But the head of the family is so invested in his white supremacism that he’s got hit men trying to kill off his own father before word can spread. Add to this McGill family drama and a lot of backstories, and the result is an ok thriller with way too much baggage. The side stories–McGill’s wife being in love with his father, for instance–don’t add much to the plot, and Mosley’s writing, albeit celebrated, is too ponderous for my taste, focusing on telling the reader details in contrived ways: He was taller than my 5’&’ and weighted 310 to my 250, etc. Fans might enjoy it, but this one wasn’t for me.

The Down Days by Ilze Hugo. 4/5
A wild ride through a South African society reeling from a highly contagious infectious disease, dead bodies in the streets, pop-up religions, and new belief systems about ghosts and magic. Reminiscent of the novels by Lauren Beukes, The Down Days is a fantasy/dystopian novel with a cast of vividly-imagined characters, lushy detailed settings and scenes, and eye-opening writing about how we think about death, survival, and society.

This Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples. 2/5
In this novel, a Native American man grapples with his lovers’ inabilities to come out of the closet, the traumatic past of his small town, and his sense of self. The author focuses on two threads: the protagonist’s relationship with a closeted former high-school classmate, which the protagonist mostly accepts with a wry resignation; and the lingering presence of a young man killed as a teenager and the son born after his death. While the themes are strong ones, the novel is chaotic in its narrative, and this disorganization meant that certain characters and events appear and disappear in the book without resolution or meaning. A developmental edit could turn this into a truly stellar novel, but as it is, there’s not enough structure or clarity for it to really make a good impression.

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