Book reviews: Jo Walton, James Meek, and stuff for isolation reading

The Garden of Lost Memories by Ruby Hummingbird. 1/5
A novel very obviously targeted to appeal to fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, this work focuses on the development of a friendship between Elsie Maple, in her 60s and traumatized by her past, and Billy, age 10, who moves in next door to Elsie when his mother takes him and flees her violent husband. There are trials and tears but everything works out well in the end with happiness (much of it apparently connected with wealth) and positive personality and relationship changes for everyone. While the third-person narration for Elsie’s story was ok, the first-person narration for Billy’s was uneven. Sometimes the author succeed in making him sound like a child, but too often the narration slipped into a far more mature and worldly voice, making it seem as if Billy’s first-person narration was shifting between his actual youth and later childhood memories.

While I’m sure some readers will weep over this one, I found it derivative and manipulative, mawkish and tedious.

The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson. 2/5
Angry teens with terrible parents deal with the aftermath of a school shooting. It was difficult at times, however, to feel sympathetic for the narrators, who are pretty eager to engage in physical violence. There are some grammar errors of the “mom drove Jordan and I to school” type, and I don’t know what a violinist would be doing in band. Although the author includes a long note at the end of the book stating that people shouldn’t blame or stigmatize mental illness because of school shootings, she still uses pejorative language in the book.

Creeping Jenny by Jeff Noon. 3/5
An entertaining pastiche of noir detective novels and M. R. James’s occult stories set in small English-like towns. A bit uneven in the writing and approach, but overall a fun read, especially for fans of M. R. James, James Hynes, Angela Carter, and movies like MIdsommar.

Or What You Will by Jo Walton. 2/5
This heavily meta-conceptual novel is divided into two kinds of narration: a second/third-person narration by an author’s imaginary friend/alter ego/internal voice, and a fantasy novel, drawing heavily on Shakespeare, that the author is writing during the timeframe of the book. I enjoyed the imaginary friend narrative a lot–it’s engaging and different and a pleasure to read. It is full of fun and quirky and useful references to other books and written works. But the other half–the Shakespeare-influenced world in which Miranda has sons with both Caliban and Ferdinand (Called Ferrante) and in which visitors from the “real world” drop in and in which technological progress has been halted in exchange for an end to death–rapidly became too pedantic, much like Walton’s Thessaly novels. So this is very much a mixed bag for me.

Prelude for Lost Souls by Helene Dunbar. 2/5
I’d really like authors to do their homework when writing about music and musical instruments. A piano is central to this YA melodrama about spiritualists and ghosts set in a fascist version of Lilydale, but the author seems to think that keys are attached directly to strings. This is just one of many weird and incorrect assumptions Dunbar makes about mechanical objects–including cars–and other things in an ultimately dull story of several teenagers making decisions about their lives and futures. The characters are flaccid and their decision-making processes, though, are erratic and changeable and nonsensical, and in the end I didn’t really care what any of them did or didn’t do because they just weren’t interesting or compelling. The fascism of the town might have hit a greater nerve if it had been more present and less of an afterthought.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek. 5/5
An astonishing and brilliant book intended to–and effective at–capturing the world and language of late 14th-century England. A former priest, an archer, and a noblewoman on the run find themselves traveling together to Calais in a time of plague, war, and uncertainty. Exploring social mores, religious belief, gender, sexuality, politics, and more, Meek creates a wondrous tale of resistance and persistence.

Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie. 3/5
An uneven psychological not-quite-thriller about the lives of women in one family that was interned during the second World War in the Japanese camps. The narrator appears even-keeled and rational, until it’s apparent she isn’t at all. Her mother, whose present is a direct expression of the trauma of her time as a child in the camp, is the narrator writ large; heartbreaking scenes reveal the narrator’s grandmother as a person utterly broken by the government and circumstances. This is a work in which all of the characters are mentally ill and there’s no “normate”–only our own ideas of what that might be.

Open Fire by Amber Lough. 3/5
I enjoyed this novel about a young woman in pre-Revolutionary Russia who joins up with the all-women’s Battalion of Death in the First World War. Katya is the daughter of a dedicated Tsarist military leader, but working in an armaments factory, she becomes interested in the Bolshevik movement. She becomes an informant and decides to join the all-women’s battalion as a way of proving herself to her father, herself, and her nation. Lough offers great details about the organization and training of women in this real-life battalion, but avoids much of the political context in which it functioned historically. Ultimately, readers are left wondering how Katya’s political views will settle, and what will happen to her when the battalion’s founder is executed and the battalion is disbanded after the establishment of the communist regime.

Simantov by Asaf Ashery. 1/5
I have no idea what’s going on with this book. There are killer angels, police investigators who use tarot readers and clairvoyants and numerologists to try to solve crimes, mysterious figures with murky pasts, people who need to be in couples therapy, uncomfortable parent-child relationships, seemingly random entrances and exits and musings. I found it chaotic and not in an entertaining or well-written way. The gender struggles referred to in blurbs came across as annoying and petty rather than universal and important, and neither the characters nor the plot were compelling enough for me to give the disorganization a pass. Maybe it’s better in Hebrew?

The Figure in the Photograph by Kevin Sullivan. 1/5
This is an oddly flaccid book. The author loves the passive voice, and also seems to love characters whose behavior veers strangely from the emphatic to the disinterested, who wait for things to happen to them, and who engage with others in rather oblivious and disaffected ways. The narrator, photographer Juan Camaron, assists the Glasgow police in helping identify a serial killer by taking photos of the area in which the crimes have occurred on a regular basis, then comparing the images. He’s got a long backstory that doesn’t add much to either the plot or the character’s development, and Juan ends up being a very dull figure throughout. None of the other characters are particularly interesting or developed either, and their lack of agency makes for a very boring novel indeed.

The Forbidden Promise by Lorna Cook. 3/5
A historical mystery and a slow-burn modern romance. The romance is slow-burn only because the characters are immature and rubbish at talking to each other or thinking like adults rather than like schoolchildren. The historical mystery is more compelling, involving a downed pilot in Scotland and the daughter of the family that owns the estate on which he crashed, but both narratives drag somewhat until the reveals at the end. Not quite as good as the author’s first book, but still not a bad read.

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