Book reviews: super awesome #OwnVoices lit and more

Here at Dawn by Beau Taplin. 1/5
Inspirational and instructional poetry in the vein of advice from people who have never experienced severe depression, who think that everyone believes in god, and that their own experiences and slight reworkings of cliched phrases are valuable. The prose poem about sex could have been lifted from a bad Cosmo column from the 1980s, the constant “pick yourself up/change you life/embrace joy” maxims are tired and wearying, and the language is pedestrian, with sentiment off in the maudlin woods far too often to entrance.

The Skylark’s Song by J.M. Frey. 1/5
An uncomfortably romanticized account of a woman’s relationships with men, both supposed friends and enemies, who assume that bodies and physical actions can and should be traded for other favors or help, and an even more romanticized example of how Stockholm Syndrome might develop between a captor and a prisoner. The book does demonstrate how women can be pushed into such trading and psychological states. In more specifics, the novel recreates the French-German part of WWII in a fantasy world with names borrowed from Canadian place names, albeit without doing the work of acknowledging the origins or settler-colonialist histories of them. The author may be enthusiastic about steampunk and having written the book on a bet, but neither is to be celebrated in this poorly thought-out pastiche.

Daughters of Darkness by Sally Spencer. 1/5
A PI-centered mystery novel, this book is an excellent example for English instructors who tell students to “show, not tell” in their writing: this book is 100% about telling and not showing, and as a result is boring and plodding.

The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green. 1/5
This is a locked-room murder mystery, with the added quirks of the narrator being an alien and the setting a supposedly haunted house. The mystery of the murder is predictable and easy and pointless, while the haunted house part serves to propel–possibly? in a tiny way?–the narrator’s multi-book arc about finding more of his own kind. The characters are flat and ridiculously, badly gendered, the narrator himself is an unappealing, condescending jerk, and the entire book is mostly banal talk and little action.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg. 4/5
A collection of sometimes intertwined stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is poetic, a book for which slow reading is necessary and worthwhile. Van den Berg’s deft writing is for savoring and rereading on the page in order to fully appreciate the craft. The plots, such as they are, are nebulous and unresolved, and the characters equally wispy, their motivations unclear, their specific experiences undetailed to a point of dissatisfaction. But the themes of each piece are powerful and ever-present: violence, homelessness, power; this amalgamation of the concrete and the unsettling is what makes these stories succeed, both individually, and with their occasional linkages.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang. 4/5
Bestiary is a raw and unflinching examination of parental violence and psychological warfare, the fighting of self against history and trauma, and the ways in which co-dependency becomes anger and hatred and inability to live at ease. It tells intergenerational stories of fact mingled with folklore, blended with history and escapism. Throughout there is beautiful writing and heart-breaking writing and writing about disgust and disgusting things, and at times I wasn’t sure if this rollercoaster would make me feel exhilarated or make me nauseated, but I persevered, and found the experience worthwhile.

The Night Witches by By Garth Ennis and Russ Braun. 2/5
This graphic novel about the Soviet Union’s legendary “Night Witches”–crack aviators who fought against Germany in the Second World War–follows several women who join, train, and fight. Written and drawn in a traditional, fairly realistic style, the content will be difficult for some readers. There’s a military leader forcing one of his men to rape a woman, suicide, a medic biting through a man’s arm to try to save him, the eating of a dog,
It’s a very “talky” comic, with a lot of telling and less showing: panels are often crowded with speech balloons to the detriment of allowing the art to function as an equal. And the book engages in the use of fake Cyrillic lettering, an annoying affectation. The dialogue often includes slang from British culture, which makes it seem less realistic and jarring in context. The Afterword to the book is perhaps its greatest strength, offering readers information on the history of the Night Witches and air warfare, although readers should be warned that it glorifies such warfare.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley. 2/5
In this non-fiction work, author Stanley chronicles the life of a Japanese woman in the 1800s based on the woman’s voluminous correspondence with her family members. But the book focuses on standard descriptions of places and events, and there’s actually very little material that quotes these letters directly. The result is a book that drags and is full of historical material that I could read in any book about Japan during this time. The author missed a big opportunity in not letting her subject’s own voice lead the narrative.

A History of Magic, Witchcraft, and the Occult. 5/5
A lavishly illustrated introduction to magic and ritual around the world, this volume provides historical context and information for those seeking basic information, and offers details of documents, objects, and art depicting magic for those interested in more detail or visual inspiration. Accessible and informative commentary accompanies each image and provides an overview of various topics in the history of magic.

A Choir of Crows by Candace Robb. 2/5
A new installment in a series set in medieval York featuring the town’s clergy and an investigator and his family. A slow and cliched start that never really picked up made this a bit of a slog. Readers of earlier books in the series might enjoy it more, but I found the characters a bit dull and the dialogue uneven in its approach to seeming both from a different time and still contemporary.

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.

Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.

This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.

The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson. 4/5
An eminently readable and detailed book about four men involved with the development of the OSS/CIA at the end of the second World War and through the first decade of the Cold War. Anderson includes information about specific operations and spies, the tradecraft of the day, and the interaction between the CIA and the politicians who worked with or against it. Anderson is careful to remind readers about who’s who as the telling of this history becomes more complex, always making sure that his writing is clear and easy to follow. Limited in its focus by design, it’s a good read for those interested in this point in world history or the art of spying in general.

Bernard of Clairvaux by Brian Patrick McGuire. 4/5
This is a very personal book about Bernard of Clairvaux, his time period and politics, and the author’s relationship with Bernard as a historical figure. Clearly written and designed for general audiences, this biography delves into church factions, warring kings and dukes, and complex social issues with elegance and ease. It’s a great introduction to the medieval in Western Europe and its influential figures.

A Demon-Haunted Land by Monica Black. 4/5
This excellent study of belief in faith healing and witchcraft in the immediate post-WWII era in Germany is a fascinating read complete with intrigue, denazification, schemers, and thousands of people desperate to believe in anything to get past war injuries, trauma, and guilt. Relying on primary sources and previous scholarship, Black crafts a detailed account of the postwar psyche, seeking to heal from the past even as many used wartime connections and power to create new opportunities for themselves. Written in an accessible manner for general readers, this would be terrific for book club or similar read-and-discuss forum.

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