Book reviews: In the Neighborhood of True and more

Interstellar Flight Magazine Best of Year One by Edited by Holly Lyn Walrath. 3/5
Interstellar is a new speculative publication, and this collection gathers numerous pieces from their first year in operation. It’s a bit of a mix, quality-wise. While the interviews are great, some of the essays could have used more polishing prior to their initial publication; others require more contextualization for inclusion as stand-alone pieces here. As the magazine continues, I’d like to see more collections like this, but less of the unedited fan appreciation essays and more pieces that are a little deeper, more thoughtful, and more nuanced.

Enemy Rising by C. J. Fisher. 1/5
This is one of those books that has an interesting idea that is full of potential–zombies in an alternate-universe Colonial India–but needs a lot more work before going out into the world. The dialogue is just not good: it changes tone frequently, is full of random emotional changes, and is stilted and tells too much. Overall, it needs more showing and less telling, and each chapter could benefit from outlining for clarity and plot. followed by rewriting. I’d love for this to get a big developmental edit and a copyedit–there are punctuation issues galore–before being published. I can read the book it could become in this version, but it needs a lot of work to get there.

After Sundown by Mark Morris (Editor). 2/5
This collection of horror is a mixed bag. A few pieces stood out as truly excellent, among them “Swanskin” by Alison Littlewood and Simon Bestwick’s M. R. Jamesian “We All Come Home.” Other authors had good ideas but couldn’t figure out quite what to do with them, as evinced in C. J. Tudor’s “Butterfly Island,” in which the ending feels unsatisfactory. I was horrified and appalled, though, by Michael Marshall Smith’s “It Doesn’t Feel Right,” which uses stereotyped symptoms of autism to represent monstrosity among children. I am autistic, and I strongly recommend that this chapter be removed from the volume. It is exactly the kind of misrepresentation that so many of us in the SFF community are working against. Otherwise, it’s a fine if not stellar collection.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. 2/5
I think this book is intended to be heartwarming, the kind of book people love because it has quirky characters who have seemingly overcome impossible conditions and survived if not triumphed nonetheless. But I found it an enormously sad book, peopled with individuals whose decisions, not always based on reason, led them into misery. The author’s use of trauma as a plot device isn’t uncommon, but I don’t think it’s handled well here, especially in regard to the PTSD suffered by a minor character whose role, quite honestly, does nothing to serve the book and could be removed. While the characters’ adventures and development was good , I never found their ultimate relationship of close friends convincing, at least not on the part of the Miss Benson of the title, and I found the conclusion of Enid’s story to be a convenient cop-out along the lines of “and then I woke up!”

Interviewing the Dead by David Field. 2/5
In this mystery, a Wesleyan clergyman and two scientists team up to solve a mystery involving apparent apparitions and deaths in London. While the mystery itself is interesting, the characters are a bit over the top in terms of speech and action and never quite come together as realistic, remaining stereotypes throughout. A romance between the clergyman and one of the scientists feels forced and unnecessary.

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.

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