Reviews: a great gothic novella for Halloween and much much more

The Blind Light by Stuart Evers. 2/5
I almost gave up on this, and am still not sure I shouldn’t have. This is a novel about time and trust and the slow building and erosion of that trust. Two men serve together and learn how to use each other, calling it friendship, and this using leads to betrayal. Their wives remain married to the men for protection and for stability–another kind of use. Their children learn to use and not use their parents, each other, friends. Ultimately, this is a dark and cynical novel, slow and often dull, with little to redeem it for the reader.

The Removed by Brandon Hobson. 5/5
The Removed is an incredible book, a book full of honesty and pain and the ethic of keeping on. It’s about dispossession and racism, and about youth and age in dialogue with one another. It’s got passages of sweeping magnificence and as mundane as describing litter, and it ‘s all woven together masterfully in a story that will resonate with me for a long time. The characters are real and flawed and their hopes are true and painful: there’s the daughter who lies to conceal her hurt and history, the gentle and awkward foster child, the wife watching her husband’s dementia whittle him away, the son who has to confront his fears and self-loathing. I felt for all of these characters, and I think other readers will feel for them too. This would be a great book for discussing along with a history of the Cherokee, US colonialism, and race in America today.

Thinking Again by Jan Morris. 2/5
There’s a point near the end of this book where Morris makes a comment along the lines of “perhaps I’ll regret this book” and yes, I think she will. Or maybe not: who knows? The book is a compilation of diary entries and, poorly edited, reads like someone found scraps of said entries blowing in the wind and tried to fix them all together. Morris’s trademark raconteur personal is on display, but often ill-advisiedly, and her tone, once a quasi-acceptable one (albeit given to imperialist apologizing), now feels ignorantly out of touch and lacking in compassion. But did Morris ever exhibit compassion before? I re-read some of her work after reading this, and realized that no, she’s always been brutal and has always written from her position of great privilege and dismissing those she’s deemed beneath her. So perhaps it isn’t so much that Morris will regret this book, but that I regret having read it.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht. 1/5
Oh my goodness was this dull and trite, and no amount of cute literary or pop culture jokes (like a character name Jeremy Brett and so many more) was going to help it. What we have here is a space opera that includes every trope and character type including the kitchen sink all packed into what I think the author wanted to be a fast and catchy romp. But it’s dragged down by all of the extraneous references and stock characters, and there’s not enough originality to get it off the ground.

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah. 4/5
This is a fascinating book about religion and community, telling the story of how one young woman finds comfort in religion and meaning in her life as she becomes a steadfast believer. Young Afaf sees her father become pious and her mother become cynical and depressed after the disappearance of Afaf’s older sister. And loose ends, Afaf first attends prayer services with her father and finds that the local religious community offers a version of the family support she craves. Years later, though, Afaf’s religion is exactly what causes a white man to target the girls’ school she runs, where he kills 14 students before encountering Afaf. The characters and their beliefs and struggles and actions feel very real, and I think this book could help teach tolerance and understanding between people of different faiths. I hope it gets picked up by book clubs and school reads.

Dangerous Women by Hope Adams. 4/5
This is a well-written and compelling historicization of an actual trip made by women convicted of crimes in England and transported to Australia, with a good solid murder mystery thrown in. The author does a good job of describing the difficulties of life for women at the time and how gendered laws and social conventions frequently forced them into crimes both small and large in order to survive. The account of women sewing on board made me look up the real quilt that was made–it is stunning. All in all, a good historical mystery.

Khalil by Yasmina Khadra. 5/5
Khalil takes the reader on a journey into understanding religious radicalization and the path out of it, documenting a young man’s fears and desires and his search for meaning in a world where few human lives are attributed with it. I want everyone to read this book, to try to understand what happens when religion is used for violence and violence becomes the only way someone can achieve recognition or–as many feel–can achieve something important. Khalil is every boy raised by and with violence and in poverty and without education, every young man who finds solace in a form of belief that includes the tenet that to act for the religion equals love from that religion’s god, and, perhaps more importantly, that god’s living representatives.

High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann. 5/5
This is a beautiful and intense meditation on grief and emotional trauma, full of difficult and brutal imagery and at the same time tenderness. Kampmann takes on troubled psyches and regrets amid fields of climate change and poverty; intimacy and distancing; and the value of life and labor. Waclaw’s journey from oil rig to oil rig and city to city illustrates the fragility of the world and of the individual within it. A harrowing, stunning read.

Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart. 5/5
The adventures of the Kopp sisters continue in a fascinating and fun new book. I’m usually leery of epistolary novels, but author Amy Stewart has proven that they don’t have to be stodgy–this one is lively and I Ioved reading Norma’s and Fleurette’s voices. Each Kopp is doing her bit for the war–Norma in France with pigeons, Fleurette touring military bases, and Constance working for what will become the FBI, recruiting and managing smart women as part of her work in seeking out domestic sabotage and other threats. It helps to have read previous Kopp sisters novels before reading this one, but don’t despair–if you haven’t yet, you’re in for a treat.

Portrait of Peril by Laura Joh Rowland. 1/5
I’d hoped that this series had improved since I read from it last, but no: the protagonist continues to be a shallow and often rather dim and conservative person, despite her continual protesting to the contrary. A main character goes missing, but you hardly notice, because his presence is never terribly interesting–he’s window-dressing made to make the books seem inclusive and their characters open-minded. People talk in exclamations and make dramatic statements, then never follow up, and in the end, I couldn’t care much about who did what when and to whom.

Winter Honeymoon: Stories by Jacob M. Appel. 4/5
Compelling stories about families, loss of control, generational relationships, and living through crises in America. Well-written, with interesting characters and dilemmas, all meant to make the reader think and remember and relate.

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken. 3/5
A collection of stories, many of them interlinked, in which characters confront the awkward truths of their lives, their relationships, and their desires. While some of the pieces featuring recurring characters become repetitive, there are also small gems in the collection, focusing on parenthood, marriage, and existential crisis.

A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León. 4/5
This is a great example of how what seems to be genre fiction–in this case, a thriller–can also serve as social commentary and education. Yolanda, an FBI agent, goes undercover with a Black organization that is seeking justice for the damage done to its community by a local industrial giant. The more she involves herself with the group, the more aware she becomes of why we need Black Lives Matter and other groups working for change.

The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths by Olivier Barde-Cabucon. 1/5
A Baroque mystery set among the powerful of pre-revolutionary France, this novel offers numerous famous and original characters, all of whom are unfortunately rather two-dimensional and boring. While the murder mystery at the heart of the book is is fairly well-constructed, the amount of extra baggage this novel carries weighs it down with gratuitous and over-written subplots and side plots. The Inspector himself is an incompetent and gullible figure with little internal interest–he’s perhaps the most cardboard of the characters. Numerous spies twirl in the orbit of the court, making for threads begun and not really ended; women are objects, even to characters who consider themselves above such considerations; and the entire novel is slow and ornamented to the point of ridiculousness.

Stel Parad by Lisa Menzel. 4/5
This is a dazzling and rich novel that careens from fever-dreams to police drama to exploration of spiritualities and beliefs in min-19th century America. It’s a novel to be read slowly and more than once, as multiple readings provide new insights into all of the connections the author makes across the novel’s many narrators and events.

The (Other) You by Joyce Carol Oates.2/5
A collection in which the inner lives of all of the characters are revealed to be miserable in the face of aging, full of regrets, secretly hating their friends and partners, and ready to die. Many of these intertwined stories ponder about paths not take, decisions that might have been made differently, and in each case, we read the flailings of disintegrating memory and hallucinations, bitterness and anger, and the desire to remain young and in control. AS a meditation on age, these are dark tales, but they are even darker if we consider them at all honest appraisals of humankind.

The Haunting of Beatrix Greene by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, Vicky Alvear Shecter. 4/5
This is a great little horror novel/ghost story in the tradition of M. R. James and all other things gothic. The characters and places are nicely detailed with depth and interest, and the hauntings have excellent layers and causes that the authors reveal slowly and deliciously. I’m not sure why the authors title it like a TV series (Season 1, Episode 1 and so on), but it’s true that it would make a great mini-series.

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