Reviews: Charlaine Harris, women’s history, and new horror

Queens of the Crusades by Alison Weir. 4/5
Written in Weir’s now well-known informative voice, this tome covers the lives of powerful women of the Plantagenet dynasty: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre; Isabella of Angoulême; Alienor of Provence; and Eleanor of Castile. While Eleanor of Aquitaine has had countless books written about her, it was refreshing to read one focused on the effects of the Crusades in her life, and I enjoyed learning more about the other women Weir includes in the book. For Weir’s fans, this will be a treat; for other readers seeking recent popular writing on the Plantagenets, it will also be a go-to book. Historians will argue with some sources and presentations.

Hijab And Red Lipstick by Yousra Imran. 1/5
This memoir is chatty but plodding, and there’s so much of the author not learning from her own past and not thinking about her actions that she became more irritating than sympathetic. I sympathize with women stuck in abusive cultures dominated by men, but there’s nothing in this particular book that offered any new insights or information about the culture in Saudi Arabia.

The Green and the Black by William Meikle. 2/5
With a good bit of editing and the removal of a LOT of adjectives and adverbs, this could be a good horror story. It has a lot of overlaps with Swamp Thing, though, to the extent that I’d be worried about copyright infringement. I did like many of the details, although the way the group behaved and spoke to one another was not terribly realistic, nor was the way archaeology was depicted.

Lurkers by Sandi Tan. 1/5
I can’t tell if this is a satire or not. In the beginning, we’re introduced to the terrible writing of a Korean pastor in the US. What follows could be his terrible stories. Are they supposed to be? Are they not? Everyone in the book is disaffected; they engage in risky behaviors for no apparent reason–in fact, most of what everyone does is for no reason. It’s a poorly-told tale of slightly overlapping lives of people who are all just total assholes.

The Empty Cell by Paulette Alden. 2/5
Oh, this started off so well! The beginning–depicting the lynching of a Black man in the American South–is strong and attention-grabbing and nuanced, and tightly written. But the drama of the beginning doesn’t continue. The author uses the lynching and trial as points of departure for multiple characters: a young woman, her gay father, a poor and abused Black woman. But these characters fall into stereotypes, and their lives become cliched rather than revelatory. Alma, a Black woman who helped raise the man who was lynched, leaves her abusive husband and goes to New York in search of a better life, but there too she’s abused and becomes an alcoholic, finally returning to the South in shame. Betsy leaves the South for New York where she has a Black lover; her attraction is complicated with white fragility and their relationship falls apart. This comes across like the author expects us to find their relationship daring and bold, but it’s just dysfunctional. Betsy’s father slowly emerges from the closet but it’s made very clear that he’s neither one of those “limp-wristed gays” nor interested in rough trade, no, he’s still a “man,” meaning: he passes for straight and that’s a good thing. Despite its opening, which promised a thoughtful novel about race, instead this book is a retread of Peyton Place.

The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven. 1/5
This is a book that wants to be a Wes Anderson movie, but lacks the awkward fleeting charm of even the bad ones. It tries very hard to be quirky and sinister and odd and beguiling, but it’s just rather dull. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and their woes and observations are mundane; everyone kind of slumps around flaccidly.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. 2/2
Did I just read this author call a Black person “dusky”? Come on. And did she title this book the exact same thing as a non-fiction account she used for reference? Yes, she did. The setting is enormously compelling and while the characters are rather two-dimensional, the plot, focusing on the events before, during, and after a horrific blizzard in Nebraska, isn’t terrible. I do think the whole thing should get a disability sensitivity read regarding limb difference and a race sensitivity read before it gets published, this will probably appeal to a wide swath of readers.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer by Jamie Figueroa. 5/5
Reading this is like watching an ornate and color-drenched panorama of personal drama and tragedy and love and resignation circle around you. It’s horrifying and joyous and moving and about survival and how dysfunctional families and lives can lead to self-sufficiency and resilience and at the same time cause depression and something that goes even beyond depression into death-like living. Highly recommended.

Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin. 3/5
This elegant and odd book is a bit of an enigma: there’s little plot but plenty of lovely description; interesting characters whose stories stop abruptly; and the author introduces a wonderful idea about how time layers itself onto place, but ultimately limits her use of it. Ultimately, this is a bit like a dream, and perhaps that’s what the author intended: specific details nestled inside a flimsier form. Anyone who has ever been captivated by the stories of the women visiting Versailles who claimed to have seen Marie Antoinette’s retinue in the 19th century or Jack Finney’s novels about time will probably enjoy this.

Burying the Dead by Lorraine Evans. 2/5
This book is on a fascinating topic, but it’s not well-written to the point where I nearly gave up. The author’s writing is disorganized on both the macro (paragraph) and micro (sentence) level. If you’re looking for an overview or burial practices around the world, I suppose it might offer some useful information, but for the vast majority of the cultures, practices, and sites included in the book, you’ll find better-written information on Wikipedia.

The Canterbury Murders by E.M. Powell. 3/5
A nice mystery set amidst the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral in 1177. I enjoyed the period detail and information, which was good for setting the scene but never overwhelming or too heavy-handed. The characters were well-developed and despite no having read the other books in this series, it was easy to pick up their relationship and history. The denouement felt a bit forced, but overall it was an enjoyable read.

The High-Rise Diver by Julia von Lucadou. 5/5
This is aa elegant and harrowing story of a dystopian world in which career success is all–quite literally–and in which quitting a job, dealing with burnout, or wanting a different life than what has been prescribed for you is unthinkable. Your job performance determines where you live, who you can date, what you eat, and more. This sounds like it’s heavy-handed, but it never is: Lucadou deftly creates a world with delicate strands of information and description, weaving a complex, shimmering picture of a terrifying world.

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts. 4/5
This is a scorching account of what it is like to be young, uncertain of one’s self, and moored in the climate crisis. The narrator seeks meaning and the ability to communicate through writing, but depression and a sense of nihilism send her into unfulfilling relationships, casual sex, and a steadily declining sense that life is worth living. And she’s not entirely wrong: when the country is on fire and no one seems to care, what do you do?

Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories (LOA #338) by Octavia Butler. 5/5
This is an essential volume in anyone’s collection of speculative fiction. These are some of Butler’s very best works, and also serve as an accessible entry into her writing. Kindred in particular should be on every high school reading list. I’m delighted to see this collection and hope that the rest of her books will receive the same treatment.

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten. 4/5
I really enjoyed this novel, a mix of psychological horror, the gothic, and physical danger. However, it contains a serious problem in the description of Brigitta: intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled, and non-vocal people are not “children in an adult body.” This is a pretty awful misconception, and I strongly urge the author and publisher to remove this ableist description of the character. Change this, and it would be a 5-star review.

Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick. 5/5
A beautifully-written and compelling novel based on a true story, this book will appeal to all kinds of readers. Estelita Rodriguez’s life is fascinating and tragic, and here author Burdick uses information from her interviews with Rodriguez’s daughter Nina to create a dialogue between mother and daughter that is honest and painful and revealing. Writing a novel about real people is difficult, and can often end up trite or superficial, but Burdick does an outstanding job of making this very real story meaningful and moving.

Dryad Vol. 1 by Kurtis Wiebe. 3/5
I liked this first installment of a new series. Dryad is action-packed, and the characters are interesting and complex. It’s got a heavy Saga vibe to it, but I think that as the story develops, it’ll become more independent–the seeds for originality are already there. The visual elements are great–I really enjoy the contrast between locations and factions. I’ll be looking for more of this.

Hex by Fran Hodgkins. 3/5
I loved the idea of this book–a girl learns how to make enchanted hex signs from her grandmother, and finds that magic has a cost, that even with magic she can’t control everything, and that communities need collaborative strength. But the writing isn’t polished, the plotting is obvious and jerky, and it needs a round of developmental editing to make it really shine.

Shapers of Worlds by Edward Willett. 2/5
I really wanted to like this collection, but although it’s got top-notch authors, most of the stories were duds. It’s as if someone had swept up the dullest pieces by each author and gathered them here. Many of the stories seem to have been dashed off by authors as filler for other books or magazines–I didn’t feel that any of them built or shaped much of a new world. A few had bits and pieces of interesting ideas or language or characters, but overall, this isn’t a collection I’d recommend.

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian. 5/5
This is a delicious book, full of fantastic detail and beautiful writing. Set in Boston in 1662, we follow the life of Mary Deerfield, a formidable young woman who seeks a better life for herself, first through legal means and then through careful and meticulous plotting and planning. The author deftly creates the world of the Puritans in North America, their beliefs and everyday lives and language, and offers up complex characters with realistic internal conflicts and desires. The novel explores power and social hierarchies, gender and sexuality, and the relationship between religion and abuse. Highly recommended.

The Comfort of Distance by Ryburn Dobbs. 1/5
Ah yes, another thriller featuring an awkward/autistic/neurodiverse genius. The over-fetishization of the main character’s “different/difficult” brain/behavior made me want to throw my Kindle across the room. The author’s technique, too, of using plain language for most characters and then switching to flowerier language for the protagonist was both painful and hilarious. We autistics and folks with anxiety don’t go around thinking of animals making noises stentoriously, and listening to Wagner is hardly a positive characteristic for anyone, not a marker of any kind of higher intelligence or rarefied tastes, And the behavior of other characters is laughable–it’s like the author has never spoken to therapists, police officers, or anyone else about what it is they actually do or how they do their jobs. This novel needed a heavy developmental edit, a sensitivity read or three, and a big rewrite.

Lore by Alexandra Bracken. 1/5
A lot of YA seems to be focused on immortal figures and/or youth who are trained to kill one another to protect their families; Lore is certainly well within this genre. While some of these are ok stories–because the characters are multidimensional, Lore is not. It’s boring. The characters aren’t particularly compelling, and the language is often stilted and at odds with itself–one moment trying to be current and fresh, then ext portentous and speaking of “the ancient tongue” and other cringe-worthy constructions. The action drags, and the gods–or their mortal forms–come across like villains from low-budget 70s movies. And there are other issues. Lore’s BFF is a “magical Negro.” None of the women in the houses or bloodlines ever rose up against the misogyny and abuse? Why is anyone accepting the idea of “bastardy” in the 21st century? Why isn’t Lore at least a little smarter? Why is the plot and info about it so repetitive? Why did I spend the time to finish this? I don’t know, but I can tell you: don’t bother.

Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology by S.B. Divya; Mur Lafferty; N.K. Jemisin; Cory Doctorow; Ken Liu. 3/5
A mixed bag of short pieces, drawn from the archives of the podcast Escape Pod. Some of these were familiar–they’ve been widely reprinted–and others were new. I enjoyed the stories by Cato, which was quite clever, Kowal, Kingfisher, and Jemisin, but a good many of the others were just meh.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. 2/5
This was a bit of a disappointment. I think the author is trying to make a bigger statement than she actually does–and the topic of women’s words and language is a very important topic! But her unwillingness to create real, lasting tension anywhere in the book diminishes the ideas she’s trying to communicate through the novel; problems are easily resolved with little fuss, unpleasant characters who cause problems disappear without much of an impact, the protagonist lives in a comfortable bubble–when the narrator does begin to address class and inequality, she draws away without much engagement. And the very end came as a rather nasty blow, with its hailing of white colonialism as a savior of indigenous Australian languages without noting the immense problems rooted in that attitude.

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
Charlaine Harris never fails to delight me. In this novel, the third to feature gunslinger-for-hire Lizbeth Rose, Lizbeth heads to the Holy Russian Empire–San Diego, to be precise–to spring her lover Eli Savarov from jail. But the job is complicated by politics, families, magic, and the fact that Lizbeth can’t legally carry guns in the Empire. I loved the development of returning characters, particularly Lizbeth’s sister Felicia, and the wonderful new characters who inhabit this book, Eli’s mother and sisters especially. Lizbeth’s voice is honest and plain and Harris’s storytelling is gold. Readers will probably want to read the previous two novels featuring Lizbeth before this one, as it relies pretty heavily on the events of the earlier books, but I do think it can stand alone as long as readers are willing to enjoy the ride and look into Lizbeth and Eli’s past adventures later.

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