reviews: Indigenous lit, beautiful horror, and more

Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost by Lindsay Marcott.
This is a smart and well-crafted retelling of Jane Eyre in the period immediately before Covid-19. Jane, a writer needing work, takes on a job tutoring Sophia, daughter of the wealthy Evan Rochester. This Jane is a bit tougher and smarter than the original, maybe because she can use the internet to look things up, and she’s also got more personality and agency. Rochester’s accused of murdering his wife, former supermodel Beatrice, whose brother prowls around Jane and Evan trying to get evidence. I liked the interactions between Jane and Sophie and Jane and her friends, even though they’re all lightly sketched and not terribly diverse. I’m not entirely convinced that the ending is what it seems to be–I’d love to know what other readers think. Alternating chapters between Jane’s and Beatrice’s POVs make things more interesting from the mystery side of things, and the setting is appropriately Gothic. A fun beach read, if you can stay away from riptides.

Stampede by Brian Castner. 1/5
At the beginning of this book, author Castner states that in order to make the book realistic, he’s decided to use racist slurs like the n-word and other terms. I’m so tired of white authors doing this. Dear authors: you can convey racism without repeating the violence of using that word. He also uses “good time girls” to describe sex workers and uses a variety of other offensive terms in his quest to bestow period parlance on the book. And the book itself is rather dull, full of repetitive details and adjectives that rely on gender, age, and race stereotypes without actually telling the read about anything useful. The writing made it difficult to tell when Castner was providing historical narrative and when he was embellishing or speculating, and ultimately disappointed me.

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould. 1/5
In this rather meh paranormal thriller, Logan, a young woman, learns that one of her fathers made a deal with the Dark, a malevolent force, to bring her back to life when she died as a child. With her fathers revisiting the town where this occurred, teens have begun going missing. The Dark has begun killing teenagers. Logan teams up with the girlfriend of the first teen who went missing to discover what’s going on. They do. They get rid of the Dark and find the body of the first missing man. And of course they fall in love. There are several subplots and tensions between Logan and the dad who made the deal with the Dark. This is one of those books where you just kind of wish people would talk to each other like most people do and there’d have been fewer dead people. It’s the kind of book where you want to yell at the dad who can’t seem to talk to his daughter, but instead leaves her notes buried in a grave. Who does that? At one point, Logan decides that Ashley, the seemingly-straight girlfriend of the first missing man, is definitely not her type, but they end up together anyway in a soap-opera-level predictable moment. This could have been so much better if Gould had had the characters had use their brains,

When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown. 4/5
This is a sad story, but one full of truth. So many books are being written right now (especially by white writers) about Black characters in the immediate pre- and post-Civil Rights era in the South that end with what white writers think is triumph and uplift: Black women going to college, or joining the movement and bringing about serious material or social change to their communities, or marrying into white families, or being accepted by white society. But not every Black woman wanted those things: Opal, a young Black woman, wants the love of her family, to marry a good man, and to feel safe. She works alongside her grandmother as a cleaner for a white family. While this particular family is “good,” some of their relatives are members of the KKK, intent on terrorizing the small Black community to which Opal and her grandmother belong. There is a Klan raid on their community, and later Opal is almost raped. Opal finds herself attracted to the white family’s son and to the Black preacher’s son; she has to rethink her Christianity a bit after coming into contact with the work of the local roots woman; and she has to grapple with how her employers view her. The end of the book is a little pat and neat, but the trauma and fear the author describes is harrowing, and real, and needs to be recognized.

The Northern Line by Judy Simons. 2/5
A detailed memoir and history of Jewish families in the north of England, this book is clearly written with love and pride. However, none of the figures or their stories are made particularly compelling, and the writing shows sings of outdatedness and judgement I am uncomfortable with, for example describing sex workers as “whores” and assuming they have poor morals and are unclean. This might be useful for someone studying the Jewish communities of the North, but overall it seems more of a book written for family members than the general public.

Cleopatra by Alberto Angela. 1/5
How does something this sexist get published today? The author objectifies Cleopatra beyond belief, making her body the center of his attention, and assuming it was the center of her peers’ as well. The research is spotty and outdated, and I am appalled that this book even exists.

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley. 2/5
Written in a mannered style reminiscent of 1950s British writers, this SFF novel is a turns engaging and fresh and at others slow and dragging. The unevenness keeps me from recommending it strongly, although readers who are interested in the philosophical questions of space exploration and the uses of SFF to investigate the same regarding colonialism will like it.

The Savage Instinct by Marjorie DeLuca. 5/5
This is an excellent novel a la The Yellow Wallpaper, told in the first person by a woman whose husband had her forcibly admitted to an insane asylum after she suffered a traumatic miscarriage. Leaving the asylum to return to her husband. she finds him much changed, and begins to understand that he has been after her inheritance the whole time. Relying on advice from women many others find mad or evil, she plots her escape. Author De Luca uses the real-life figure of Mary Ann Cotton, convicted of poisoning members of her own family, as one of the narrator’s mentors, and the very ending is a fabulous twist. Readers who enjoy the Gothic will like this book, as will anyone with an interest in the rights and treatment of women in the 19th century.

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur. 5/5
This is a devastating book about mental illness and family secrets and domestic abuse. A young scientist struggles with her relationships and work, and when her mother dies, she experiences a collapse, unable to find a path back, unable to find coherence in her life and the lives of her brother and father. Seeking a kind of therapy through folklore, she batters her way forward, moving and thinking erratically. This novel captures schizophrenia and paranoia in a remarkable, first-person narrative, and aptly describes the kinds of confused reactions from those who unknowingly witness it.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw. 5/5
This is a book of astonishing beauty and originality and horror and I loved it. A small group of friends with complicated relationships and secrets and traumas meet for the wedding of two of them in a haunted Japanese mansion, where the images of yokai like tankui and kitsune, painted on panels, follow and cluster and watch what unfolds. And what does unfold is not unexpected, but told in new language: a ghostly bride demands company. Khaw’s language is poetic without losing the edge of modernity: the ghost’s first words are “like a sound carried on the last ragged breath of a failing record player;” a woman’s “lipstick game as sharp as a paper cut;” knee-high ferns are “like vegetal cats.” Khaw captures the intersection of the magical and the eerie: “the night stretched chandeliered with fireflies” inside rooms are “ossuaries: the books suppurating flat-bodied beetles.” I could go on, but really what I’m saying is: go read this book. Even if you think you are not a fan of horror, or of fantasy, or of the drama of youth, go read. This is a treat for any reader.

The Silence of the White City by Eva García Sáenz. 1/5
If you’re looking for utter fantasy and a lack of realism in your mystery novels, then this is for you. The characters and their actions are all completely over the top and unbelievable. The presence of Basque lore is far less than the blurb suggests, and the writing overall is cliched.

Firekeeper’s Daughter – Sneak Peek! by Angeline Boulley. 5/5
PLEASE give me the rest of this book! This is a terrific novel about young Native people in and around an Ojibwe reservation, touching on tribal registration laws, how traditions are kept or abandoned, and the poverty and drug use among all ages. Narrator Daunis is an athlete, a caregiver, a sister, and daughter whose goals and hoped-for future are continually shifted because of illness and violence. Her voice is compelling and her narration conveys information about tribal life and local practices without being pedantic, and I can’t wait to read the rest of this book.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark. 5/5
In this novel of wonders and fables, P. Djeli Clark returns to the world of his novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015, an alternate Cairo where humans and djinn live together, where magic is real, and where the old Egyptian gods are still very present. A Master of Djinn includes ornate and sophisticated world-building, interesting and layered characters who evolve and grow, and an excellent plot that involves issues of colonialism, class, power, and sorcery. It’s a masterclass in building characters, from investigator Fatma who learns a lot about her own desires to her new work partner Hadia, whose wide-eyed eagerness becomes fierce competence to Fatma’s lover Siti, who is forced into a difficult kind of coming out. The city itself is a character, and a beautifully shifting one, full of surprises good and bad. At the heart of the book is the threat and abuse of colonial powers, in this case, Britain, which having been forced out of most of Egypt prior to the novel, still has citizens in Cairo who are passionate about subjecting the Arab world to white supremacy. It’s a timely book and a joy to read.

View from Pagoda Hill by Michaela Maccoll. 1/5
In this novel, the author draws on her family history, imagining her great-great-grandmother Ning’s life in China and her life in America. In an afterword, Maccoll explains all of the information she had about her ancestor and her desire to write about her; unfortunately, she omits from the novel the most details and information that she found that she details in the afterward. The novel itself is slow, especially for younger readers, and shallow and boring. It was a slog to get through all of Ning’s travails, which were all described superficially. Ning doesn’t react to things much, so we don’t know how she really feels–her voice is subsumed by the author’s, who tells readers what Ning feels or thinks in condescending or Polly-anna-ish language. It’s a big disappointment, because Ning’s real story must have been fascinating and one of both great suffering and confusion, and ultimately, survival.

Following Nellie Bly by Rosemary J Brown. 1/5
In this book, a rich woman entertains herself by traveling to all of the places visited by Nelly Bly in Bly’s 80-day round-the-world trip. Author Brown doesn’t recreate the trip, but leisurely takes in the sights at each stop, and tells readers about her lush surroundings, luxury hotel experiences, couture shopping, and other activities that are totally irrelevant as to why Bly made her trip or what she was really about. It’s an excuse for junkets and the book serves as an excellent example of how the 1% live. Go read Bly’s original account of her trip instead–yes, it is problematic in terms of race and class, but not nearly as problematic as Brown’s book.

The Willow Wren by Philipp Schott. 5/5
A quiet and yet stunning memoir-by-proxy of a boy’s life in Nazi Germany and the aftermath there of WWII. Ludwig loves the outdoors, spending hours identifying birds and plants. But as the war nears its end and his home in Leipzig is bombed, he and his older brother are sent to a Hitler Youth camp, where conditions range from harsh to deadly. His brother is sent to the front and other boys are trained to serve in tank units despite their youth. After the Soviet army arrives and sends the boys to relatives, Ludwig and his family try to resume some kind of normal life, but food shortages and the high death tolls of the war make their survival nearly impossible. Beautifully written by Ludwig’s grandson based on his grandfather’s memories, this book chronicles a little-discussed aspects of the war and its toll on non-Nazi civilian adults and children.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. 5/5
I rave about Becky Chambers’s books to everyone, and this one is no exception. Part of her Wayfarers series, this follows a handful of aliens of different species and backgrounds when they find themselves stuck while traveling on difficult missions. They’re cared for by a warm and caring host and her child, both of whom are completely endearing and serve more books about them and their business and guests. Political differences flare up, friendships are made, and extraordinary events occur. Like all of Chambers’s books, this is space opera at its most beautiful, full of kindnesses and learning and understanding and helping. It’s the healing read you need right now.

From the Moon I Watched Her by Emily English Medley. 4/5
Told from the perspective of a young girl, this novel takes on mental illness, rape, homelessness, and religious abuse. Medley deftly channels a child’s desire for attention, confusion about conflicting views, and willingness to submit to parental demands, creating a narrator for whom the world is a terrifying kaleidoscope, never stable and rarely predictable. The trauma the novel presents and the inability or unwillingness of its adult characters to address it ring true, particularly given the setting of suburbia in the late 1970s. Ready for book clubs and discussion groups, this should be a very successful book.

Leather and Lace by Magen Cubed. 4/5
A fun romp that began as Supernatural (the tv show) fanfic and now has a life of its own, this novel features a slow burn romance between two hunters of the supernatural, one of whom happens to be a vampire himself. I enjoyed the very real emotional rollercoaster and difficult relationship choices the characters struggled with and the light banter they shared while tracking down a pair of weredeer gone bad. I’m not a big fan of Supernatural, but Cubed makes her story so original and cute that it should appeal to a wide range of fans, non-fans, and those who don’t even know the show.

A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy. 1/5
This was a sample of the novel rather than the whole thing. While the writing is fine, the plot is a little tired: women must fight each other for the title of Queen, even—especially—if they’re related. So we’ve got the clearly evil and bloodthirsty older heir spoiling for a fight with the younger, who as the protagonist just wants to go out and party among the common folk. I think the author might imagine that she’s turning fantasy feudal politics upside down by making the women fight, but really it’s just perpetuating the sexism of every other fight-for-power book out there. That, plus the classism, didn’t make me want to read more than the sample given.

Midnight in Cairo by Raphael Cormack. 3/5
This is a lively account of the women who dominated Cairo nightlife in the 1910s and 20s. Cormack offers detailed narratives for each woman’s life and activities as singers, dancers, actors, producers, and influencers. There’s a lot of solid information but also a lot of repetition and some clear errors not caught in the editing process. It would have been helpful for Cormack to have included more nuanced context about the period, its politics, and mores, but if readers are looking for history that is relatively entertaining rather than scholarly, this will fit the bill.

The Vines by Shelley Nolden. 1/5
This is so poorly written that I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. It needs serious editing for grammar, style, punctuation, and much more. The idea is interesting, but the writing is so bad that it doesn’t matter.

The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas. 2/5
A fantasy novel of the traditional swords and sorcery type. The world-building is pushed early and often, making the plot seem secondary to all of the information readers need to take in at the very beginning to understand the novel’s politics, factions, religions, industries, classes, and so on; it would have made for a better and less fraught read if this had been introduced more gradually and naturally. The plot is fine, I suppose, but neither it nor the characters are particularly compelling. Everyone’s got secrets, everyone’s hiding from someone, everyone’s got great skills at something. It was more like reading about somebody’s D&D campaign than a novel.

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