Reviews: mysteries, writing, autism

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline. 1/5
My Recommendation
This is a despicable book, full of the kind of thinking that leads parents and other caregivers to kill their autistic children and themselves. I read this on the International Disability Day of Mourning, and couldn’t help but to connect the story of Ruth and her autistic son Ollie with the horrific crimes committed every year against autistic people. Ruth continually expresses her despair at having and her inability to “cope” with Ollie, and by pleading with her son and with the universe in general for her child to be normal and not “overreact” to her husband positions herself in the category of people who think that perhaps death is better than being autistic, and that death might be preferable to “having to care” for an autistic person.

The book also stigmatizes mental illness, suggesting that people should just get up and get on with their everyday lives. This willpower method of addressing depression is a dangerous one. Depression is an illness and needs proper treatment, not “tough love” or the badgering of other people. Not once in the book does anyone suggest that Ruth, her sister, and their mother could or should seek out professional care for their depression.

Finally, there’s nothing to suggest that author Kline spoke with autistic people or had autistic readers for this book. Her depiction of Ollie, an autistic child, relies on tired and inappropriate tropes. Her writing suggests that he is pitiable and sad and incompetent at communication and basic functioning. His own father–the saintly, perfect Rich, who is a problematic character in his own right–writes him a letter telling Ollie that he will grow up to be a “strange man.” How awful to tell your child that they will be subject to such a label. I am autistic, and I am really glad I didn’t grow up in Ollie’s family.

I’d like to give this zero stars.

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung. 5/5
This is a gem of a collection, focusing on a Chinese family with divided lives. The narrator recounts her memories of her father, a hard, unemotional man who remains in Hong Kong to work while sending his family to Canada. After his death, the narrator questions her father’s intentions and beliefs, and his treatment of her and the rest of the family. This is a meditation on grief and the loss of a parent, and is poignant and moving in its honesty and depiction of the complexity of emotions an adult child has when a parent dies. I recommend it highly.

The Sisters of Reckoning by Charlotte Nicole Davis. 3/5
I loved the first book in this series and was pretty happy with the sequel until the very end. After all of the work the women and men of the story go through to begin a resistance movement–and all of the storytelling build up that entails–the author gives readers a cop-out ending: the people rise up with little harm to them and the bad guys just give up, and give up very quickly. It feels like Davis hit the limit for her word count and slapped on a quick, short ending.

The characters are interesting and diverse, and their relationships with one another are satisfying. I liked the metaphors and actualities of the lives of those living underground, and how Davis clearly built a large world for these books. The detail with which all of this is created is excellent. But the book felt like the second in a trilogy, building up to what I thought would lead into another book about the revolution the characters were fomenting. The abrupt ending was an unpleasant surprise. Alas.

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton. 1/5
This novel, incorporating real-life figures from Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, is a big, melodramatic mess. The actions and words of the characters were so over-the-top that it was difficult to read without laughing out loud. I was really disappointed, because the actual history of this period in Cuba, and the women who made it, is a thrilling story and was hoping for a more realistic story crafted around their lives.

The Barbizon by Paulina Bren. 5/5
Bren’s The Barbizon is an informative and often entertaining read about New York’s famous hotel for women. Focusing on the building’s relationship with Mademoiselle magazine and its editors, and the Katherine Gibbs school and its secretarial students, Bren takes readers through the building’s entire history, telling stories about its famous and not-so-famous residents. My mother was a Katie Gibbs graduate, and while she didn’t live at the Barbizon–she commuted–I loved reading about New York and the ways in which women navigated it in the period when she had been there. Bren makes it clear from the start that the Barbizon was a place for upper- and some middle-class women, and that, until quite late in the 20th century, all white. By connecting the hotel with its famous residents, such as the guest editors of Mademoiselle, including Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, Bren deftly crafts the story of the magazine as well. This book should find loads of readers and is terrific for a book club or group of any kind.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon. 4/5
In this intense novel, a young woman raised in a religious compound escapes, but not before she’s been unknowingly subjected to experiments that will change her body in dramatic ways. This is a story of race and and conspiracies and survival and motherhood and desire that breaks the boundaries of genre: it’s a thriller, a political commentary, and erotica all in one. Vern, 15 and pregnant by the leader of an all-Black religious community, flees into the woods, where she gives birth to twins and raises them for four years, her only encounters with others being rare, passionate trysts with a woman who seems to know the area a little too well. As her children grow, Vern decides to leave the forest to seek out a safe haven, but the journey is difficult and dangerous. Hunted by her former lover and physically changing day by day, Vern ultimately chooses to fight the powers that truly run the cult. This book and its intersectional foci would be an outstanding read for any discussion group.

What Abigail Did That Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. 5/5
This is an utterly wonderful new addition to the Rivers of London series, featuring Abigail, Peter Grant’s talented and determined cousin. Armed with enough knowledge of magic to be dangerous, she takes on a haunted house trapping teens inside–all with a little help from talking foxes and her friend Simon. I loved every minute, and can’t wait to learn more about the foxes and their intelligence network in future books in the series. Abigail is a great narrator: smart and knowing and likable. I want more of her, too.

Four Hundred Souls by Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. 5/5
An astonishing and necessary book full of essays and poetry all trying to explain and trace the legacies of enslavement in the United States and its colonies. Each short entry is packed with information and new ways of thinking about this issue, and the poems are stellar and hard-hitting and brilliant. A companion piece to the 1619 project, this book is essential reading for all Americans, if not everyone everywhere.

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses. 5/5
An utterly brilliant book that I am recommending to anyone who writes or teaches writing. Salesses unpacks the white, male history of the writing workshop and writing criticism, and uncovers how what is taught as “good writing” is just something that ticks the boxes these writers have made. By encouraging the use of different forms and approaches to writing, and with suggestions for changing the oppressive value structure present in writing and writing evaluation, he asks us all to rethink how we write and teach writing.

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain. 1/5
I didn’t enjoy this much. The premise is fine–a detective coping with trauma and her own destructive urges goes to her hometown to recover and gets involved in a missing-persons case–but the characters were all rather dull, and the tension wasn’t very tense. There were a lot of reddish herrings that were all pretty obviously so, and a lot of messy plot points that went nowhere.

I was also pretty angry that McLain used the Polly Klass tragedy as part of her framing device. It felt exploitative and cruel, Perhaps McLain felt that by using it, she was drawing attention to the thousands of girls and women go are abducted and killed each year, but it doesn’t come across that way in the novel. Instead it uses the Klaas family’s ordeal as entertainment, and I wish an editor had told McLain that it was inappropriate.

We Two Alone by Jack Wang. 5/5
This is a beautifully-written and collated collection of short stories, each chronicling a different, and often unexpected, aspect of Chinese immigrant life. The characters are expertly crafted and the story lines, while short, and are deep and engaging–I wanted to read more, to know what happened next. But the stories are perfect as they are, and made me aware of politics and events I should have known more about in the experiences of Chinese in North America. This is an excellent book for book clubs and schools, especially if read in conjunction with other factual and literary accounts of late 19th and 20th century Chinese and American history.

Valentino Will Die by Donis Casey. 4/5
This is a fun romp through 1920s Hollywood, full of great slang and fabulous clothes and real-life stars. I enjoyed the quick pace and Casey’s framing of the novel as a silent film itself. Film buffs, history lovers, and anyone who likes a mystery will enjoy this take on the death of Rudolph Valentino and the LA underworld. I’m going to go read the first installment of the series–this is the second, but you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy it or understand what’s going on–and will look forward to more.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. 1/5
In the editor’s note at the beginning of this book, the editor notes that they love this newest novel by Weir because it pushes the science. It also pushes all credibility and sense. I have a very strong willing suspension of disbelief, but this went too far, making it much more a fantasy–of about a five-year-old–than anything else. If you enjoyed the technical creativity of The Martian, you’ll want to give this one a pass.

Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo. 5/5
This is a stunning and imaginative work in free verse that focuses on the immigrant experience. Nima struggles with discrimination and hatred and the legacy of her mother’s trauma, growing up in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. When a tragedy occurs, Nima escapes into spaces of danger and new awareness, guided by a hungry ghost. This is a book that should be celebrated and shared and read by everyone. The language is beautiful and striking, and Nima’s is a compelling and authentic voice. This book should be embraced by book clubs and libraries and schools.

Murder in the Cloister by Tania Bayard. 3/5
A nice mystery involving class, gender, and revenge, set in medieval France and featuring writer Christine de Pizan. This will appeal to readers of historical mysteries and the medieval period, and those who enjoy fiction featuring real-life figures. The writing is clear and the descriptions are good, and the author is careful to explain historical viewpoints as opposed to those of the present.

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