Reviews: horror, non-fiction, and a novel in verse

Paradise by Lizzie Johnson. 5/5
This is a compelling and very clear account of the Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise, California. Johnson has done enormous amounts of research to get the human details of this story right, and it is a testament to journalistic non-fiction writing. I recommend this highly for anyone interested in the fire, how wildfires in the American West are managed and fought, and the individual stories of those affected by the fire.

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. 1/5
I read and read and read this and felt like I was swimming against a current of words and meaningless disconnection and and minute detail. I realize that perhaps all types of writing aren’t for me, and this is an example. I am certain other readers will love it, but my primary emotion was being relieved I was done with it.

An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford. 3/5
A short but intense novel about a young woman recruited because of her language skills to work for MI5 during WWII. A nice study of the period, its politics, and how knowing what the right thing to do is very fraught. A solid read.

The Real Valkyrie by Nancy Marie Brown. 5/5
Starting with the confirmation that a warrior buried with full warrior signifiers at Birka was a woman, Brown constructs a possible life for her based on her grave goods, historical information data, and written accounts of the period. I loved the detail and information about the world this woman lived in, and how she might have lived. Brown does an excellent job–as usual–in bringing the Viking world and its trading partners to live. My only reservation is about the lack of discussion of transgender identities during the period–Brown discusses how pronouns and signifiers like “King” changed as women took on certain roles, but not whether there is any evidence of trans identities as we understand them today. Perhaps there is simply no information currently known about transmen and transwomen in Viking like, but I’d wager that there were, and am curious about the lives they may have lived. Overall, though, this is a rich and fascinating book, and I recommend it highly.

All’s Well by Mona Awad. 5/5
In keeping with her previous books, in which witchcraft and darkness and breakdowns of body and mind are all fair game, Awad here goes back to college, this time focusing on theater teacher Miranda. Miranda, in a precarious position at work and dealing with chronic pain, casts a spell and summons a trio of odd men. Her pain transfers to a despised student, Miranda’s crush is suddenly smitten with her, and her favorite student is about to be a star. But what’s really going on? How much of what happens is strictly in Miranda’s mind, and how has her chronic pain shaped her perceptions of the events that unfold in the book? This is completely unnerving horror, but spiked with moments of empathy and sympathy, and for me, also a person who deals with chronic pain, a thought-provoking read. I want other people to read this immediately so I can talk with people about it.

The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood. 1/5
In this Faustian tale, a young woman who aspires to the good life relies on a bargain with a demon–seven wishes in exchange for her soul. But while the wishes come true, most of them are accomplished by the woman herself, unknowingly murdering those in her way to achieving her goals. I’m not sure what the point of the tale is, other than perhaps you should do your murdering on your own, consciously, and do a better job of covering it up. Perhaps the demon was not real, and we are party to the woman’s hallucinations, which makes the book a bit more interesting–who is real? What characters and events are actually real? The characters are all rather stock-in-trade eighteenth or early nineteenth century figures, and my final reaction was just “meh.”

The Orphans of Davenport by Marilyn Brookwood. 2/5
This account of intelligence testing and the desire for creating smarter people, as it took place with the children abandoned by parents or otherwise without families and living in state institutions in Iowa is a very mixed bag. While author Brookwood frequently emphasizes her position on the abhorrence of eugenics, she also fails to interrogate the development of IQ tests and the other assessment tools used by researchers. Too often the slightly more humane eugenicists are celebrated over their worse colleagues, and this makes for a rather contradictory narrative.

The Hunter and the Old Woman by Pamela Korgemagi. 2/5
I’m not sure what to make of this book, a story mostly about a cougar–known as Cougar–whose life progresses as I would expect many cougars’ lives to progress; and a boy who grows to become obsessed with the cougar. The writing is fine, but I didn’t find this to be very engaging or compelling.

A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England by Michelle Higgs. 1/5
This is a disorganized mess in which the writer assumes that the reader is a white, middle-class person who already knows a great deal about Victorian England. The author’s tone is judgmental and uneven, and the book really could use an overhaul by a developmental editor. Give this one a miss.

Call Me Athena by Colby Cedar Smith. 5/5
This is a truly excellent novel in verse, detailing the lives of three people as they make the decisions that will make their adult lives. Smith revels in language and image, but is equally at home cutting to the chase and being blunt. I loved the ways in which she made every character and narrator a poet, making each one more individual and interesting and special in the process. This book will be a great book club read, and it will stay with me a long time.

In the Forest of No Joy by J. P. Daughton. 2/5
This is an account of the Congo-Ocean railroad, made by enslaved Blacks in French-colonized Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. Author Daughton recounts the horrors inflicted on the people forced to work on the railroad, but does so repetitively and without clear organization, resulting in a book that circles and circles important topics but never provides readers with guideposts for understanding them more fully.

Multispecies Cities by Multiple Authors. 1/5
While the editors’ introduction is an eloquent and inspirational piece on climate change and fiction, the stories in this anthology are very uneven, ranging from poorly written to just passable. None lived up to the introduction, which is a shame, because the genre is an interesting one that deserves good representation.

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo. 5/5
Richly detailed and filled with enough background that readers don’t need to have read Bardgo’s earlier books in this series, Rule of Wolves promises another excellent novel of magic and war and intrigue and lore. I’m looking forward to the whole thing.

Violet and Daisy by Sarah Miller. 2/5
A simplistic and often euphemistic biography about conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were put on exhibit practically from birth, abused by managers, and ultimately ended up leaving show business when their lack of experience and changing entertainment tastes in the US met. Author Miller seems to have a penchant for writing books about highly public figures who never sought the limelight themselves, but in this book at least her take is a very superficial one, never delving into the issues of class, gender, and bodily autonomy that she promises in the introduction. A disappointment.

Good Southern Witches by J.D. Horn (editor). 5/5
This book is a treasure trove of witty, canny, well-told short stories, each one introducing the reader to a unique and interesting Southern witch. As you might expect, there are some cunning women in the Appalachian tradition, but also practitioners of vodun, weather witches, non-human witches, and more. This collection was a delight to read and I was sorry when I reached the end of it.

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling. 4/5
A delicious gothic novel full of both psychological horror and magic, this book explores a number of standard gothic tropes, turning them into far more complex and interesting plot devices. There’s a slow-ish burn romance, women helping women, and set pieces that while recalling gothic predecessors are original and full of creepy detail and suggestions.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace. 3/5
This is a solid book about resistance and group action. Set in a dystopian world where two enormous corporations that control everything including water, housing, and food are always at war, a professional gamers and gig workers uncover the secrets of one of the corporations and decide to make them public. While the characters were basically just names and had no real development or even descriptions, the story is compelling and the tech believable enough for the setting to make this an enjoyable read.

How Our Ancestors Died by Dr Simon Wills. 1/5
You can find more accurate and better-cited information on diseases of past years on Wikipedia, and none of the info you’ll find there is saturated with the absolute position of privilege that Willis asserts in his claims that no one dies of famine anymore. The information on doing genealogical research is likewise dated and supplanted by what’s easily found online. I have no idea why anyone would publish this book.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones. 5/5
This is a horror novel for true lovers of the slasher genre. Jade, herself an expert in the form, is convinced that she’s in a real-life slasher film, and it turns out she’s not wrong. As seen through her eyes, we watch the genre’s celebrated figures and tropes come to life, from the initial disappearance of two Dutch teenagers to Jade’s last stand as the real Final Girl. There’s wit, pathos, and loads and loads of gore. Go watch a few classics–Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth–and then jump in.

he Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton by Eleanor Ray. 1/5
Amy Ashton is a dull and rather awful person. Ten years ago, her lover and her best friend disappeared at the same time, and she became a hoarder. Now a family has moved in across the street from her, and in a super- obvious and rather misogynist trope, Amy has a meet-cute with the dad and his boys. When the kids make a mess in Amy’s yard, she uncovers clues to the disappearance and begins to investigate. She learns that her lover was killed by the best friend’s lover, a cop, and that the best friend went into hiding. Able to put tis trauma behind her–and rather quickly and easily–Amy cleans up her house and kisses the dad.

I loathed this. It was trite and predictable, although the best friend’s behavior didn’t make a whole lot of sense. the lover and Amy seem to have had a very immature relationship, and I didn’t understand their supposed rapport. Overall, the writing is clunky and the characters stereotypes, and the use of mental illness as a plot device seemed unsympathetic and uninformed.

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