Reviews: Jewish SFF, material history, nonfiction, and lots of witches

The Mismatch by Sara Jafari. 2/5
This book is an excellent illustration of the damage done to women by misogynist, patriarchal religions–not just more conservative forms of Islam, but also various flavors of Judaism and Christianity–in which women are owned like chattel. Jafari tells the stories of two Iranian-British women, those of Neda, married to an addict, and Soraya, her daughter, dating a typical white guy. Neda embraces conservative Islam in Iran to protect herself from the sexual harassment and assaults she experienced there; she marries a man she doesn’t really know, and travels to the Uk to train as a doctor. There her husband falls into first opium and then methadone addiction and abuses Neda and their children. Soraya doesn’t know who she is or what she wants out of life other than nice clothes. She’s less conservative than her mother, and is torn between the ideals of modern feminism and her religious beliefs. She decides to data her classmate so that she can get over the anxiety of having her first kiss, but she’s attracted to him and he to her, and their relationship becomes more serious, until Soraya learns that he was using her as well–at least at the start of their relationship. Ultimately, Neda stands up for herself and her children. Her younger children learn that she disowned their oldest sister for becoming pregnant at 17 and sent her away so that her father wouldn’t literally kill her. Her husband returns to Iran. The family meets the older sister and her family. Soraya and her white guy make up and get together again. But for this seemingly happy ending, Soraya and her family suffer from serious trauma caused by the misogyny of religion, and Soraya grapples intensely with her desire to be a feminist and a Muslim. What I really wanted to see in the ending was everyone in therapy. This is not a rom-com, readers; it is an indictment of believing in a religion that tells you are mostly worthless.

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
This is a lush noir set in Mexico during very dangerous and unsettled 1970s, when the government and other entities worked to disrupt protests, protect the corrupt, and punish dissidents. In this mix we find Maite, who hates her job, is depressed about her life, and loves records. By agreeing to cat-sit for her neighbor, she finds herself completely ensnared in various operations to find and protect or destroy photographs that could be used as evidence to bring down major figures. This is a book rich with description and complex, conflicted characters, and I loved ever minute of it. It would make a fantastic short series; Netflix, are you reading?

The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw. 5/5
A heist? In space? With near-indestructible people and regeneration vats? With a group of former merc teammates with long and difficult histories between them? AI? Yes! This is so many things: a space opera romp, a meditation on loyalty, a collection of amazing fight scenes, and a great story about doing right by your crew. It’s full of inventive and evocative language and scene-making, and the characters are well-defined and clearly very individual. Being inside the collective thoughts of the AI and their hijackers is clever and fun, and the whole thing is a fast, twisty, joyride of a book.

Embers by Josephine Greenland. 2/5
There’s a lot to like in this novel about a young autistic man and his older sister on holiday in Sweden. When they come across a circle of reindeer heads, Oliver insists that they investigate the crime. Ellen, his sister–who is also supposed to be his “minder” something Oliver clearly doesn’t need, would rather go on package tours of the area. In the end, their curiosity about their own family history becomes interwoven with the killings of reindeer and other hate crimes aimed at the Sami people. Unfortunately, there are problems, too: everything is told from Ellen’s perspective, and Ellen thinks that her autistic brother is difficult and unruly and a problem to be fixed. Finally she lets him go, and he proves to be just fine on his own: in fact finds his sister after she’s been (rather easily) kidnapped by the culprit, who does a villain monologue before trying to kill himself. Ellen is not very observant, nor is she good at reasoning. She’s not an interesting enough protagonist, and aside from Oliver, neither are the other characters. They’re all rather flat and dull themselves, and their interactions with one another are awkward and odd. At first I wondered why their dialogue was so stilted, and wondered if it was because this book was translated from Swedish into English, but it appears to have been written in English. The hate crime aspect isn’t explained well, and neither is much about the Sami people–in fact, more people in the novel say they’re not Sami than those who do, so we learn little about the culture.

As a book featuring an autistic person, this one is ok. But I do wonder why the author chose to have an autistic character: is it for diversity? is it because a mystery might progress faster if an autistic character behaved in a stereotypical facts-oriented manner? is it to give Ellen an arc wherein she realizes that her brother is ok being who he is, and that it’s the world that needs to be fixed? I can’t tell.

Overall, not a terrible first novel, but one that feels very rough and in need to more development and copyediting.

The Nine by Gwen Strauss. 1/5
I had high hopes for this book about nine women who had been arrested for their work with the resistance in WWII, and later escaped from a German march. But it’s poorly organized and full of anecdotes rather than a narrative, and often the anecdotes lead down rabbit holes of unrelated information. I’d love to read it after it’s been through a substantial developmental edit to make it more organized and understandable.

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin. 1/5
The idea for this book–that witches can control the natural elements of certain seasons–is a solid and interesting one, but the story itself here is a bit of a mess and a little too full of self-pity for me. At a K-12 school for these season witches, Clara is a rare witch who can control all four seasons (sounds like the Avatar), but she’s not in control of her powers and has accidentally killed her parents and best friend. Realizing that her powers attack those to whom she’s emotionally close, she limits her training and abilities and lives alone in a hut on her school’s campus rather than in the dorms. Then comes along Sang, an older student from a different campus who’s out in charge of fixing Clara’s magic. Or making her fix it. Clara spends a lot of time trying to decide whether to give up her powers and become a non-magic person, who are called shaders. She agonizes over her breakup with her girlfriend, then predictably falls for Sang. Finally, she gets info from previous all-season witches and learns to control herself. Clara isn’t terribly sympathetic, and Sang is a doormat being used by his teachers. The magic itself isn’t explained very well, and the idea of witches vs shaders in terms of saving the world vs destroying the environment is pretty bad. At the end of the book, shaders are invited to the school to work with the witches for the first time ever, but the language that surrounds the non-magic folk is pejorative.

Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood. 4/5
Another book that riffs on Jane Eyre, this time in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek manner, Within These Wicked Walls is a fun and flirty SFF adventure starring a young woman who can cleans people and places of evil spirits. Hired to cleans a cursed mansion that even her mentor won’t touch, Andromeda uncovers mysteries, removes ghosts, falls in love with the property’s owner, and, after the gruesome deaths of several of the house’s inhabitants, convinces her mentor to help her. Admitting that you need help is good, especially in this story, and with combined powers and some emotional catharsis, there’s a relatively happy ending. The details about religious belief, hauntings, and t hose who exorcise them is an interesting added layer, as is the culture in general.

The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu. 5/5
Give me more of this! I loved this terrific book–part ghost story, part thriller, all fun. In a post-apocalyptic Scotland, a young woman named Ropa works as a ghostalker, carrying messages to and from the dead before their spirits move on to another plane, trying to earn enough to keep her grandmother and sister fed and warm in their tiny caravan. But when a ghost asks Ropa to locate her missing son–who is still alive–Ropa’s usual job becomes dangerous. Ropa takes on lecherous men, thieves, sorcerers, drug dealers, and a very badly haunted house while acquiring a new friend, access to a very unique library, and new abilities as she searches and finally rescues not just the missing boy but other stolen children besides. The magic and characters and city were all fabulously detailed, and I can’t wait for a follow-up.

Stork Bite by L. K. Simonds. 4/5
This is an interesting work–there’s little drama or narrative tension, just the day-to-day lives of characters whose inner lives are shown in fleeting glimpses. I enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what happens next after a young man kills a Klansman, what happens next when a bored young woman elopes, what happens next with a smart businesswoman. But while the author does tell us what happens next, there are very little hints as to why such things happen, and as readers we have to seek out hidden meanings and, sometimes, simply deal with not knowing why a character acts the way they do, makes the decisions they do. In this way it’s an enigmatic novel, teasing and denying. The novel’s description–that David Walker reappears and the past is never too far from the present–isn’t what happens at all, save for a brief episode near the end of the novel; nonetheless, it’s an interesting read, ideal for book clubs and close readings.

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe. 1/5
This novel uses Shakespeare’s the Tempest as a jumping-off point, and the initial idea isn’t bad: a young woman discovers that the magic island she’s always lived on is made magic by the enslaved spirits who live there. But the execution is poor: the story becomes one of Cinderella, albeit with an evil royal family, manipulative princesses, and sullen princes, only one of whom is intelligent enough to know what’s going on when the spirits begin to die. The narrator is independent and has a lot of self-esteem, but she’s turned into a figure focused on boys and romance and somehow becomes unable to speak for herself for an annoyingly long time. The plot is rushed and decisions don’t make sense; characters are uneven and inconsistent; and the conclusion is frustrating as the protagonist, who had achieved some autonomy, allows herself to be sucked back into the morass of the spirit-enslaving family.

I Am Margaret Moore by Hannah Capin. 5/5
I really enjoyed this book, with its unstable narrative and moments of intensity, anger, fear, and retribution. The narrator was less well-fleshed out (pun partially intended) than the other characters except perhaps for Jack, but that ultimately makes sense, since the book is really about the girls who fight to end the lies that circulate around their friend–about how they are true Marshall girls to the end, in every way. This novel is excellent, surprising me when I though there were no more surprises (or obvious secrets) left, and concluding just the way readers will want it to.

All That She Carried by Tiya Miles. 5/5
This is an outstanding work of material history that traces a single handcrafted item from its origins to its location today, providing astute and important commentary along the way in regard to human rights, the history of the Americas and enslavement of people, the lives of enslaved women and free women, and what we can learn by following this item back in time. I highly recommend this–it makes an excellent companion piece to 400 Souls.

Castle Shade by Laurie R. King. 3/5
I’ve been sorely disappointed in King’s more recent Russell books, so I was wary of this newest installment. While at least Holmes and Russell are together in this one, they’re at an apparently rough patch in their still-young marriage, and we’re once again lacking the wit and fun of the first several books in the series. However, at least the plot works, more or less, and the supporting characters are pretty well written. But Russell and Holmes being on tiptoes with one another makes the book uncomfortable to read, especially if you’ve read others in the series. In addition, I know King has a mandate not to let Holmes get too old, but the timeline for all of the books is getting crowded to the point of absurdity, even if it is a fictional world.

Spells Trouble by P. C. Cast; Kristin Cast. 2/5
This was promising: a story with a strong sisterly and mother-daughters bond, daughters suddenly left in the company of a shapeshifting cat, and the need for the sisters to repair broken magics. And while the diverse characters felt a bit tokenistic: the One Black Person, the One Lesbian Girl, the characters were at least interesting and developed through the book. But then it became a predictable sister-against-sister mess, setting up a big sister/witch fight in a sequel. I was really disappointed that writers who were so creative with everything else in the book couldn’t have come up with something better than this for a conflict.

The Second Rebel by Linden A. Lewis. 1/5
Perhaps if I’d read the first book in this series I’d have been able to figure out what was going on here, but for new readers to the series, the author provides little guidance on characters, their relationships with one another, the setting, or what’s going on. It became a slog to read.

Maiden Voyages by Siân Evans. 2/5
In this book, author Evans offers up stories of women who went to sea on the great steamship ocean liners of the first half of the 20th century. While many of the stories are interesting and offer some insight into how women worked and traveled on these ships, Evans repeats a lot of information and anecdotes, reaches for stories to tell (a particularly bad example is speculating on the journey Passionfruit Pinochet’s grandmother made, about which she actually has little info, so it’s filled with a description of her hometown instead), and falls short on doing anything more than making superficial connections between women’s roles aboard ship and the changing roles and expectations of women in society at large. Disappointing.

The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker. 2/5
This is a book that wants to be a manga or an anime. It’s got all of the right elements: half-siblings, banishment, angst, arbitrary rules, manipulation of time, souls, weird magics, evil spirits, identity crises, near-immortality, settings in Japan and England, goth aesthetics, tentacles, and lots of blood and fighting. As a novel, there’s too much that doesn’t make sense and is told poorly, and there’s also too little: the characters are straight out of anime stock casting, the apparently storied histories that are supposedly important get short shrift, and the magic of the world isn’t explained well enough to be completely understandable. So as a novel it gets 2 stars, but with a manga or anime treatment, it would be very, very popular.

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros. 5/5
This is a gorgeous novel about love and vengeance and religion and faith and the immigrant experience and the labor movement and being Jewish. Full of compelling and interesting characters, this story of a man possessed by a dybbuk in 1893 Chicago is also about the kind of romance you can have with a place, and as a reader who loves Chicago (and has read so, so many books set in New York as if New York is the only US city for historical fiction,), I thoroughly enjoyed running from the stockyards to the lake to the tenements to the mansions of the rich alongside the protagonists. And while there are thousands of books out there that deal in magical realism or the supernatural, it’s much rarer to read works where the supernatural elements are distinctly Jewish, and author Polydoros has created a fantastic ghost story drawn from Ashkenazi folklore.

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