Book reviews: early modern murders, dystopias, and poetry

The Safekeeper by Esther Archer Lakhani. 3/5
This is an ok SFF novel in which a young woman becomes a Chosen One, animals can talk, and aliens take vacations by inhabiting human bodies and experience Earth life. There are a lot of disparate elements, and things get a little overloaded with alien politics, secret missions, bureaucracy, dating, sentient ground, and more. But overall it’s a fun read and the trope of the girl who saves the day is down pretty well.

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz. 1/5
Summary: incredibly boring characters may or may not be murderers, drink a lot, aren’t interested in anything but themselves. The characters are one-line descriptions without any underlying detail, interests, personality, or charisma. By the end, I didn’t care who did what or what happened because the characters are so lacking in, well, everything. The writing is awkward and the plot is poorly constructed, and the ending is in keeping with everything else–a big meh.

Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders. 4/5
This is a terrific collection of Anders’s stories. Some readers may be a bit lost in the pieces that follow up on the author’s novels, but the standalone stories are entertaining and thought-provoking. Readers get a board range of genres and approaches; there’s something for just about everyone.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago. 3/5
This historical novel tells the story of the marriage of Frances Howard and Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, their annulment, Howard’s relationship with Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset, and Howard’s attempts to murder/murder of Thomas Overbury. It’s a complicated tale, but told here through the POV of Anne Turner, one of Howard’s waiting-women, it becomes detangled and more easily followed. The retelling, though, isn’t terribly engrossing: although there is good detail throughout, the large jumps in time often derail the plot, and the lack of follow-ups on significant events and information on important people and their numerous relationships and networks will send readers to Wikipedia for explanations.

Major Detours by Zachary Sergi. 3/5
This seems like a fun book, but in the reviewer ebook I read, none of the links worked for me to make selections, so I had a hard time figuring out exactly what was happening when in the stories.

Dark Stars by John F.D. Taff. 5/5
This is an outstanding collection of horror stories, ranging from body horror to psychological horror. With stories from Stephen Graham Jones, Priya Sharma, Usman T. Malik, Caroline Kepnes, and Alma Katsu, the collection has tales reminiscent of M. R. James and James Hynes as well as new takes on old lore, including vampires and wendigo. I loved the brilliance with which these stories have been crafted, never showing the reader too much until just the right moment, letting the reader understand what’s going on before a protagonist does, or making breakneck–almost literally–twists that surprise, delight, and horrify.

The Resting Place by Camilla Sten. 5/5
I liked Sten’s earlier book about a town that disappeared, so I was looking forward to reading this, and I was not disappointed. This is a great gothic tale, full of mysteries and murder and dark twists. I really enjoyed it and think it will be a hit with anyone who likes the gothic, Shirley Jackson’s work, Kate Mortons novels, and Scandinavian mysteries.

The Breath Between Waves by Charlotte Anne Hamilton. 5/5
A fun and sexy romp gets serious when two passengers on the Titanic are, well, on the Titanic. I know the Titanic gets exploited a lot, but in this case I found it a great setting for the romance between two women sailing in second class, each being pressured to find a husband when what they really want is–after some ambiguity and caution–each other. So: like Titanic stuff? Like romance? This is for you.

A Fine Yellow Dust by Laura Apol. 5/5
This is a devastating collection of poems, full of grace and pain and desperation. It chronicles Apol’s grief and celebrates her late daughter, and is as compelling as any memoir. It’s a difficult read, especially as more and more heart-breaking details emerge as the poems progress, but it’s a very valuable one.

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. 5/5
I love this fantastic novel about Caribbean immigrants to the UK and the US. The characters are rich and interesting, and they develop over the course of the book. There are family secrets and hard decisions to be made and struggles with identity and community, all of which make for a great read.

The Sisters Sweet by Elizabeth Weiss. 3/5
This book has a great premise: set during the waning years of vaudeville and the rise of the motion picture, it follows the life of a woman who once appeared on stage with her sister, where they pretended to be conjoined twins. But the primary story drags, and the side plots and flashbacks are overly long and not terribly illuminating. I’d love to see this go through a developmental edit before it’s published; as it is, there’s a lot that can be trimmed and tightened up.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. 5/5
An intelligent, beautiful book. I know other major reviewers will be writing about this in superlatives; I enjoyed every moment of it and learned things in the process. As always, Doerr’s writing is evocative and poetic while still always moving the stories forward.

Hungry Hill by Eileen Patricia Curran. 1/5
A grieving woman moves to her family’s old neighborhood to take care of her dying aunt, makes new friends and finds a new lover, and begins a part of her life. I think this is meant to be heartwarming and feel-good, but the protagonist is really very unlikeable. She’s a snob–and admits it–whose snobbery is harmful to those around her; she objectifies everyone she sees, and is self-centered–the writing in which she looks at herself and assesses her body and clothes come across like bad writing by men in which they imagine women gazing at their perky breasts and so on. She takes on a “tough love” approach to her aunt, but it isn’t very loving at all, and I found myself wincing constantly over her treatment of her aunt. She’s a user, and doesn’t care if others know it, and so full of herself that she happily runs people’s lives–or tries to–and takes over for them, making decisions without their input or approval. I’d love to use this book as one to teach close reading on, because it offers so many examples of things that might seem ok if you’re not reading critically, but really come into focus as problematic if you’re paying attention.

The Voyage of Freydis by Tamara Goranson. 3/5
I enjoyed this novel, based on the brief accounts of a Freydis from the Eddas. Freydis is a complex and interesting character, and her world is richly created. The ending is a bit abrupt, and overall the novel could benefit from a little bit more editing and definitely a sensitivity read in relation to the indigenous characters and plot.

Alma Presses Play by Tina Cane. 1/5
I really like the new, broader inclusivity of fiction in verse, but this novel is not a good example of it. The verse clunks along in mostly short phrases, and feels heavy and drags. The author’s reasons for making tabs or breaks in the lines aren’t clear, and even reading it out loud offers no illumination on why she’s made the choices she has. It’s also a bit difficult to read, typeset as it is. Wearing my editorial hat, I’d say that short prose vignetters would work a lot better. The book pays homage to YA of the 1980s, and tries to follow the issues depicted in Judy Bloom’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret–notably parents of different religions and getting your period for the first time. But Alma and her friends aren’t very interesting, lacking depth and any compelling reason to follow their stories, and the potential avenues of exploring faith and the rituals society has imposed on “growing up” are largely ignored. There are lots of brief subplots: a girl who moves away and can’t be found; a boy who uses homophobic slurs; the class differences between some of the friends; one girl’s alcoholic parents. All of these could have enriched the book, but are sort of tossed off without having lasting meaning.

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky. 5/5
It’s…fantasy? It’s…a metaphor? It’s…a fever-dream? I don’t know exactly how to classify this thought-provoking novel about a woman who gives birth to an owl. Is she an unreliable narrator extraordinaire, or is she the only one in the story who can actually see clearly? This delves into disability, the ideals and pressures of motherhood, sexuality, the meaning of marriage and family, what it means to know someone intimately, medical intervention, and–depending on how you read it–mental illness. Chouette is full of complex layers and images and actions and words–a dazzling feast for the reader.

Queen’s Favorite Witch #1 by Benjamin Dickson. 5/5
This is an absolutely adorable book about a young witch who must learn about friendship, false friends, and how to be mentored as she vies for a role as Queen Elizabeth I’s official witch. (Yes, I know it totally ignores the historical persecution of witches during this time period, but whatever; it’s an alternate universe anyway) The characters are excellently written and drawn, and I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

Singing Like Germans by Kira Thurman. 5/5
This is a standout book. Thurman brings together musicology, history, critical race theory, and much more in this excellent account of how Black American musicians were treated in Germany and Austria, where many at first thought they had found a new and welcoming home away from the overt racism of the United States. But as Thurman documents, most Black performers in Germany found themselves treated as the Other nonetheless. As Nazism grew, singers like Marion Anderson realized that despite their followers and admirers, they were in grave danger. Thurman focuses on many notable musicians whose stories are important, even if we do not remember them as well as Anderson, and the narrative is clear and elegantly written. This should appeal to a large audience, not just academic readers, and I hope it will be picked up by book clubs and similar reading groups as one of the best works of non-fiction (and musicology) I have read in a very long time.

Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong. 2/5
I liked the first book in this series/duology, but wasn’t so satisfied that it was being drawn out into a sequel. Now the sequel is here, and it feels unnecessary and also unsatisfying. Roma and Juliette are back, fighting and fighting for their respective family-led gangs. But the threats of a blackmailer in control of monsters never really seems dangerous, and the politics are convoluted and at times boring. The minor characters who have plot lines never come completely alive.

You’d Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow. 3/5
I enjoyed this novel about high school student Emory and her brother, who tries–and fails–to stay clean after rehab. Their terrible parents and their self-absorption rang true, as did Emory’s struggle to deal with survivor’s guilt, social ostracization, and an unexpected romance. Emory’s development –pushing back against her mother’s heartlessness and her father’s absenteeism–and her drive to save her brother makes for a good story, although the homelessness camp plot line feels forced. A decent read for book groups, particular parent-child groups.

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. 4/5
An indictment of fascist social practices, the performance of parenthood, and the ways relationships manipulate peoples’ perceptions and self-understanding. Frida is a lousy mom, and she’s sent to a special facility with other parents, most women, all of whom have failed to perform motherhood in acceptable ways within their social strata/communities. The parents undergo “training” with sentient dolls, passive-aggressive counseling, and punishment for “offenses” and “failure” to get the dolls to behave as required in timed tests of their mothering abilities. There’s a heavy overlay of gender essentialism in the training and the men in a parallel program are clearly treated differently–usually better.

It’s a well-created world and system, but while Chan tries to make the mix of parents diverse, there are no obviously queer parents, just women who enter into romances with each other out of loneliness. Following the timeline of events is difficult at times–days are counted by “days in uniform” and holidays, but this becomes confusing; it’s easier when, partway through the book, Chen starts to mark time by months instead. It’s easy to feel sympathetic for some of the characters, but not the protagonist, which–for me-made the book more interesting and unique.

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman. 4/5
Like all of Hoffman’s books in this series, this is full of lovely language about magic and friends and family and love and despair and fear and depression and happiness. But boy is it white and wealthy. It’s a little too easy for the characters to just leave jobs and demands and hop on airplanes, and everyone wants to help them and trusts them. The villain is a bit cartoonish and his backstory is pretty thin and superficial. So enjoy the language and moving passages, but do give a thought of how simple it seems it is to be white and rich and a witch, even a cursed witch.

Personal Effects by Robert A. Jensen. 3/5
This is fascinating, and I really enjoyed the stories contained in the book. But it needs an enormous amount of better organization, with less repetition, and a little bit more sensitivity in the delivery. Organizing it by topic or by a linear timeline–wherein the author could refer to past and future events more coherently–would help readers considerably.

Sisters of Shadow by Katherine Livesey. 2/5
A nice, atmospheric queer romance (and a straight romance), but filled with monologuing, a lot of tired language and descriptions, and not a lot of actual character development. The Kindle edition has some serious formatting errors, with material shifted from one line to the middle of the line below and vice versa.

Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding. 4/5
I really enjoyed this gothic novel about how manipulation–of things, of people–can save, and how it can doom. Agnes is an excellent anti-hero, and I found myself rooting for her as she climbs her way through the wealthy family that employs her. An archivist, she learns–and the audience learns–the power that documents have, even when they appear trivial on first glance. Agnes’s secret lover, Lady Helen, is a bit of a caricature at times, but her scheming too is fascinating to see, even as it leads to ruin. I also appreciated the structure of the book, which moves through time without losing steam, and which doesn’t conform to a typical intro-conflict-resolution template.

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