Book reviews: Harlem Shuffle, several “Year’s Bests,” and SFF poetry

Reclaim the Stars by Zoraida Cordova. 3/5
This is a bit of a mixed bag of SFF by Latine/Latinx writers. Some of the stories were solid, well-crafted with compelling characters and storylines, but quite a few were just middling. Check it out from your library, and dip in and out to find the stories that you like best.

The Other Family by Wendy Corsi Staub. 4/5
An excellent thriller with nice twists, good pacing, and strong character development. Some of the characters–the husband, the younger daughter–seemed incidental and unnecessary and the postmortem photo bit was pretty pointless, but in general this was a good read and will appeal to a lot of readers.

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson. 5/5
This is going to make a great movie. Through careful use of language and gesture, author Davidson creates life in a small logging settlement in the 1970s, from the loggers’ terminology (there are a few too many references to “big pumpkins,” though) to the danger of the business to how the industry affected the families of employees. As the protagonists slowly come to understand how harmful the industry is, they must also grapple with everyday life in a poor and underserved community. The beginning felt slow to me, and I had almost just written off Rich as an asshole and the writing as repetitive before I pushed myself to continue and found that all of the characters’ development was being beautifully crafted within a dense network of relationships and histories. This isn’t just a great read: it could also serve as a model writers to study.

The Electricity of Every Living Thing by Katherine May. 1/5
In this memoir, the writer is diagnosed with autism, and in order to cope, decides to take on a challenging walking program. Many people who are diagnosed as adults are surprised (many are often relieved or feel vindicated), but I felt little sympathy for the author, who isn’t at all prepared for her various hiking trips, is prone to a lot of self-pity, and seems to think that her diagnosis means she doesn’t need to work at connecting with her partner or child. She’s confused and jumps to a lot of erroneous conclusions about autism, uses outdated terminology and ideas, and I fear that this book may do more harm in perpetuating autism stereotypes than it helps anyone else who is diagnosed as an adult.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 2 by Jonathan Strahan. 5/5
Strahan is a reliable editor, and brings home another win with this collection. I love the mix of perspectives this volume brings, and I am always partial to Meg Eilison and Yoon Ha Lee. I’m ready for my panda-shaped support bot and am delighted by so many stories that could be labeled “hopepunk”–a term that’s gotten a drubbing recently for being Pollyannish, but is a new genre that so many readers have found solace and comfort in recently. I can’t wait to discuss these stories with friends; this will be a great book club book.

When Things Get Dark by Joyce Carol Oates; Karen Heuler; Elizabeth Hand; Benjamin Percy. 5/5
This is a delicious collection of horror stories deliberately evoking the work of Shirley Jackson. I love almost all of the tales herein, and the authors do a great job channeling Jackson’s blend of the domestic, the everyday, and the dark and awful. For the most part, the writing is solid and smart. I’d love to read this for a book club of readers knowledgable about Jackson’s work so that we can suss out all of the details that pay homage to her here.

Disability Visibility (Adapted for Young Adults) by Alice Wong. 4/5
An excellent collection of essays on disability and chronic illness, drawn from the full/”adult” version of this book. I don’t know why there needs to be a separate YA edition, but I suppose that the length and some of the essays are more suited to reading in classes or as families or with friends. I’m an advocate for disability issues, and would happily put this book into the hands of everyone I know, although the title is bizarre to me: visibility is working here in an ableist context.

The Hidden by Melanie Golding. 1/5
This book brings together folklore, the urban paranormal genre, and the hard-boiled cop story. It’s just too much, and the method of telling it, moving back and forth through time, doesn’t quite work here. There’s selkies, captured selkie skins, a child, a serial killer, identity theft, women who were raised as sisters despite the older one actually being the younger’s mother, oh, and the older one is the cop, who is the very stereotype of the policewoman who ruins her personal life because of her desire for work. The younger sister is a violinist and composer, but some of the music-related writing is rather dumbed down for readers, unnecessarily. The elements are all fine, mostly, but they way they’re combined here is just a big mess. the book doesn’t know what it wants to say or be.

The Best American Poetry 2021 by David Lehman. 3/5
I can’t say that any of the poems included in this collection are bad or unworthy, but I do wish there were more from smaller outlets and independent presses. There could be more representation, too, of historically marginalized writers. But the poems here are almost all excellent, if somewhat conservative in scope and approach. It’ll be fine for classes and reading groups, but I don’t feel like it really represents the best American poetry right now.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Jessica Arden. 5/5
This is a delightful and poignant cozy mystery set in New Orleans and featuring a main character who has just learned to talk to ghosts. The mystery is a good one, taking the reader all through the city’s various neighborhoods and cemeteries (while keeping it very real, which is a nice touch for New Orleanians reading it); the characters are all interesting and well-fleshed out; there’s a lot of romance and potential romance; and there’s a talking hedgehog. Now, for some readers, ghosts + talking hedgehog might seem to go just past the limit of the supernatural cozy, but I loved it and I think lots of other readers do too. I’m looking forward to reading more in the series!

Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota by Amelia Gorman. 5/5
This is a superb and elegant and funny and spooky book of poetry and I love it. Perfect for fans of Max Brooks, Cherie Priest, and T. Kingfisher, these poems confront climate change via mythology and imagination, offering beauty and nightmares both.

Beowulf by Andrew B. F. Carnabuci. 1/5
I’ve read a lot of translations of Beowulf, but I’ve never read one with such a pompous, condescending, and elitist introduction as this one. And the translation itself is dull and overly wordy, with an emphasis on finding more obscure words as part of the alliteration. Unless you’re a Beowulf completist, you can give this one a pass and go read Heaney or Hadley again.

The Ghost Tracks by Celso Hurtado. 2/5
I like the premise of this book–a young man dabbling with the paranormal in an effort to help his grandmother, But the story is a bit messy, and sometimes not easy to follow. Who’s dead? Who stabbed who? What’s happening now? I’d love to read it again after one more edit for temporal clarity and better character definition.

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang. 4/5
I really enjoyed this novel about embracing the life you want and the life that makes you happy, and about how it’s not just possible but important to push back against social expectations that don’t fit. I hope readers will learn from this that not everyone wants to get married have kids, put careers on autopilot or scale them back. Joan has to fight this constantly and I understand how exhausting it is.

Medousa by Butchin Michael. 1/5
As someone who has also written a newish take on the legend of Medusa, I was eager to read this book. But it sorely needs editing–it’s overlong, the dialogue is an awkward mix of the colloquial and the “elevated,” and there’s just a ton of stuff that takes away from the narrative rather than adding to it.

Beyond the Veil by Mark Morris (Editor). 2/5
This collection is full of stories about bargains: is the thing I desire worth the life of a child? Can I make a deal with god? In this way, the collection lives up to the blurb that it’s very Shirley Jackson-esque. But many of the stories fail to thrill or horrify or even retain interest. Honestly, I’d say skip buying this one (get it from the library) and just go read Shirley Jackoson–or M. R. James–again.

Can You Sign My Tentacle? by Brandon O’Brien. 5/5
This is a delight and a trip and full of joy and angst and passion and fear and amazing, original language. I want everyone to read it and talk about the author’s descriptions and constructions and flair. An excellent read for anyone who enjoys poetry and SFF.

Oil and Dust by Jami Fairleigh. 5/5
I loved this subtle and (mostly) gentle novel about finding one’s place in the world. The characters are beautifully created with affection and are each layered and fascinating. Their quests and desires make them stand out in a world of service and community. and I am rooting for them to all find happiness. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. 4/5
Whitehead steps away from the supernatural here to follow the life of a man trying to live a lawful life but unable to resist the needs of family, friends, and others who seek to lure him into being the middle man for all sorts of exchanges. The plot seemed almost secondary, as the real story was about the city, and specifically about Harlem during several decades of the mid-20th century. Shops open and close, people come and go, the drugs change, the music unfurls through it all, and the city heat and chill envelop you as you read.

The Sleeping Beauties by Suzanne O’Sullivan. 3/5
This book, which examines the effects or mental trauma on the body, and calls for an end to the body-mind division, is provocative. Scientific research into somatic manifestations of trauma is still relatively new in Western mainstream medical culture. I appreciated the author’s consideration of indigenous and/or ethnic explanations and treatments of the episodes she describes. However, while a lot of the case studies presented here are argued well and with corroborating support, others are not. In the example of “Havana Syndrome,” for one, the author ignores the large amount of scholarship on music and sound as a weapon. This book has me thinking, and I’ll be interested to talk about it with other readers.

Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson. 3/5
A SFF thriller in which a young woman must make a deal with the spirit trying to possess her, figure out what is going on with all of the newly dead and possessed who are attacking the living, and clear up some conspiracies. The influences of Garth Nix, Tamsyn Muir, and Lois McMaster Bujold are very clear in Vespertine, but it’s a fun read and has plenty of original twists and details.

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