Book reviews: My new favorite book, plus mysteries

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott. 5/5
Thistlefoot is the brilliant, clever, deeply and well thought-out magical realist book about the Jewish diaspora from Eastern Europe I have been waiting for. It’s beautifully written and original and heartbreaking and joyous. And it is the best re-telling/use of Baba Yaga as a figure ever. Two siblings, mostly estranged and each dealing with hidden traumas and magical gifts, inherit a house, shipped all the way from Russia. It has chicken legs, and responds to commands in Yiddish. Bellatine and Isaac, inheritors, make a deal: they will revive their parents’ professional puppet show, go on tour, using the house as home and stage. Isacc will get all profits, and at the end, Bellatine will own the house in full. But someone–something–somewhen–is trailing them, intent on finishing the destruction it began long ago.

Full of stories and history and compelling characters and magic that has been thought through in ways most SFF books and games never even approach, Thistlefoot is my new favorite book.

Into the Forest by Foreword by Christina Henry, Lindy Ryan (Editor). 1/5
It’s really kind of a shame that this collection is full of very similar, mostly boring stories. Baba Yaga is a great folklore figure, but I didn’t find anything new or interesting in these stories, just a lot of takes from the POV of BY and her acolytes as “from the villain/yes children are tasty” perspective. Couldn’t anyone do any better? (See my review of Thistlefoot, a Baba Yaga story that blows these away.)

All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell. 1/5
Well, the author admits that she has–and has always had–an interest in death, particularly its more morbid effects. And while she takes on writing this book as a way of exploring that urge in herself, it also seems that she does it for the kicks. Even when she’s slightly humbled by the care a funeral director takes with a body and has a long moment of parental care take hold when seeing a baby’s autopsy, she never convinces the reader–this reader, anyway–that she’s ever gotten over the desire to revel in death and to be thrilled by seeing dead bodies. Unlike similar books by Mary Roach or Caitlin Doughty, Campbell’s fascination is self-centered and exploitative, making this an uncomfortable read. not because of content, but because of her handling of it.

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman. 1/5
Oh my goodness what an exploitative hot mess! A serial killer stalks the halls and undercroft of a badly-run institution for the mentally ill and disabled, but it’s the oh-so-brave abled sister of one patient/inmate who arrives to uncover the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and save all the other inmates! Gag. Yes, these institutions were–and still are–in use. But using one as the setting and using its inmates as victims all so an abled character can be a hero? Not a book I’d want anyone to read.

Valley of Shadows by Rudy Ruiz. 3/5
A magical realist novel set in the American West and drawing on historical conflicts between white colonialist settlers and Indigenous groups, this book brings together Native American magic and generically white ritual magic to create a mystery. The characters are a bit stock–the evil, racist, white guys, the indigenous woman with magic, the stoic man who sees and communicates with ghosts. But even so, it’s a complex and entertaining read, good for long hot summer days when you can easily imagine the setting alongside a river run dry and heat mirages flickering like phantoms.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. 2/5
A novel within a novel within letters? The conceit of the book is ok, but not used to its best advantage, and the mystery of the novel inside the letters is just ok. It felt like the author had read The Westing Game a lot as a kid and had decide to try to write an adult version, albeit with people of far more (potentially) nefarious backgrounds. While there was a lot of detail and backstory for some characters, others were just suggestions on the page. Overall, more contrived that it could have been.

All Dressed Up by Jilly Gagnon. 1/5
I think the “actual murder at a murder-mystery event” trope is all used up. It certainly doesn’t work very well here, where the characters are cut-outs, everyone drinks so much they can’t use their brains, the instructions and “clues” are all vague and dull, and the real mystery of the plot drags on and on.

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings. 4/5
In an alternate America, women must be tested as witches or married to men before they turn 30. Registered witches are tightly controlled by the government. The protagonist’s mother disappears when her child is young, and when Josephine, now 28 and needing to decide what to do about registering, testing, and marriage, is given instructions in her mother’s will, she embarks on a trip to find out where her mother went, and why. The magical realism of the novel works well, and the alternate US is deftly drawn and relevant. While some of the tropes of speculative fiction–like time passing in different ways in different places–is a bit common and used as a convenience for the plot–aren’t always original, they are often used in fresh ways. The title is a bit awkward, but I understand it comes out of traditional storytelling practices.

Lucky Girl by Mary Rickert. 2/5
A ghost story/horror novel in the tradition of Christmas-time ghost stories in the UK, this novel tries hard to have a twist but it’s so easy to know what’s coming that it rather spoils the tale. The whole thing feels rushed, and while it doesn’t need to be longer, it could have used a lot of tightening up and editing to make it a stronger story.

The Lost Storyteller by Amanda Block. 2/5
A woman whose family has long been estranged from her father decides to seek him out when a reporter declares that he’s hell-bent on find ing the man, who disappeared from public view many years earlier. Together, the woman and the reporter do some digging, begin a relationship together, and find her dad, whose story is one of mental illness, the stigma of such, and the fear of lack of control, reprisals from the woman’s mother and her family, and society at large. It’s a slow read and a bit pat, and the characters are all pretty awful people–privileged and snobby and not very thoughtful. Not entirely terrible, but not something I’d recommend to most people.

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