Book reviews: psychological thrillers, witches, and twists

Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong. 2/5
This spin-off from These Violent Delights (which I liked) and Our Violent Ends (which was an unnecessary mess of a sequel to These Violent Delights), is also mess. It doesn’t have the same careful meticulous treatment of its alternate Shanghai and its supernatural elements, people, and seekers of (supernatural) power. Readers will definitely need to read the first two books prior to this or it won’t make sense at all–the author tries to provide backstory info via characters’ thoughts, but they are all so fragmentary and spread out that it’s hard to piece it all together. The book feels like it was rushed, and could have used more time for revisions and smoothing things out.

Brotherless Night by V. V. Ganeshananthan. 5/5
This novel is a devastating history of the Tamil fight for independence in Sri Lanka, told through the perspective of a girl who grows to become a medical student who works for the Tamil Tigers at one of their clandestine field hospitals. Protagonist Sashi grows up with four brothers and a boy from down the street whom she secretly loves. Her idyllic childhood ends with the growing abuse of ethnic Tamils by the governing Sinhalese: her eldest brother is killed in riots; two other brothers join one of the militant groups fighting the Sinhalese; her crush becomes a leader of the independence movement and eventually dies after having embarked in a hunger strike, Sashi at his side. At first I felt the book slow-paced, but by the middle I realized why the author chose this pacing–it helps make the reader feel what Sashi and her parents and friends felt as they waited for news of their loved ones, as they waited in rubble, waiting for a safe time to flee. I felt like I was holding my breath as I read, experiencing that waiting. This is a book of great importance–I think few Westerners really understand what was happening in Sri Lanka during the period of the book, and this will help them learn about it.

Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth. 4/5
A romp through horror both psychological and bodily, told by a main character who clearly has PTSD and may or may not also be a psychopath. I sympathized with Abby’s frustration in dealing with her husband and his mother’s ghost, and understood her compulsion towards her patients. The ending, though, was the pièce de résistance, which quite honestly left me gobsmacked, until I burst into laughter. Perfect for anyone who likes unexpected twists.

All Good People Here by Ashley Flowers. 3/5
A solid thriller til the ending–where many readers will throw the book across the room for its enormous and unsatisfying ambiguity. Readers will also have to suspend their disbelief regarding how newspapers and magazines actually work, although the sexism and misogyny depicted is all too real.

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett. 5/5
This is a fantastic book set in a wonderful world where faeries and other supernatural creatures co-exist with humans. Emily Wilde is a scholar of such people, a faerie anthropologist. She’s on a research trip when her thorn-in-the-side colleague shows up to, well, showboat around and work his way into her investigations. There’s a slow-burn romance, lots of mysterious and beautiful and dangerous faerie-ness, and an adventure to help and save the people of the small town that serves as Emily’s base.

Jackal by Erin E. Adams. 2/5
Jackal needs at least one more round of developmental editing to tighten up what could be a great horror novel that involves race and class. As it is, though, there are just too many messy things that need to be strengthened or clarified: how Anubis–or a worshipper of Anubis–brought the jackal to the town; what the ramifications of the flood were, as relevant to the story beyond class; the in-book issue of solstice events vs non-solstice events; the oddity of the narrator’s memory/dream recollections, typeset as right-justified and hard to read; a number of character interactions and behaviors that are given weight and then abandoned; and pacing. I think this will have a lot of fans, but it would be so much better if it was just a bit tighter.

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal. 3/5
I enjoyed this fictionalization of the lives of several real-life spies who went undercover in American Nazi organizations during the 1940s. MacNeal clearly did significant research for the book–I appreciated the list of her sources–and it shows nicely. The characters are a bit one-dimensional, and MacNeal doesn’t take the opportunity to flesh them out as the book progresses, which is a shame. Overall, it’ll be a compelling read, particularly for readers who don’t know about Nazi activities in the US. Book clubs will like the stories of two women at very different times in their lives, the question of keeping personal boundaries vs. getting potentially important information from a source, the concept of “nice” not being the same as “good,” and other issues the book bring sup.

The Catch by Alison Fairbrother. 2/5
I think the moral of this story is that people are awful, and we should just all be cognizant of that. A young woman feels slighted by a bequest in her father’s will, so she lies to a bunch of people and intrudes on their privacy and finally gets to the reasons her dad did what he did. Why did he do it? He was a terrible person. The poem that takes center stage in the book is good, and it’s interesting to see how it gets analyzed by fictional characters, but the narcissism of so many of the characters is overwhelming, and it’s ultimately a depressing read without much to recommend it.

Egypt’s Golden Couple by John Darnell; Colleen Darnell. 1/5
I love reading about archaeology and what it tells us about the lives of the past, but this was written in such an incredibly dull way I could hardly drag myself to the end. It needed much more editor intervention and polishing, particularly evening out poor transitions, tone, and exposition.

Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King. 2/5
As readers of my reviews will know, I’ve been disappointed by many of King’s more recent Russell/Holmes books. So I thought perhaps a stand-alone with new characters would be better. Alas. King gives her protagonist many of the same attributes as her earlier characters–she’s queer, she’s disabled, she breaks professional rules–but without any charm or appeal. Other characters are paper-thin and created for single uses, it seems: the agoraphobic sister with the big true crime internet network, the love interest who blushes a lot, the older wise woman on staff, etc. King also gives her protagonist the ability to read micro-expressions, a technique that pushes the book into SFF space, making everything about the book a bit unwieldy. They mystery itself is fine, the idea of a commune taking over a mansion a great setting and device, but the wit and erudition of King’s previous work is still very much MIA.

We Are All We Have by Marina Budhos. 4/5
We Are All We Have is a solid novel about immigration and asylum, and the damage ICE and other government agencies do in their pursuit of “illegals.” Told by a young woman who finds herself on the run with her younger brother when their mother is detained, the story reminds me of Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming, a classic about being unable to rely on family, making your own way, and navigating–avoiding–agencies like Child Protective Services and others. The characters can be a little one-dimensional, but the story itself is important enough to overlook it. Recommended for book clubs and in-school reading.

Wild Is the Witch by Rachel Griffin. 2/5
Well, this was a little better than Griffin’s previous witch novel, but it’s still got a terrible forced romance–including the protagonist’s mom hugely inappropriately pushing the protagonist into the arms of her mom’s intern–and suffers from some pretty contrived plot ideas. Some of the ideas about magic are interesting and well-developed and the world-building provides just enough info to be tantalizing. Maybe Griffin could focus on the development of magic and characters and leave out the bad romances for the next one.

High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson. 5/5
This is an adorable and hilarious book set in an alternate England where humans and fairies–all women–make coalitions and develop relationships that–ultimately–find a way to end the filibuster keeping the government deadlocked. I was charmed by the characters, their yeast highs, and their smarts. It’s an utter romp with terrific world-building and character development –the perfect antidote to current politics.

Spells for Forgetting by Adrienne Young. 1/5
Secrets. So many secrets, Lots of secrets. Everybody has secrets. Most of which are banal and boring. The plot centers around a land grab, which is incredibly dull, and is written from multiple first-person points of view that all sound alike–it’d have worked better as omniscient 3rd person. The language is trite and embarrassing: a man saying a woman “gave herself” to him? Ew. The use of “phased” for “fazed”? Come on, copyeditors. The magic often seems like an afterthought, and the compensation narrative used for a blind character is old and offensive. As for the secrets, I don’t think any readers will be surprised by any of them–are they supposed to be? It’s clear from the beginning that one character dies because of a spell, that two characters are in a relationship, that a man who “disappeared” was murdered by townsfolk. The ambience of the broody, gothic island is repeatedly broken, and the writing describing it and other things is often overdone. I round of revisions could have made this much, much better, which is a shame. Readers can skip this one.

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