New and dazzling poetry, an unexpected rom-com, and more

The Only Daughter by A.B. Yehoshua. 4/5
This is a bit odd. Based on the writing style, descriptions, and settings, I initially thought that this book was set in the 1950s, not the late 1990s. It’s a book about identity, and how we develop our identities; in this case, religious identity. Rachele, age 12, is from a family full of mixed marriages between Jews and Christians. Raised as a Jew, she attends a Catholic school, where she’s cast as Mary in the nativity play before her father, angry, yanks her out of it. She loves studying Hebrew in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah, but wonders a lot about Jesus and the rituals of Catholicism. With her father seriously ill and her mother a rather absent parent, Rachele’s religious identity is uncertain, and as she edges closer and closer to her Bat Mitzvah, she seems to become more and more interested in Christianity. She’s still very much a child, though, and her questioning reminds me of myself a bit and the mixed religious family that I grew up in. While the book also investigates issues of race and immigration, class and money, and mental health, identity is central, and is compelling all the way through.

Unquiet Spirits by Edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith. 5/5
This is an excellent anthology about fantasy and horror in Asian literature, and how Asian writers today understand, shape, and re-use stories of ghosts and vampires and kitsune in their own work, and how others tap into this wealth of lore as well, using it to grapple with things like diaspora, bigotry, and problematic traditions. The essays are uniformly well-written, and I enjoyed and learned from them.

Arboreality by Rebecca Campbell. 4/5
Arboreality will probably become a must-read book in the genre of cli-fi. A series of stories interlinked by place and people and plants, it’s an imagining of a world vastly altered by rising seas, rising temperatures, and changing species. It probably deserves that role, as a must-read, but it’s also very sentimental, at times maudlin. It’s not always easy to identify with the characters, some of who are intensely self-pitying and others who don’t feel particularly real. The central story, about a man crafting a violin, focuses on the kinds of behaviors the future might bring: he poaches wood from protected forests, fells a rare sitka spruce, and buys black-market wood from Africa in order to make his ultimate instrument. He justifies all of it: making art requires sacrifice. But ultimately, the stories suggest that it wasn’t worth it, that while some small communities might survive and even thrive in some ways, the end is nigh, for individuals and for everything but the plants and animals that will outlive humankind. Oh, and some of the music references and terms are used incorrectly.

Wildblood by Lauren Blackwood. 5/5
This is a great book! Lauren Blackwood presents a world so whole and fascinating that it’s easy and a delight just to sink in and go for the ride. Victoria and her co-workers are enslaved youth in an alternate Jamaica, where only their magic blood–wildblood–keeps them from becoming food or worse within the great jungle that surrounds their camp. Rented out as tour guides, the kids lead parties of wealthy people across the island on a single road, protecting them from the physical and immaterial threats of the jungle. Victoria longs to take her young charge Bunny away from their life, and when she gets a possible chance to do so, she forces trauma aside to do it. But more and more, the rivers and trees and vines call to her, making the trip an exceptionally dangerous one. The characters are so well created–they’ve got layers and depth and so many stories–and the plot, while fairly traditional in form, is embroidered upon in the most creative and dazzling ways. A fantastic book for teen-adult book groups, high school classrooms, and anyone who is looking for truly new speculative fiction.

Mad About You by Mhairi McFarlane. 5/5
This was not at all what I expected! A rom-com set up turns into a quite serious book about emotional and psychological partner abuse. The characters are solid and varied, and the plot–every abused person’s nightmare–is handled very well, ending with an excellent collaborative action by those who had been abused. I hope people who read it will learn from it about psychological and emotional abuse, that they will learn to recognize it, and will help victims.

Dreams for a Broken World by Julie C. Day. 2/5
Despite its mission to aid the Rosenberg Fund for Children and to share serious work about our “broken world,” this anthology had few stories that I found interesting, and even fewer that were moving. Every piece felt bogged down in its own seriousness and sadness. I don’t insist on traditional plots or character development, but the lack of movement and depth of character left me bored as I read.

Interstellar Flight Magazine Best of Year Three by Holly Lyn Walrath. 3/5
This collection of Interstellar Flight Magazine’s past year of interviews, reviews, and opinion pieces capture the immediate experience of seeing films, reading books, and playing games in 2021. For readers who don’t read things on Interstellar’s web site on a regular basis, though, the contents here will lack quite a bit of context, so readers should be prepared to look stuff up to make sense of the pieces here as they read. There’s a lot of good material, but there’s also a lot of very personal and very intimate writing that sometimes comes across as enthusiastic and loudly happy, and at other times much more self-indulgent and, in a way, exclusive. I’m generally a fan of this press and its authors, but I didn’t feel like I was part of the in-crowd enough to read some of this round-up. I know that for lots of small presses, volumes like these are marketing tools, and I’d love to see the next volume be more inclusive and better contextualized.

Kitty Fisher by Joanne Major. 1/5
Oh, what a shame this is–with more citational care and a better structure, this might have been a good book about the famed Victorian courtesan Kitty Fisher. But instead it’s a coyly-written, loosely-connected collection of anecdotes and judgement.

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