Book reviews: Peter S. Beagle, Indigenous fantasy, and horror

The Essential Peter S. Beagle, Volume 1: Lila the Werewolf and Other Stories by Peter S. Beagle. 5/5
Jane Yolen’s utterly craven and insensitive Foreword is a disservice to Beagle’s works. Her use of the Uvalde, TX, massacre is despicable here. It was bad enough that she started off with some self-deprecation–ha ha, I’m jealous–but to put murdered children and adults to work as a way of making a point about one of Beagle’s stories is horrifying.

That said, Beagle’s own introductions to his stories–full of memories and ideas told in a gentle tone–are charming, and I was happy to read many old favorites and a few new-to-me stories here. Five stars to Beagle, but zero to Yolen.

The Essential Peter S. Beagle, Volume 2: Oakland Dragon Blues and Other Stories by Peter S. Beagle. 5/5
I love that Beagle’s work is being re-assembled and published again, and that he has written his own introductions to these works. I’m especially delighted to find stories here that I hadn’t read before, and to re-read old favorites with his intro in mind. Here, Meg Elison does a somewhat better job of writing the Foreword than Jane Yolen, whose Foreword should be trashed completely, but I wonder why have these Forewords in the first place? Just read the stories with Beagle’s recollections, and enjoy his worlds and words.

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood. 3/5
These stories seem to be very personal for Atwood, and certainly many of them seem to be thinly-disguised aspects of her own life, but they’re quite different from her earlier stories. They’re a little bitter, a little resigned, a little cruel than her writing usually is. These don’t have the same spark and wit her earlier work does. I do understand how writers’ voices and approaches change over time, and Atwood has definitely undergone change in her writing over the last 10-12 years. I can’t say I like it as much.

Earthdivers #1 by Stephen Graham Jones, Davide Gianfelice. 2/5
Ok, so, people in a dystopian future find a way to travel in time and go back to sabotage Columbus’s voyage to the “new world.” It’s just ok, though, not groundbreaking or even very compelling. It’s really wordy for a graphic novel, and a lot of what happens is predictable. Maybe it’s supposed to be, to prepare readers for a big jump later? I don’t know. It looks good and will attract a lot of readers, but it didn’t do much for me.

Wiijiwaaganag by Peter Razor. 1/5
I was initially taken in by the dual-language aspect of this book, but the story is utterly flaccid, and the dialogue and character actions is strained and monotone. Everything is written as if it’s being reported, with the dialogue being formalized from what real people would say. It’s wooden, full of the passive voice, and unbelievable not because of the plot but because of the way everyone acts and speaks. It just plods and flops along; reaching the end was a relief.

The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry. 4/5
A pleasant little mystery about the smallness of the world, storytelling, and family. When Flora goes missing, she’s assumed dead, but when her sister finds a book about the secret world only the two of them shared, she’s got to find out how the story reached others. I’m not quite able to believe people who get on international flights at the drop of a hat, the hire-fire-hire storyline, and a few other bits that didn’t seem fully thought-out, but overall this was a fine read.

The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander. 1/5
For a good part of this novel I was impressed by the author’s empathy and research into how the developmentally disabled (and the poor, and the nonconforming) people were institutionalized in the 1940s and 50s, and how they were transferred into independent living. But what was supposed to be sweet–I think?–or to create suspense?–was just awful, a love-letter to stalking and inappropriate boundaries. Why on earth would anyone think this was acceptable behavior?

Lone Women by Victor LaValle. 5/5
This is a great horror novel! It’s got everything I want in horror: women characters with a wide range of strengths and abilities, queer and trans representation, bringing down corruption, a happy (-ish) ending for the monster, who isn’t really a monster, and super-creepy surroundings, ghosts, and lore. Highly recommended.

Night Wherever We Go by Tracey Rose Peyton. 5/5
This is an unforgettable novel about an aspect of American slavery that is often ignored, the use of enslaved women as incubators for more enslaved people. Told in first-person plural, it lets us into the thoughts and fears and desires and strategies of a group of enslaved women whose owners push them into forced pregnancy and childbirth. This is an important novel, as strong as anything by Toni Morrison, and just as shattering. It’s a work that is also particularly resonant today, as girls as young as 10 are being forced to carry and deliver their rapists’ children. I want everyone to read this book, I want it in the schools, I want it taught in colleges, I want book groups to read it, I want it to be one of those city-wide reads, everything.

It Won’t Always Be Like This by Malaka Gharib. 2/5
I found this graphic memoir to be flat. There’s a lot of stasis in the stories here, and often no resolution or follow-up. It feels like a series of observations that never lead to action or change, and there’s never any sense of deep emotion–the relationships seem superficial and strained, going nowhere.

In a Land Without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark by Jonathan Garfinkel. 4/5
This book is an utterly wild ride, where the reader hangs on to the coattails of the collapse of the Soviet Union, independence movements in former Soviet states, the stories of spies and lovers and liars and writers. Party watchers, enigmatic double and triple agents, provocateurs, students–the cast list is long and complex, and often unbelievable, but nonetheless this is a compelling read about political, journalistic, and personal independence, personal reckonings, and the unpredictability of life in Russia and Georgia in the late 1980s-early 2000s. It took me back to reading Andrea Lee’s Russian Journal and made me re-read some Akhmatova. I will admit, though, that the author’s afterward was even more interesting than the novel, and wish a little that he had extended that into a longer form instead of or alongside this book.

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose. 4/5
I really enjoyed this novel, set in an alternate North America among Indigenous groups and settler-colonizer communities–and their dragons. The deft handling of Native lore, practices, and life is a treat to read, and while protagonist Anequs, a queer young Indigenous woman who has been chosen by a dragon to care for it, serves as a didactic mouthpiece most of the time, she is a fairly well-constructed character in her own right. The world-building tends to fall somewhere between the simple “can you line up places and things between the world of the book and our world?”–like cities and materials (lead becomes “lood,” for example)–and a more thoughtful imagination of how colonization changes the world. In addition to Anequs, there are other characters who clearly serve very specific roles, including two love interests, a roommate who explains Anglish colonialist culture, a brother, who has left his family to live in an Anglish city and learn their technology so he can take it home with him and use it for Native interests, an autistic boy who is there to be Anequs’s friend and teach readers about non-speaking or low-speaking autistics, the racist, elitist instructor at the academy Anequs attends, and a few others, all of whom fulfill various other archetypes. But despite the characters being stereotypes, they generally don’t grate–author Blackgoose has fleshed them out at least a little bit. The pacing is a little jerky, and the end feels rushed. Despite the obvious doors left open for sequels, I’m kind of hoping this remains a standalone, so that readers can imagine what happens next.

The Skin and Its Girl by Sarah Cypher. 5/5
This is beautifully written, full of astonishingly woven phrases and passages; the entire book is a revelation. It’s an exploration of a family history, of myths, of relationships that have been hidden or partially obscured, and of how time and circumstances and mental illness shape and alter those pieces of our identities. The characters feel real and their stories are compelling–I wanted this book to go on and on. Highly recommended.

Wait Till Helen Comes Graphic Novel by Mary Downing Hahn. 2/5
This is a decent ghost story for young readers, but it’s very text-heavy for a graphic novel–It’s more like an illustrated story than a graphic novel. The text does a lot of telling rather than showing, and the art is nothing special. There are some holes in some of the plotting and reasoning, and the conflict resolutions and aftermath are a bit pat.

The Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy 2022 by John Joseph Adams; Rebecca Roanhorse. 3/5
A collection of SFF by mostly well-established authors. I was a little disappointed by this collection, which didn’t really contain anything I thought particularly exemplary. I’d have liked to have seen work by less well-known writers–this felt a lot like a meeting of the cool kids’ club, with a few authors not quite doing the same quality of work they might once have to get into collections like this. But many readers will enjoy at least some of the stories here, even if I didn’t love them all.

The Best of World SF: 2 by Lavie Tidhar (editor). 5/5
This is a superb collection of SF from around the world, charmingly introduced by Lavie Tidhar. While I’d like to have had more stories in this volume that hadn’t already been reprinted multiple times, I can’t complain about revisiting some true masterpieces and finding new wonders along the way. Readers should approach this with a very open mind as to what SF is and how it can be written; traditionalists will have a hard time with some of the more experimental, less linear pieces here. Those looking for new authors to read, new ideas to consider, and new ways of thinking of genre will find a lot to like here.

Level Five by William Ledbetter. 1/5
This never really got hold of me. While the concepts are interesting, the characters are flat and the interminable business-jargon dialogue was a slog.

The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales by Vasily Eroshenko. Translated by Adam Kuplowsky. Foreword by Jack Zipes. 2/5
These may be masterpieces but the tales here were mostly just boring to me, and the turgid introduction and scholarly apparatus doesn’t help. For specialists only.

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones. 4/5
This sequel to My Heart is a Chainsaw is everything fans of the first book want: Jade, a serial killer, a traumatized cop, a massive snowstorm, and lots and lots and lots of gore. The story moves fast, the twists move faster, and the blood flows…well, you get it. Good for fans of horror, horror movies, and friendship.

Bad Cree by Jessica Johns. 4/5
An often lyrical novel about family and tribal responsibilities and trauma, this novel is an expansion of a short story. Author Johns has deftly pulled and tugged at the original so that the new material fits inside and around it. Evocative, well-paced, and full of richly created characters, Bad Cree is a solid supernatural horror story that’s also a meditation on family and land.

Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai. 5/5
Great characters, a fascinating setting, some excellent erotica, and a solid plot about magic, familial responsibility, and dealing with personal sacrifice all come together perfectly in this fantasy novel. I enjoyed everything from the various forms of magic to the fantastical transportation systems to the seedy side of corporate magic. A fun read. More please, and with more about the ghosts?

The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway by Ashley Schumacher. 1/5
The story is presented as a slow-burn romance, with a summer-long wooing of one character by another. But there’s just too much that rubbed me the wrong way in how this premise is handled–girls and women who have never been stalked or harassed might initially think Arthur’s persistent presence and insistence on Madeleine doing things with him all summer is cute or devoted, but for those of us who know what controlling relationships look like, this will set off major red flags. The very premise that a young woman in mourning for her mother needs to get over it through a relationship with a guy is problematic at its core, so no matter how nice Arthur’s dads were to Maddy (although not so much to each other; abuse is not banter) or how pathetic Arthur could be, this book isn’t one I could recommend to anyone.

Missing Clarissa by Ripley Jones. 3/5
Two teens solve a decades-long mystery, uncovering corruption, toxic masculinity, and lots of regrets during the course of their investigation for their very rough and ready podcast. I like the emphasis on ethical journalism and the need for communicating with your writing/podcasting partners, but the writing is a bit uneven, especially in terms of character behavior and development.

I Could Not Do Otherwise by Sara Latta. 3/5
A fine introduction for young readers to the life of Mary Walker. The prose can sometimes be a little too simplistic, but overall the author does a nice job of addressing sexism, fashion, sexuality, gender, suffrage, and medical history. I was surprised by the very pro-capitalism sentiment that not only did Walker save many soldiers from having limbs amputated, but in doing so saved the government money from having to pay larger pensions. That was a little odd and out of place.

Two Sisters of Fayetteville by Tamar Anolic. 3/5
Three adult children in a Quiverfull family make plans to escape, however they can, and manage to do so albeit not without trauma. For a novel about ultra-conservative Christians, I was surprised by how little the characters talked about religion, focusing more on their controlling father and other community members. It’s all a bit predictable, and the characters are not particularly deep or well-developed, but the novel does address some of the ways women are used and abused in the movement.

Demon Song by Cassandra Rose Clarke. 3/5
Demon Song picks up right where Singing with the Devil left off, and is a continuation of the previous book’s story, so readers will have to have read that one first. It starts fast and picks up speed all the way to the end, as a pair of lovers and their bandmates have little time to save the world from encroaching, destructive, shards of otherworldly power, And along the way, there are demon-hunters and illicit-magic users bent on capturing the protagonists. It’s a joy ride filled with magic and sex and a nice ending, but it does feel a bit rushed in the writing and plotting.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout. 4/5
Lucy By the Sea, which returns to Strout’s familiar characters, is an excellent, human, honest book about the pandemic, and what we fear, and who we hurt, and who we connect with. I could feel Lucy’s fear and anger and horror as I read, and similarly understand William, who, in the later years of his life, is able to find joy in newfound family. However, it is, yes, a book about rich white people with immense amounts of privilege and resources. Although Lucy’s background is one of poverty and abuse, she’s plenty comfortable now, at least based on the description of her NYC apartment. Strout does have William acknowledge his discomfort with the family fortune, and Lucy does wonder about the experiences of the people she sees on the news–the people who died at home, or with glass separating them from their families, the poor, who can’t leave New York–it’s more of a passing thought than anything else, and while that’s a very real response, it’s one that goes a little too unexamined, I think. Readers who are already fans of Strout will like the book, I’m sure, and readers new to her world and its characters will find plenty to grab onto without having to read the previous books first. It is excellent–perhaps not just because of the emotions and thoughts Strout conveys, but because it also makes me think of how much of it is packed with these rich white people.

The Nightland Express by J. M. Lee. 3/5
A secret, magic Pony Express hires on two new riders who must transport a challenging child across the country–but nothing is as it seems. The Sidhe have taken up residence in North America alongside indigenous gods and magics, and some of them are plenty unhappy with all of the mortals spreading out all over the place. The story is a bit over-complicated and the plotting is sort of like those Studio Ghibi films where they capture the idea of how magic works in the mind of a child–nothing has to be logical, and things turn back on themselves in fast reversals. But it’s also full of important themes: a trans character comes out, as does a queer one; the earth needs protecting; found family is valid; and magic has a cost. For middle-grade readers and up.

Welcome Me to the Kingdom by Mai Nardone. 4/5
This collection of intertwined short stories about Thailand is a brutal and unflinching examination of the country’s poverty, power structures, sex work, white sex tourism, education system, and the utter disaster that is its social safety net. Here, you’ll meet child athletes, workers, and sex workers; unwanted children and orphans; women forced to give up their own lives in order to support their parents; and an unrelenting environmental background of death and harm: mining, dilapidated shantytowns, barren fields and farms. Written with clarity and verve, this is ideal for book clubs and discussion groups.

A Silent Fire by Shilpa Ravella. 3/5
An accessible book about inflammation, its role in various diseases and condition, current treatments, and ongoing research. Inflammation has been in the news a lot recently as the cause of just about every health condition; Ravella explains what inflammation actually is and does, and while the writing does sometimes get bogged down by repetitive material or, in a few cases, too granular analyses, it’s fine for general audiences.

The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar. 5/5
The White Mosque is an outstanding and wide-ranging memoir about the curiousness of religion and religious difference, the desire for community, and the unexpected relationships that come out of travel and history and time to think while riding a tour bus across a desert. Samatar writes in an open, self-questioning, thoughtful way. She takes care in writing about both her disappointments and her joy as she travels; in creating canny portraits of her fellow-travelers; and in relating the history of the places she visits. I can’t wait to read more of her work. Highly recommended.

When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb. 5/5
When the Angels Left the Old Country is a masterpiece about the Ashkenazi diaspora, a book about care and love, a story about becoming yourself, and a funny and moving take on Jewish life in New York, complete with garment workers’ strikes, corruption, and the joy of community. At the heart of it is the Jewish philosophy of working to repair the world, known as tikkun olam. Little Ash–a King of Hell who has no plans to return to that terrible place–and the Angel–who develops his identity through their travel and plans to help people from their shetl–adhere to this simply because it’s right (although Ashe also uses the need to help as a way to fulfill his dream of going to America). It’s a charming novel, a queer novel, a Jewish novel, an American novel. I love it.

Making Our Future by Emily Hilliard. 5/5
I love this book, an account of West Virginian folklore created through collaborative means and with an eye on how folklore and regional customs are being preserved. Author Hilliard writes in an easy, everyday voice, devoid of jargon or too much academic writing. The work she’s done as a scholar and partner wi people in t he state involved in various, wide-ranging traditions is outstanding. Folklore isn’t just stories told around a fire by elders–although that still happens–but is the content of a video game, the way a certain kind of food is cooked, the places–some of them now destroyed–that appear in a writer’s work. It’s a fascinating read, and I hope other folklorists follow Hilliard’s lead.

The Woodville Women by Sarah J Hodder. 1/5
When you’re writing history, you can’t use assumptions or jump to conclusions or assume that the people you’re writing about are like you or have a life like yours in any way. This poorly-written account of Elizabeth Woodville, her daughter Elizabeth of York, and her granddaughter, Elizabeth Grey, is full of assumptions and guesses and personal opinion. There’s a lack of research and contextualizing, and there are so many other, better works on these same people that there is no way I could recommend this to anyone.

Small Angels by Lauren Owen. 4/5
An excellent gothic novel with all of the trimmings: a ghost, a bride, a spooky forest, an abandoned house, a lost love. All of these elements are used well and in interesting and original ways, so although we know early on where the tensions are and where the crux of the story will come, it’s still a pleasure to read.

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