A wonderful gothic novel and a gritty girl on Mars
White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link. 4/5
I liked a lot of these tales, some of which I’ve encountered before, and was honestly kind of bored by others. I enjoyed The White Cat’s Divorce–which I also read as an alternate King Lear set-up–, Prince Hat Underground, and Skinder’s Veil, which I’ve now read in at least two other anthologies and which is a trip. The White Road was a nice take on a supernaturally-charged post-apocalypse world, and also perhaps a take-off of Station Eleven, the Tam Lin retelling–the Lady and the Fox–was atmospheric and pretty, but not very compelling, and The Game of Smash and Recovery was a complete miss for me. But I think anyone with a penchant for SFF, fairy tales, and unexpected twists will find something enjoyable here.
Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H. 5/5
I really enjoyed this memoir that shows just how religious texts can be read in a multiplicity of ways and in ways that are more inclusive that many think. Lamya H’s writing is confident and clear, and she makes reading about her journey feel like a conversation. She depicts the fragile lines present when you live multiple lives, and the fear of losing one community when you find another; the difficulty of handling family and friends when you’re scared to offend either and have them reject you; and the joy of finding support in community and belief. I’d love to see this book in every high school, being read by parent-offspring book groups, and by everyone who thinks they know what Islam is and isn’t.
The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden. 5/5
Oh, this was a treat. This is a lovely and evocative full-on gothic novel complete with a governess, a grand and foreboding house, a romance, a death, and lots of secrets. I loved all of the fun and often sly references to Jane Eyre and other novels of the period, and appreciated all of the details that Lumsden has gotten perfect here. The twist at the end is a beautiful one that even jaded old I did not see coming.
The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud. 5/5
The Strange is a kind of True Grit on Mars–where Mars has been colonized by (mostly American) earthlings in the late 1800s. Set in the 1930s after an unknown event has cut off all communication between the earth and Mars, it follows the adventures of smart and tough Anabelle Crisp as she fights for her father’s dignity, her family’s livelihood, and her own life. Anabelle encounters thieves, pilots, explorers, the exploited, the hopeful, the rough, the snooty, ghosts and animals, and much more, in her quest. There is so much great and wonderful storytelling and imagination at work here, I didn’t want it to end. More, please?
The Paper Daughters of Chinatown by Heather B. Moore; Allison Hong Merrill. 1/5
Please–whatever you own race or identity–stop writing books about White women saving women of color. Yes, I know White missionaries did all kinds of work in North America’s Chinatowns, but their arrogance and sense of righteousness–on display here, at least a little bit–is seriously problematic. I also don’t think you can write about sex work and enslavement without saying the words. I think the term “prostitution” is used maybe twice. This book assumes that young readers–whatever it thinks they are–are to innocent to know what human trafficking is all about. If you’re making a young readers version, you still h ave to tell them what’s going on, in clear language. You can’t just be coy about it. It’s also unclear where the real focus was–is this a bio of Cameron, or a story of what her “students” experienced? It’s uneven and unclear, and I never got the feeling that Cameron was close to any of the women or girls who populate the book.
Community Board by Tara Conklin. 1/5
This is a novel about depression, and finding one’s inner resources, and–to some extent–wish-fulfillment. It’s also about selfishness and immaturity and self-aggrandizing, and what those do to people and families. The protagonist is enormously unlikeable, not because of her depression or awkwardness, but because of her unwillingness or inability to actually learn from the things she does and people she encounters. The epilogue jars with what has come before–there’s no chemistry with the cop–and suggests that everything Darcey’s done to hurt other people, to betray their trust, is easily forgiven and forgotten.
The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer. 5/5
This is a lovely and sweet book. I loved that the author–and her protagonist–pushed back against all of the tropes people use today to motivate themselves and to create their lives. Instead, this is a book about a woman who helps the dying spend their last days as they want, and how she untangles the complex feelings of personal grief she has, and becomes happier by challenging herself in ways she learns from her clients. This will be a great read for book clubs, but there’s also something to be said for reading it as a solitary reader, and thinking about Clover’s records and our own desires for the ends of our lives, and how we can learn to talk about those.
The Cabinet of Dr. Leng by Douglas Preston; Lincoln Child. 1/5
Oh ugh, Preston and Child and the unending litany of sexist tropes and still-hoping-for-another-movie-deal writing. This nth episode in their long-running series is so over-the-top I almost didn’t finish it. It ends with a cliff-hanger, but I don’t think I care about these characters any more. They’ve gotten more simplistic and. in a lot of cases, unpleasant, since the early books. I’ll re-read the older ones.
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin. 1/5
I’d bet money that this was pitched as The Truman Show meets Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. And to be honest, that’s about all you need to know about it. HAL is replaced with a group of “brilliant” people who are mostly devoid of ethics; the backdrop is pods and pods of people in hibernation on a generation ship to another planet; the crux is that the brilliant people, who dislike each other, have all been creating havoc for the sleepers and the mission in general. At the end, I wasn’t intrigued, and I didn’t think it was clever or very interesting. I didn’t care how it ended.
American Mermaid by Julia Langbein. 3/5
American Mermaid is a cynical and illuminating take on entertainment culture, feminism, climate change, storytelling, and writing. Sometimes funny and often horrifying, it’s a roller-coaster ride of narrative form and expectations, odd and expressive in unforeseen ways. The book’s disjointedness is deliberate, and some may like it, or see it as rebelling against craft. I’m all for rebelling against craft. That said: did I like it? Not really; would I recommend it to others, probably. I think it’s a great book for writers to read, especially new writers.
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. 1/5
This is a novel about family and emotions, and what happens when people suppress their emotions or don’t know how to deal with their emotions. Most of characters in this novel having big emotions, but they’re conveyed to the reader in such a way as to be very flat, very placid. There’s never a sense of urgency–not even when William goes missing, not even when he and Sylvia come clean to her sisters. It’s just “They were upset but then they weren’t.” or “She was angry but made herself be calm and got on with her life.” It’s all just very smooth: things happen, the author tells us how they react, another thing happens. Even when there’s character interiority, it’s all on one very flat, very even reportage-style presentation. And so the characters lack a lot of depth. The setting is the same: Pilsen is a vibrant, interesting place in Chicago to have the characters live, but aside from the murals, there is absolutely no sense of place or what the neighborhood is really like. Again, it’s flattened out into a kind of nothingness. This was a disappointment.
The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro. 1/5
The premise is good here, drawing on the folklore of La Llorona, but the writing is cliched and forced. It reads like an early draft, where the author is trying to make things very obvious but does so in a clunky, unpolished way. This really could have used some more developmental work.