Fairies and wishes and spirits, oh my

Without Children by Peggy O’Donnell Heffington. 4/5
This is a well-researched and interesting read about the many reasons people–particularly ciswomen and some transmen–do not have children–economic, physical, because of climate change, more. As a woman who is childfree by choice, it was a relief and even pleasant to read about other such women without judgement or negativity on the part of the author. I appreciated the author’s personal honesty and tone throughout, and the book gave me a lot of think about in understanding the choices other people make and how they make/have made their decisions.

The Golden Doves by Martha Hall Kelly. 3/5
A decent thriller about women who worked in the French Resistance in WWII, were captured and sent to Ravensbruck, and are now back in the game, willingly and unwillingly. The various plots stretch the willing suspension of disbelief some, and the entire Fleur plotline could have been removed, moving its important details into the main narrative, but otherwise this will appeal to fans of historical fiction.

Wild Poppies by Haya Saleh, Marcia Lynx Qualey (translator). 1/5
What might have been a compelling work about family and war is marred by cliched language, a mix of verb tenses that introduces confusion into the narrative, and characters about whom we are told, rather than shown. The result is a boring and flaccid book that was a grind to read. It’s a shame, because the story of this family and the brothers who alternately serve as narrators could have been so much better.

The Women Who Built Hollywood by Susan Goldman Rubin. 1/5
This book is so full of misinformation and errors, especially about the early film industry, is an embarrassment. I cannot believe this is going to press with material that has been disproven, that is myth, and that is not factual. In addition, the author’s judgmental tone and condescending writing makes this a painful read, even if it is intended for young readers. I’m also appalled by the whitewashing of DW Griffith and his work, including trying to claim that The Birth of a Nation was groundbreaking albeit flawed by racism. As a film historian, I’m horrified by this book and hope the publishers will consider its massive problems before actually publishing it

Gravity and Center by Henri Cole. 5/5
This collection of Cole’s poetry is essential for poets and readers alike. Writing exclusively in 14-line forms, usually without rhyme (the so-called “American sonnet” form), Cole dives into his life and relationships, the mundane and the transcendental–sometimes in the same poem. I am both dazzled by these and brought down by their brutality. The intimacy is sometimes too much to bear, and I had to take breaks from reading this so as to grapple with individual poems. Cole’s use of language is revelatory and bold and enormously creative. Highly recommended.

Dog on Fire by Terese Svoboda. 3/5
Wow, this is a tour de force of stream-of-consciousness writing in multiple voices, all full of idiosyncrasies and ideas and personas. It’s a bit of a wild ride, honestly, and while I didn’t really enjoy reading it, it does offer a unique take on poverty and desperation and sexuality and life in small and sad places.

The Magician’s Daughter by H. G. Parry. 2/5
This had all of the things I thought would make it perfect: Hy-Brasil, a coming-of-age story, magic rabbits, a Puca, and so much more. But the characters never really seem compelling or very real–we’re supposed to take their charm on face value, and while the protagonist does change and mature, she never becomes very interesting. The story–of needing to find ways of letting magic into the world–isn’t a bad one, but it does feel a bit overdone at this point. There’s also a mannered style to the writing that makes me think the author wants the book to read like something from the 1930s, perhaps, with a little 1960s-70s sexual frankness thrown in, and it doesn’t work for me.

Let the Wind Speak by Carol Shloss. 1/5
I was looking for ward to reading this, but unfortunately the author has no methodology to speak of, and the book is rather a mess. There’s a lot of speculation, a lot of problems with the authorial distance to the subject (or lack thereof), and a structure that simply doesn’t work, jumping around in time but also in ideas, which makes it hard to grasp developments or a linear narrative.

Hamlet, Prince of Robots by M. Darusha Wehm. 1/5
A novelization of the play with the very thin veneer of many characters being AIs. Nothing interesting, thought-provoking, or new here.

Driving the Green Book by Alvin Hall. 2/5
This book’s value is not in what the author has to say–which is generally banal and offers little other than a sense that readers should find his experiences life-changing–but in the many interviews and other first-hand testimony about the Green Book and how Blacks traveled by car in the US, particularly in segregated places during Jim Crow. This information, which the author does not usually interrogate or explain beyond his own experiences and limited knowledge, is of great value. But there are other studies of the Green Book that provide much better contextualization and more extensive research for readers interested in it.

The World and All That It Holds by Aleksandar Hemon. 5/5
This is a novel of astonishing scope and incredible intimacy, following Rafael Pinto, a young man who, witnessing the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, is unwillingly jerked into military service, where he is surrounded by death and horror and love, which almost makes the rest bearable. The reader follows Pinto from trench to prisoner camp to safe-house, all as Pinto follows and is carried by his lover Osman. Pinto and Osman and their friends and allies and daughter are very real and compelling. Rich. in its coverage of religion, class, empire, revolt, and the history of the Balkans, this is a book for lovers of history and love and the human spirit.

Unshuttered by Patricia Smith. 5/5
Just before I read this remarkable book, I visited the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers” exhibit. There I saw hundreds of photographs made by Black studio photographers from all over the United States from the beginning of the genre to the present. Like Patricia Smith, I wondered about the lives and personalities and desires and sorrows of those who posed to have their images captured. Smith brings very real and very valid anger to her writing here, in which she speaks for or to those in the images she has found, imagining them as former enslaved persons, servants, aspiring artists, blue-collar workers, parents, children, the educated, the neglected. Her writing is direct and driving, imaginative and detail-focused. Highly recommended.

Apex Magazine 2021 by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner. 3/5
A nice mix of short stories, still the best genre for sci-fi. I could do without the editor’s self-congratulatory notes, but the author notes were great. Readers’ views will vary, but I liked about 65% of the stories here, some of which have been anthologized elsewhere.

The Haunting of Laurel Cove by Lucy Naylor Kubash. 1/5
This is a G-rated version of a very boring Hallmark holiday movie, in which a “broken” young woman moves home and falls for a handsome guy out of her past, all while untangling family secrets. There aren’t really any secrets, and there’s no chemistry between the characters, who are one-dimensional and dull as dirt. The whole thing is pablum.

Spring’s Arcana by Lilith Saintcrow. 1/5
There’s some really good descriptive writing in this novel, but the rest is such an incredible rip-off of Neil Gaiman that I’m surprised the publisher is allowing this to go out into the world. Better have a good defense lawyer handy. In addition, the plots make no sense, people do things that make no sense, and the whole thing is a mess.

The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt. 1/5
A boring guy has a boring life, manipulated by everyone he knows and never quite sharp enough to put things together. Why did people like this?

Frontier by Grace Curtis. 5/5
This book is the pinnacle of hopepunk, a genre I adore. It’s got lovers torn apart, trying to make it back to each other, survivors of a damaged planet working on helping it heal, and folks using tech to make the world better for everyone. Of course, it’s go great villains, too–people who are scared of and hate tech and medicine and science of all kinds, hypocrites who want to keep tech for themselves, power-hungry abusers of power, and religious zealots who have no idea where their scriptures can from or what they actually mean. It’s fast-paced, full of excellent world-building and characters, and has a wonderful, uplifting ending.

Pardalita by Joana Estrela, translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. 1/5
I didn’t find this compelling, despite the importance of the themes in it–recognizing one’s queerness and embracing it. The protagonist is a bit flat and the writing–which I assume is meant to be like that of a young person–is pretty awful. The everyday details the protagonist records, which could have been fascinating and played a role in character-building, weren’t used to strong effect. Since there isn’t a big narrative arc, the character arc needed to be much stronger. The illustrations didn’t add much to the story for me.

The Sinister Booksellers of Bath by Garth Nix. 2/5
I don’t like this series much, despite my deep and enduring love for much of Nix’s other work. The Bookseller series (well, there are 2 now) has a generally rushed tone, often frantic, with mania just one step away. Occasionally there are glimpses of Nix’s better writing capabilities, where he slows down a bit and gives readers small sips of more measured descriptions and dialogue. But for the most part, both books feel as if they’ve been written as quickly as possible. The characters and the developing lore reflect this: Susan remains flat and dull, and her mother remains a cardboard figure entirely, and Merlin is a completely self-obsessed jerk. Vivien is a bit better developed, but still not very well fleshed-out; other characters seem to be there simply to fill in spaces. There’s a lot of representation of minority identities, though, but most of them are small roles and their differences are denoted though awkward constructions. There’s a lot of description and detail about cars; can we inject the characters and places with the same enthusiasm as the cars get? The plot is okay–the maps are clever and having Susan make one is great–but the antagonists are not exactly original. In fact, one is similar to the Stilken Lirael fights in *Lirael,* with the hooked arms and shape-changing abilities. There are fantastic ideas in the Booksellers books, but Nix isn’t taking the time to let them breathe, and the hurrying pace throughout is detrimental.

Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold. 5/5
This newest installment in the Penric and Desdemona series of novellas is a treat. I always like returning to Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, where Learned Penric and his demon Des are asked to take on all sorts of issues. This time, the story is a sad one, involving denials of justice, death magic, and the death of a child. The tone is meditative and somber, and yet the mystery elements are a pleasure to read. Newcomers can probably read this without prior knowledge of the characters, but ideally readers will have read some of the previous books in the series.

Threadneedle by Cari Thomas. 3/5
This novel is a pretty-good entry into the magic students (here, Sixth Formers) genre, with the requisite humiliations, tests, finding of magic, abuse of magic, difficult friendships, jealousies, sex, and parents. At the same time, it’s an interesting kind of thought experiment about belief and practice and religion and fundamentalism. A weak subplot involving politics and witches is mostly a distraction or an annoyance–I kept asking, why bring it into the story if you’re not going to use it til the end, and there, still weakly? Poor Anna has grown up with her abusive Aunt, a magic-user who thinks magic is bad but should be used to keep other people’s magic under control. Anna soon becomes close with her cousin Effie, a stereotype of the Rebellious Teen Girl, but with magic added, and other aunt, whose use of her powers is manipulative and cynical, but believes in celebrating the things magic can do and bring to its users. Anna struggles with these very different attitudes and is desperately trying to find her own way, albeit through fits and starts and renunciations and reversing her renunciations. There are many, many twists in the story, most of them predictable but a few that are unexpected and a pleasure to uncover as a reader. The climax of the story comes a little late and is messily written in relation to the rest of the book, and as soon as it’s over, we’re left with that political sub-plot setting up a sequel. Despite the conclusion being less than satisfying, Threadneedle is a fair read and I’m sure will attract YA readers.

A Hunger of Thorns by Lili Wilkinson. 4/5
Full of magic, angst, lore, environmental damage, lust, love, imagination, and daring, this was an intense but also fun and fast-paced read. Drawing on the bleak landscapes of abandoned industrial sites as well as magical traditions and plant lore, author Wilkinson creates a deep and complex world of witches and love–albeit one that feels overstuffed at times. The monsters and dangers are as real as radium poisoning, and the characters are created with skill and thought. The book is written, I think, for a YA audience, but older readers will appreciate it as well. The only thing that rubs me wrong is the author’s thank you to a library for letting her “escape her toddler”–I’m uncomfortable when parents complain about their kids in such a public forum. What will her kid say when she reads that one day?

Ways We Hide by Kristina McMorris. 5/5
A solid historical thriller with the added bonus of all things Houdini, escapology, gadgetry, and the small but crucial details of espionage–and magic shows. The characters are interesting and have depth, and the story is well woven into its settings. I appreciate the complication of Fenna’s and Arie’s trauma as children and its continuing role in their lives as adults, Ways We Hide is a nice change from less well developed and more predictable historical fiction set in this period.

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