Poetry from Ukraine, memoir, and more

The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill by Rowenna Miller.3/5
You know, from the very first pages, what the bargains are going to do, and who’s going to have to pay for them. So you spend the first 60% of the book waiting for that to happen, but it’s a pleasant wait, because the descriptions are so good and lovely, and the characters are winsome. Then the thing you knew would happen happens, and you keep reading for the descriptions and, yes, to find out what happens. And all of your predictions are right, but it’s still ok, because the writing is so lovely. This is a bit hard for someone with anxiety, like me, to read, because I KNOW what’s coming and waiting for it makes me itchy, but, you know, in the end, the setting and people and non-people are all so appealing to read about that it almost doesn’t matter. Except for my pinky toe, which kept saying, skip ahead, already!

Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing From Ukraine by Kateryna Kazimirova & Daryna Anastasieva. 5/5
This is a violent, astonishing, innovative, and important collection of prose and poetry by Ukrainian writers, deftly translated. Every piece of writing is a different window into the country and its war with Russia, providing readers with short, strong voices telling the rest of the world what it’s like, having been invaded, raped, murdered, tortured, stolen, frightened, and starved. Where there is hope and resistance, it is equally tough and enduring. This would be a good National Read book, or an all-city read, or one of those. It’s going to stay with readers for a long time.

Abeni’s Song by P. Djèlí Clark. 5/5
Oh, I can’t wait to give this richly imagined, cleverly crafted book to the young readers I know. For middle grades, this is a story about family, both blood and found, responsibility, dedication, hard work, and how people who seem to have no power can find and take power even in the face of oppression. Ok, maybe that won’t sound so exciting to a middle-grader, so how about witches, sword-fighting scarecrows, seeing the future, animal spirits, incredible landscapes, and heroes who work together to defeat a terrible–and sad–enemy? I loved it.

The Wishing Game by Meg Shaffer. 1/5
This book is trying to be charming, about people whose lives need change and are invited by their favorite childhood author to take part in a game that would give them the money they need to make those changes. But it’s not charming; it’s two-faced and cynical. On one hand, it condemns capitalism and its vicious denial of human needs, and at the same time, has a happy-ever-after ending brought on by, you guessed it, loads of money, given by a single, ultra-rich White man. Ultimately, The Wishing Game tells readers, you need to be very wealthy to be happy in America.

The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman; Mark H. Harris. 1/5
This is a Buzzfeed article and listsicles in book form, and alas, it is pretty terrible. The stream-of-consciousness style, lists, trivia, and name-drops (without context) left me really disappointed in this book, whose topic is important and deserves better treatment.

The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman. 5/5
A gorgeous and inventive re-imagining of Elizabethan England, with cameos (and more) from real figures including Black trumpeter John Blank and Elizabeth herself. The language flies and paints pictures and makes a ghost theater come to life, indeed, in the mind. The swirl of birds, a religion based on their movements, actors, Greek fire, plots within plots, daring escapes and terrible captures–all against the backdrop of a London that isn’t, or wasn’t , but easily seems like it could have been. A delicious read.

Chrome Valley: Poems by Mahogany L. Browne. 4/5
This is poetry that flies off the page and punches you, holds you against the wall while it tells you of tragedy, slams you down on the sofa and rails at systemic racism, leaves you sopping with sweat and tired but also angry and wanting to do something to change the world. Will you?

Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo. 3/5
Everyone in the family’s got a gift: knowing someone is going to die, having a “magic vagina”–just go with it–and so when one of them decides to hold a living wake, it’s an opportunity for everyone in the family to tell their story and define their relationship with her, and the family in general. It’s a rambunctious novel, full of surprises and some very silly things, but also sometimes fun and a tribute to Dominican women in the US–which some view as being in exile. I think it could have used some editing to tighten things up, and there are some very tedious sections that don’t add much, so 3/5.

Collected Works by Lydia Sandgren. 2/5
In this enormous novel, the central character, Cecilia, is off-stage almost the entire time, which is too bad, because her story–that of a woman who decides that she is not happy being a mother–is a very real and under-represented one. But the bulk of the story is about the friendships of Martin Berg, a would-be writer who can never get his act together enough to actually write anything to its completion. There’s a lot of Martin faffing about while his best friend becomes an alcoholic but prolific and lauded painter. People smoke a ton, and use oral tobacco, which is just gross. People move through Martin’s life, he gets a soft landing at a career through a friend, and generally annoyed this reader quite a lot. I could see why his wife left, and why his kids don’t want to spend much time with him. Overall, the novel’s got a nice unreliable-narrator vibe going on, but I can’t really recommend it.

Under the Tamarind Tree by Nigar Alam. 4/5
This novel takes place in 2019 and during and after the Partition of India and Pakistan, following the life of Rozeena, a rare woman doctor who, facing catastrophe multiple times, moves from paralysis through indecision to courage in assisting others. While the framing story set in the present is perhaps a little too identical to the story that takes place during Partition, the primary plot, told in short flashbacks, is compelling.

Funeral Songs for Dying Girls by Cherie Dimaline. 2/5
If it weren’t for the atrocious fatphobia, this would be a good novel about grief and identity and desire and greed. But the fatphobia is rampant, and I can’t ignore it. Why aren’t writers and editors more sensitive to this? Your villainous characters don’t need to be fat, or disabled, or mentally ill, or anything else. This could have been a 5-star book for me, but no, not the way it is.

Tauhou by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall. 5/5
Tauhou is a rare jewel, a mix of poetry and prose that educates while being beautiful. By creating a world in which Māori and Coast Salish peoples are connected, Nuttall offers a place in which to consider climate change, colonialism, and post-colonialism through artifacts and landmarks, changed patterns in the weather, and resource distribution. It’s a phantasmagoria of a novel, moving in place and time, creating moments when the reader is briefly lost, then set down on solid ground again. Highly recommended reading for everyone, and especially writers seeking to create new worlds from our current one.

Best of Isele Anthology by Ukamaka Olisakwe (Editor), Tracy Haught (Editor). 4/5
This is a solid collection of stories from the African literary magazine Isele. While not all of the stories grabbed me, I was happy to see a number of pieces about Black joy and happiness and success–too often, a (white) audience only seeks trauma from Black authors. The mix of poetry and prose was well-balanced, and there’s a lot here that can and should be taught in high school and college classrooms.

The Postcard by Anne Berest. 5/5
It took me a long time to begin my review of this book, because it felt so very close to me. I grew up in an agnostic household, with one parent who had been raised Southern Baptist, and one who had come from a Jewish family that sent its children to the Unitarians, in part to help them avoid antisemitism. When I began school in North Carolina, my mother told me not to tell people that her family was Jewish, that I had a Jewish godmother who sent dreidels and gelt every year. So reading The Postcard, I felt for Berest’s mother and herself, Jews who weren’t raised Jewish but nevertheless felt a pull towards their Jewish ancestors and culture. The book is simply phenomenal: Berest is a sure and confident writer, of course, already much-lauded for her other work; here she is confessional and emotional and painstaking in getting the stories of her family’s work in the Resistance “right,” and the end result is completely compelling. Having read it once, and now knowing the heart-rending truth of the postcard–whose origins also mirror events in my family history–I will read it again, to savor the words even more, to weep for those lost, to make the trip again with Berest and her mother.

Mine Mine Mine by Uhuru Portia Phalafala. 5/5
A scorching, volcanic indictment of the treatment of workers and their families in South Africa’s gold mines and mining town. Every line, every section, took my breath away with imagery and force and power. Author Uhuru Portia Phalafala documents the slow and inexorable deaths of the miners, the rape and abuse of their “living widows,” the celebration of boy children, valued because one day they too can work in the mines. This is an essential book that charts the intersections of race and gender and wealth and poverty and abuse and early death.

Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
A new book to add to my list of favorites! Moreno-Garcia riffs on M. R. James’s story “Casting the Runes” and combines love, tech, Nazis, silent film, and magic into an absolute treasure of a novel. The characters are vivid and real, and the info about silent film and early sound film is provided from an aficionado’s point of view and is accurate and well-woven into the narrative. I love the 1990s Mexico City setting (and the playlist in the acknowledgements). This is what I’ve come to think of as classic Moreno-Garcia: an intelligent book with excellent pacing and plotting and a hopeful ending.

The Trackers by Charles Frazier. 5/5
I liked this the best of all of Frazier’s novels. Set in the American West in the 1930s, the setting and characters and artwork –all of it–are beautifully created and described, When the local major landowner’s wife leaves unexpectedly, an East Coast artist in town to paint a mural, heads out to find her. Her reason for leaving, and the timing of it, is one rarely portrayed with such sympathy from men, and Frazier handles it all deftly and well. While this will be heralded as lit fiction, where a book more focused on the woman’s experience and thoughts would be shunted off into “women’s fiction,” it’s a solid novel about White men and their power, and how damaging and deadly that power can be.

The Haunting of Abney Heights by Cat Thomas. 2/5
This had a good premise, but it’s marred by unlikeable, poorly developed characters, the inclusion of unnecessary plotlines and points, and a lot of very vague and unclear writing as to character identity, emotions, and motivations. A couple of rounds of developmental editing and rewriting would have made this a lot stronger.

The Hidden Letters by Lorna Cook. 4/5
A nice cross-class romance with some well-done narrative tricks and reveals. I liked the grit of the main character, who changes from vapid society girl to someone very capable on her own during the course of the story. I also liked her transformation into a gardener, unafraid of hard physical work and of working for other people. This is the kind of story where the romance is brief and doomed, but mostly manages to avoid cliche.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. 4/5
Another fine entry in the growing body of climate fiction from/set in Australia and New Zealand. In this instance, a guerrilla gardening group’s leaders and an associated journalist get in way over their heads, stumbling into plots upon plots and crimes upon crimes. Like its cousins in this genre, the outlook is bleak, but in many ways realistic, given the psychological traumas that climate change causes worldwide. Not for the faint of heart.

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