Horror, folklore, trans lit

Transmogrify!: 14 Fantastical Tales of Trans Magic by g. haron davis. 3/5
A much-needed anthology of 14 stories about magic trans and nb teens–teens who find their magic, are exiled for their magic, use their magic for good, use their magic for fun, find family magic, find chosen families, and more. I loved the various different settings and kinds of magic. A few other stories could have used some improvement, but overall, these are solid pieces of writing. That said, the last story–The Door to the Other Side by Emery Lee– is problematic: a character who commits suicide says they regret doing so, but then, because of an attraction to another character, makes their regret conditional, saying that their choice was good in a way because they met the other character. So rating this is quite difficult. Kick out the final story and a few others that didn’t work well–the Valentine’s Day one in particular–and I’d give it 5 stars. But as it is, especially because of The Door to the Other Side, it gets 3.

Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang. 5/5
Well-written stories about death, boredom, depression, searching for meaning, finding hidden power, and relationships. I liked the more experimental stories best–the life described backwards, the mysterious and unresolved issue of the painter at the shack, a woman whose life becomes taken over by algorithms. I’d love to teach some of these to my writing students.

Country Capitalism by Bart Elmore. 2/5
I’m sure this will get used in business classes, but overall I found the writing dull and the focus on White culture and businesses led by men is a problem. I’m pretty sure the Coke material is taken from Elmore’s earlier book on Coke and massaged a bit to fit in here. There’s also an unchecked ableist perspective throughout: yes, overnight deliveries and the corporate green-washing thereof is a problem, but for millions of people, the kind of mail-order vilified here is life-saving or greatly life-improving, especially during a pandemic.

Excavations by Hannah Michell. 5/5
Excavations is a tight, well-crafted book that is a mystery, a chronicle of suffering and family tensions, and a scathing critique of corporate power. Sae, an activist-journalist, untangles her own past and relationship as she searches for her husband after a building he was working on collapses, finding layer upon layer of deceit and manipulation and abuse of power. Along the way, she finds various allies–a former college friend, also an activist; a former co-worker, whose newspaper is bought and shut down by the corporation it criticizes; the manager of a social club and brothel, herself full of secrets and controlling threads of power–who help her put together all of the pieces of the building collapse and those responsible for it–and also responsible for how Sae has shaped her life. A fast, compelling read, in which author Hannah Michell gives the reader just enough information to keep them wanting for more. I can’t wait to read more by her.

The Shadow Sister by Lily Meade. 2/5
Oh, this could have been so good! It’s got hoodoo and ancestor power and family artifacts and bargains with the universe. But the supernatural elements are not well integrated into the story. Despite the main protagonist’s dad doing research on the family and thinking about hoodoo, there’s nothing supernatural until we get to the very end, where there is definitely supernatural power at play. This feels like a book that could have used a big revision to strengthen what are very good but unrealized ideas, and as such, fell flat for me.

A Most Tolerant Little Town by Rachel Louise Martin. 5/5
Everyone should read this book. Especially every educator, every school administrator. Martin does an outstanding job of chronicling the high school desegregation effort in Clinton, Tennessee in a thoughtful and provocative way that is going to make this a best-seller and a book club star. Although her research began as an academic project, her writing here is intended to reach a large and wide audience, and it is compelling and eloquent. Many Americans know the story of the Little Rock 9, but few know of the Clinton 12, but we should–and we should know the entire story, including the lives of those involved following the desegregation efforts. Martin provides a summary of just where the US is today in terms of school integration, and it is sobering and requiring of action on the parts of anyone interested in the future of education and the future of the United States.

The Unfortunate Side Effects of Heartbreak and Magic by Breanne Randall. 3/5
An uneven, if mostly pleasant romance with magic. I feel like it needs a copyedit–there are loads of little errors, and plot devices that don’t go anywhere or disappear from the narrative without explanation. There are some weird time-slips as well, which might be from moving sentences around and then not making them fix with their new locations. This surprised me, since the book is from a major publisher. Nonetheless, it’s a cute book. It’s very predictable and readers will immediately know what Sadie’s sacrifice will be, just as we know from her first appearance that Bethany isn’t pregnant and that Sadie and Jake will end up together. The characters are solid, and I like the diversity of them, although it’s a little heavy-handed. How a town so small supports so many quaint little businesses is one of the things readers will have to suspend disbelief about, but after all, they’re reading about magic food.

How We Do It by Jericho Brown; Darlene Taylor. 3/5
This book, made up of both recent and older essays and interviews with Black writers, is ostensibly a craft book. But the idea of craft has recently been undergoing some much-needed challenges, and so the pieces in this collection that resonate the most with me are the ones that push back against craft–especially those by Rita Dove and Nikki Giovanni. Many of the older pieces included here are by authors who, during the majority of their career, were pushed by publishers and editors and others in the industry to “write White;” who were influenced by the lingering ideas of Booker T. Washington, who felt that for Blacks to be taken seriously and accorded rights, they had to be not just equal than but better than their White colleagues–to have better grammar, better vocabularies, better “style.” This makes the collection a bit of a museum of ideas about writing and craft. Nonetheless, there is good advice to be found here. For writing instructors, I’d suggest also reading Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop and Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World.

The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam by Matthew Moore. 4/5
This is a dazzling albeit sometimes entirely opaque collection of poems that imagines the American Civil War as a layer upon other wars, chronicled by and around a Joan of Arc who moves through time and history and historiography. While I admit that some parts came across as word salad, other sections had me delighted by the clever use of language and imagery and references Moore uses. It’s a text I’ll be returning to in order to tease out additional meanings and choices.

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer. 3/5
During the height of witch panics in Scotland and England, Martha is a midwife and a selective mute who uses sign language with her employer and friends. When a witchfinder puts her town in his sights, of course she is targeted. This novel, one of an enormous number about the witch panics, focuses on the relationships between women caught in the panics: the accused, the accusing, the abetting, the bystanders, A woman who is your friend today is your accuser tomorrow and is accused herself the next day and then lies to save you both….it’s pretty believable, and well written, if often generally predictable. The denouement is a bit of deus ex machina when a flood sends the witchfinders out of town and a judge finds the flood’s surviving, accused women not guilty of witchcraft. Is it the best witch panic novel out there? No, but it’s a decent read, despite the predictability and the magical ending. It will be good for book club discussions.

Hedge by Jane Delury. 1/5
This is one of those books that pushes my buttons, all in a bad way. The main character is about as interesting and has about the same amount of interiority as a barn door, and the errors throughout the book make me think it hasn’t been edited very well. Some examples: archivists or people working in archives DO NOT wear gloves when handling archival documents–gloves do more damage to paper than bare hands. “Antiquarian” does not mean old (the author writes “antiquarian stove”); an antiquarian is someone who does research on or deals in antiques or old books. “Inuendo” is used incorrectly, and is missing an n. Adding lemon juice to milk DOES NOT make it buttermilk. There are issues with tech and chronology. I could go on. And then there’s the main character’s flaccidity, her absolute lack of wit, and doormat tendencies. I guess we’re supposed to think she rises heroically and overcomes these things? But she doesn’t. She reacts rather than acts, and I, as a reader, find this incredibly annoying and infuriating….especially because most of the other characters are much the same, and they’re possibly worse, because they’re very two-dimensional.

Wrath Becomes Her by Aden Polydoros. 5/5
The dedication says it all: for everyone who has ever wanted to punch Nazis. Once again, Aden Polydoros takes elements of Jewish culture and the supernatural to create a (sorry) spellbinding (not sorry) YA novel about Jewish partisans in Lithuania during WWII. When Chaya is killed, her father uses her eyes and teeth and tongue and river mud to create a golem designed to avenge her death. This kind of magic–using the flesh of the dead–is strictly forbidden, but he doesn’t care–all he wants is for Chaya’s killers to suffer. The golem, who becomes animated with a body covered in ink from Torahs and papers from a genizah, is Vera, whose inquisitive nature and nigh-indestructible body make her journey to avenge Chaya a complex one. Vera is a person in her own right, who must make tough decisions and take sometimes reckless actions in order to protect her new comrades–and yes, she punches a lot of Nazis. I love Polyroros’s thoughtful take on kosher and non-kosher kinds of magic, the forces that bring Vera to life, and telling the story of what happened in Lithuania during the War. We need more books on Jewish resistance during WWII for YA and all audiences, and am recommending this to every librarian and parent I know.

Plantains and Our Becoming by Melania Luisa Marte. 4/5
A compelling, angry, and insistent collection of poems and prose poems that circle around the author’s Dominical Republic, Afro-Latina identity, her family and family history, and her desire to have what she wants, from power and presence to material wealth. Celebrating things and people as diverse as the NY Public Library and Cardi B, there’s a focus on ownership and the trappings of financial success that I find unusual–many of the poetry of immigrants and those in diasporas more often decry capitalism and its effects on their communities. But Marte is forthright about her wants, and her citing of popular culture’s flamboyances situates the collection in a particular point in time and place. There are a number of poems in shapes that didn’t really need the non-standard typesetting to be effective, and a few pieces that feel like warm-ups for other poems in the collection.

Numinous Stones by Holly Lyn Walrath. 5/5
Walrath’s newest chapbook is a collection of pantoums about grief and ghosts, monsters and loss, and love and death. While the repetitive form of the pantoum becomes tiring if you read straight through, the organization of poems makes it easy to read a bit here and a bit there and thus appreciate the enormous creativity and work these poems represent. The poems are original and clever and often beautiful, a masterclass in resilience and in release. Highly recommended, especially for poets and poets-becoming.

Night of the Living Queers by Vanessa Montalban; Kalynn Bayron; Rebecca Kim Wells; Kosoko Jackson; SMP Alex Brown; Trang Thanh Tran; Maya Gittelman; Em X. Liu; Shelly Page; Tara Sim; Ayida Shonibar; Ryan Douglass. 4/5
I really liked most of the stories here, all horror shorts centered around young, queer characters. Some end well for the protagonist, others, well, at least it’s not always the same “dead lesbian” trope. There’s ethnic diversity galore, and the characters sound and act like real teenagers,, which doesn’t always happen in YA. I’d love to put a copy of this in the trick-or-treat bag of every kid over 9 who comes to my house for Halloween. Go read–read about the scary house that’s really a palace of wonder, about Terrifying Bob the mall ghost, about bad step-siblings, about very, very cute demons.

Fever House by Keith Rosson. 5/5
Fever House is a great new addition to zombie apocalypse lit. Author Rosson manages to weave character arcs across and under and within one another, a dazzling show that all comes together at the very end (where I have to admit, I wanted less of an opening for a sequel, but I know authors are pushed for sequels to everything nowadays). Read this and revel in the gutters, the government cars, the cheap diners, the once-posh apartment, and, most of all, the brains of the characters and the brilliance of the idea of the remnants and their powers.

Rumi by Jalalu’l-Din Rumi. 1/5
This volume of the mystic’s writings is–according to my sources–based on a 1950s book called Rumi: Poet and Mystic. As such, the translation feels dated and, in a number of cases, problematic. The introduction is excellent, but the biography is stultifying, and I’d expect more of the poems to be present than what’s presented here. I can’t really recommend this.

Spin a Black Yarn by Josh Malerman. 1/5
The novellas presented here could be spectacular short stories, if they were tightened up by a good editor. But as they are, they’re overlong to the point of extreme dullness.

Independence Square by Martin Cruz Smith. 2/5
I’ve always kind of felt that the Arkady Renko series should have stopped with Red Square, which sees Arkady and Irina reunited. The books that follow in the series have a gradual decline in Arkady doing any actual investigating, and in his personality development. Well, maybe Havana Bay, and Wolves Eat Dogs were ok. But there’s been this slow, sad change through the books in which we get much less investigating, and less cultural information and thoughtful analysis, and less of everything that makes Arkady Arkady. Independence Square has only a little investigating, a forced new relationship that has zero chemistry, and an Arkasha who lacks the verve of earlier books. I know that Martin Cruz Smith is writing some of his own life into Arkady here, with Parkinson’s, but what we get is a cardboard cutout of Arkady–and Zhenya, who also deserves more–and not much more.

Samuel Barber by Howard Pollack. 3/5
Musicologist Howard Pollock provides a chronology for composer Samuel Barber and documents the reception of Barber’s major works, offering a solid foundation for future scholars interested in analyzing Barber’s work. Pollack touches on Barber’s relationships, romantic, platonic, professional, adversarial, and other, gives a very close comparison between Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s play, and includes a robust bibliography for the in-depth scholarship I’m sure this volume will encourage.

Batman: One Bad Day: Catwoman by G. Willow Wilson. 5/5
A fun Catwoman one-shot that includes Selina’s backstory, a new and interesting villain, and a sympathetic and sweet Batman. A quick read, much fun, well-paced and plotted. I want more!

Stamped from the Beginning – EXCERPT by Ibram X. Kendi; Joel Christian Gill. 2/5
This is an important book, and a lot of people need to read it, but I quite honestly found it hard to parse. The lettering is crowded and cramped, the panels don’t flow particularly well, and there is so. much. text. It doesn’t feel like it was born as a graphic book, but rather was a text-only book being shoehorned into a graphic format. It just doesn’t work well. The text needs space, and there needs to be less of it.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women ed Kami Ahrens. 5/5
Like all of the Foxfire series, this is a thoughtful work of collecting oral histories. The personalities and lives of each woman comes through as sharp as can be, recounting how they and their families lived in and around Rabun County, The women discuss midwifing, religion, race, poverty, farming, folk medicine, rearing children, work, homemaking, cooking, hunting, and much more. I love what Foxfire does and am so happy to have the voices of these women preserved for the future.

The Merry Dredgers by Jeremy C. Shipp. 4/5
A gothic-y mystery set at a once-abandoned, now being-renovated amusement park? Count me in! I loved the set-up of the cult and the way things played out, but some things felt incomplete to me. Not the ending–it’s perfect–but why spend so much time on the princess job and the necessity of other gigs if there was the rich friend to catsit and help out? Was the acting of the princess job supposed to make Seraphina more convincing posing as a cultist? The cheating newlywed side plot didn’t seem to do much but take up space, although the wedding did serve to introduce characters (some of whom are mostly abandoned afterwards) and the ethos of the place. I just wanted more connected lines, more material that wasn’t just filler, and a little bit more pragmatism.

Translation State by Ann Leckie. 5/5
A smart, funny, and very human novel from Leckie, set in the same universe as her Ancillary novels and Provenance. Here, the secrets of the Presger Translators are revealed, and they are many and fascinating. While a few of the protagonists didn’t ever really get off the ground as full-fledged characters–Enae is a missed opportunity–most of the characters are thoughtfully created, and the plot dazzles with complexity and the role of language.

A Good House for Children by Kate Collins. 2/5
This gothic novel has all of the traditional hallmarks–big, old houses, ghosts only the children can see–and for that matter, child ghosts and living children, disbelieving family and neighbors and the opposite, neighbors who are convinced the location is haunted. It’s also got dead or missing/unsupportive husbands, working women who are also apparently alcoholics…overall, I kept wondering if the author really wanted to make this a book that judges working mothers and so shows mothers who work who are are uniformly unhappy and neglect their children and drink heavily, because it certainly reads that way. Besides that, the whole conceit fails on a few levels, one of which being the suspense of who dies and when and how–there are no surprises because readers are told well in advance of what happens.

The Puzzle of Blackstone Lodge by Martin Edwards. 1/5
Appallingly fatphobic and bigoted. How do things like this get published, much less win prizes? The characters are flat and dull, the plot predictable and boring, and have I mentioned the fatphobia?

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