SFF, poetry, puppets

Bread and Circus by Airea D. Matthews. 3/5
There is some truly excellent poetry in this volume, poetry that is personal and moving and expressive. There’s a lot of erasure poetry using texts related to capitalism and finance and regulation that sometimes worked and other times was too poorly formatted for Kindle to be read as it should be. My primary criticism of the collection is that there is too much in it, and that it’s not well-organized or very cohesive. Abrupt jumps from topic to topic or from one method to another can be great, and might have worked well here, but the poems seem haphazardly ordered, and even though Matthews presents strong pieces throughout the book, it’s hard to understand why they’ve been placed they way they are, and what meaning, if any, readers should take from that. The over-stuffed-ness of the collection hurts it some too, as there are weaker poems included that don’t do the author any favors. A tighter, leaner collection of the most successful, hardest-hitting poems would have served Matthews better.

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore. 2/5
This was not for me. I’ve read other work by Lorrie Moore and have enjoyed the work she does with words and meanings and connections, but this felt too manic for me, a constant swirl of guilt and memory mixed in with too much inanity to make it interesting or enlightening. It does capture some of the emotion of feeling hopeless and useless in the face of death, and the desire to push past that into a realm of irrationality and non-acceptance well, but to an introspective and repetitive point that felt meaningless to read.

The Free People’s Village by Sim Kern. 2/5
Sim Kern’s writing on the climate crisis is once again set in a fictional Texas, this time in a world where Gore became president and instituted a war on climate change. Now, a supposedly green initiative threatens Houston’s historic–and poor–Eighth Ward, and a bevy of characters are ready to fight to stop it. Except that they aren’t characters. Instead of developing characters, the characters here are all ideas. Protagonist Maddie, who is such a flat, nothing character that it makes me want to yell, stands for and represents White Guilt. Marxism and Intellectual Thought are embodied in Gestas, who is serving an in-home prison sentence for fraud. Red, Maddie’s lover, represents Fear and Self-interest, as does her ex, who is also White Business/Money/Gentrification. The characters, such as they are, are wonderfully diverse in gender and race and other kinds of identity, and could have been so much more. Kern illustrates the difference between legal protest and sabotage, between action and revolution in ways that will make some readers think. Overall, though, the lack of real characters and a strong helping of pedantic exposition makes the book drag and ultimately lose its point of action.

A New History of the American South ed. by Brundage, W. Fitzhugh (ed.), Edwards, Laura F., Sensbach, Jon F. (associate eds.). 5/5
A solid collection of essays that question historiographies of the “South,” offering new ideas and interpretations of the region, it’s nebulousness, and how we address its problems and strengths. This is a much-needed book particularly for students and newcomers to the field, and provides a wealth of approaches and points of view.

Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands by Heather Fawcett. 5/5
This romp is just as much fun as the first Emily Wilde book, albeit with less sexual tension between Emily and her Faerie lover Wendell. The story ranges over a wide field, and we get new characters, new kinds of fae, and a host of tramping around in the mundane world and several fae ones. Even if you haven’t read the first book, if you like new and fun takes on faery stories, academia, and fantasy lands, this one’s for you.

Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz by Garth Nix. 5/5
I have always loved Nix’s takes of Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz, the knight and ensorceled puppet who go around a wide and wonderful–and horrifying–world, killing off godlets that might end the world, or kill all the people, or other terrible things. These godlets, the places and objects they inhabit, and their allies and enemies all drawn exceptionally well, as are Hereward adn Fitz. Some of these stories were ones I’ve read before, but others were new, and they are all treats. Anyone who likes fantasy will want to give these a try, and readers who are already fans of Nix’s other work but haven’t encountered these yet will love them.

A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather. 5/5
This queer, fantasy novella set in 17th century London is excellent. The world-building is fantastic, the back-story of the protagonist is deftly created and told, and the characters were rich and fully-fledged. While I don’t always like the incorporation of actual historical figures into fiction, the use of the Wrens here was very well done. I am 100% going to seek out other work by this author.

Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor. 1/5
I understand that this is an early work by Okorafor, but it is a complete catastrophe. The fatphobia alone is enough for me to not want to read any of her books going forward–and I have been a fan of hers. It’s unacceptable, especially in this “Deluxe, expanded edition,” even if the protagonist feels that one fat man in particular is fat because he’s been traumatized. The book itself is very messy and not very good–it demonstrates the origins, perhaps, of some of Okorafor’s ever-present themes and ideas, as well as her desire to write about wrongs that are righted and how to live peacefully with nature. But it just doesn’t work. Trying to explain magic with science is never a good ideas, and it doesn’t make sense in this book. The characters are utterly flat, have no development, and are boring. They scream a lot and there’s lots of lying and betrayal and the protagonist never learns anything from these lies and betrayals and mostly mindlessly follows around her hero, who is basically a fascist. It also doesn’t know what audience it’s for: YA readers, as it seems adjacent to her Zarah the Windseeker, which is for YA readers and excellent; or adult readers, for whom the massive amounts of violence and language like “camelshitting” as a deragatory adjective is fine. Why Okorafor wanted to re-release this book is beyond me.

Happiness Falls by Angie Kim. 1/5
Let’s ignore, for now, the challenges of writing about autistic characters. Instead, let’s focus on how this book is overstuffed with unnecessary and un-followed-up-upon things and characters. Kim tries to do too much, and the book suffers, especially the characters, none of whom are ever more than flat, shallow, and undistinguished. The protagonist, Mia, apparently talks a lot (in comparison with whom?) and is supposed to be a genius (?) but that didn’t come out much. John and Hannah were just line drawings with a value attached: has an accent, is nice. The missing dad is so vague that his presence or lack thereof didn’t seem to make much of a different; only when it was revealed that he was a total asshole experimenting on his own children and withholding vital information from his wife and family did I think of him at all, and then only briefly so I could write this sentence. Eugene, the autistic sibling, is only vaguely constructed as well. The cops are cartoons, and so is the therapist. The attempts to treat racism are noble, but are quickly swept away. And the overstuffing: Mia’s boyfriend (who seems very much like a late draft afterthought), their fight, her not telling her parents of her change in major, the grandmother’s rape, the toothbrush thing, even Angelman symdrome–none of these filled out the characters or their lives or had much to do with the meat of the novel. Mia’s chart at the end, showing the readers all of the possible variations of what might have happened? That doesn’t show much trust in the readers to be able to figure out the nuances of things on their own, and is just so much more stuff.

As for writing autistic characters, I know Kim did research and interviewed people and met autistic nonspeakers and other folks, and yet, Eugene is still often a caricature of an autistic person.

I’m sure plenty of people will like this book and that book clubs will spend time discussing the possibilities Mia (Kim) lays out in a handy chart form for them, but it’s not something I can recommend.

Herrick’s Lie by T. M. Blanchet. 1/5
This is the second book in a series, and despite the author’s attempts to tell you things from the first novel, it will not make a whole lot of sense if you haven’t read that first installment. It’s the kind of somewhat goofy fantasy you find in Daniel Pinkwater’s books, although not quite as charming; truth be told, I found it overwritten and kind of tedious. If you liked the first one, though, go for it–you might like this continuation of the story.

Grey Matters by Kristen Costello. 2/5
I think this collection will resonate with a lot of readers, but it was not for me. The poems, I felt, relied too often on cliche, on memetic tropes, on language that didn’t communicate very clearly. I read each section carefully, but ultimately felt like I was reading the same poems over and over. There is clearly emotion present in the writer’s process, but the words she uses bang on a bit monotonously because the vocabulary of the collection is small.

What You Want by Maureen N. McLane. 5/5
This is a great collection of poems that deal with the ephemeral and the everyday all at once, and honestly so. McLane writes without censoring–or at least it seems so–and that makes her work feel very real in an earth(l)y way. She reminds us that poets can make words that can wrap around anything–lobster traps, stoplights, paintings–to give readers a new way of seeing and hearing and thinking about the world around them.

Exits by Stephen C. Pollock. 5/5
This is smart, clever, and often beautiful poetry; when it’s not beautiful, it’s because it shouldn’t be: Pollock expresses despair and anger just as well as amusement and pleasure. The imagery is superb and original, and the word choices startling, surprising, and attention-grabbing. I can’t wait to read more of the author’s work.

The Black Angels by Maria Smilios. 1/5
A great topic that deserves a lot of recognition and consideration, but the book is poorly organized and struggles to have a good through-line.

Menewood by Nicola Griffith. 5/5
I didn’t want Menewood to end. I wanted to stay with Hild, out in the wind, looking at the world and knowing things. This is a gorgeous book, detailed and sensuous and raw and painful and strong and full of life everywhere. It follows Hild over a short period of time as she moves through various roles, always seeking ways to keep her people and lands safe, always thinking and considering and observing. It’s a long read, yes, but every single word pulls its weight as Griffith draws the reader into 7th-century Britain; the language is fascinating, and the way description is worked in is perfectly fashioned. My summer plans include re-reading Hild and then immediately following it with a re-read of Menewood.

There are a few typos: I caught “food” for “fool,” and “Leofdag” for “Leofdaeg.” Towards the end of the book, the long i mark is missing from words like “wīc” and “scōp.”

Sing, Memory by Makana Eyre. 3/5
This is a solid but somewhat plodding account of Jewish music-making in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during WWII. Eyre focuses first on Rosebery d’Arguto, a professional musician who organized and led choruses and instrumentalists in performing newly-composed songs. D’Arguto died in the camp, but one of his fellow prisoners was Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a non-Jew who appears to have had an exceptional memory for lyrics, and, one assumes, melody and harmony. Kulisiewicz remembered hundreds of songs composed in the cap, which he dictated after being freed. Eyre focuses on the lyrics far more than the rest of the music, but then this is a book for general readers, not musicians or music scholars. She also follows Kulisiewicz’s life after the liberation of the camps, in which he never recovered from the trauma he suffered. The emphasis on lyrics is a little unbalancing, especially as there are no musical examples or links to musical examples to actually hear the pieces, and the writing is a often uneven, but I’m sure plenty of people will find the story inspiring.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Comments on “SFF, poetry, puppets

  1. You’ve got an ARC of Menewood? Color me jealous. I’m having to wait for the real thing to arrive in…October, I guess.

    Nicola Griffith has a blog and is/was on Twitter. Depending on whether the book is in the production process, she might appreciate hearing about those typos.

    Realized that I pre-ordered the e-book rather than the hard copy and might have to switch the pre-order. I read Hild in ebook, then friends who somehow didn’t like it gave me their hardcover. (I read a friend’s brief rave of Hild while standing in line at Lihue Airport, and since I trust her judgement, I ordered it immediately and had read a nice chunk by the time we got home.) I loved every word and of course I was awed by the level of research that went into Hild.