Poetry, aliens, and the new Jesmyn Ward novel

Pink Moon by Roshan James. 1/5
The concept sounded interesting but the poetry just isn’t good. It’s a trite and formulaic and boring.

Just a Fika by Beck Erixson. 1/5
So, you’ve got a ghost grandma who’s intent on fixing you up with one of two brothers, except she won’t tell you which one she prefers, and she and her ghost buddies spy on you at all times. Who you gonna call? Yeah, this effort at a rom com didn’t work for me. On top of annoying grandma, there’s the guy who gets drunk and licks the protagonist, is stalker-y, and is otherwise inappropriate–and the protagonist thinks it’s ok? No. Just no. And the title is a non-starter. Introduce the term “fika” in the book, not on the cover.

Plus-Size by Mekdela. 1/5
This was a big disappointment. The essays and critiques in this volume are written at about the level of your average high schooler. Mekdela offers little context and less analysis in her takes on pop-culture, making it inaccessible and not very useful for readers who haven’t consumed the same media that she has. Her writing reads more like a repetitive TikTok script than serious commentary, and there were numerous many contradictions over the course of the book.

Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen by Sarah James. 1/5
I really liked the way this book began with a happy throuple of a playwright and two actors, because not many books aimed at mainstream readers have this kind of representation. But then it all went to hell and devolved into a mess of stock characters, red herrings the size of airplanes, and a dull ending. None of the characters have much depth, the story drags, and the ending feels completely untrue to the protagonist.

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams. 1/5
Sisters Peggy and Maude work for Oxford University Press as bookbinders, sewing the pages together for books. It’s the only life they have ever envisioned for themselves, being born to a single mother (who was also a book binder) and having no other prospects. Maude is written as autistic and echolaliac. Peggy is supposed to be her foil as an intellectual, and as Maude’s caregiver. But as the Great War begins and progresses, Peggy has to deal with classism, studies to try to earn a place as a student at Oxford, falls in love with a Belgian refugee, and has to decide between a life of books and thinking and writing and a life of children and housewifing. Maude makes friends apart from Peggy and shows Peggy that she can live more independently with the help of neighbors. I appreciate that it’s about women having ambition and going for what they want, but there are looming problems with the book. I really didn’t like Williams’s book The Dictionary of Lost Words, and I don’t like this one much either, because Maude is used as what’s called a narrative prosthesis, something that disabled characters often are–she’s a device upon which to hang the story of the able-bodied people in the story, namely Peggy. Maude is also an example of inspiration porn, which is when an author shows the accomplishments of a disabled person as a great triumph or rare event, all to make the non-disabled feel inspired. People who like historical fiction about this time period and about women will probably like this, but if you care anything about the portrayal of disability, give it a miss.

A Stranger in the Citadel by Tobias Buckell. 1/5
In a world where reading is forbidden, a librarian is a hunted man. Ok, so far, so good. But then we add in a very stereotypically sassy teen from the ruling family, stereotypically corrupt rulers, stereotypically fierce warriors, and a bunch of jokes so bad that they ruin the mood of the entire book, and you get this. It’s a bit of a mess, really, Is it a serious SFF novel? The aforementioned terrible jokes–through which we’re supposed to understand that the earth of the novel is the future of our own earth (actually, the earth of the novel is a part of our earth that broke away or blew up or something and is now a flat chunk of land orbiting what’s left of earth. There’s a pointless series of flat earth jokes through the whole book. Like I said, messy.)–make it feel silly, like a Pratchett novel without the cleverness. Is it a parable about literacy? Maybe? The people who can and do read are reading books of our earth–Bradbury, Dumas–in an overt gesture from the author that he’s writing about the same things that they did, or is borrowing from them. About tech? Maybe? There’s a killer robot from outer space. About politics and war? Maybe? There’s a lot of “i must kill you” that becomes “I could never kill you” in just moments, not convincingly written. The characters aren’t particularly interesting or memorable, and I got really tired of the teen protagonist swearing she’d do one thing and then abandoning it and then swearing to do another thing and abandoning it, so….it was tiresome reading. Thanks to this review, you don’t need to do it!

The Legend of Charlie Fish by Josh Rountree. 4/5
This is a short, quirky novella about found family and the mysteries of the world set just prior to and during the hurricane of 1900 that nearly leveled Galveston, Texas. The work is much like a folk tale told from different perspectives, and each perspective is finely created and perfectly employed to tell a story about very special orphans, a fish-man, a pair of scoundrels, a smart and ruthless woman, and the man who loves her. It’s a fun read full of love for Galveston and perfect for a day at the beach there.

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward. 5/5
Surrounded by spirits and the knowledge of women who came before her, Arese–called Annis–finds ways of surviving her enslavement, being sold and forcibly marched across the South, and finally, establishing a precarious existence as an escapee. Ward, as eloquent as always and enormously imaginative, creates Annis’s material and spiritual worlds with detail that sharpens our understanding of Annis’s journeys, the way she thinks, and how she navigates dangers of both. The incorporation of spirits with their own characters, flaws, and desires, is a clever device as well as an interesting exercise in thinking about religion and religious diversity among enslaved people in North America.

The Breakaway by Jennifer Weiner. 4/5
I was surprised to find myself liking this book, which many will categorize as a romance but for me was about women finding solidarity among other women. I liked the fat-and-fit protagonist, the way everyone teams up to help get one character an abortion, the fact that older folks are depicted as active–both on their bikes and in bed–and that, for the most part, the characters are thoughtful, learn from their mistakes, and try to do better. The romance is just a cherry on top, not the entire focus of the protagonist’s life, and even with the sweet ending there’s no promises made. It’s a smart book.

Mister Magic by Kiersten White. 3/5
This rather surreal novel about people on a children’s TV show that’s been written out of history makes much more sense after you read the author’s postscript/endnote about leaving the LDS church and how the whole book is basically a metaphor for that. It’s a fine read if you don’t know, a decent kind of para-supernatural mystery of the type where the narrator has none of the knowledge everyone else has, and especially knowledge about her.

Nightbreaker by Coco Ma. 2/5
If I had to guess, I’d say Nightbreaker was pitched to an agent with the phrases “Hunger Games meets Mazerunner meets The Walking Dead” and “great movie and video game adaptation potential.” The protagonist and her peers attend special schools where they learn to either hunt monsters or conduct research on monsters. When the end-of-year exam goes badly, students have to hunt monsters to save other monster-hunters. Eventually–shock! (not)–we learn that the monsters used to be human and that the monster-hunters who “keep the city safe” are pretty terrible themselves. There’s a lot of running and fighting but none of the characters are terribly developed and when people die there’s not much of a sense of loss either to the other characters, the reader, or the plot.

The Grimoire of Grave Fates by Margaret Owen, Hanna Alkaf. 2/5
I like the concept of this book–each author writes from the POV of a different character to move the story along. But while some individual chapters and characters were unique and interesting, others didn’t do much for either the story or me. Set at a school for magic, the story centers around the murder of a loathsome professor, who is unfortunately a cardboard cut-out whose behavior can only be explained in this day and time by complicit, cowardly administrators. The mystery-solvers (sort of) are students, most with motives and opportunities to have killed him. Because of the multiple POV structure, there’s a lot of repetition, loose threads, and a very slow pace. None of the student or other characters really stuck with me, and I doubt I’ll ever re-read it.

The Untimely Undeath of Imogen Madrigal by Grayson Daly. 5/5
It’s a wonderful thing to fall into a world where some things are familiar–tea, books–and others are not–poets having enormous power, the nuns of the Sisters of the Good Death, and more. Daly creates a fabulous and original world and characters for this novel, which, despite dealing with the half-undead, is charming and cozy and delightful. It’s got Victorian plot devices used in excellent ways, including land-grabbers, lost siblings, and unexpected romance. Make your own cup of tea so no one can poison you, and settle in for a good read.

Sleep No More by Seanan McGuire. 5/5
This newest installment of McGuire’s October Daye series picks up immediately after the previous book and takes off running. Or, well, walking quickly, because that’s what happy, obedient changelings do. Toby and much of fae is trapped inside an illusion, and her loyal family members have to save the day by convincing her that she’s not just a servant created for her sister August. This conceit, which normally would cause me ridiculous anxiety, works really well here, and McGuire does a wonderful job of showing readers how Toby would always have been herself when faced with adversity. This book will make almost no sense to readers unfamiliar with the series, but hey–it’s a great time to start at the beginning, knowing that this is waiting for you when you get there.

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig. 2/5
Apples seeded by a demon intent on destroying the world grow on and in human flesh and make the eaters evil. The demon part was a little too light, hence the need for a explaining section at the end; the history bits were good framing; the horror is pretty horrifying; the nods and shout-outs to actual people, various inspirations, and such were not too annoying; and the pacing was slow.

A Year in Practice by Jacqueline Suskin. 2/5
Meditations and guided crafting exercises for connecting with the natural world, but a little too cute and using a little too much woo for me.

Small Change by Jo Walton. 5/5
Jo Walton’s Small Change books are classic speculative fiction. In a world where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany, Walton shows how fascism creeps into everyday life, how governments that cater to the rich fail everyone else, and how the work of individuals can make a difference in fighting against inequality, racial and religious hatred, and the loss of rights. I thought these books were brilliant when I first read them a number of years ago, but they are even more important now as Britain and the US are in danger of very real homegrown fascism.

The Search for Us by Susan Azim Boyer. 5/5
Samira and Henry unexpectedly that they’re are half-siblings, and when the family members raising them won’t tell them anything about their Iranian dad, they take matters into their own hands. At the same time, Samira’s trying to get her addict brother into treatment and help with family finances, and Henry’s being manipulated by his aunt and uncle into a life he doesn’t want. I love that this is about family and sibling relationships, about codependency, about social strata, about racism, and about incarceration. The characters are solid and their journey feels real.

Random Acts of Medicine by Anupam B. Jena; Christopher Worsham. 1/5
This is Freakonomics: Medical Version. It replicates some of the problems with the Freakonomics approach, hedges its bets in presenting case studies, and is boring. The cases are cherry-picked, the data-mining is questionable on various levels, and the authors make claims based on speculation. I’m appalled that the Freakonomics effect has continued, and that people read this kind of work without fully understanding what’s being studied and analyzed.

Bittersweet in the Hollow by Kate Pearsall. 4/5
The trope of backwoods witches, mysterious creatures, horrific sacrifices, and high school ex-lovers reunited feels a little overdone these days, but I did enjoy most of this novel about a clan of witches, food magic, missing kids, and a small town’s dark history. I don’t love the themed family names; the cutesy other names, like “Caball Hollow” (really?); and the lack of everyday things most people would have, like insurance on their businesses and such, but despite these things, the plot moved along well enough and the characters were fairly interesting and grew through the book. A fine summer read with a glass of blackberry wine and some lemon scones.

North Woods by Daniel Mason. 3/5
Lots and lots of beautiful writing. Lots. And while I enjoyed the beauty of the language, very little actually moved me. I think this is in part because the narratives of individual people or creatures are ephemeral to the story of the land itself–they become, to a certain extent, meaningless. Many of the stories would have been compelling had not the slow, inexorable description of the land and plants been in the foreground. And perhaps that’ s deliberate, and that this is a book that reminds us that one day humans will have been but a blip in the geologic record.

Day by Michael Cunningham. 4/5
Just as The Hours was a novel about AIDS, Day is a novel about COVID-19. And as in most of his work, Cunningham employs lucid, clear writing that manages to dance around its topics without every quite settling on them or presenting them in full to the reader. Readers of Day will need to piece together relationships and timelines and such as they go, although there are fewer–if any–surprises in Day than there were in The Hours. The writing pays attention with delicacy to intimate moments, showing readers possibilities and developing the characters, and is a requiem of sorts for those lost in the pandemic.

Beautiful Malady by Ennis Rook Bashe.
The poems collected here are interesting and compelling, and are sure to raise some controversy in the disability community, especially because author Bashe struggles with loathing her chronically ill body and trying to find a way to live with it with pride and care. Her demonification of her illness and body is at times understandable but more often problematic: her combative, disparaging sorties to her own organs and systems is potentially very triggering for readers who are chronically ill or disabled, and runs contrary to the anti-eugenicist advocacy practiced by many in the disabled community. While Bashe’s writing is imaginative and original and clearly passionate, I can only recommend this with extreme caution.

The Reformatory by Tananarive Due. 2/5
Unjustly sent to a boys’ reform “school,” a Black boy is brutalized by both the Whites in charge and the White boys doing time. As his sister and her allies rush to get him out–by means legal or not–he’s tapped as a ghost hunter because of his ability to see haints, of which the school has many. The setting feels very real, and the haints are predictably grotesque. But the pacing often feels off–I don’t think people have long conversations while standing still when they know they’re being hunted by dogs and men with guns, for example. Other aspects of the storytelling feel rushed, and while time is an important factor in the story, some events seem to fall too quickly to make much sense. The characters are not particularly interesting or deep.

Pig by Sam Sax. 5/5
This is a marvelous book of poetry and thought and connections. It’s a wild ride and a brilliantly-written collection, full of pigs and religion and violence and masculinity and foodways. It’s so good I read it twice right away, and I can’t wait to talk about it with other readers.

All the Dead Shall Weep by Charlaine Harris. 3/5
In this new installment of the Gunnie Rose series, we find the narrator duties split between Lizbeth Rose and her Felicia. There’s a lot of miscommunication and pain caused by cultural differences, a lot of dead folks, most of whom are bad guys but one of whom is a true loss, and much unhappiness all around. While some of this gets resolved in the end, most of the book is prologue to another adventure that apparently begins in its last pages, and which will get us a new book in the series. I didn’t love this one the way I did the others in the series. It’s not that it’s badly written or plotted; it’s that it really does feel like spending time waiting for things to get figured out, waiting to get all the ducks in a row for the next book. It’s a stepping-stone between narratives, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

The Road to Roswell by Connie Willis. 4/5
In typical Willis style, this is a sweet and entertaining romp. One alien and four humans zigzag across the American West, trying to figure out how to get where they need to go to help the alien find his people and get home. Along the way, there’s Las Vegas, gambling, terrible truck-stop fashion, lots and lots of Westerns, conspiracy theories, real Men In Black, and love. It’s a delightful read, even if the bits where everyone is locked up by the MIB is a little overlong.

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