Book reviews: a new take on Lady Macbeth, the return of Molly the maid, and more

Company by Shannon Sanders. 4/5
Company is a collection of stories connected by the members of one middle-class Black family in America. It’s about microaggressions and control issues, generational conflict, family relationships, and the culture of this particular family: how things are done, how hierarchies work, who capes for whom and why. Many of the stories end with humiliation or unhappiness; others simply capture moments of a life. Characters are well-drawn and filled out and Sanders has an excellent ear for dialogue and creating tension within it. It’s a great book for book clubs and in-depth discussion.

Hope Ablaze by Sarah Mughal Rana. 2/5
I thought I’d love this novel about a young Muslim woman who is secretly a poet. Her best friend enters her work into a contest without permission, and the repercussions are violent and horrific. But the characters were stock figures–the mother who doesn’t want to rock the boat and is scared for her daughter in the current racist and Islamophobic climate in the US, the gossipy auntie who is annoying as hell, the clueless White girl who just wants to help her friend, the beloved uncle in jail–and the poetry was just meh. The plot required some willing suspension of disbelief, which took me out of the book, and there was a lot of material that felt like filler. It’s a shame, because the premise is a good one.

Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts. 2/5
Imagine: the Ishmael of Moby Dick has a liaison with an innkeeper in Nantucket, and she has a daughter. That daughter has one too, and so on. This novel follows the lives of all of those daughters, who all have psychic powers of one kind or another, and who are, for reasons I cannot fathom and which are not provided very well by the author, desperate to find Ishmael. Apart from Ishmael’s daughter, who tries to seek out her father because it seems the thing to do, there’s no impetus for the others to continue the search. One of them does eventually find the woman with whom Ishmael fathered the first daughter, and we learn of the terrible consequences of some of the various offsprings’ mental powers. The characters remained rather flat for me, and despite the fact that most of them have become hardened from betrayals, rough conditions and erratic upbringings full of trauma, I don’t feel much sympathy for them or relate to them well.

King Nyx by Kirsten Bakis. 5/5
King Nyx is a dark, heavily gothic story of ghosts and automatons, murder and loss, desperation and denial, that imagines the life of Anna Fort, wife of the eccentric Charles Fort. In this novel, she travels with her husband to an isolated island where a mysterious millionaire has invited him to work for the winter. But the millionaire’s own strange dictates and wants force the couple into an odd and tense living situation with another couple, also invited to the island. Anna begins to hear and see things she can’t quite explain, but doesn’t always trust her own senses as her mental health has been fragile before. But things begin to come together until the secrets at the heart of the island are revealed in unexpected ways. The writing itself is mannered, reflecting the writing of the period, and the characters behave a bit unnaturally–but then again, it’s a gothic novel and that’s practically required. Anna’s desire to both support her husband (who researches anomalous events, like rains of frogs) and her urges to distance herself from his embarrassing beliefs create excellent dramatic tension, as does the questionably consensual BDSM activity of the other couple. It’s a fascinating novel with a lot of think about, and a compelling read.

Shakespeare in Bloomsbury by Marjorie Garber. 5/5
An excellent book on the role of Shakespeare and his works among the literary Bloomsbury Group–Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, and many others. Garber uses letters, drafts of works, and completed and published pieces by members of the Group to uncover the influence of Shakespeare, how the writers read and discussed his plays, and how they used his work in their own. Written for a general audience with interests in British literature, Shakespeare in Bloomsbury will find fans everywhere.

Julia by Sandra Newman. 3/5
At first, I was super excited about this book: 1984 retold, focusing on Julia. And I enjoyed reading it–it’s got some very clever things going on, and it’s very much worth reading and discussing. But the more I thought about it, the more I considered how Julia is also White, able-bodied, apparently conventionally attractive. She undergoes countless horrors, and yet, I kept thinking, what if this was a retelling of 1984 from the perspective of a woman of color, or a woman seeking to hide a disability from Big Brother? Newman brings in characters of color, very briefly, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity there to explore the lives of other women under the regime.

All Our Yesterdays by Joel H. Morris. 2/5
There are numerous novels that use the premise of telling Lady Macbeth’s story, and many of them tend to focus on her backstory, taking as inspiration her line “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.” Everyone seems to want to tell the story of her child, who is not present in the play. Authors also like connecting Lady M with the play’s witches, or non-play supernatural forces. All Our Yesterdays is no different. The future Lady M has an encounter with a witch and bears a child before Macbeth kills her husband. The author cites the “suffocating mother” trope in his notes, and her certainly draws on this idea for how Lady M treats her son before she meets Macbeth. After she does, though, she’s mostly an absent parent, and her son grows up confused, angry, and mostly unpleasant. Interestingly, the primary characters go unnamed: they are merely “the Lady” and “the Boy;” which dehumanizes and objectifies them, making them roles rather than characters perhaps this is deliberate? Morris’s spinning-out of how their collective and individual traumas affect them is well-done, and he creates other characters and interactions that propel the plot and character development in interesting ways. But as with all Lady M novels, I have to ask: why are people so fascinated by her motherhood and the absence of her child in the play? Are her motherhood and the presumed death of her child the only way to find humanity or even interest in her?

The Lost Tomb by Douglas Preston. 2/5
Preston (no relation) has done a lot of interesting writing on interesting topics, and this volume collects many of his articles for publications like Smithsonian magazine and National Geographic. It’s a shame that Preston didn’t revisit these in more detail and revise and update them, because he uses a lot of problematic language in regard to race, sex, gender, class, repatriation of Native remains, and other things, and his brief comments at the end of each essay don’t follow up on the topics very well. Overall, this is a disappointment.

The Only Black Girl in the Room by Alex Travis. 3/5
This novel spells out for (mostly white) audiences what racist microaggressions and discrimination looks like: it’s overt, it’s institutional and systemic, it’s present in everyday life and work. I found the writing to be heavy-handed about this, but then I realized that it had to be for readers who have never thought about it or are oblivious to it. There’s also a story of redemption and romance, and this arc is also laid on thick, maybe, again, for readers who wouldn’t pick up on more subtle writing. Overall the book is a fine read and one that should provoke a lot of good discussions and thought.

Jesus Christ Superstar by Ellis Nassour. 1/5
I was looking forward to reading about the inception and reception of JCS, a musical I first encountered through the concept album. But this book is so fraught with cringe-worthy incorrect uses of musical terms, inconsistencies and contradictions, and unsupported claims that it’s painful to read. The prose is heavy-handed and gushing, the details often foggy, and the emphasis on certain subjects–Tim Rice’s apparently endless pursuit of women, for example–is unbalancing and, to be honest, kind of creepy. While author Nassour had considerable and unique access with the creation of the show in a professional capacity, he comes across here like an uncritical fan in awe of Rice and Lloyd Webber. Musicians will be turned off by Nassour’s egregious errors in writing about music, while fans will be frustrated with the poor overall writing and attempts to be dramatic, as well as the casual sexism. It’s a shame, really, because the musical deserves better work on its history.

The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose. 5/5
This is an absolutely delightful new book featuring the characters from The Maid, one of my favorite books. It’s a sequel,of sorts, but you don’t have to have read the previous novel to enjoy it. Once again, a murder has taken place in the posh hotel where Molly Gray, now Head Maid, works. Molly narrates two stories: that of the murder and her involvement in the investigation of it, and of her childhood, when she met the murder victim. Molly’s unique perspective and skills help catch the killer, and it’s a joy to ride along in her brain for the whole thing. In addition to this being an excellent whodunit, it’s one of the few truly great representations of an autistic character in mainstream fiction, and as an autistic person, I am grateful to author Prose for it.

Murder by Lamplight by Patrice Mcdonough. 1/5
A Victorian mystery with a class-based focus and an American-trained woman doctor, but alas, not particularly original or interesting. I kept waiting for something complex and for characters to develop or become interesting, but it never happened. The characters were two-dimensional and stereotypes that could have come out of a typical mystery written in the 30s and went over with me about as well as racist Agatha Christie novels.

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden. 5/5
The First World War always makes me angry and upset, and author Arden feels the same way. In this beautifully-written novel, she weaves together numerous aspects of the war to create a rich novel about loss and acceptance and recovery. She uses the folklore of the trenches, the experiences of nurses and volunteers, the horrific practices of executing so-called cowards and deserters, the mental and physical traumas of the war, and the contrasting lives of those who waited for news from afar to tell a story that is immediate and compelling and all-engrossing. Troops talk of a mysterious “Fiddler,” who gives soldiers a night of hauntingly beautiful music in a dazzling and warm hotel, only to never be found again. (I have to think he is related to Bulgakov’s Woland.) When a nurse’s brother falls into the Fiddler’s hands, she rejoins a nursing unit in order to find him. Her journey and companions are unexpected and compelling. Highly recommended.

Rebecca, Not Becky by Christine Platt; Catherine Wigginton Greene. 1/5
I had to force myself to finish this. Lots of telling rather than showing, constant brand-name dropping, loads of slang that may or may not date well. The characters are all conceited, passive-aggressive, and unpleasant. They’re also not real characters, but two-dimensional stereotypes that think and talk in ways and phrases that are so tired they should be dead. Give this one a miss.

A History of the Cotton Industry by Anthony Burton. 1/5
This is a classist, elitist, racist, and misogynist text when it was first published, and it remains so. Didn’t the editors read it before reprinting it? I mean, just in the first pages there’s a terrible and not well-considered defense of using the n-word, followed by the idea that cottage industry piece workers had luxurious lives because they could just work whenever they felt like it or needed the money. Amazing. Can I give it 0 stars, please?

Radio Free Olympia by Jeffrey Dunn. 1/5
Absolutely 100% not for me. The Author’s Note at the beginning was enormously off-putting, and despite some of the original and interesting language in the rest of the book, other, often crass, parts of the writing kept pushing me out of the story. The book feels very self-indulgent on the writer’s part without regard for or reward for the reader.

The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years by Shubnum Khan. 5/5
I feel like this book was written for me: a lovesick djinn, a hidden room, a sentient house, mysteries upon mysteries about its current and prior inhabitants, a vicious ghost? I’m there. There are multiple stories layered upon one another–literally, in some instances–in this lovely novel about grief and loneliness and compassion. One is a romance turned horror story; another is a traumatized girl’s exorcism of her sister’s ghost (who may or may not be real, depending on how you read); a third is that of warring women; all with smaller stories within. Now I want to know where the djinn went next, and where Sana and her father ended up, and what they’re all doing now.

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