Book reviews: the bleak and the beautiful; Kelly Link’s new novel; new Seanan McGuire

The Ghost with a Knife at Her Throat by Kevin Hincker. 2/5
This novel has a great premise and a compelling plot, but the writing is so over done, and so full of unnecessary italics and Capitalized Things and explanations that it basically dies on the vine. A dead young woman (also ugh, why is it always a dead woman?), people who can see extra levels and shades of color, mysterious paintings–it would be great if it had a very developmental edit to do away with some of the things that the author clearly feels have to be emphasized but which actually distract from the story.

Alien Earths by Dr. Lisa Kaltenegger. 1/5
UPDATE: a email from a press re tells me that this book has not, in fact, been copyedited yet.
Has this book been through copyedit yet? I ask because there are so many grammar errors starting on page 1 that I think I must be reading something quite unfinished. The writing, when adhering to grammatical rules, is boring and sometimes condescending. The author rambles and the text could be tightened up for significant clarity of meaning. There are a lot of very long sentences that should be broken up for clarity as well, and the personal anecdotes about the author’s students could be pared down significantly to make a much more readable text.

How to Win Friends and Influence Fungi by Dr. Chris Balakrishnan; Matt Wasowski. 2/5
Light and pithy, the very short essays on scientific topics in this collection are (mostly) fun to read. Some of the humor that worked on stage at Nerd Nites–where these essays got their starts–doesn’t translate well to the written page, but most are fine. Several could have benefitted from further expert advice, like the ones on music theory and cryptography, which have significant errors in them, which makes recommending the book as a whole problematic.

Lucky by Jane Smiley. 1/5
Lucky is perhaps Jane Smiley’s most self-indulgent book yet. While I liked Moo and admired A Thousand Acres, this meta-meta narrative was disappointing and annoying from the start. The first -person narrator is Jodie Rattler, who has a folk-music career that she’s not particularly committed to, but which sets her up monetarily for life when she’s still in her teens. She floats her way around the world, leaving lovers and experiences in her wake but not ever developing much as a person. She writes songs, or doesn’t, and records them, or doesn’t, and plays at festivals, or doesn’t. The song lyrics are, I’m sorry to say, cringeworthy, and the music terminology isn’t always right. In fact, it’s more often wrong than correct. Jodie often mentions “the gawky girl” with whom she went to school and of course this girl is Smiley herself, who writes a fictional narrative of Jodie’s life, which is what you’re reading. The real Jodie, reading her own copy of Lucky, isn’t happy about this, but the world is ending, I don’t know why Smiley chose to structure the novel as she did, but it was easy to see her setting it up with the “gawky girl” and to watch as Smiley’s fictional self and the fiction of Jodie came into collision with one another. The result isn’t very good: the device doesn’t come off well, revealing very little about anyone, and the epilogue, a correction of fictional Smiley’s book and state of the world address, is kind of bizarre. I’d love to read or hear why Smiley decided to create the book in this way.

The Blue Maiden by Anna Nóyes. 4/5
The Blue Maiden needs one more round of edits before it goes out into the world. The two main sections of the book–the burning of the island’s women and the later narrative–could use more connections, and the relevance of the Blue Maiden itself might be brought forward so that readers better understand how the characters understand it. In the primary narrative, two sisters struggle–along with other islanders–to maintain a subsistence life, and when one marries, she finds that she’s married the father of her half-sister. She bears his child and suffers postpartum depression, finally finding roots in motherhood. It’s a beautifully written and almost unbearably bleak novel that left me enormously sad for the sisters and the child who will grow up in a family created out of obsession and desperation rather than love.

Once a Queen by Sarah Arthur. 3/5
What if your sad, confused granny once ruled a fantasy world, but had become trapped in the mundane world, with only a little bit of magic to sustain her? Wouldn’t you follow her as she wandered around secret gardens in the middle of the night, talking to the sentient topiary? That’s exactly what happens here, in a coming-of-age novel that also addresses the end of life, memory, and the complexities of family. While it’s a little bit pat, and some story lines are picked up and dropped or go unfulfilled in promise, and the ending doesn’t hold up to the rest of the book, it’s an interesting thought exercise in speculative writing.

The Book of Love by Kelly Link. 5/5
I will admit from the first that I really like Kelly Link’s work, mostly. And I liked The Book of Love a lot–it’s a fairy tale, a mystery, a tale of friendship tested to its limits, a chronicle of disenchanted young people in a world that doesn’t seem to have a future, a romance. The villains are excellent, their henchpeople unexpected, and everyone is created with depth and originality. The narrative is beautifully paced as it moves from focus to focus, and offers insights into real human behavior and desire.

The Lantern’s Dance by Laurie R. King. 3/5
Mary Russell, recovering from injury, finds a diary belonging to Holmes’s mother, who turns out to have been Indian. As she reads the diary and begins to put things together, Holmes is trying to protect his son Damian and his family from someone–or someones–seemingly intent on hurting them. This is better than the previous Russell novels, and Russell and Holmes have at least some fun and interesting discussions, but it still pales in relation to the first set of Russell novels by King.

Snowglobe by Soyoung Park. 4/5
Sometimes you read a book and it seems clear that it’s been written not just to sell as a book, but also to become a TV series or movie. Snowglobe is like that. It’s got plucky heroines and excellent antagonists and so on, and is described in such a way that you can just imagine how Netflix will do it. This isn’t a criticism–it’s a well-written book (if a little predictable in places), and I enjoyed reading it. The ending sets up sequels, which I’m sure will be popular as well. Overall, it’s a quick-paced book that questions reality and using humans’ lives as entertainment, and how that might really work (I mean, we’ve already seen it happen), plus climate change/dystopia.

The Innkeeper and the Cannibal by Jacob C. Sadler. 3/5
The Innkeeper and the Cannibal is a horror novel about three men who come back home from a war much like WWI, to a place much like parts of the UK. They return to a wife, a mother, and a father, children, disease, and addiction, and they struggle to overcome the madness caused by jealousy, pride, grief, trauma, and abuse. It’s a bit of an odd book–the kind of thing where readers have to puzzle things out about the world and its people and customs on their own, which I always enjoy–but fatally flawed by some storytelling shortcuts and sloppiness. The character development is good, as are the descriptions of places and many events. But the characters are always smiling or smirking or giggling or snorting at weird times and in strange circumstances–it happens almost constantly, and takes the reader out of the book immediately. For other characters, the author uses phonetic writing to communicate an accent, but this only ever appears in characters we’re meant to understand as uneducated or otherwise mentally or morally unfit or questionable; the same holds for characters who are fat–apparently being fat is a moral failing. And forcing the title as the last line of the book, in a way that is jarring and not in keeping with much of the rest of the story, isn’t a satisfying ending. Nonetheless, horror fans who like a slow burn will enjoy it.

The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James. 1/5
A melodrama in novel form, The Bullet Swallower tells the gruesome and violent tale of an angry man and the story of his arrogant and self-aggrandizing grandson. It’s got shoot-em-outs, train heists, murder (a lot and often, related explicitly), cardboard cutouts of women, who are mostly left behind or terrorized, an angel sent to collect a soul, the idea of the sins of the fathers passing to their children, and self-sacrifice. The pacing moves from slow to fast to slow again, and what I think the author intended to be the climax of the novel wasn’t. Because the main characters are antiheroes who have to change to be redeemed, we know where the story is going. Because we know where the story is going, there’s not a lot of dramatic tension overall, and I’m not sure where books centering amoral crack shots and murderers–whose evil is depicted through 90% of the book, before we learn that he finally became a good guy–have a place these days.

Aftermarket Afterlife by Seanan McGuire. 4/5
If you’ve read McGuire’s other InCryptid books, you’ll remember Mary Dunlavy–the family babysitter who happens to be a ghost. Here we get a story from Mary’s pov, one focused on the escalation of war between the Price-Healy-et al family and the Covenant. There’s a lot of death, and there’s a lot of violence, and there’s a lot of trying to remember who is related to whom and how, but in the end, it’s an interesting way of telling an InCryptid story. Mary stretches her powers to their limit, takes up tasks no living family member can do, and finds herself dealing with the anima mundi. It’s clear that this is Mary’s Big Adventure in death, and while it has a slow beginning that introduces everyone, once things get going it’s a non-stop ride to a big finish.

Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin. 2/5
I will never understand why authors do not ask appropriate, knowledgeable specialists for a read-through to make sure terminology is used correctly. In this case, the author is apparently a dancer, but her use of language about music is a big mess, and it pulled me right out of the story. Numerous other small things that made no sense (dancing barefoot on a stage used by tap dancers? um, no. Huge hazards there.) as well as uneven character development and world-building. The premise is good–a magical-realist Shanghai, full of angry gods and exploitation and gangs. Things happen a little too unbelievably fast at the beginning, and the pacing throughout is awkward and sometimes hard to follow. The characters don’t have much depth, and they change their minds and loyalties with every cliche that comes from their mouths. There are characters who don’t actually do much except smolder dramatically or are mysterious, but they have no charisma and are too often just filler–even those who are supposed to be important, such as the protagonist’s mother and the protagonist’s potential love interests. There’s no spark. There’s a very brief reference to queer sexuality, but everyone else lacks sex appeal, even when they’re supposed to be making their livings off of it. The magic and power and technology of the world is revealed somewhat clunkily, and some of the metaphors involving those aspects are heavy-handed enough to make you bang your head on the wall. The geography of the city is unclear, and the city as an entity is uneven. There are continuity errors–one most noticeable one comes near the end, when a character holds up his hands in a surrender gesture, but then in the next sentence is just then pulling them out of his pockets. I feel like this needs one more really good developmental edit, to cut away the flotsam and jetsam, and it would be much better.

Convergence Problems by Wole Talabi. 3/5
A solid collection of SFF stories set mostly in Nigeria or among Nigerians that include topics like mining in space, the movement of human consciousnesses to robots, and social justice. I enjoyed “Ganger” in which a world dominated by automatons can only be escaped by becoming one, and “Blowout,” in which a woman grapples with family history, the limits of machinery, and her own physical limits as she tries to save her brother on Mars.

Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor. 5/5
This is a beautiful and devastating novel about innocence and exploitation and opportunity and manipulation. Manod lives with her father and younger sister on a tiny, Welsh-speaking island. Her fate seems to be to marry one of the village boys, but she doesn’t want to follow island traditions, and seeks–without knowing how–to have a wider life. When English-speaking researchers come to the island and hire her to translate for them, she begins to see ways of leaving and places to go. The reader knows what will happen–they way the researchers falsify images and documents and falsify the meaning of their relationships with Manod–but we can only read and envision it as it occurs, and feel relief when Manod determines to be in control her own life.

The Digital Aesthete by Ken Liu; Adrian. 3/5
I can’t say that I loved this collection of short stories focusing on AI, but I’m sure other readers will find things to like here. Many of the pieces felt as if they were deliberately avoiding the more serious issues their stories hinted at: the “uploading” of a self and disability, machine learning and medical care, how writing is learned and taught. There were a lot of lost opportunities in these stories.

Orbital by Samantha Harvey. 5/5
I loved this lyrical, intimate novel about six astronauts as they circle the world and watch a catastrophic storm form and make landfall. Its circular form–how could it have anything but?–moves the reader from protagonist to protagonist, learning their habits and passions and dislikes as the world below shifts and changes in small and dramatic ways, all of them profound and compelling. What will remain when they return to earth? What will they desire, shun, dismiss? This single day–sixteen orbits–will leave them all changed.

A Spoonful of Malaysian Magic: An Anthology by Anna Tan. 1/5
I’m sorry that none of the stories in this collection really grabbed me. The folklore on which these supposedly drew is rich and interesting, but many of the stories felt very generically magical or magical in a broadly pan-Asian way, including the use of anime tropes. Most of the stories needed significant developmental and/or line editing for length, tone, and clarity, The illustrations hurt the book as well–they’re not needed, and they’re not good.

The Poisons We Drink by Bethany Baptiste. 1/5
The Poisons We Drink is well-written but not very well thought-out for a book set right now. Venus is a magic potion brewer who decides to find her mother’s killer. Yay for Venus. She’s got annoying sidekicks, good for them. But given what Venus does and how her magic works, there is nothing about consent here. Most of the potion drinkers don’t consent to drinking the potions, which are often–no, almost always–used for extremely problematic reasons. This is an enormous oversight, and I was basically horrified through the entire novel that it never came up in a serious way. Yes, characters can and need to be flawed, but for women and queer characters not to think about this, to willfully ignore it, is why this one only gets 1 star.

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