Book reviews: a great new werewolf tale and short stories about Canada

Learn to Howl by Jennifer R. Donohue. 5/5

One of the things I love about werewolf writing is that you can do infinitely different things with it. In Learn to Howl, author Donohue presents Allie, a young woman from a family in which all of the women–and just the women, mind you–are werewolves. Allie’s mom has kept her daughter’s wolf suppressed with mysterious “vitamins,” but when Allie is attacked by a classmate, Allie finds her destiny in claws and teeth. Allie’s hurries her off to Allie’s aunts, who live a mostly off-grid life in rural New Jersey. There, Allie struggles to catch up on many lost years of werewolf lore and training, and must soon make complex alliances when her aunts are kidnapped by a pharmaceutical company for experimentation. I think this is brilliant–of course Big Pharma would want to figure out what makes werewolves tick! Allie, her newfound cousins, and another pack of werewolves–whose men turn, but not the women, which makes the inclusion of a transman character interesting and thought-provoking–to rescue her aunts. The writing is tight, the characters pop right off the page and sound and feel like very real people, and the layers of relationships, family histories, and magic and lore are excellently put together. I can’t wait for the next one!

Splinter and Shard by Lulu Keating. 5/5

I loved these often-entwined, often-overlapping stories about the ways people adapt, embrace new opportunities or decide not to face them, grapple with a changing world, and figure out who they are. Spanning a century and a lot of Canada, Keating’s stories are about the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Catholic church, desperate love, becoming independent, parenting, being the adult child of difficult parents, seeking a place to call home, and the effect of place on the psyche. The characters are memorable and true, each worth a novel of their own. Highly recommended.

Dominoes by Phoebe McIntosh. 2/5

When Layla’s best friend Sera sends Layla a video explaining that Layla’s White fiance’s racist family might have owned her Black family, Layla is thrown into doubt about race and relationships and what it means to be Black (but sometimes passing as White). Layla agonizes, Sera ends their decades-long friendship, Layla goes to visit her family in Jamaica. There, Layla learns that even Black families had slaves, and that despite them having the same surname, a professional genealogist can’t find proof that Layla’s fiance owned hers. Layla begins to recognize the microaggressions Sera has been exposed to all her life, and realizes that she needs to do a lot of thinking about how the world treats Black and mixed-race folks. She returns her engagement ring, likely bought with slave trade money, to her fiance, and they buy a new one and get married and everyone who needed to gets a little more woke.

Some of the characters are annoying–Layla, for one–but others are people you’d want to play dominoes with, like her Grandpa. The character development isn’t as dramatic as it might have been, and the wedding scenes in which Layla’s mother dances with the White father of the groom is a little bit pat. The scenes with Layla teaching are painfully awkward and cringeworthy, but the first person narration of the rest of the book works well and is easy to follow, although as a protagonist, Layla remains a bit vague and blurry.

Finally. the author chose to set the story during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and because of that and the way certain characters react to the lockdowns and recommended safety precautions, the story is also about ableism and disability. I was pretty angry that characters who readers are supposed to like were so thoughtless when it came to keeping others safe. It changed how I viewed some of the characters and made me less sympathetic to Layla and others.

The Gilded Ones #3: The Eternal Ones by Namina Forna. 1/5

If you want to read this–which you might not–you’ll need to have books 1 and 2 fresh in your memory for it to make any sense. I really liked the first book in this series, but book 2 was repetitive and character actions and development didn’t always make sense. This installment, book 3, is even worse that book 2. There’s a lot of awkward backstory, the characters and their relationships are ambiguous–and the relationships seem to turn on a dime–and the plot is only vaguely perceptible.

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