Category Archives: Book reviews

More book reviews: Yoon Ha Lee is amazing

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett. 4/5
In this dystopian novel, young women are forced from their small and conservative community to an island where they must spend a year fending for themselves and trying to avoid the hunters—called poachers—who would kill them and sell their body parts as elixirs of youth back to the community. Tierney has witnessed two of her sisters depart for and return from this rite, broken and scarred. She’s been raised with live-sustaining and saving skills, and soon learns that her understanding of science, above the beliefs of the other women in magic, will save her and as many other women she can convince to believe her. The characters are well-drawn and evolve in interesting ways; the setting is original while not too alien to understand; and the writing is well-paced and vivid. In the end, Tierney’s discoveries hint at resilience and resistance among the women of the com, and with that, a hope for change.

Pricked by Scott Mooney. 2/5
This book, set in New York and its parallel fairy city, the Poisoned Apple, has some clever ideas, terrible puns, and the potential to be part of a fun series, except that it’s also a contradictory hot mess. A woman with the magical ability to change people’s emotions is tasked with finding a kidnapped non-magic man—all fine and good. But the author both claims the main character is a feminist and has her goad her male assistant by asking him sic he’ “always going to be the woman” in tough situations; later the character calls Harlem “a place tourists go to die.” Other unfortunate digs include those made at fat characters and “fly over country.” There’s also a nasty comment that the kidnapping agrees with a character because it’s caused her to lose weight. If the book went through a round of developmental editing and some sensitivity reading, it could be a winner. As is, though, it’s its own poisoned apple.

Died in the Wool by Melinda Mullet. 4/5
A nice mystery set in and around Edinburgh and the whisky business. Although one of a series, this requires no previous knowledge of the previous books in the series. The protagonist, a former reporter and photographer who has taken on a number of business and charity responsibilities, is smart and engaging as she finds herself in the middle of a dispute between a landowner and women’s shelter that escalated to murder. Several twists keep the plot moving, and the resolution is a satisfying one. I think many readers will enjoy leaning about the whisky business and, possibly, the care of sheep (I says this as someone who first learned about single malts, at about age 11, by way of Dick Francis’s novel Proof.)

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan. 1/5
Some readers may find this novel of a social experiment set in the eighteenth century a fascinating intellectual story, but I just found it tedious. An eccentric and wealthy landowner interested in all things scientific offers a relative fortune to anyone who agrees to live in a cellar and without human contact for seven years. The only man who applies is desperately poor; his journey of exploitation is a difficult one, even as he is contacted by servants and provided with material luxuries. Above ground, the story of his keeper is predictably problematic but also, alas, dull.

Wake, Siren by Nina MacLaughlin. 2/5
If the folks in Ovid’s Metamorphoses were from New York and somewhat uncouth, they might sound like these retelling of their stories from MacLaughlin. Some of the reworking are fun in terms of humor and eroticism, but I didn’t really feel like these offered new insights or changed the relevance of the stories. There’s a lot of justifiable anger in the stories, but little in the way of new reckonings or new angles, Still, this collection might find a home in literature classes on adaptation or revisiting classical works.

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott. 1/5
This would have made a solid feature-length article, but as a book, there’ just isn’t enough meat. Abbott tries to tell a story about t he business and professional lives of the figures involved in the case of Prohibition-era liquor magnate George Remus, but never quite manages to bring everything together in a coherent tale. Her dips in and out of prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrand’s personal life aren’t well-connected with her professional story, and Willebrand’s encounters with Remus never quite seem to be very dramatic or interesting either. There’s a lot of repeated material and a good deal of testimony from court cases that doesn’t shed any additional light on the people or issues involved, and it ends up feeling like filler. A good developmental edit might have turned this into a better book, but as is, I can’t recommend it.

Blood On The Stone by Jake Lynch. 1/5
An unfortunately dry and slow-paced murder mystery set in Oxford in 1681, as Charles II meets with Parliament. The characters might be interesting and t he plot might be okay if the pacing wasn’t so lethargic and the language was more lively, but I found this a dull read.

I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum. 5/5
A terrific collection of Nussbaum’s writing on television, this book is personal, witty, and thought-provoking. Critic Nussbaum explores tv writing, fans, commercialism, product placement, dealing with the legacies of predatory actors and directors, and other crucial topics in the medium. Highly recommended for tv and film consumers.

Pawsitively Poisonous by Melissa Erin Jackson. 1/5
Intended as a cozy mystery set in a cat-centric town and featuring a magic user who invents toys and makes potions for the townspeople, this novel unfortunately leaves the cozy far behind when the protagonist starts using her magic to manipulate and force people into doing things against their will and without their consent. It’s a disturbing book, in which the central figure gives herself the rights to alter people’s lives to get what she wants, both inside and outside of a murder investigation.

[Dis]Connected by Courtney Peppernell; Tyler Knott Gregson; Noah Milligan; Caitlyn Siehl; Raquel Franco; Wilder; Alicia Cook; Komal Kapoor; KY Robinson; NL Shompole. 2/5
In this collection, 12 writers contributed poems, and then each one wrote a story using a line from a different writer’s poem. The result is very uneven. None of the works particularly stand out, and the stories’ incorporations of lines from the poems—which are bolded in the stories—are forced and awkward. I’d rather have read more work from each author without the gimmicky structure of the collection.

Ghost Trippin’ by Cherie Claire. 1/5
I get it that the American South is mythologized and adored unthinkingly and also loathed and despised, often for good reasons, but to start off a book set in the South with a joke that references Deliverance and banjos (and, therefore, rape and the idea of unintelligent and violent locals) is just not a good way to get people to like your book. The other stereotypes that follow aren’t any better, nor is the continuous judging of Southern art, homes, terrain, and people. This is one in a series, and the presentation of the background material is disjointed and difficult to follow. Throughout the book, the narrator laughs at the names of people, places, and animals; drinks booze with Tylenol, a combination that could easily make her dead, not just someone able to speak to those who are; is ableist and classist; and does things that make no sense. A heavy edit could make this something good, but as it is, I can’t recommend it.

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee. 5/5
Excellent, clever, and often funny stories mostly about Shuos Jedao, a primary character from Lee’s trilogy set in the same universe. drawing on Lee’s own experiences as an Asian-American in Texas. I loved these origin stories and escapades and gaining an even better feel for the world in which they’re set. I recommend these stories and the full Machineries of Empire series.

Buried in the Stacks by Allison Brook. 2/5
Just not for me, I think. The writing was simple and the dialogue felt unnaturally formal and expository. But for people who want an easy read at a fairly low level of vocabulary and such (maybe 6th grade level?) and who like mysteries and ghosts, this might be a fit.

Reviews: alternate histories, multiverses, and new takes

Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon. 5/5
This is a great read. In a society where leaders who die are entombed with three young women as sacrifices, a young healer is trying to hold her father together after the death of her mother in childbirth. When her sister is chose to accompany the dying leader to the grave, the healer knows she has to cure him to keep her sister from dying as well. But the palace is full of intrigue and plots, and it takes skill, cunning, and a group of excellent friends to put together a plan to save all of the women. The world-building is good, the characters are strong and real, and the novel is filled with glittering details and bits of lore I found fascinating.

If, Then by Kate Hope Day. 5/5
This is a lovely meditation on the possibilities of the multiverse and the incalculable potential lives we all lead. Told through the stories of a group of neighbors in Oregon living under the shadow of a volcano, Day’s storylines weave in and out of different timelines and paths. Each neighbor has visions of what might happen–or be happening–in their lives in alternate universes, and the entanglements of their lives and visions propels them into new beginnings, new outlooks, and new ideas. A doctor sees herself falling in love and living with a coworker; her husband sees himself as a homeless, unstable ex-academic; a woman who has left academia and had a baby sees herself with different children and careers. The book is elegantly and often beautifully written, and the characters–and their different selves–are well-drawn and developed. This would be perfect for book clubs and groups of friends to read together.

Small Kingdoms and Other Stories by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
I absolutely loved this collection of stories about a former professional trainer of spies and special ops teams turned high school principal. The twists were excellent and often unexpected, and the characters were smart and sharp. Harris captures the environment of the small town, Southern school with wicked precision. Anyone who enjoys thrillers will like this book.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. 5/5
This is a brilliant reimagining of superheroes and super-villains, set in the many wars of the twentieth century. When an experiment causes a small number of the world’s population to become changed, governments rush to snap up those who can serve best as weapons. The novel follows two heroes, Oblivion and Fogg, from their training as young adults through their service in WWII, Vietnam, and other conflicts. Along the way they work with other changed people, men and women with widely varying powers and abilities and motivations, negotiating lives no one else will fully understand. This is an intelligent novel, a superhero story with deep philosophical roots, with a great sense of history and the consequences, historically speaking, of action and inaction, and a fabulous read with fascinating characters and ideas.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz. 4/5
Both a send-up of an homage to the private school novel, The Swallows details what happens when the girls at a school find out about the crass and cruel contest the boys run in ranking the girls’ prowess at oral sex. Told from multiple viewpoints, The Swallows is a testament to girl power, a self-mocking parody, a story of trauma and abuse, and a novel of self-discovery. Recommended for anyone who has previously enjoyed this genre, including books like The Secret History or Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch. 3/5
A decent reversal of traditional fairy tales. In the world of the Darkwood, the government’s Inquisitor-like Huntsmen use a magic mirror to hunt down witches–people with magic powers. But the witches are often helpful and sometimes fairly useless in their powers–one turns everything she touches into baked goods, for example. When Gretel–who does math, something no girl in this world does–is branded a witch, she flees to the Darkwood, where she quickly finds comrades to help her fight back against the Huntsmen, who are intent on destroying her village, family, and friends. It’s a cute read, although the constant use of “trousers!” as a swear word is grating after a few pages. Good for elementary school-age kids and family to read together.

One Night in Georgia by Celeste O. Norfleet. 3/5
I have very mixed feelings about this book. In 1968, three college women and an initially-unwanted college man decide to drive back to school from New York. Naive Veronica, whose father is forcing her to marry against her will for business reasons, takes her brand new, bright red Ford Fairlane convertible and packs it with her friends Daphne–a fragile flower–and Zelda, the novel’s protagonist and a putative lawyer for civil rights. Daniel, attending college near the women, goes along to ostensibly protect them. But this isn’t a simple road trip, because driving through the South in 1968 while black is incredibly dangerous, and Zelda, Daphne, and Veronica are headed to Spelman College, and Daniel attends Morehouse University. Passing through sundown towns and dealing with racist and brutal cops, gas station attendants, restaurants, and more–and encountering a few decent white and black people along the way–Zelda and Daniel fall in love, Veronica and Daphne realize the importance of Zelda’s work in civil rights, and things go wrong and stay that way when the group is involved in the shooting of a white man.

On the one hand, this novel does an excellent job of illustrating just how dangerous it was–and often still is–to be black in the American South, On the other, the characters in this novel make such unbelievably foolish choices and do such vacuous things that I wanted to yell at them all. The story is a tragedy, and one based in racism, but the author could have written the same tragedy without having made the women all be so dismissive or ignorant of their surroundings.

The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman. 3/5
Although I felt that this novel got off to a slow and rocky start, I ended up enjoying it. In a world where a large part of the population have powers, political extremists are trying to take away their rights. Some individuals have elemental powers–like the characters in Avatar: the Last Airbender, to make a pop culture connection–while others can see possible futures or sense and alter emotions. A group of friends with various powers finds itself trying to prevent multiple deaths of those in the group while also mentoring young people with powers, navigating their own complex personal lives, and dealing with state and police minders. As the group works to protect its own from targeted attacks, the pace and intensity of the novel picks up, and races to a satisfying end. While it’s set in Tel Aviv, I didn’t get much of a sense of the city, and there are some grammar and syntax errors that result in some confusing passages.

After Yekaterina by K.L. Abrahamson. 2/5
The premise–a murder/conspiracy mystery set in a tiny, autonomous, Russophone country in an alternate reality–is a good one. But the writing is repetitive, sluggish, and needs a heavy copyedit, and the descriptions of women throughout are sexist and off-putting. The male gaze is overwhelming. There are also a few too many echoes of Gorky Park in this as well, which will inevitably invite comparison–and this book will not come out the winner in that.

Becoming Beatriz by Tami Charles. 1/5
I am not sure I have the right or enough words to express how much I loathed this book. Beatriz is a gang member, selling drugs in schools and on the street. Her brother runs the gang until he’s killed by a rival gang. Beatriz becomes depressed and takes a hiatus before resuming her gang activities. Oh, and Beatriz is a dancer who loves Debbie Allen on Fame! and wants to become a professional dancer. And apparently in the world where Beatriz lives, you can do just that–or at least get a great start–with a few tough dance classes and supportive teachers and friends. I learned more about dealing drugs in this novel than about Beatriz’s efforts as a dancer, because the dance parts are all glossed over with exclamations of dance terms–plie! Jete!–and banal descriptions of Beatriz’s happiness dancing. It demeans the intense training and work dancers do in the real world, and it’s terribly facile and often silly. While the author tells the reader that Beatriz faces real danger in leaving the gang, this too is mostly ignored. Beatriz herself is an entirely unlikeable, immature, egocentric character, and the other characters in the novel are created as such obvious foils for her—such as Nasser, the brilliant new Haitian arrival to the neighborhood who represents everything Beatriz distrusts but is also perfect, and Amy, the vicious leader of the rival gang who ordered the hit on Beatriz’s brother–that everything is very obvious and lacking in subtlety. Another few drafts, some workshopping, and some realism in the dance portions of the book would strengthen it immensely, but as is, it’s not ready for prime time.

Lots of new reviews

A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian. 5/5
This is a gorgeous and wonderful novel about the women and girls of a Bangalore slum. Told in the first person plural, the book dips in and out of macro and micro issues in the community, its history, and its future. Subramanian’s writing is fresh and lively and I adored the nuanced ways in which she handles gender, sexuality, and disability. The novel takes on sexism and education, the ways in which women can subvert the masculine paradigm that seemingly rules the community, and engages with the role of white aid workers and others who seek to help the poor but are clueless of how their subjects and targets feel about them and how they live.

Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings. 5/5
This is an outstanding examination about fatphobia body size, especially in regard to black women. The author uses primary sources from the history of the United States to draw attention to the ways in which fat women, and fat black women in particular, were and are thought of by white society. Engaging with class, the medical establishment, religion, and education, Strings deftly identifies patterns of thought in Europe and America that gave rise to anti-fat stigma and the fear of the fat black woman. I recommend this highly for all women.

The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook. 4/5
This is a sweet romance and really good historical mystery. I liked that it was set in a real town requisitioned by the Ministry of Defense during WWII and that the research done by present-day characters was accurately portrayed. The characters were charming and real, and I enjoyed the honesty about how relationships work and the communication necessary for them to do so. For readers who like romance but not extra-explicit sex, I think this will be perfect, and readers who like Kate Morton’s books and others of that kind will enjoy it immensely.

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott. 4/5
I really enjoyed this clever and knowing Gothic-and-supernatural tale. Travel to the small English town of Rotherweird, where no one is allowed to know the town’s history or ask about the origins of its inhabitants. There you’ll find scheming villains, society snobs, a nocturnal acrobat, a man with a mysterious past, and a newly-arrived teacher for the local school, who, with a little help from his predecessor, sets into motion a fun and quirky ride into another dimension, a vast catalogue of secrets, and a little romance.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. 4/5
This is a really good book with something for almost everyone. Evvie Drake has suffered from years of her husband’s emotional abuse when she decides to leave him. But on the way to her car, she receives news that he’s been in an auto accident, and he dies. Over the course of the next year, she rents out part of her house to a former baseball player who’s lost his ability to pitch; deals with her in-laws, her aging father, and her absent, insensitive mother; learns to communicate better with everyone; blows up and repairs friendships; falls in love; and finds happiness (and therapy). Pitched (pun intended) as a romance, this book is really a lot of genres, and I found it a particularly good abuse-recovery narrative. The baseball parts are fun, as is the small-town setting is great, and the characters develop in excellent ways. My only quibbles are: I wish the author had given Keith Olberman’s mother her name instead of describing her as an offshoot of the male celebrity; and that she’d chosen another team name than “Braves” for one of the teams mentioned. We’re trying to get rid of team names that are culturally insensitive, not creating more. Overall a good read.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow. 3/5
Four novellas providing context for how and why people might deal with futures in which corporate control of everyday life, financial collapse, or other disasters befall the world. I most enjoyed the first of these, in which a smart woman and her allies struggle with corporate control of their lives. The characters were great and well-crafted, and the story was real and thoughtful. In the second, which I found somewhat overlong and tedious, Superman–under a different name here, I assume to avoid copyright violations–wants to get involved with actually making individuals’ lives better, but doesn’t know how to do so in the complicated racial and social landscape. In another, insurance companies determine who lives and who dies, until there’s a revolt. And in the final novella, which is probably the least original and interesting, a man uses his wealth to try to protect himself from a societal collapse, only to die from disease alone. Readers of dystopian fiction will enjoy this, as well as those interested in the ongoing struggle between corporations and individuals, the victims of majority/government brutality, and how and why the future of the world looks the way it does.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 2/5
A young woman accidentally gets a shard of bone in her hand, bringing back to quasi-life one of the gods of the underworld. Bound to each other until he can remove the shard, the pair goes off to find three of his missing body parts–his ear, his eye, and a finger bone. Along the way the god becomes more human and the woman more entranced with his physical beauty. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing, but overall the story reifies the power of men–living and dead and otherwise–over women in Latin American cultures. The formulaic horse-trading of the adventure was predicable.

Watchers of the Dead by Simon Beaufort. 2/5
This is the kind of mystery novel wherein the protagonists do a lot of research, much of it not adding up, then are trapped/kidnapped/accosted by the perpetrator, who monologues about why they’re doing what they’re doing and then leaves the protagonists to die in an ineffectual and often silly way. The protagonists escape, of course. In this case the plot is accompanied by several red herrings, none of which seem terribly urgent, and the subplot dealing with one protagonist’s love life, which is mostly just an annoyance and doesn’t ever feel very important. The majority of the characters are pretty flat; the exceptions being one of the investigators, Hulda Friedricks, who is unfortunately still described in sexist terms–at one point being likened to a harpy–and a giddy great-aunt, who, it is implied, is loose with her morals and the bottle, another sexist stereotype.

The Inside City by Anita Mir. 2/5
Where A People’s History of Heaven offered a fun and fascinating window into an Indian slum and is a great success, The Inside City’s attempt to do something similar is not successful. This novel, set mostly before Partition, follows a Muslim child who has been prophesied to do great things and his family, Unfortunately, the mother is devout to the point of lacking all common sense, the father is largely absent, and the sisters are non-entities. The child himself is a not very interesting, and his activities generally end in disappointment. The book had ideas with promise–the setting, the discovery of history and learning its role, along with superstition, in shaping the world, the book’s long scope. But it’s tedious and fails to live up to any of the initial ideas the author sets out.

The Immortal City by Amy Kuivalainen. 1/5
This could have been a good urban(ish) paranormal thriller. But it isn’t. It’s full of problems. The plot: a scholar of Atlantis is drawn into a conspiracy to raise old and bad gods when she’s called to consult on a murder case in Venice. She inserts herself into the case and then meets a nearly-immortal Atlantean man into whose meditation she has astrally projected. He turns out to have been instrumental in wrecking her career as an academic, but they fall in love anyway. There are police folks involved, but their roles are to flatter the scholar and to serve as a comparison point for her. The author’s treatment of academia is unbelievable, as is the police reaction to the scholar, and let’s not even get into the scholar’s idiotic behavior. Also, everyone is “hot”–the cop, the scholar, the immortal, his friends…. and the gender politics of the book are a mess, with the scholar constantly being useless/needing to be rescued/bait and the other female characters being either foils for the protagonist’s perfection or more beautiful immortals. There’s rape and torture of women, a woman’s self-sacrifice for men, and more. The initial idea–that a scholar who had found a forgotten alphabet was called on to help decipher more of that same alphabet, which was being used in ritual killings–is fine. The rest is a disappointment.

False Bingo by Jac Jemc. 1/5
This collection of short stories frequently touches on the true and depressing aspects of life without hope for anything better. Intended to be realist, it is, but in ways that depressed, anxious, stressed, or lonely readers could easily become suicidal by reading it. I’m not looking for happy endings or happy stories, necessarily, but these bludgeon you.

The Resurrectionists by Michael Patrick Hicks. 1/5
Over-written and remarkably misogynist and racist, despite what I’d hoped early on would be a black hero figure, this novella describes the work of white doctors who are intent on bringing forth Lovecraftian horrors into post-Revolutionary War New York. The gore and body horror is described in minute and tedious detail, and the inclusion of stereotypes like the sexy exotic black sex worker with the good soul makes this a definite miss.

Reviews: The Magicians graphic novel and more

Before I head off to the Shakespeare Association of America meeting, some reviews:

The Magicians Original Graphic Novel: Alice’s Story by Lilah Sturges, Lev Grossman, Pius Bak. 5/5
I really enjoyed this graphic novel, which shows the events of Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians from the POV of character Alice Quinn. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll be fascinated by this new take on the story, starting with Alice’s arrival at Brakebills and culminating with the thoughts and experiences of the quasi-Alice she becomes at the end of the novel. The artwork of the graphic novel allows for readers to literally see how other readers imagined that characters and the places and the events of the original, and the book overall is a great addition to any Magicians’ fan’s library.

The Travelers by Regina Porter. 4/5
This is a sprawling mosaic of a book with fascinating and engaging and conflicted and very real characters that spans generations and friendships and family and good days and bad days and dark times and better ones. Although the beginning of the book and its very clinical tone initially turned me off, I’m glad I kept reading. As the stories of the many characters got underway, the writing became more intimate and interesting.

Blossoms in Autumn by Script by Zidrou / Art by Aimée de Jongh. 2/5
A retired moving man in his late 50s and a cheese shop owner in her early 60s embark on a relationship. When the woman, against all odds and apparently having never been told that even older folks should practice safe sex, becomes pregnant, they flee the judgement of the man’s family and go to Corsica, where the book ends before the woman has given birth. The book is meh–not particularly interesting or deep or thoughtful, but not unpleasant to read.

Executive Assistant: Iris Volume 1 by David Wohl, Eduardo Francisco. 1/5
Fan service and exoticism. Drawn well, but reifies the trope of the beautiful and deadly exotic woman who works for a man.

Three Ways to Disappear by Katy Yocom. 5/5
This is a beautiful novel about family and truth and being an outsider. Sarah , a journalist, takes on a job with a tiger conservation NGO in the small village in India where she and her family once lived, while in the US, her sister Quinn deals with a callous husband, a sick child, and the weight of guilt from her childhood in India. The two work to create a new relationship with each other and those around them, all the while threatened by the politics of their presence in India. The plots are compelling and the writing is gorgeous without being overambitious or false.

When We Were Arabs by Massoud Hayoun. 1/5
This was a near-unreadable mess of polemic, history, family history, and memoir. It’s poorly organized and written, jumps around in a scattered and unedited way, and ultimately is a chore to get through. I think the author has a story to tell and a point–or several–to make, but those aren’t served well in the current state this book is in.

The Fragments by Toni Jordan. 4/5
I mostly liked this thriller about about a lost book, its enigmatic author, an older woman who seems to know more than is possible about both, and the young woman who puts all of the pieces together. Caddie Walker, who left academia after a relationship with a predatory professor and now works in a bookshop, is devoted to the work of Inga Karlson, whose first book was an enormously popular and moving bestseller. Karlson’s second book, along with the ms, all of the press plates and any ephemera, went up in a fire that also killed Karlson and her publisher. But when Caddie goes to see the fragments of that second book on display, she encounters a woman who seems to know more about the second book than is possible, and Caddie tracks her down for the full story. While the reveal of this true story is predictable, it’s done well. The fact that Caddie goes to the predatory professor for help, and then seems to set him up to be hoist by his own petard, is a bit annoying and not easy to follow in terms of readers understanding what Caddie is doing; the same goes for her will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with another man burned by the same professor. If the relationships and Caddie’s intentions had been a bit clearer, the end would have been even more delicious.

Swords, Sorcery, & Self-Rescuing Damsels by Lee French. 2/5
There are some okay stories in here, but not enough that I could really recommend the book. Often the “self-rescuing” women and girls aren’t really so much self-rescuing as they are simply engaging in good manners or being friendly to the friendless and so on.

Bethlehem by Karen Kelly. 4/5
An atmospheric gothic read about a wealthy family and its secrets, as teased out by a newcomer to the family and its estate in Bethlehem, PA. It could be dismissed as just another entry into the long line of books about rich white people and secret love affairs and tragically short lives, but it’s beautifully written and the author’s inclusion of class-based conflict makes it seem more real and more compelling than if that aspect hadn’t been present.

Reviews: two with complications

The Ethereal Squadron by Shami Stovall. 2/5
I enjoyed a lot of this novel, but it’s overall world-building is very problematic. The plot focuses on Geist, a member of the Ethereal Squadron, a secret group of WWI soldiers with paranormal talents who use those talents to fight for Britain. Geist has several secrets: she’s a woman, and her father and brother–who also have paranormal capabilities–are fighting on the opposite side of the war. Geist and her team discover horrifying information during a raid, and Geist must lead them to stop a German attack sure to decimate Paris and to stop actions that will lead to the death of civilian and military sorcerers alike. The action is fast and the novel moves quickly, including the slow burn romance between Geist and a magic-using German defector who knows her true gender and identity. What bothered me, though, was the author’s construction of how magic works in her world: it only occurs in certain families, and those families deliberately practice eugenic breeding amongst one another, seeking to create more versatile sorcerers through the generations. Few if any of the characters in the books find this as disturbing as I think many readers will. The author could have cast this deliberate breeding in a poor light–as historians have done in recounting the close relative-marriages of European aristocracy–by making it one of the reasons Geist and her father are not on civil terms, but it’s treated as a good thing by everyone. And that’s troubling. Perhaps later installments–if there are any–of the series/setting will show the protagonists moving away from the idea of breeding an uber-race, or perhaps the heroes of this novel will become the villains of one set in WWII.

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman. 3/5
This is a beautifully written novel in which Jewish children survive WWII in France via extraordinary and supernatural means. Ettie, a brilliant young woman, agrees to create a golem to watch over Lea, a child sent by her mother to relatives . Over the course of the novel, Ettie and Lea grow up, forge lifelong relationships with others, and, along with their various love interests and vengeful desires, work towards the end of the war. Ava, the golem, watches over Lea, falls in love with a crane, speaks languages no human knows, and eventually faces Azrael, the Angel of Death, in a lovely but predictable encounter. While the characters never felt very deep to me, the book is mostly a pleasure to read, and Hoffman writes descriptively and fluently.

I do wish, however, that her reference to homeopathic treatment was not a positive one. She suggests that eating homey can save a person from thousands of bee stings. Not only is this not really a homeopathic treatment, but in this time when people are shunning vaccines and dismissing medical science, it’s dangerous to suggest that remedies like this are efficacious.

Reviews: lots, some excellent

Starting with the best things I’ve read recently and moving down:

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. 5/5
This is an outstanding book about queer Brooklyn, organized by time and including insightful but never pedantic commentary on the area’s development; its famous inhabitants, particularly those who helped make parts of the borough a safe space for queers; the role of the military and industry in Brooklyn’s queer lives, and the contributions queer Brooklynites have made to American and world arts and civil rights. Author Hugh Ryan writes in a clear, accessible, and personal style that is a pleasure to read. I learned a great deal from this book not just on the topic of queer Brooklyn, but also about the fantastic resources Ryan used, the ways in which a book dealing with histories of overlapping place, people, and society can be crafted, I highly recommend this book for school, college, and university libraries in addition to individual readers.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch. 5/5
A delicious entry in the Rivers of London series, this novella introduces readers to the German equivalent of Nightingale, Grant, and the Folly denizens. Tobias Winter, one of Germany’s only two practitioners, is paired with Vanessa Sommer to investigate the supernatural death of first one man, and later several, near a vineyard struggling to make a comeback. Readers get to learn about German magic traditions, werewolves, river goddesses of Germany, noble rot, and more. It’s a fantastic treat for fans of this series and can be an introduction to the series for newcomers.

Lust on Trial by Amy Werbel. 4/5
This is a great account of Anthony Comstock’s career, one spent obsessing over and trying to shut down sexual freedoms ranging from masturbation to birth control. Comstock notoriously raided bars, art studios, the mail, and private homes in search of what he considered obscene material, which could be paintings of nudes, sculptures, pornographic photographs, and erotic novels. Werbel examines Comstock’s motivations, his successes, failures, and legacy in America in a highly readable and entertaining manner, including images of many of the items Comstock sought to suppress.

Aristophania, Script by Xavier Dorison / Art by Joël Parnotte. 3/5
I liked this first installment in a French graphic novel series. This volume establishes the setting in 1900 France, and provides us with an origin story for the three protagonists. These are impoverished siblings, Victor, Basile, and Calixte Francoeur, whose father is killed and whose mother has been sent to prison. Enter a mysterious older lady of considerable wealth and power, Aristophania, who takes the children to her estate . After the children witness magic and unexplained events, Aristophania explains that their father was a member of the same magical order as she, and they can choose to join her in it or continue in their mundane lives. I’m a little leery of the rich-person-fixes-it-all trope indicated by this first volume and the somewhat stereotyped and as-yet mostly undeveloped children–the fighter, the scholar, the innocent–but I’d like to read more. The art is gorgeous and evocative.

The Poison Bed by Elizabeth Fremantle. 3/5
A well-constructed novel about the real-life trials of Robert Carr and Frances Howard, figures in the court of James I. Their stories are told here in alternating viewpoints, allowing author Fremantle to create not just one but two unreliable narrators. Details about the trials and the lives of those involved are rich and interesting, but the pace drags a bit. For readers not familiar with the court, Jacobean naming conventions, and other historical matters, the novel may be a bit confusing.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. 2/5
An interesting intellectual exercise in questions of IA autonomy, emotion, motivation, alternate history, and self-reflection, but also kind of a drag to read and a bit preachy. In an England where technology is far more advanced than the present, and where Alan Turing lives as a 70-year-old, highly decorated celebrity, AIs in human-like bodies have become available for sale. The novel follows the purchaser of one such AI and in time finds that, predictably, some AIs can become more like humans and some humans more like AIs. I finished it because I usually enjoy McEwan’s work, but this was a chore to read.

Nation of the Beasts by Mariana Palova. 2/5
I understand that this was a huge hit when it was published in Spanish a few years ago. It didn’t really work for me, and I’m not sure how much of that is how the book is constructed and how much might be attributable to translation. Set in New Orleans, the story involves a white teenage orphan whose father abandoned him at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet as a baby. The orphan, Elisse, grows un in India, and then makes his way to America to search for his father. Once in the US, he’s taken in by a Buddhist center in New Orleans, but is quickly pursued by rival forces who are shapeshifters and what the author calls “voodoo” practitioners. Elisse is told that he has shapeshifter-type ancestry, and tries to learn more about this before a loa, or vodun god, comes after him seeking Elisse’s death. Along the way there’s a slow-burn possible-romance building between Elisse and one of his shapeshifting “brothers.” The novel switches POV frequently, and while these different voices make for unique perspectives, it’s not always clear why they’re used or why the author found them necessary. Elisse’s own voice is inconsistent throughout the novel, moving from a formal tone to slang and back again without rhyme or reason. Elisse’s backstory about being a blond American kid turned monk/acolyte doesn’t seem to be very relevant, and his interactions with the Buddhists who take him in don’t seem to matter much either. The use of stereotypical tropes surrounding the treatment of “voodoo” is pretty insensitive, as is the treatment of New Orleans culture. The writing makes it seem as if the author visited NOLA once, during Mardi Gras, did lots of touristy things, and never learned anything else about the city. This is the first in a projected series, so maybe the following books will be better, but I’m not inclined to read them based on this one.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse. 1/5
A mystery set in the Catholic-Hugenot wars of the sixteenth century, this novel is unfortunately a total bore. The history is presented pedantically; the main characters are a tired stereotype of lovers from different religions, the kind aunt/nursemaid, and evil priest; the plot is absurd; and it is all overwritten, slow-moving, and long. Mosse’s previous works also generally involve absurd plots and French history, but none have ever seemed as slow or as dull or as full of non-developed characters as this one.

Readymade Bodhisattva by Sunyoung Park and Sang Joon Park. 1/5
This might be the most tedious collection of short stories I’ve ever encountered. The introduction tells the reader all about what they’re going to read, then the intro to each story does the same. The stories themselves are mostly political comments dressed up as SF, and are dull and badly written (pr perhaps badly translated?). In any case, I can’t recommend any of the stories in this collection, much less the collection as a whole.

Review: I’m desperate for a good book here

The Ghost Manuscript by Kris Frieswick. 1/5
I thought I would like this book-it’s got lots of elements I usually enjoy: archives, antiquarian books, manuscripts, lost documents, secret places and things related to history. But alas. It’s got too many problems for me to enjoy, starting with the use of the term “Dark Ages,” which historians and literature scholars and everyone in the know stopped using years ago because of its problematic assumptions. Right there the book’s offended or come across as so poorly researched and written that no one with interests in history would read it. Then there was the claim that Welsh was “incomprehensible.” That just turned off all of the language nerds. Then there were the characters, who were right out of central casting and notably lacking in depth. In fact, the main character’s complaint that her relationships go nowhere–and/or that she can’t maintain relationships–is because she’s so flat as a character that there’s nothing for anyone to be attracted to. Add to these things a bevy of minor irritations because of lack of research and understanding of the scholarly fields the author is trying to tap into, and the book is a mess.

The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. 2/5
The beginning of this book hints at the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and others from Latin America, but the novel never really fulfills this. What follows is a rather tepid family saga, set during the Spanish flu, Mexican governmental reform and land rights issues, and women’s rights during the early 20th century. None of the characters are particularly well-developed or deep, and the writing was occasionally awkward and difficult to parse.

Death and Destruction on the Thames in London by Anthony Galvin. 1/5
By the writing style I assumed this was for young readers. Then I read a passage quoting Samuel Pepys’s description of him having sex with one of his servants and it was a bit explicit for the ages 6-8 set. So then I though, “perhaps it’s just condescending.” This was verified as I read further. It’s condescending and annoying and not very historical. It’s full of anecdotes, mostly told badly, with some asinine sexist jokes. There’s little actually about the Thames; the connections are very tenuous, as in Jane Grey was executed and was transported via the Thames to the Tower. Give it a miss.

Book reviews: the good, the boring, and the sociopath

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks. 4/5
On the surface, this is a surreal story in which the living can be haunted and possessed by the dead, create walking, talking, cogent pigs that will slaughter and package up their own kind in a meat factory, there are people who can remove their own hearts to stay safe from the ghosts, but lose their memories as well, and aliens, and all sorts of other supernatural things. Below that surface, though, this is a book about innate talent and what it can give to and take away from those who have it. It’s also about race, and how white society, no matter what class, is always on the lookout for the Other, in order to oppose and oppress it. It’s also about class and social status and whether you eat this week or fix the car you need for your job. It’s about creating underclasses to do the worst work, and what happens when the underclass becomes too successful. It’s about domestic abuse and taking or abandoning responsibilities. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a book that can be read in a great many ways, and would be excellent as a class read for high school.

City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay. 1/5
This isn’t terrible, it’s just boring and predictable and uses a lot of cliches. The characters are cardboard. In the mid-1920s, three white folks–responsible, clever Irene, dim, cuddly MIllie, and handsome, gay Henry–go to Hollywood to become stars. Along the way, of course, there is sexism and a rape and gay-bashing and the perils of heroin addiction, but then everyone is spotted as the talents they are and get jobs they like! Irene becomes a writer, Millie becomes an actress and then a mother, and Henry learns about gay Hollywood and has a romance with a director. The director is murdered, but Henry gets over it, marries a white woman in a relationship with a black man, and gets to find new lovers. Everyone lives near each other and have a happily ever after. The author calls women’s breasts “orbs,” and uses about a thousand other tired descriptors and phrases I could do with never reading again. The author also tries to cite a lot of 1920s events and realities of Hollywood, but they remain on the surface, window-dressing. The reader’s guide at the back is terrible and earnest and is apparently geared towards five-year-olds.

Miraculum by Steph Post. 1/5
Less a miraculum than a slightly over-stuffed novel in which not much happens. Ruby, tattooed by a stereotypical and offensive “vodoo” woman and covered in symbols that protect her from supernatural evil, works as the snake charmer in a carnival owned by her father, who is incompetent are barely shows up in the book, and another stereotype, the noble savage, an African man whose knowledge of everything is unsurpassed. Ruby has a friend, January, who dances in the “cootch show,” and an on-again off-again boyfriend who is pretty useless and doesn’t play much of a role. When Daniel, an ancient immortal evil, joins the carnival to entertain himself by causing evil chaos, Ruby is the only one immune to his powers of suggestion. When he causes multiple deaths and the carnival burns down, taking Ruby’s father and January with it, Ruby decides her destiny is to fight Daniel. Accompanied by the useless boyfriend, Ruby and Daniel have a stare-down that is the most boring climax of any book I have ever read. Daniel is defeated. Ruby lives. The boyfriend remains useless.

The author hints at things she never develops, or drops altogether. In the first few chapters, there are references to Ruby seeing things others don’t. This apparently turns out to be that she can tell when people are untrustworthy. Not so much seeing in a supernatural way. We read about Ruby’s long-dead mother, but she ends up not being terribly important. We read about arcane books, one of which turns out to be kind of useful but not very interesting. the trappings of the carnival are present, but there are no interesting characters and none of those who survive develop at all. I’d have liked it better if Ruby and January had teamed up to stop the immortal evil. Or if she had become apprenticed to the owner of the arcane books and they had worked together. But nope, Ruby is special and capable only because of a mixed-race woman who gave her magic tattoos (and who is killed off in a gruesome fashion by the immortal evil). Ultimately, this is a story in which white folks triumph, the black folks mostly get killed, and women are reduced to being skin.

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova. 1/5
Oksana doesn’t need to be have so much as she needs to be able to have feelings, admit that other people also have feelings, and stop being quite so sociopathic. Told in first-person, this novel follows Oksana from Kiev to the United States, where she grows up, is disaffected, lacks interest in anything, is unwilling to try very hard to do anything, uses people like tissue, is totally self-centered, and is instantly recognizable as a person I wouldn’t go anywhere near. I don’t care that she smokes and does various drugs and drinks and has a lot of casual sex, cheats on committed partners. Maybe those are the things where she’s supposed to “behave”? The things I did want her to do were stop being such a quitter and stop being such an asshole. But maybe she can’t. Maybe she is, actually, a sociopath. That would make sense for most of the things she does. SO maybe the title should be less, Oksana, Behave! and more Everybody, Avoid Oksana! That said, the book is well-written and I liked a lot of the other characters and how they were developed.

Reviews: two to read, two to compost

To read:

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire. 5/5
This stand-alone novel from McGuire is a rare bird: a time-manipulation novel that doesn’t try to justify itself with bad or fake real-world-based science, and which is compelling rather than a chore to read (in other books that deal with multiverses and temporal repeats, it’s often a drag to have to remember things like “which life are they on? who died this go-round? It gets tedious, as do the inevitable paradoxes that are too often solved with nonsensical machinations) . In a world very much like our own but in which magic and necromancy and alchemy also exist and function, a megalomaniac decides to take control of the universe by embodying paired traits like Chaos and Order, Language and Math, and so on, and then controlling them. He creates flesh golems, breeds children, and generally wreaks havoc and kills a lot of people on the way to creating a few sets of twins who embody the things he’s seeking. But the twins have minds of their own, and use them to great effect to put their abusive creator out of business. Middlegame, like all of McGuire;s books, is an excellent blend of the mundane, everyday world, and original, fantasy elements. As she does in her October Daye books, McGuire is able to make high fantasy compatible with cell phones and cat litter and pizza. The characters might be embodiments of abstract and powerful things, but they are still completely relatable to: they brush their teeth, get embarrassed, have odd quirks, do annoying things, do endearing things. And for readers of McGuire’s other books, Middlegame contains a few small Easter Eggs for close readers.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. 4/5
Midnight in Chernobyl is perhaps the best English-language account of the 1986 nuclear disaster available. Higginbotham writes directly and clearly about complex scientific topics for lay readers, making the murky manageable, and covers the story from various aspects, adding depth and humanity to the facts of the accident. I appreciated the explanations of processes, hierarchies, and the bureaucracy that condemned so many both inside and outside of the USSR to death. The Higginbotham detail provided in describing locations, the geography, and the lives of those involved is excellent. The coverage of nuclear medicine is fascinating and often neglected in stories about Chernobyl. My only objection is the use of the term “abortion epidemic,” which comes near the end of the book and is highly problematic and politicizes the book in a way that is neither appropriate nor meaningful. I would otherwise give this five stars.

To avoid like the plague:

Find Me Falling by Fiona Vigo Marshall. 1/5 (0 if I could)
I utterly loathed this book. It’s cynical and perpetuates offensive models of disability and mental illness. It’s characters and their actions are devoid of humanity. The author’s attempt at writing a Gothic work is superficial and ultimately boring.

A woman musician gives birth prematurely; after the birth she is somehow disabled and cannot read or write or play or do much of anything, but of course her disability is somehow Gothic and magic and nothing helps except for perhaps retreating from society and trying to become a human ghost, which would be fine if the author actually addressed depression and other disabilities but she doesn’t, so that is a major problem with the book.. The musician and her husband and child move to a grand house overlooking the sea, where she and her spouse cannot communicate with each other, do not seem to care at all for each other or for their child, and do not seem to understand how to be human beings in any sense of that word. The woman wanders the area. Her husband is angry at her because she can’t fix herself. She meeds an enigmatic and manipulative street-sweeper. Her husband presses her for a second child. She has an affair with the street-sweeper. There are ghosts in the house. Everyone is emotionally abusive to everyone else. Some people will love this book. I feel bad for their partners and kids.

Merlin’s Shakespeare by Carol Anne Douglas. 1/5 (0)
This is a book that seems to have been written by a very young child, one who dislikes logic, thinks they’re extra clever when they’re not, and hasn’t had enough experience writing to understand how to write well. If it was written by a child, that child’s parents or guardians should not have allowed it to be published, because it will embarrass the child to no end when that child is even a little bit older. If it was written by an adult, then it still shouldn’t have been published, because it’s a complete mess. Everything in it is poorly done: the names, the characters’ descriptions, the dialogue, the plot, the writing overall. It was painful to read.

Reviews: a good handful

The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. 2/5
I have mixed responses to this book. On the one hand, it’s a very important study of how race is used, viewed, and created in children’s and YA literature. Thomas discusses various authors’ approaches to race in their works and in the adaptations and fan creations made of them, with studies on Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries. This discussion can be nuanced and thoughtful, but at times it is repetitive and superficial, relying on single statements by fans that are cherry-picked to fit Thomas’s hypothesis, On the other hand, Thomas’s work is clearly influenced by her involvement in HP fanfiction and is still smarting from being criticized for using another writer’s texts in her own FF. In any other field this would be outright plagiarism, but Thomas makes the case that in FF, it is acceptable. Her argument is weak, though, especially as now she is a PhD who should have some scholarly and personal distance from her own, younger, naive understanding of how ethics in fiction works, fan or professional. In any case, I found the book to be unready for publication: it needs better-integrated discussions of theory (not just dropping in a useful quote here and there, but real, deep engagement); it needs more clarity and focus in each chapter/case study (these read like student papers that had not been outlined well); and it needs editing, both developmental and copy-. The book feels rushed, unpolished, and rather simplistic. Thomas has a lot of important things to say about race, fantasy, and fanfiction, but this book was a big disappointment.

Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge by Kimura Yūsuke, translated by Doug Slaymaker. 3/5
This pair of twin novellas examines life in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear 3/11 disaster. The first, Sacred Cesium Ground, is more successful: it follows the thoughts and actions of a young woman who has left–at least temporarily–an abusive marriage to help take care of cows abandoned when they were dosed with radiation. As she mucks and feeds them, and interacts with the others who live at or regularly visit the remote area where they are kept, she muses on the nature of animals and the human-animal connection, its responsibilities, and its function. The language is often lovely and the entire work is thoughtful and meditative. Isa’s Deluge, on the other hand, is a rambling account of men seeking to understand their relative, Isa. Isa is violent and a sexual predator, and through memories and interviews, the protagonists seek and understanding of him, but there is none. The novella may be trying to point to human connections, the ambiguous natures of family and familial behavior, work cultures, and/or Japanese culture in regard to men, but I was anxious to finish it and be done.

Brides in the Sky by Cary Holladay. 5/5
This collection of short stories and a novella is a wonder and a delight. Focusing in part on middle-class Americans in the 1960s and in part on women’s experiences in westward expansion, the book is full of astonishingly original and evocative description and character realization. In every piece included here, Holladay captures historical contexts and deftly weaves them in with personal crises, concerns, and changes. The women in the stories come of age, detach from family, and grapple with identity in fascinating ways. The historical settings and use of real-life figures mirrors in some ways Emma Donoghue’s books like The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits, but the writing is uniquely Hollday’s. Revel in this book.

Underground by Will Hunt. 5/5
Will Hunt writes about being underground so well that I actually experienced a touch of claustrophobia reading this book. It’s a terrific read: one very individual lifelong interest in what lies beneath our cities, fields, farms, mountains, and deserts. Hunt goes caving and lives with the dark in numerous places and with complete respect for the cultures into whose caves he ventures.I loved learning about how cave spirits are universal, that the worship of cave deities is common, that caves have preserved far more art and archaeological information than just cave paintings. My only complaint is that the photos desperately need captions. In the Kindle version I read, none of the photos were captioned, so I often wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Add those in, and you’ve got a book everyone who has ever wondered about what’s under their feet will love.

A Tear in the Ocean by H.M. Bouwman. 5/5
This is a great book. I love that it’s both an adventure story and an allegory, that it shows readers why history is important and talking to each other is crucial without being pedantic or preachy. I love that the characters are not white. I love that each character has their own special competencies as well as a bunch of common ones. I love that it’s full of terrific description and resists easy answers and has character growth and doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. It’s a perfect book for kids and for parents and for kids and parents and families to read together.

Clade by James Bradley. 5/5
An astonishing and compelling novel of climate change and the effects–physical, emotional, practical–it will have on human life. Set in Australia, Clade is an outstanding companion to Nevil Shute’s classic On the Beach, which is about the end of human life on earth. Clade, with its survivors and vision of the future, addresses many of the same responses and feelings, couched in an entirely modern and well-researched manner. By following a single family line through the 2020s and forward, Bradley creates unique characters who clearly learn from and are influenced by their progenitors and their actions. I’d love to teach this novel in conjunction with Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and On the Beach, as they all offer distinct and endlessly fascinating ideas of what will come.