Category Archives: Book reviews

Book reviews: Boojums in space and more

Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole. 2/5
A somewhat slow speculative novel about politics, workers’ rights, and the Coast Guard–in space. Jane Oliver is tasked with leading a Coast Guard crew in an in-space competitive exercise, and must cope with this amid the travails of her daughter and the loss of her husband. The characters never quite felt real or deep, the stakes not terribly compelling, and ultimately, the book was flat and unexpectedly dull.

Double Blind by Sara Winokur. 1/5
This murder mystery is a convoluted mess that asks readers not just to suspend their sense of disbelief but to believe in entirely nonsensical things altogether. It could have been a good, straightforward crime novel involving a DNA lab, an ancient manuscript, and politics, but instead the author also included kidnapped siblings, false histories, romantic angst (by the protagonist), breaches of professional ethics (also by the protagonist), science that is treated like magic and misrepresented so badly it would win an award to misrepresentation, old friends with fun sex lives (upon whom the protagonist frowns), utterly implausible procedures in terms of everyday politics and work, horses, farms, and much much, alas, more. I wish this had gone through a heavy development edit; it might have yielded something good.

The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg. 5/5
This is a book of great beauty and wit and imagination. In The Four Profound Weaves, R. B. Lemberg crafts a story about growing up and growing old, magic and art, learning and traveling, trusting and transforming. The weaver Uiziya sets out into the desert to to find her aunt, who weaves clothes for assassins from bone, in hopes that her aunt will teach her the last of the Four Profound Weaves: weaving with death. With her travels an unnamed man, who is also looking for a kind of final learning, a name. Lemberg introduces readers to several fascinating cultures and individuals from her Birdverse, whose histories and traditions come together to help a weaver find life and happiness, albeit through betrayal and pain. This is a fabulous, brutal, shimmering queer fairytale but also a story of great truth in terms of identity, gender, sexuality, and sense of self.

Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold. 3/5
A pleasant if not particularly memorable continuation of the narratives begun in Bujold’s earlier books set in the world of the Sharing Knife. In this world, people are born Lakewalkers, with special bonds to the earth and others and capable of certain magics, or farmers, who are, well, not Lakewalkers. Lakewalkers protect the world from creatures called malices, which feed on life and threaten communities. In this novel, a Lakewalker man finds that his daughter, born years earlier to a farmer woman, is developing Lakewalker powers, and seeks to help the girl learn to understand and train her powers. This has never been Bujold’s most imaginative or complex series, but it’s interesting enough for a few hours’ read.

The Best of Elizabeth Bear by Elizabeth Bear. 4/5
A great collection of some of Bear’s truly best work, including short stories and a novella. I’d read some of these before and others were new to me, and most were a pleasure. Bear is best when writing about the deep inner lives of people and things, like in “Boojum,” and when reimagining other places and mythos, like in “Faster Gun,” set in a Wild West, and “Shoggoths in Bloom,” which upends Lovecraft’s racism and Cthulhu mythos in an elegant manner. While a few of the stories drag a bit–mainly those that center around the reader being able to understand either alternate-science concepts or rely on large narrative jumps– the collection as a whole is solid and a great capsule of Bear’s work.

On the Isle of Sound and Wonder by Alyson Grauer. 1/5
A mediocre retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with the characters’ names nominally altered, a fantasy quasi-European-ish setting, and an airship. The retelling does nothing to illuminate the play or riff on it an an interesting way, and instead uses the play as though the author couldn’t come up with a plot of their own. At the same time, the alternate setting and the inclusion of an airship–which the author seems to think makes the book steampunk–aren’t particularly original or compelling, leading to the question of why this book was written at all. Perhaps-inadvertently problematic writing on mental illness, the body, and gender weaken the book further.

Hearing Happiness by Jaipreet Virdi. 3/5
A solid if somewhat repetitive account of how many people who were d/Deaf or hard of hearing have been targeted by false cures over time. Virdi, taking into account her own experiences, chronicles the potions, salves, techniques, implements, and devices intended to help people hear better, defraud those wishing to do so, and/or both. The prose is a bit stodgy and Virdi’s personal sections aren’t always well connected to the reset of the narrative, but the book is nonetheless useful for disability studies, the history of hearing and the d/Deaf, and medical hisory.

Book reviews: a fascinating alternate Elizabethan England, more Foxfire, and Scarlett Thomas’s newest novel

Foxfire Story by Foxfire Fund Inc. 5/5
Another excellent entry in the Foxfire series, focusing on the methods of story-collecting that young ethnographers did to gather the materials for the series, and in-depth bios on the storytellers. Full of folklore, ghost stories, and stories about life in the Southern Highlands.

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas. 4/5
A devastating morality tale about eating disorders, young women, manipulation, and self-worth. Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, is sent to boarding school in England. where he already-growing obsession with her body and appearance is fed by the anorexia and bulimia of her fellow students, also the neglected daughters of rich families. When one student dies, the faculty–all with their own body issues–seems to unintentionally bungle the job in teaching the students to avoid further disordered eating, but there are sinister motives propelling everyone involved towards horrible ends. Content warning for disordered eating, body issues, anorexia, bulimia, fasting, and other similar topics.

Mayhem by Estelle Laure. 3/5
Mayhem and her mom finally leave her abusive stepfather and go to California, where her mom is from. They find sanctuary with her aunt, and Mayhem soon learns that she’s part of a long line of magical women in the family who protect the city they live in from violent men. That her aunt has adopted three kids and hoped that they too would become magical complicates things, and Mayhem has to find ways of helping her family by blood, her family by adoption, and her chosen family through both magical and non-magical means. There’s a lot of violence and killing, but also some excellent girl power material, and smart readers will be attracted to Mayhem’s conflicts of conscience and do some thinking about vengeance, violence, and protection on their own. Could be a good book for a book club or reading group of teens and tweens.

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag. 1/5
In the world of this novel, certain women are Grimm Sisters, capable of powerful magic and feats. They don’t always known who they are until provoked or threatened. A group of men hunt and kill these women. The author provides a set of Grimm sisters from various backgrounds and follows them through their trials in regular life and their awakenings into their powers. I found the writing a bit plodding and pedestrian–setting up a woman named Scarlet–who the author tells us used to be called Red–being hunted by a Mr Wolfe is rather tired, don’t you think? There’s lots of diversity on view, but it feels like lip-service–pen-service, if you will–and none of the characters are anything but flat paper cutouts who tick off the boxes on some list. There’s so much better out there–you can give this one a miss.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton. 3/5
This has gotten great reviews, and while I don’t agree with all of them, it’s obviously a book that will resonate with a lot of readers. I found the writing to be imitative of–but not as strong as–that of Toni Morrison’s, and the jagged, non-linear form of narrative was more of an annoyance than a device for building and sustaining tension and anticipation.

The Killing Tide by Jean-Luc Bannalec. 1/5
This mystery, set in Brittany, was incredibly boring and poorly plotted. The most interesting things were the legends and myths about the country related by the supposedly-boring assistant to the main character. An editor could have tightened this up with a heavy developmental edit, but as it is, this book is slow and drags rather interminably.

My Long List of Impossible Things by Michelle Barker. 4/5
In this book, a young woman and her older sister must each find their own ways of surviving in post-WWII Germany, and must examine and develop their own personal ethics, beliefs, and senses of guilt and responsibility. Initially accompanied by their mother, they leave home when Soviet soldiers arrive, trekking to the home of a friend of their mother’s from long ago. Once settled in a small town, they seek work, safety, and daily necessities while trying to negotiate the occupying Soviets, the black market, and other threats. The narrator isn’t particularly smart or likable, but she comes across as very real, and that’s what makes this book work. I think readers will wince at her immaturity and celebrate her moments of cleverness, and mourn with her and feel her confusion and ultimately have to decide how they feel about her actions and culpabilities and acts of bravery. This would be good for a book group, especially one for younger readers.

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi. 5/5
This is a great book! Set in a slightly different world but one much like our own early modern period, a young woman is forced to take on the job of Sin Eater. Sin Eaters hear the final confessions of the dying and assign foods the Sin Eaters must eat in order to absolve the dead. When the new Sin Eater begins finding accusations made through the foods left on the coffins of women in the court of the queen, she begins to investigate who is making the accusations and why. This is a terrific and smart riff on the Catholic church, the courts of Mary and Elizabeth I, ritual and its meaning in society, the treatment of women, and much more. Campisi gets top marks for creating a rich and compelling alternate world, for playing with rumors and myths surrounding her real-world models, and for developing fascinating characters.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed. 1/5
I should have loved this book. It has everything I like–smart, diverse protagonists who are worldly and curious; secret history; lost artworks; fascinating clues; bilingual jokes. But I have to pan it. Because despite all of these good things–and a fun story about two young people tracking down a missing painting on the estate of Alexandre Dumas–at the end one of the characters reveals that he’s stolen a sketch from a state archive. He claims that no one knew it was there and that no one will miss it, but scholars and archivists know better. It wasn’t lost–it was in an archive. archives know what they have. And despite the admirable realism the author gives to the discover of the missing painting, she should have known, too, that every sketch, every scrap, is just as important to scholars. So while this should have gotten 5 stars and a rave review, it gets 1, because those of us who do research–we need those scraps, those things that arrogant teens think no one else knows about, that they think we won’t need.

Blood Countess (Lady Slayers) by Lana Popovic. 1/5
This is a brief telling of the crimes committed by Elisabeth, Countess Bathory, in Hungary, as narrated by a young and naive woman who falls in love with the Countess and is manipulated by her. I don’t understand why this book was written or who the intended audience is. Bathory is a notorious figure in history, and it’s not as if there are any justifications for her actions and there is obviously no way a fictional narrator could change history. As it is, the history presented in the book is wildly erroneous and counterfactual. Are readers supposed to understand how Bathory manipulated people? Or are we supposed to identify with the narrator, who is utterly without any redeeming qualities? What is this book trying to be, and why on earth would someone publish it as it is?

Book reviews: Best of 2019

This year’s 5-star books.

Aaronovitch, Ben. The October Man.
Anthony, Jessica. Enter the Aardvark.
Arden, Katherine. The Winter of the Witch.
Bolander, Brooke. The Only Harmless Great Thing.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Water Dancer.
Coon, Kelly. Gravemaidens.
Craw, Rachel. The Rift.
Davis, Charlotte Nicole. The Good Luck Girls.
Day, Kate Hope. If, Then.
Graham, Stephen Jones. The Only Good Indians.
Grant, Mira. In the Shadow of Spindrift House.
Hannu, Rajaniemi. The New Voices of Science Fiction.
Harris, Charlaine. A Longer Fall.
Harris, Charlaine. Small Kingdoms and Other Stories.
Headley, Maria Dahvana. The Mere Wife.
Henry, Christina. The Girl in Red.
Holladay, Cary. Brides in the Sky: Stories and a Novella.
Johnston, Aviaq. Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories.
Keenan, Elizabeth. Rebel Girls.
Kidd, Jess. Things in Jars.
Kirshenbaum, Binnie. Rabbits for Food.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky.
Lee, Yoon Ha. Hexarchate Stories.
Makkai, Rebecca. The Great Believers.
McFall, Alanna. The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus.
McGuire, Seanan. Middlegame.
McGuire, Seanan. That Ain’t Witchcraft.
McGuire, Seanan. The Unkindest Tide.
Namey, Laura Taylor. The Library of Lost Things.
Nix, Garth. Angel Mage.
Parisien, Dominik. The Mythic Dream.
Pullman, Philip. Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.
Shawl, Nisi. New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color.
Stewart, Amy. Kopp Sisters on the March.
Sturges, Lilah. The Magicians: Alice’s Story.
Subramanian, Mathangi. A People’s History of Heaven.
Tesh, Emily. The Silver in the Wood.
Tidhar, Lavie. The Violent Century.
Whitehead, Colson. The Nickel Boys.
Wilson, G. Willow. The Bird King.
Yocom, Katy. Three Ways to Disappear.
Zapata, Michael. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau.

Goldfarb, Bruce. 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics.
Hunt, Will. Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet.
Manfredi, Angie. The Other F Word: A Celebration of the Fat and Fierce.
McAvory, Mary. Rehearsing Revolutions: The Labor Drama Experiment and Radical Activism in the Early Twentieth Century.
Nevins, Andrea Shaw. Working Juju: Representations of the Caribbean Fantastic.
Nussbaum, Emily: I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution.
Ryan, Hugh. When Brooklyn Was Queer.
Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body:The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.
Taylor, Candacy. Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.

Book reviews: horror, war, verse

This will probably be my last round-up of 2019; I’ll also post a best-of list separately with my 5-star titles of the year. This year I read and reviewed about 200 books for Net Galley and about 60 from the public library. I’m guessing I also read and took notes on about 50 or so scholarly books, plus a lot of articles and primary source documents. I acquired about 30 academic books and got rid of a lot of scholarly books and fiction. A friend of mine has a rule that for every new book she buys, she has to donate/sell/get rid of one already in her house. I can’t quite do that yet, but I am replacing a lot of my trade paperbacks with Kindle editions.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold. 3/5
In a world where magic has disappeared, formerly supernatural beings struggle to survive and seek out potential places where magic might return, and everything that was once run by magic has stopped. It’s a grim and gritty place to be, and protagonist Fetch Philips must dig into its seediest niches to track down a vampire he’s been asked to find. The setting is unique and while the characters aren’t the best-fleshed out I’ve ever read, they are interesting enough for this noir-style thriller. A good read for the overlap between dystopia fans and readers who love the urban paranormal.

The Golden Flea by Michael Rips. 2/5
A quick read and and quirky book about the author’s many interactions with the dealers and sellers at the Chelsea Flea Market. Wandering and broad in scope, this book might appeal to readers who enjoy slice-of-life material, reading about New York and New Yorkers, and human nature. I found it a bit dull–there’s quite a bit of repetition in the figures the author writes about and their habits, good, bad, or otherwise–and I, unlike the author, got tired of reading about the same jerks berating potential customers and being cliquish and elitist. I don’t share the author’s infatuation with the rude and prickly stereotype he celebrates in the book, and so this one is just not for me.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. 5/5
A little ways into this, I began to think, “I’ve read an awful lot of zombie animal books lately.” I needn’t have worried that this one would be the same as the others: it’s very different, and very good. Four young men, full of hubris and disdain, massacre a herd of elk they find grazing in the men’s Native elders’ hunting grounds. One of the elk is young and pregnant, and though she may be dead, she does not forget or forgive. Ten years later, with one of the men already dead, the other three begin to meet their fates at the hands, feet–hooves–of the young elk, who takes on bodies and identities and does what she feels necessary for retribution. Along the way, the author offers insight into modern Native American culture, the ways in which indigenous Americans have been robbed and segregated, and hurt by white governments, and what it means–maybe–to be Indian. I recommend this highly as a thriller, a ghost story, a meditation. It’s gruesome and gory and marvelous.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. 3/5
This is a fine account of Churchill’s actions (and his family’s doings) during WWII, as well as side-chapters on the lives of his daughter Mary and one of his aides in particular. It is, as are most of Larson’s books, well-written and interesting. Is another book on Churchill and the war necessary, though? While readable, this new entry into an already deep field doesn’t offer anything particularly new to say to readers, nor does it provide exceptional insight or interviews or anything else that makes it extraordinary. I suppose it would make a nice gift for someone just getting interested in the war or Churchill’s career during it.

Turtle under Ice by Juleah del Rosario. 3/5
Two high-school/college-age sisters negotiate their grief for their mother and their stepmother’s miscarriage, in free verse. I’m sure some readers will feel sympathy for the narrators, but they remained too generic for me to invest in them or their emotions very much, and the ending is horribly trite. I do think the verse form is a good one for the story being told. The production values are low: the font for the narrators’ names and page numbers is dated and unneeded, as are the faux-stains on the corners of the pages.

Overground Railroad by Candacy Taylor. 5/5
This is an outstanding and fascinating history of the Green Book–a guide for black Americans during Jim Crow that listed safe businesses to shop at, safe places to stay, safe garages to fill up their cars, and other places and people who could help them as they travelled the country. Author Candacy Taylor has not just examined the book, its creation, and publication, but also conducted interviews with people who used it, taking her work beyond the abstract or academic and demonstrating how crucial the Green Book–and other guides like it–were in specific dangerous situations experienced by blacks traveling in the US.

The Hollows by Jess Montgomery. 3/5
A nice Southern Gothic mystery, complete with plenty of family secrets, traumatic histories, and abuse. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and found that the details–the cost of groceries, the descriptions of buildings–really added to the flavor of the story. Although this is the second in a series, readers are fully filled-in on previous events, relationships, and important information.

Book reviews: fantasy, travel, autism

Given by Nandi Taylor. 2/5
In this fantasy novel, a young woman, adept at her culture’s magic, goes to a different country to study at its magic academy, which is run mostly by people-dragons who have two forms. Mostly bullied by her professors, she does find allies, and a young man who insists upon seeing her for the first time that she is his “Given”–his predestined life mate, with whom he will have “dragonlings” and continue his line. Although the protagonist initially pushes back against this concept, she and the man grow closer through a series of adventures and eventually she decides she loves him and takes him back to her country. There are some good ideas in this book (although predestined love interests are all kinds of problematic), but also numerous similarities with other recent fantasy fiction (Genevieve Coogan’s series, for example; every book ever that send an undertrained magical person to a snooty magic school) but lacking a good bit of the more compelling aspects of those books. This read to me as a manuscript that needed some heavy editing before it can really shine.

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 4/5
In decided contrast to her fantasy novel Gods of Jade and Shadow, which I criticized for its protagonist’s utter lack of agency and personal fortitude, this excellent new non-fantasy novel by Moreno-Garcia is all about a young woman taking control of her circumstances and using them to further her personal goals. Viridiana is eighteen and resisting her mother’s push for her to get married and start a family when a wealthy family comes to her small Mexican town and hires her as a translator and secretary. As she becomes more involved with the family, and begins a relationship with one of them, she also begins to discover that all is not as it seems with her employers. Using her wits and local knowledge, Viridiana manages to get out of dangerous and difficult situations, losing her naïveté and becoming a survivor, if a cynical one, in the process.

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham. 2/5
A mostly feel-good story based on the historical cases of the British children who were sent to Canada to serve as farm workers in the 1920s. The focus of the story is a group of children who survived together on the streets before being placed in children’s homes; the author gives them each unique lives and ultimately reunites several in different ways. the story is framed by a narrative of a woman finally telling her granddaughter and great-grandson the story of her life. A bit milksop and obvious. Content warnings for rape (which the author never plainly names, which I find ridiculously squeamish and a disservice to the many young women and girls who were raped during their service) and suicide, PTSD, alcoholism, and brutality.

The Festival Murders by Mark McCrum. 1/5
A snarky mystery packed with famous literary names, set at a book festival. A famous critic dies, followed by a journalist, and a mystery novelist decides to play detective. Lots and lots of mostly tedious confessional passages by the other characters and an extremely long monologue by the author-cum-detective at the denouement. Catty and misogynist and ageist; not something I’d recommend.

Taaqtumi by Aviaq Johnston, Richard Van Camp, Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley, Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, Thomas Anguti Johnston, Repo Kempt. 5/5
This is an outstanding collection of truly horrifying and fascinating tales by indigenous authors. Drawing on Inuit myth, legend, and lore, the authors have created unique stories that offer glimpses of their culture and practices. I am recommending this to all of my friends and to readers who love horror and are interested in diverse takes on the genre.

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide by Siena Castellon. 3/5
Written by a British 16 year old, this book has good intentions, offering support for autistic girls and young women. I am an autistic woman, and read this with the question in mind of whether this would have been helpful for me. The answer is complicated. Castellon’s approach is upbeat and encouraging, but is often problematic as well. She repeatedly recommends autistic kids turn to their parents for help, based on what appears to be a positive and supportive relationship with her own parents, but many autistic kids won’t have that kind of parental relationship. Parents—and other adults and authority figures— are often focused on cure, and nowhere does she address how to handle the ongoing issues that stem from that. She also embraces the idea of calling her aspects of autism “superpowers,” which is a compensation narrative many autistic people reject, and rightly so, because it further Others us and makes us seem abnormal. She cites Greta Thunberg as a role model, but seems unaware that much of Greta’s success comes from her privileged parents—something few of us have. The book is full of anecdotes that share Castellon’s experiences with bullying, bad friends, and uneducated educators, but her message that by working with parents and finding mentors you can trust (and buying certain products, which she recommends by name) will make everything better is naive and Pollyanna-ish. I’d like to have a book about living with autism that is more realistic and isn’t afraid to tackle the much darker issues and problems of being an autistic girl or woman in our patriarchal, racist, sexist, capitalist society, with real advice for the hard times.

Take Us to a Better Place: Stories by Madeline Ashby, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Calvin Baker, Frank Bill, Yoon Ha Lee, Karen Lord, Mike McClelland, Achy Obejas, David A. Robertson, Martha Wells. 2/5
This is a collection of short focusing on health and society. Some are more successful than others, but all of them are mildly preachy and don’t contain understanding of disabilities, aging, and significant physical difference in people. I was also disappointed by what seems to be poor editing in a number of stories that were rambling or disorganized.

Faces in the Crowd by Feng Jicai. 2/5
A series of vignettes about the people of a Chinese port city. A bit tedious and dull, unfortunately, although these are occasional gems of phrase and description.

Spartanburg by Richard Fleming. 1/5
An excruciatingly badly written book that wants to be about race and class in the American South, but is instead weirdly focused on menstruation and marred by an unfortunate use of “dialect.”

The Sky Done Ripped by Joe R. Lansdale. 2/5
A rip-roarin pastiche of various 19th century authors and genres: talking animals, time travel, ape people, Tarzan, H. G. Wells….not bad, but not really good either. A fair bit of women who are monstrous or need saving, heroic men, and a bit too much over-the-topness.

The Book Ghost by Lorna Gray. 2/5
Written in a stilted, perhaps-emulating-the-period style of the 1940s, this novel follows a young widow in her post-WWII life, where she’s trying to recover from losing her husband, establish her own professional identity, and look after the aunt and uncle who raised her. The plot involves Lucy’s relationship with her uncle’s second-in-command at the publishing company where they all work, a mystery regarding a publishing project, and possible black marketing. Perhaps because of the reticent narrative voice of Lucy, I found this rather painful reading and found Lucy’s descriptions of the emotions of everyday actions and thoughts inexorably melodramatic and overwrought. The romance is one that takes place with little communication, and the mystery ends up being a misunderstanding caused by jumping to conclusions. The characters and plot ideas were all fine and could have made for a really stellar novel, I can’t say this was a pleasure to read.

The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn. 3/5
An okay set of short, connected narratives about Rick from Vaughn’s Kitty the werewolf series. Nice background and origin stories, a mildly entertaining read, but it does feel like it should have been parter of a larger work with a strong plot, rather than just exposition.

Edison by Edmund Morris. 1/5
Just because he’s Edmund Morris and famous as a quasi-biographer doesn’t mean he should get a pass on using offensive language (“gypsy”), fatphobia, or sexualizing the women in the history. Where was his editor? In addition, it’s clear from his descriptions of the technology he writes about that he doesn’t quite understand it fully, and this means that there are errors of both omission and commission. Finally, Morris’s adoration of Edison is tiresome after the first page. I wanted to read a biography, not a hagiography.

Death in Trout Fork by D. M. O’Byrne. 1/5
An unfortunately rather dull mystery set in a tiny town in Colorado. The characters are either entirely one-dimensional (and not terribly personable or intelligent) or are intended to surprise the naive reader by breaking (the author seems to think) stereotypes, like college professors who drive motorcycles. The narrator is a young journalist who although striving to be independent still apparently is on her rich parents’ auto insurance. A possible romance is utterly passionless; the plot plods; and there are no surprises in store for the reader–the author drops hints that are far too wide and broad as if readers aren’t paying attention. Not a great use of reading time.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd. 5/5
This is a beguiling and fascinating mystery, combining forensics and myth and the supernatural in ways that both sit uneasily with one another and complement each other perfectly. Bridie, trained to understand the causes of death, is tasked with searching for a missing child who is not entirely human. Accompanied by a ghost and the traumas of her own past, Bridie seeks out justice while grappling with the implications of her youth and those she knew. The language is beautiful and the plot is masterful; a gothic gem.

Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony. 5/5
A very funny and very sad book all at once, with many long and beautiful sentences on the nature of things, especially animals, in the world and how evolution has worked and what the results have been and how those very results influence even the smallest aspects of our lives, with two tragic romances at the heart of the story and a condemnation of societal and personal hypocrisy and lack of truth and this is a very different book that I highly recommend to just about everyone.

A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
An excellent alternate reality Western and romance and mystery. The second in a new series by Harris, A Longer Fall finds a team of hired guns embroiled in a job that unexpectedly involves the Holy Russian Empire, civil rights issues and rebellions, and magic. This is a richly imagined and detailed world full of nuance and thought and great characters. I need to go back and read the first in the series while waiting for another installment.

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi. 2/5
A quick read of mostly novelty pieces centered around the holidays. While a few of the short stories are solid, the interviews with elves and whatnot are often awkward and not much fun to read, like bad SNL skits.

Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders. 2/5
It really never occurred to me that there might be a genre of Christian mysteries, as there are Christian romances, but this apparently is one of a series in just that niche. A woman, the widow of a vicar, takes on PI work for friends and family. In this installment she seeks to reconcile estranged brothers, but instead finds herself amidst murders in a community in strife over Catholicism vs Protestantism. While the narrator is supposed to come across as pious but with a sense of humor, she just seems immensely privileged and intolerant of others and highly tolerant of her own foibles and those of the people she finds acceptable. By the end, I was rooting for certain characters to become atheists, shake off their religious brainwashing and baggage, and run away to live happier lives elsewhere.

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau. 2/5
A naive young woman from a wealthy family becomes embroiled in murder, set against the backdrop of Coney Island’s heyday, workers’ rights movements, and women’s suffrage. The descriptions of the various amusement parks and their workers was interesting, but the characters were fairly one-dimensional and ultimately the plot was slow and predictable.

On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux. 2/5
I was a little wary of this book, having gotten thoroughly fed up with Theroux’s misogyny and snobbishness in his earlier travel books and novels. And while those elements are certainly still present–he mentions a few women writers, but cites primarily men, and the male gaze is ever-present and often unpleasant–On the Plain of Snakes was nonetheless an interesting read. Theroux travels the Mexican-American border seeking out stories of border crossings, NAFTA’s effects, the gangs that control the trafficking of drugs and people, the desire for different lives, and more. The Mexico he presents is a brutal and vicious one with little recourse due to corruption and fear. He learns Mexican Spanish and runs a writing workshop, is beset by cops seeking bribes, and compares his experiences with other writers who have traveled the area. There’s some value here despite the drawbacks, I think, although I’d love to know what Mexican readers think.

The Lost Child by Emily Gunnis. 2/5
A convoluted novel about postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, in which all of the women–save a saintly, conveniently dead one–are unstable and dangerous to their children, and in which the men are either complete brutes or gentle but slightly confused and not terribly capable of thought. The book is written in a naive style and is over-full of cliches, neither of which make the story, characters, or issues compelling. A further rewrite and some editing would have made this a much stronger book.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear. 3/5
A solid space opera in which salvagers discover that an alien race, supposedly long-dead, isn’t, and that the historiography of their universe has been covering up quite a bit of information. There are some invented terms and jargon for readers to work out and get, as well as some physics, and the characters didn’t feel completely developed, but a lot of SFF fans will enjoy it.

18 Tiny Deaths by Bruce Goldfarb. 5/5
An utterly absorbing account of Frances Lee, a wealthy society woman who became fascinated with early forensic science and assisted in developing the medical examiner system in the US, while also creating a library for the study of “legal medicine,” as it was known, and for making numerous, painstakingly-detailed dioramas of death scenes for investigators to learn from.

Review: Tieber, Claus and Anna K. Windlisch, eds. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice.

[Author’s Note: This review was commissioned by an editor at Current Musicology about four years ago for CM’s 50th anniversary, then apparently got lost in an editorial shuffle, and was finally rejected for not being critical enough and for including chapter overviews. You can decide whether it’s useful for you.]

Tieber, Claus and Anna K. Windlisch, eds. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xx + 265 pp. ISBN 978-1-137-41071-9.

Over the course of the last thirty years, the scholarship on the music and sound of the silent film era—generally agreed on as the period from the inception of the moving image to about 1926—and the early sound period has grown exponentially. In the United States, this scholarship, generally focused on the film industry in America, has been created mostly by a small group of male film and musicology scholars who have, in turn, inculcated their own male protégés in the field, where they continue to locate the center of the silent film music world in North America. It is therefore an enormous pleasure to read Claus Tieber and Anna K. Windlisch’s outstanding collection The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice, which includes essays on the sound of silent film all over the world by both men and women in the discipline.

Although the editors erroneously bemoan the lack of scholarship on film sound and music studies, they make an excellent case for expanding the range, scope, and variety of approaches to studying silent film sound and music by offering thirteen strong chapters, each on a previously unexplored facet of the topic. This volume has its origins in a conference at Kiel University in 2013, and this genesis is evident in the relative short length of most of the chapters. Nonetheless, the essays presented here are fascinating and valuable in their own right and will serve as springboards for further research on the materials they describe, analyze, and catalogue.

The collection is divided into two sections: the historical practice of silent film sound, and new approaches to silent film music history and theory. The first section begins with Julie Brown’s masterpiece of archival research on the organization and use of music libraries for silent film accompanists and orchestras in Britain. Brown’s research on the surviving library of the Royal Theatre Picture House in Bradford, North Yorkshire, England, reveals the ideals held for such libraries and the variety of music accessible to performers for the theatre and the reality of what was available and used in everyday accompanying. She analyzes the methods of organizing this kind of library and the genre system, and helps limn the difference between practices in Britain and those in the United States. Brown’s essay is followed by an equally beautifully researched and presented chapter by Christopher Natzén on accompanimental practices in Sweden from 1905 to 1915. Natzén also digs deep into the archives, in this case those of the Swedish State Archive for Sound and Image. Comparing film programs accompanied by lie performers and those for which mechanical sound reproduction was provided, he finds that the means of sound and music production heavily influenced the kinds of films that were shown in Swedish cinemas. He presents findings on films show with and without live musicians, the role of women musicians in accompanying silent films, and how the rise of mechanical musical devices guided the formation and practices of the Swedish Musicians’ Union, among other important information. Chapter 3 keeps the focus on Europe: Marco Targa has been researching the role of live orchestras in Italian silent film picture houses for some time now, and it is wonderful to see his work appear here in English. Targa discusses the development of a specific repertoire for the small theatre orchestras at the heart of his work and provides a detailed set of appendices that offers a list of major Italian films from the silent era and the status of the music that would have been performed with them, as well as a musical commentary, or quasi-cue sheet, for three films.

The next two chapters take us to German-speaking cultures: Urszula Biel explores performer and cinema culture in Upper Silesia, and editors Tieber and Windlisch look at music in the silent cinemas of Vienna. Biel’s archival research leads her from the make up of and levels of playing in cinema orchestras to the working conditions of the musicians themselves, a crucial aspect of silent film music history that has not received the attention it deserves, despite Biel’s work here and contributions on conditions in England by Annette Davison. Biel then expands her survey to discuss genre and the use of vocal music in cinemas, which is also a neglected area here brought into the light. She concludes with a brief account of stage practices, opening a window onto the variety acts that were presented in cinemas before the film was shown. Tieber and Windlisch’s study of Viennese theatres and their music for silents is no less important and wide-ranging. They craft a highly detailed panorama of the state of cinema music in the musical city in the 1920s, taking into consideration public taste and local pushback against touristic desires for endless Mozart. They cover the development of film as a “legitimate art” in Vienna and the lavish musical talents applied to film accompaniment before the Great War, when it was not uncommon for every movie house to employ a string quartet, an organist, and one or more solo vocalists. Readers learn about the social status of these musicians, their labor organizations, and backgrounds in the context of the on-going evolution of music for silent films in the city. We learn that Erich Hiller’s score for the Asta Nielson film Der Schwarze Traum, composed in 1911, is the earliest composed for a specific German-language film, and that this event, along with music cinematic music-making, went unremarked-upon, and that the media simply ignored the musical aspect of films, which is why all of this research is all the more valuable.

Chapter 6, by James Buhler and Catrin Watts, traces the American attitudes towards European cinematic music practices by way of The Moving Picture World, one of the most prominent trade journals in film during the silent era. By focusing on the MPW’s Paris dispatches and the European movie theatre tour of MPW editor W. Stephen Bush, Buhler and Watts find a rich vein of criticism and comparisons between cultures. Bush, whose tour took place in 1913, found film exhibitions and the quality of musical accompaniment high in London and in Berlin, but less so in Italy, where despite singing the praises of productions shot in the natural light, he found fault with what he deemed the low-class tastes of the audiences. In France, Bush found the entire industry underperforming, and the music was so poor as to not even receive mention. In this all-too-brief essay on one American critic’s views of European film culture, Buhler and Watts offer solid analysis and great details and leave countless options for further research open.

The final chapter of the first section ends with another chapter that could easily be expanded into a book that every cinema and film music scholar would want. Olympia Bhatt examines the origins and trends in Indian cinema in the 1920s, and leads the reader through a highly readable and fascinating history of Indian cinema, music, and cultural practices involving the film industry. She addresses gender and caste segregation, and how these and other prejudices inherent in the culture of the time affected the ways in which films were exhibited and accompanied, offering a brief but intense masterclass on different types of Indian music at the same time. From the tabla to the Gramophone, Bhatt provides an essential introductory text on film and music in India during this period.

The second half of the book begins with an analysis of a newly discovered score by Erno Rapee for John Ford’s The Iron Horse. Here, author Peter A. Graff offers a close reading of the compiled score and investigates the ways in which Native American characters and whites are musically depicted. In the film, the villain is a white man who murders while in disguise as a Native American; Graff finds that while Rapee used some of the common “good Indian” vs. “bad Indian” musical tropes, he creates a score that ultimately depicts the villain as a corrupting force on the Pawnee and Cheyenne tribes he mimics. This nuanced reading of a score that might have been otherwise dismissed as characteristically racist should establish a model for careful analyses and re-considerations of complex societal issues in film music from the silent era.

Chapter 9, by Maria Fuchs, compares the 1927 Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik with Rapee’s Motion Picture Moods, and finds that the former devotes more pages to theory than the latter. In using the Handbuch as a measure of musical hermeneutics, Fuchs suggests that it offers a scholarly yardstick by which pieces can be measured; while this kind of comparison does offer a sense of the Handbuch’s compilers’ preferred tastes and styles, there is little information on how the book was used or how widely it was used in theatres. This chapter is, unfortunately, awkwardly translated from the German and contains several typographical errors, as well as some organizational confusion, which make it somewhat less useful than it might otherwise be. The following essay, by Francesco Finocchiaro on Eisenstein and music in Battleship Potemkin, also suffers from organizational problems and, in this case, a serious lack of editing. The author avails himself of every possible bit of jargon offered by his subject, and is unafraid of confusing his reader by writing single fragments of sentences and complete sentences that are entire paragraphs—and pages—long. The thesis of the chapter appears to be that by using musical metaphors for theoretical concepts, one can understand Eisenstein’s thinking and creative processes in a new way. Coupling this with the idea of musical landscape—that a visual scene can be built with structures that mirror the musical structures of the accompanying music—Finocchiaro cites the scene of the mists moving over the port of Odessa in the film. However, after all of the theorizing that brought him to this point for analysis, the author offers only Eisenstein’s own free-verse description of the scene. There are a few musical examples, which would have helped, perhaps, if they were analyzed and not simply described. Because of typographical errors in the chapter, I wonder if some of the language here is the result of a poor translation, but no translator is credited, so I can only assume that the language used is deliberately obfuscatory. This chapter is one you can skip, unless you’d like to use to to teach students how not to write.

In Chapter 11, Marion Saxer returns us to the world of the real with an investigation into the composition of new scores for abstract art films from the 1920s. In looking at a number of films created in the 1920s in Germany that feature geometrical objects in motion, animations of shades of single colors, or capture light projections, Saxer finds that several originally had companion scores, now mostly lost. Thus new music was commissioned from Bernd Thewes to accompany them. Saxer offers an in-depth account of Thewes’s compositional practices, aided by musical examples from select scores, and carefully explains how the music and film fit together. She extends this analysis to suggest that collaboration such as this one represents digital culture as a whole in that otherwise impossible constructions between the old and new, the live and recorded. In using live musicians for performances of the new scores while showing the films, Saxer says, we see a state of hypermediacy and a meta-reflexive state, phenomena worth further exploration and consideration in all approaches to music and silent film.

The final two chapters of the book engage with this idea of hypermediacy and meta-reflection. In Chapter 12, Marco Bellano calls for more investigation into the effect of multiple scores for individual films. Citing the lack of alternative scores for silent films on video—which typically offer one or two score options at most—he writes that most viewers today see silent films with just one accompaniment attached, whereas in practice, audiences may have experienced multiple musical and sonic environments for the same film. With digital technologies continuing to improve, and the proliferation of silent films online with various accompaniments, however, we are gradually reaching a point at which comparisons between any number of proposed or actual scores for a single film can be undertaken. Bellano proposes a methodology for making such comparisons, using Metropolis as a case study, and notes that another offshoot of this research could be the effect of the same music used for different films and the application of what is essentially hauntology to film music studies. In the last chapter, Jürg Stenzl takes up Bellano’s challenge and examines two scores for the 1923 film La Souriante Madame Beudet. In this well-researched and entertaining finale to the book, Sturzl introduces the reader to Germaine Dulac, the film’s director, and important but neglected French director whose works included elements of feminism, surrealism, and avant-garde techniques and ideas. Mme Beudet, a psychological and technical masterpiece of its time and place, has two scores associated with it: a score compiled of primarily French works by Debussy, Milhaud, Satie, and others, created by American Arthur Kleiner, and a second, more recent score by Manfred Knaak, composed in 2005. (A third score, apparently composed for piano in the 1960s by Carl Scrager, is apparently lost). Stenzl goes on to compare primary themes and materials from the scores, carefully contextualizing the radically different kinds of music used and what their meanings might symbolize to audiences watching the film. In short, he argues that in addition to studying reception as a phenomenon of a work’s life, we must also look at the history of a film’s various musical interpretations in order to more fully understand its place in history and culture. And that thought—that we must go beyond current (often male composer-focused and US-centric) modes of thinking and analyzing silent film music, sources, reception, and afterlives, and seek out new voices and help underrepresented scholars and works find an audience—very neatly sums up what this book is all about.

Book reviews: a fantastic new Latinx SFF book, depression, and more

Sisters of Shadow and Light by Sara B. Larson. 1/5
Two sisters grow up in a derelict castle surrounded by a sentient hedge, where their controlling mother sulks a lot and tells them nothing about their missing father–who happened to be from another plane. One of the girls is presented as normate, while the other has superpowers in healing and growing and is presented as neurodiverse, although not in a positive way. When two men are able to get through the hedge, seeking knowledge, the hedge absorbs one of them, leaving the younger to serve as a hero and potential love interest for the sisters. There is much melodrama and wow emotions and more italics than any single book should ever have, I found it ableist and weirdly centered on men as heroes and women as victims and neither of the narrators–the sisters–are particularly interesting and serve mostly to induce the melodrama.

Freedom Libraries by Mike Selby. 1/5
This is a great topic for a book and it deserves a solid, scholarly, complex treatment. It does not get one in this book, which jumps around chronologically within chapters. includes anecdotes and asides, and displays a lot of hero worship by the author for his subjects. Simply stating–in often gushing tones–the importance of these libraries and telling dramatic stories about who in the Civil Rights movement learned to read where and how they got their library cards doesn’t approach the kind of depth at which the freedom libraries should be studied, analyzed, and presented. I hope one day there is a book that does that.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata. 5/5
This is a beautifully written and crafted mystery, love story, homage to Latinx SFF and history, and a joy to read. Follow the stories of writers, pirates, parents, children, physicists, journalists, and the other rich and complex characters of this novel and learn about the glory of writing from the imagination, the past, and the hoped-for future. In the 1910s, Adana Moreau writes SFF with a decidedly personal twist, calling up her childhood in the Caribbean. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Saul and Javier search for her son, trying to return his mother’s last manuscript to him. Zapata’s writing about the Caribbean, New Orleans, and Chicago is evocative and gut-wrenching, and his voice–through Adana Moreau–is a beautiful attempt to honor the women of SFF and particularly Latinx SFF who have been neglected.

The Almanack by Martine Bailey. 2/5
A tedious and overlong murder mystery focusing on a small English village in the 18th century, The protagonist, who had escaped the village to London, where she became a sex worker, returns at her mother’s request only to find her mother dead and having left cryptic messages behind. The protagonist, her stalker, her putative suitor, and others are part of a complex and unnecessary tangle of past relationships and grudges that complicate the story. The characters are awkward and flat and inconsistent in their behavior, the plot is unnecessarily dragged out, and much of the writing uses over-sued ideas, phrases, and set pieces.

The Silent House by Nell Pattison. 3/5
A murder mystery set in a Deaf community in England. The protagonist was fairly well-developed, as we secondary characters. i liked the information given on interpreting from BSL to English and vice versa. A quick read for folks who enjoy thrillers and mysteries.

The Virgin of Prince Street by Sonja Livingston. 1/5
In this wandering, disorganized, often hard-to-follow memoir, a woman searches for religious meaning in the Catholicism of her youth. Not my cup of tea, but more importantly not well-written.

The Body by Bill Bryson. 2/5
It’s nice to read a new book by Bryson in which he seems to have gotten over the bitterness (especially about aging) that made several of his most recent books unpleasant. And while The Body is written in something similar to his old, familiar, entertaining style, there are several issues that will keep me from buying it for friends. 1. it’s hard to be precisely up-to-the-minute with books on science, but a lot of the data Bryson cites is quite old and misleading. Referring to the BMI, for example, is problematic because it is known to be a terrible indicator of, well, anything, and it’s been long-condemned by medical professionals. There are other errors of fact as well: it’s “Down syndrome,” not “Down’s,,” for example. 2. It’s ableist and sexist. The book could have used a sensitivity reading by a disabled person, who would have asked Bryson to remove a lot of the language of “suffering” and “lack” that appears. Bryson often refers to measurements and statistics about women by citing men first and then portraying women as the different or other. Although he does an excellent job of pointing out gender bias in scientific studies, his framing is redolent of those studies themselves. 3. It’s not really necessary: as Bryson himself cites numerous other, recent books about the human body and human health, it’s unclear why he though his addition was needed. Sure, the historical anecdotes are interesting, but they’ve been used numerous other times in other books on the same topic.

From Chernobyl with Love by Katya Cengel. 1/5
This memoir by a journalist who has worked in various locations in the former Soviet Union should have been fascinating. Instead, it’s disorganized an disjointed, a badly stitched-together collection of anecdotes that are rarely connected to anything larger or more important beyond the author’s trite observations and apparent need to document the dating scene for young women at the places she worked. It reads like a badly or hastily written blog–or both–and needed a much heavier developmental edit before hitting the shelves.

Apple, Tree by Edited by Lise Funderburg. 1/5
Give that the authors in this collection are generally excellent, their writing about their own parents was surprisingly boring. This wasn’t interesting in the context of the authors’ works. nor was it terribly interesting as biographical, anecdotal, or other reading.

Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum. 5/5
I’m late to review this, but it is everything great other reviewers are saying. Rabbits for Food is a smart, often funny novel that is nonetheless a no-holds-barred examination, description, writing-out, rumination on, discussion of, testament to depression and what it does and feels like. It is impeccable.

Book reviews: New mysteries, magazine writing, and non-fiction

The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus by Alanna McFall. 5/5
A quirky and lovely book about friendship, grief, anger, and love. When Chelsea, a ghost, decides to travel from New York to San Francisco for her brother’s wedding–which was delayed because of her death two years earlier–she’s unexpectedly accompanied by Carmen, also a ghost, and Cyndricka, a mortal woman who is one of the few in the world able to see and hear ghosts, and who is a mime. Together they encounter other ghosts, some in need of help and others who are a threat; a kitten; helpful and malicious people; and, finally, some truths about themselves, their pasts, and their futures. The characters are diverse in race, sexuality, disability, and more; there’s a lovely emphasis on the value of learning languages and on questioning cultural norms. This would be a great book club read, or a parent-and-kids read.

Mortal Music by Ann Parker. 2/5
A historical mystery set in San Francisco among the upper class, involving musicians and PIs. While the setting was interesting and the musical details handled well, the plot wasn’t terribly captivating and none of the characters were appealing enough for me to end up caring much what happened.

Fear on the Phantom Special by Edward Marston. 2/5
A rather slow-moving mystery that focuses on the disappearances of two men in the same location, ten years apart. A railway detective and his railway-hating assistant spend many hours interviewing and investigating a small town and its populace; the author provides several suspects but in the end reveals he culprit to be one mostly ignored the rest of the time. A side plot of equal tedium adds nothing to the novel overall.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2019 by Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. 4/5
Solid investigative articles on everything from health issues to drug dealing to immigration, culled from major magazines in 2019. I could have done without the editor’s overly self-praising introduction, but the rest offers interesting and good reads from excellent journalists.

Music by Ted Gioia. 2/5
Gioia notes early in this book that he’s been writing it for 25 years. That shows: his conception of how music history is taught and written about and discussed is about 25 years out-of-date, and his work in this book suffers badly from it. The book would have been a powerful call to action and change two decades ago, but today, with hundreds of fantastic, progressive, new, and radically different approaches to music historiography in practice, both for “art” and “pop” musics, Gioia’s work is out of touch, and the book’s claims come far too late for it to be relevant or useful.

The Death of Baseball by Orlando Ortega-Medina. 4/5
A compelling novel about the early and late lives of two queer men, about abuse and abusing, about trauma and toxic masculinity. Intense and real and wrenching, this is a meditation on parent-child relationships, families, and desire in many forms. CW for violence.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis. 5/5
I really enjoyed this adventure story about a group of young women who have escaped servitude at a brothel and are on the run to freedom in a fantasy world not unlike the American West in the 1800s. The presence of ghosts, magic, underground railroads, and class and gender conflict are all well-realized and help develop a fascinating world. I was also really pleased that there were protagonists who were people of color and that there were queer protagonists, and yet weren’t treated as “magic Negros” or other stereotyped tropes. I’m looking forward to a sequel focusing on the one character who stays behind when the others escape so that she can help others.

Thin Ice by Paige Shelton. 4/5
A very solid thriller about a writer who, having been abducted by an unknown person and escaped, flees to Alaska to recover. There she assists the local police in solving a mystery and begins to remember more of what happened to her when she was abducted. The author points strongly to the perp, but ends the novel without confirming it, as the protagonist is launched into another police investigation that undoubtedly leads to the next novel in this series. The characters are interesting and well-written, and the descriptions of Alaska add nice details.

Cartier’s Hope by M. J. Rose. 2/5
A little revenge story, part of a series offering free publicity for various high-end jewelers. Protagonist Vera is a society lady with some sad love affairs in her past. She works in disguise as Vee, a working-class reporter who chronicles New York’s tenements, unsafe factories, and other social issues. When Vera discovers that her father and her mother’s brother were lovers being blackmailed by a publisher, she comes up with a plan to expose the publisher for his nefarious deeds without exposing her family to scandal. Along the way she has a romance with a jeweler who works at Cartier’s, learns about paste gems, and gets beaten to revenge by her mother. The romance elements are either cringe-worth (the narrator recounts having her cellist lover play her like his cello) or without chemistry (her relationship with the jeweler seems added just so there can be an element of sex). The family relationships are messy and come and go in importance to the rest of the plot elements. The plot overall is convoluted and silly. For such smart and potentially interesting characters, I expected more intelligent thinking.

Bubblegum by Adam Levin. 1/5
I am sure that there are people who will love this novel set in an alternate America, but I found it tedious. The narrator, a schizophrenic, details his life in a very meta memoir filled with fantasy, memories, rants, and pithy commentary, but it’s a slog to read and not terribly original.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva. 4/5
A terrific set of short stories about characters connected through their place of residence before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this book offers outsiders great details about the absurdities and tragedies of life during this period, sprinkled liberally with sardonic humor in the Russian vein. For readers who have enjoyed writing by the satirical Russian masters and post-USSR fiction and memoir, this will be welcomed.

The Dozier School for Boys by Elizabeth A. Murray, PhD. 1/5
This book suffers from not knowing what its target audience is. It gives in-text definitions for very basic terms, yet seems geared for an adult audience. It’s also poorly organized and lacks cohesion, detail, and context. It reads like a bad synopsis of police and scientific reports.

Silo Boys by Amy-Brooke Odell. 1/5
A mediocre small-town mystery, where the high school football players are heroes to everyone and the young women who date them are defined by their relationships with the team stars. The characters were unconvincing, as was the first-person voice that was more appropriate for a third-person omniscient narrator.

Fantastic fantasy: book reviews

The Mythic Dream by John Chu; Leah Cypess; Indrapramit Das; Amal El-Mohtar; Jeffrey Ford; Sarah Gailey; Carlos Hernandez; Kat Howard; Stephen Graham Jones; T. Kingfisher; Ann Leckie; Carmen Maria Machado; Arkady Martine; Seanan McGuire; Naomi Novik; Rebecca Roanhorse; Alyssa Wong; J.Y. Yang. 5/5
This is a superb collection of short stories that retell myths and legends from various cultures, including ancient Greece and Rome, India, Jewish tradition, and many more. I absolutely loved it–there are no weak stories here. Every one is interesting and well-written, and they all offer fantastic new takes on previously existing work. I recommend it highly for all readers of SFF and those who enjoy reworkings of traditional tales.

Fall Rotten by Eric Serrell. 1/5
This is meant to be a witty adventure about stealing from the Nazis, but unfortunately it’s slow and talky and the talk isn’t really that clever or witty or even interesting, and the plot drags like a child who hates school on a snowy morning, I’m sure others will enjoy it, but I didn’t, and wished it was both better-written and heavily edited.

People of the Lake by Nick Scorza. 5/5
This is a great supernatural mystery for YA and adult readers, full of interesting twists and turns. Clara’s spending the summer with her dad in the small town he grew up in, but the locals are unfriendly and there’s a certain amount of local lore about ghosts and monsters. When Clara encounters the things that haunt the place and a local teen dies at a party, she, another outsider, and the dead boy’s ex-girlfriend team up to figure out what’s going unsaid about the town, its colonizing families, and the powers that lurk in the lake. The issues of colonization, racism, and forced/normate heterosexuality are handled very well, and the big finish is exciting and well-written. I do think the book would benefit by having a catchier title; “People of the Lake” is a bit meh.

The Rift by Rachael Craw. 5/5
This is a beautifully-crafted, -imagined, and -written novel. On an island that is home to a dimensional rift, the deer have magic in their antlers, the land is full of surprises, and the threat of giant Rift Hounds looms. Culled yearly, the deer are cared for by rangers who are often gifted with special sight, healing, and hearing powers. When Meg, a young woman, returns home to the island after many years away, she arrives at the same time as those who hunt the deer for a pharmaceutical company. This year’s cull, though, goes awry in multiple ways, leaving Meg and a group of apprentice rangers to help repair the island and save the herd. I absolutely loved the world-building here, the facts of magic without the trappings of sentimentality, and the story’s quick pace. Anyone who has liked Garth Nix, Margaret Killjoy, and similar authors will also enjoy this fantastic book.

Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die by Nikki Tate. 1/5
This was a disappointment, although to be fair, the author does warn readers that while writing the book, their own thoughts we all over the place. Unfortunately, those thoughts have yet to be edited into something coherent and readable. There are asides and asides to asides. There are examples without context. There is very little factual information about how the body dies. There is even less about legal matters. This should come off any shelves it is already on for a big round of editing, preferable starting with an outline and clear purpose.

Echoes by Ellen Datlow; Dale Bailey; Nathan Ballingrud; Aliette de Bodard; Richard Bowes; Pat Cadigan; Siobhan Carroll; F. Marion Crawford; Indrapramit Das; Terry Dowling; Brian Evenson; Gemma Files; Ford Madox Ford; Jeffrey Ford; Alice Hoffman; Carole Johnstone; Stephen Graham Jones; Richard Kadrey; John Langan; Alison Littlewood; Bracken Macleod; Nick Mamatas; Vincent J. Masterson; Seanan McGuire; Garth Nix; Joyce Carol Oates; M. Rickert; M. L. Siemienowicz; Lee Thomas; Paul Tremblay; A. C. Wise. 3/5
A solid collection of ghost stories, old and new. As with all collections, some of the stories are more effective and better than others, but overall the mix is decent. This could serve as a good introduction to writers like Seanan McGuire, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Hoffman, and Garth Nix for those not yet familiar with their work.

The Words I Never Wrote by Jane Thynne. 3/5
Two English sisters find themselves working against the Axis during WWII, but one is married to a Nazi while the other is a government spy, and neither knows what the other is doing. Not a bad story in itself; the framing device, though, set in the present, is tedious and boring to the point where it threatens to sink the entire novel. Skip the modern parts and read just the historical part.

Forgotten Bones by Vivian Barz. 2/5
This is a mash-up of a horror novel, a ghost story, and a police procedural, and the result is a hot mess. Little of the procedural part is rooted in reality; the plotting is lazy; and the characters are problematic at best–the author creates a mentally ill protagonist without, apparently, having any understanding of why #ownvoices matters and without consulting actual schizophrenics about their experiences. This might have been an ok book if it had gone through a diversity read and a heavy round of developmental editing, but as it is, I can’t recommend it.

The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre, translated by Stephanie Smee. 2/5
I know this has gotten rave reviews, but this short novel about a French translator who uses conversations she translates for the police to become a drug lord didn’t do much for me. The protagonist’s abrasiveness isn’t balanced by charm or wit, nor is the business she gets into particularly interesting or compelling. Mostly I felt sorry for her dog.

Foul Is Fair by Hannah Capin. 3/5
This novel adapts Macbeth as a revenge tragedy set at a California prep school. The putative Lady M and her coven members–three other young women–attend a party held by members of the school’s lacrosse team, where the narrator is drugged and raped. Vowing revenge, she changes her appearance and enrolls at their school in order to cause them to kill one another. She succeeds. The novels is extravagant and over-the-top, and has some commonalities with Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, in which she retells the story of Othello in a similarly short timeline and among schoolmates. Foul is Fair works as long as you read it as fantasy and don’t expect realism of any kind, which is a bit difficult at times because of the way the author tries hard to situate it in the real world. If you’re a fencer, expect to roll your eyes a lot: the fantasy even runs to that. Overall it’s a dark romp through Macbeth with a backstory and alternate POV, and might appeal to readers who already know the play well.

Give the Devil His Due by Sulari Gentill. 3/5
This mystery, set in Australia in the 1930s, follows a wealthy painter and his friends as they try to solve the mystery of an acquaintance’s death while managing relationships, creative work, and a charity car race. It’s an interesting enough snapshot of the time period and a decent mystery, but it doesn’t really make me want to read the other books in the series.

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams. 3/5
With the shadows and ghosts of the Alcotts and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in particular populating its pages, this novel captures a brief span in a young woman’s life during which her father, having been part of a failed self-sufficient utopia, decides to open a school. Recruiting a handful of girls for an experimental education, Caroline, her father Samuel, and teacher David embark on an adventure that turns sour as David’s pious wife arrives, spoiling Caroline’s hopes for a romance with David; and as one of the students, the daughter of Caroline’s long-deceased mother’s lover–begins to dictate the social order of the pupils. Finally, having fallen in to a mass hysteria, the girls are treated by one of Samuel’s former utopian colleagues, a doctor who decides that the students all just need to release their tension through “paroxysms”–or orgasms, manually stimulated by the doctor. In the end, Caroline decides that this is wrong, and leaves her father for city life.

The book is well-written and often beautiful and evocative, but the plot was too predictable for me, and the remove with which the author’s manner prose separates the reader and characters is too distant, and the characters too thin, for me to have gotten very invested in the outcome.

The Old Success by Martha Grimes. 2/5
While I thought the basics of this mystery, which involves a recent murder and a suspicious death in the past, were ok, I felt like I was dropping into a conversation in progress between several very close and insulated friends. Not having read Grimes’s other books in this series, I’m certain that I missed out by not knowing some of the references in the book or the series’s underlying arc. This installment, though, was not quite enjoyable or interesting enough to convince me to go to the beginning of the series and read the rest of the books. The characters aren’t particularly interesting to me, their processes rely heavily on connections and power rather than personal investigation, and the predominance of male characters in power over female characters in less powerful roles or as victims didn’t help.

The New Voices of Science Fiction by Nino Cipri; Darcie Little Badger; S. Qiouyi Lu; Sam J. Miller; Samantha Mills; Suzanne Palmer; Sarah Pinsker; Vina Jie-Min Prasad; David Erik Nelson; Kelly Robson; Amman Sabet; Jason Sanford; E. Lily Yu; Jamie Wahls; Alexander Weinstein. 5/5
This is a great collection of SFF by relatively new writers. While many of them have become well-established by now, getting major awards and big publishing deals, this is still a good introduction to the work of Rebecca Roanhorse, Amal El-Mohtar, Alice Sola Kim, Sam J. Miller, E. Lily Yu, Rich Larson, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker, Darcie Little Badger, S. Qiouyi Lu, Kelly Robson, and others. I love the diverse viewpoints and characters created by this group of writers and recommend this highly for anyone interested in the current state and trends of SFF and its future.

Lots of books: set on ocean liners, Asheville, WWI, and dystopias

Murder in Rat Alley by Mark de Castrique. 3/5
This is a solid mystery/thriller about two PIs, the local police department, the FBI, and very old secrets. While at first I though the author was pushing the Asheville names and places a little hard (in full disclosure, I grew up there), this eased off a bit as the action got underway. The characters aren’t terribly well developed, and the banter between Nakayla and romantic and PI partner Sam is often of the put-down kind, which I loathe, but most of the book is well-written and very cleverly conceived. I’ll be recommending the series to Asheville friends and family, as well as others who know the area well.

Can I Tell You About Dyscalculia? by Judy Hornigold. 1/5
I have dyscalculia, and I was hoping in this book to find a good resource–the kind I could have used when I was young. But it’s not to be. The definition of dyscalculia provided here is very limited, and doesn’t encompass the many forms of this neurodiverse condition. The advice is repetitive, and the recommendations for tools that help aren’t necessarily things young readers–or parents–might know about (“tens frames”?) I was also disappointed by the tone and by the overall leanings and activities of the book, which are to teach dyscalculic kids to find ways of working around their disability and to present as normate.

The Deep by Alma Katsu. 3/5
A nice little thriller about a woman who isn’t sure of who she is, imposter syndrome among the upper class, the Titanic, and the Britannic. A young woman flees home and takes a job as a stewardess on the Titanic, where she’s plagued by memories that don’t seem to be hers and demanding first-class passengers who believe in the occult. She survives, and takes a position as a nurse on the Britannic, where she encounters a man she knew from her earlier work. There are indeed supernatural forces afoot, and author Alma Katsu does a good job of keeping them concealed until the very end of the novel. A good blend of the historic, the what-if, and the outright fantastical, but a few plot holes do nag after the end.

The Green Years by Karen Wolff. 1/5
The story of a boy’s journey to manhood following the First World War, this novel isn’t terrible, but it’s boring. The characters are uniformly flat, and none of them seem capable of making decisions or thinking with any depth about the world, their lives, or anything else. None of them are very appealing, either, in part because they’re such stereotypes, and none are interesting or inspiring enough to make the reader to want to know what happens to them or what they do. The various events recounted don’t really constitute a plot, and none of them are particularly interesting or revealing or treated in unique ways.

A Cold Trail by Robert Dugoni. 1/5
Things I don’t want to read in any genre: Overly long sentences with too much detail in them; fat-shaming; sexism; ageism; stereotyping; dialect; rushing characterization; poorly organized paragraphs. This book has them all.

The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair by Margaret St. Clair. 4/5
I love these stories of the fantastic by Margaret St. Clair and wish they’d been more widely available sooner. Her writing is sharp and concise, and her stories are excellent forays into SFF, including the more human elements of the genre. The collection is marred only by a terrible and stiff introduction by Ramsey Campbell, who seems intent on telling readers that “male writers did it first” in regard to everything St. Clair wrote. So skip the intro and jump right into the stories.

Reverie by Ryan La Sala. 2/5
Set in the present, this novel follows a high school student finds that he’s missing large pieces of his memory. Trying to figure out exactly what happened to him, he discovers that he and others at his school can control rogue “reveries,” or fantastical situations and dreams that slip into the real world. Pitted against a world-hopping con artist and magician, the kids have to figure out how to end the reveries and save people from disappearing into them forever. The idea isn’t bad, but the writing isn’t clear and there are all sorts of unnecessary plot elements and distracting asides and such. It needs a developmental edit and a revision.

Beyond The Moon by Catherine Taylor. 4/5
I’m not usually a huge fan of time travel novels, but this one–in which a woman living in 2017 travels to 1917 and takes on the life of a woman killed in an automobile accident–avoids most of the predictable pitfalls of the genre. Louisa, in her 20s and mourning the recent death of her only family, is sectioned under British law and forced into an institution by the police. When she begins to explore the building, she finds her self slipping in time to the First World War, when it was used for wounded soldiers. She and a soldier fall in love, but she cannot be seen or heard by anyone else in the time period. After brutal treatment at the hands of the modern caretakers, however, she enters the past and makes her way in the world there, eventually uniting with her beloved in an exciting escape through time. A nicely written fantasy romance with good period detail and a total lack of fuss about paradoxes and so on. Give in to the fantasy, and enjoy.

Stories I Can’t Show My Mother by Ann Tinkham. 3/5
This collection is posited as erotic short stories, but the stories are more about abuses of hierarchy, power, and consent. They aren’t stories I couldn’t show my mother–they’re perfect as examples for case studies for gender studies classes, discussing power in relationships, #metoo, and other important issues.

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock. 4/5
This is a great YA book about child trafficking and immigration. Told through various viewpoints, including those of the child immigrant who is trafficked for manual labor, those who profit from his work, those who seek to stop trafficking, and others, the novel is set in a dystopian England where the poor are shuttered into enclaves, where cheap labor is used for all sorts of industry and business. After escaping from one abusive and exploitative situation, the primary protagonist seeks out other work and news of his mother, but ultimately–and heartbreakingly–returns back to his original place of life and work, reasoning it is better that the other options available to him. I recommend this for classrooms (grades 5 and up, maybe?), library book clubs and youth reading groups, and for kids and parents/guardians/family to read together.

Listen to the Wind by Susanne Dunlap. 3/5
This novel, the beginning of a series, traces the lives and traumas of two childhood friends who are unexpectedly separated and equally unexpectedly reunited, and those around them, including genial friars, evil monks, a rapist, his horrible mother, a loyal servant, and more. Set in the thirteenth century, the book is well-researched if somewhat purple in its prose. The plot is fine, although it is a bit cliched: a peasant girl disguises herself as a boy, then participates in a bed-trick, swapping places with her noble patron. The noble patron also disguises herself as a man in order to escape an arranged marriage and to be with her true love. A fine historical romance, just don’t expect complex characters or a lot of reason behind many of their actions.

Family of Origin by CJ Hauser. 2/5
I was looking forward to reading this because I’d enjoyed other work by the author, but I was disappointed. While the writing is solid and the concept of family is explored in depth here, I found the characters to be lacking depth and humanity. The supposed surprises and shocking events of the past are neither, and the characters’ many irrational ideas and actions came across as silly and foolish. The in medias res structure of the book–where there are flashbacks going increasingly far back from the book’s present–felt messy and over done. One or two major flashbacks, sure, but by the end of the book, the farthest-away flashbacks felt irrelevant and impeded the flow of the narrative.

The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills. 4/5
A good novel for elementary school readers. Like all of the women and girls in her Cree family, Shelly can catch ghosts in her hair. She and her grandmother do this for a living , with her grandmother leading and Shelly apprenticing. Together they catch the ghosts of people, pets, and even insects and send them on to whatever comes next. But when Shelly’s mom dies unexpectedly, her ghost doesn’t show up, and Shelly becomes anxious, scouring the graveyard and asking ghosts everywhere if they’ve seen her. The relationships between Shelly and her grandmother and the ghosts are full of honest emotion and well written for the target audience, and I liked the #ownvoices factor in the author’s use of Cree beliefs and customs..