Category Archives: Book reviews

Book reviews: Best of 2020

The past year’s 5-star books from Net Galley.

Fiction
Bear, Elizabeth. Machine.
Bojalian, Chris. Hour of the Witch.
Brooks, Max. Devolution.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Fledgling, Collected Stories (LOA #338).
Burdick, Serena. Find Me in Havana.
Campisi, Megan. Sin Eater.
Carlton, Susan Kaplan. In the Neighborhood of True.
Figueroa, Jamie. Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer
Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones.
Foxfire Fund, Inc. Foxfire Story.
Harris, Charlaine. The Russian Cage.
Hobson, Brandon. The Removed.
Johnson, Jeremy Robert. The Loop.
Jones, Cherie. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House.
Kampmann, Anja. High as the Waters Rise.
Kelly, Martha Hall. Sunflower Sisters.
Kern, Sim. Depart, Depart!
Khadra, Yasmina. Khalil.
Kingfisher, T. The Hollow Places.
Lemberg, R. B. The Four Profound Weaves.
von Lucadou, Julia . The High-Rise Diver.
Meek, James. To Calais, In Ordinary Time.
Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Mexican Gothic.
Murphy, Sara Flannery. Girl One.
Roanhorse, Rebecca. Black Sun.
Serizawa, Asako. Inheritors.
Strahan, Jonathan. The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1.
Stewart, Amy. Dear Miss Kopp.
Tudor, C. J. The Burning Girls.
Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty’s Mix-Tape.
Yu, E. Lily. On Fragile Waves.

Non-fiction
A History of Magic, Witchcraft, and the Occult. 5/5
Macdonald, Helen. Vesper Flights
Rubio, Salva, Pedro J. Colombo,and Aintzane Landa. The Photographer of Mauthausen.
Thomas, Rhonda Robinson. Call My Name, Clemson.
Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare’s Complete Sonnets.

Reviews: secrets, journeys, history

Dearest Josephine by Caroline George. 1/5
Not my cup of tea. The characters’ immaturity, oblivious consumption of material goods, and overall privilege turned me off immediately. The language of their emails was laughable and entirely unrealistic, and the author’s epistolary format feels forced and awkward. The story lines move slowly, and there are a lot of problems with historical accuracy. I think the target market is teens, but if I were a teen, I’d be embarrassed to read something that makes people my age seem so shallow and silly.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. 5/5
This is a devastating account of a family trying to make it from Indonesia to Australia, by boat, by plane, by truck–all on false passports and carrying the heavy weight of fear. Once the family–parents, a daughter, and a son–are confined to a camp for immigrants, where the full horrors of such places is exposed though the eyes and voices of children, who must watch their parents lose hope and voluntarily sedate themselves. Each victory seems to be dashed afterwards, leaving everyone uncertain and frightened. Poetic and compelling, Yu’s novel is an important read for just about everyone living in our modern world, with its deportations and detainments and the separation of families.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy. 5/5
This is a super book, a thoughtful meditation on technology and the media and identity and the power of women’s friendships and support for one another. Josephine and her sisters and an unlikely ally set out on an emotionally difficult and physically dangerous quest to locate Josephine’s mother; this turns into a mystery involving deception and the twisting of the truth and some very long car rides and a lovely romance. Given the issues of reproduction, sexuality, and gender roles and power that are the heart of the book, I think this will be a great choice for book clubs and literature classes.

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce. 3/5
I enjoyed this quick-paced historical novel set in 1920s Chicago among nightclubs and dancers and musicians, as well as organized crime figures and thugs. I’d like the framework to have been more robust and realistic: we don’t get a lot of information on Micheaux or exactly what the grad student protagonist is doing with is dissertation/documentary, and having that background and info would have helped make the story much more solid. There were some other glaring gaps in the making sense department, mostly in terms of character behavior, that suggest to me that the book could use one more careful edit before going to press. Overall, though, it will appeal to a wide range of readers.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones.5/5
This is a brutal indictment of how poverty begets violence, and violence begets poverty, and how the culture of violent, controlling masculinity damages not just those who experience the brunt of it but also the society at large that surrounds and feeds it. Jones’s novel delves deeply into the history of Barbados–its status as a colonized location and culture–and the history and functions of race and class and gender on the island. Nearly all of the characters have experienced trauma that informs their lives, and much of the plot relies on how each has coped–or not coped–with these traumas. Jones’s voice is clear and original and she is an excellent storyteller, and I think this will become essential reading in Caribbean literature.

Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly. 5/5
I really enjoyed this tightly plotted novel set during the Civil War that entwines the lives of abolitionist sisters in the North, a family of enslaved people on a Southern plantation, the spying plantation owner, and a large cast of supporting characters. Drawing on historical documents including the letters of the sisters, Kelly creates a rich and fascinating tapestry of how different women were involved in the War and how the War affected them. Kelly writes with sensitivity and realism about nursing, and the medical treatment of Civil War combatants; plantation work and its processes; how escaped enslaved people made their escapes and and were assisted along the way to freedom and how that freedom could be reified or snatched away; how social mores and attitudes changed over the course of the War; and how spycraft worked during the period. My only quibble is with the title, which cites a relatively small detail in the novel and makes it seem much lighter than it is.

The Burning Girls by C. J. Tudor. 5/5
This is a great little thriller with excellent twists. The characters are solid and feel very real, and the tensions supernatural belief and modern religion, parent-child love and romantic love, and secret-keeping and the duty to reveal truths are all compelling and create a welcome complexity to the story. If you like folklore, history, mystery, and/or coming of age stories, this is the book for you.

Reviews: Charlaine Harris, women’s history, and new horror

Queens of the Crusades by Alison Weir. 4/5
Written in Weir’s now well-known informative voice, this tome covers the lives of powerful women of the Plantagenet dynasty: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre; Isabella of Angoulême; Alienor of Provence; and Eleanor of Castile. While Eleanor of Aquitaine has had countless books written about her, it was refreshing to read one focused on the effects of the Crusades in her life, and I enjoyed learning more about the other women Weir includes in the book. For Weir’s fans, this will be a treat; for other readers seeking recent popular writing on the Plantagenets, it will also be a go-to book. Historians will argue with some sources and presentations.

Hijab And Red Lipstick by Yousra Imran. 1/5
This memoir is chatty but plodding, and there’s so much of the author not learning from her own past and not thinking about her actions that she became more irritating than sympathetic. I sympathize with women stuck in abusive cultures dominated by men, but there’s nothing in this particular book that offered any new insights or information about the culture in Saudi Arabia.

The Green and the Black by William Meikle. 2/5
With a good bit of editing and the removal of a LOT of adjectives and adverbs, this could be a good horror story. It has a lot of overlaps with Swamp Thing, though, to the extent that I’d be worried about copyright infringement. I did like many of the details, although the way the group behaved and spoke to one another was not terribly realistic, nor was the way archaeology was depicted.

Lurkers by Sandi Tan. 1/5
I can’t tell if this is a satire or not. In the beginning, we’re introduced to the terrible writing of a Korean pastor in the US. What follows could be his terrible stories. Are they supposed to be? Are they not? Everyone in the book is disaffected; they engage in risky behaviors for no apparent reason–in fact, most of what everyone does is for no reason. It’s a poorly-told tale of slightly overlapping lives of people who are all just total assholes.

The Empty Cell by Paulette Alden. 2/5
Oh, this started off so well! The beginning–depicting the lynching of a Black man in the American South–is strong and attention-grabbing and nuanced, and tightly written. But the drama of the beginning doesn’t continue. The author uses the lynching and trial as points of departure for multiple characters: a young woman, her gay father, a poor and abused Black woman. But these characters fall into stereotypes, and their lives become cliched rather than revelatory. Alma, a Black woman who helped raise the man who was lynched, leaves her abusive husband and goes to New York in search of a better life, but there too she’s abused and becomes an alcoholic, finally returning to the South in shame. Betsy leaves the South for New York where she has a Black lover; her attraction is complicated with white fragility and their relationship falls apart. This comes across like the author expects us to find their relationship daring and bold, but it’s just dysfunctional. Betsy’s father slowly emerges from the closet but it’s made very clear that he’s neither one of those “limp-wristed gays” nor interested in rough trade, no, he’s still a “man,” meaning: he passes for straight and that’s a good thing. Despite its opening, which promised a thoughtful novel about race, instead this book is a retread of Peyton Place.

The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven. 1/5
This is a book that wants to be a Wes Anderson movie, but lacks the awkward fleeting charm of even the bad ones. It tries very hard to be quirky and sinister and odd and beguiling, but it’s just rather dull. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and their woes and observations are mundane; everyone kind of slumps around flaccidly.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. 2/2
Did I just read this author call a Black person “dusky”? Come on. And did she title this book the exact same thing as a non-fiction account she used for reference? Yes, she did. The setting is enormously compelling and while the characters are rather two-dimensional, the plot, focusing on the events before, during, and after a horrific blizzard in Nebraska, isn’t terrible. I do think the whole thing should get a disability sensitivity read regarding limb difference and a race sensitivity read before it gets published, this will probably appeal to a wide swath of readers.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer by Jamie Figueroa. 5/5
Reading this is like watching an ornate and color-drenched panorama of personal drama and tragedy and love and resignation circle around you. It’s horrifying and joyous and moving and about survival and how dysfunctional families and lives can lead to self-sufficiency and resilience and at the same time cause depression and something that goes even beyond depression into death-like living. Highly recommended.

Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin. 3/5
This elegant and odd book is a bit of an enigma: there’s little plot but plenty of lovely description; interesting characters whose stories stop abruptly; and the author introduces a wonderful idea about how time layers itself onto place, but ultimately limits her use of it. Ultimately, this is a bit like a dream, and perhaps that’s what the author intended: specific details nestled inside a flimsier form. Anyone who has ever been captivated by the stories of the women visiting Versailles who claimed to have seen Marie Antoinette’s retinue in the 19th century or Jack Finney’s novels about time will probably enjoy this.

Burying the Dead by Lorraine Evans. 2/5
This book is on a fascinating topic, but it’s not well-written to the point where I nearly gave up. The author’s writing is disorganized on both the macro (paragraph) and micro (sentence) level. If you’re looking for an overview or burial practices around the world, I suppose it might offer some useful information, but for the vast majority of the cultures, practices, and sites included in the book, you’ll find better-written information on Wikipedia.

The Canterbury Murders by E.M. Powell. 3/5
A nice mystery set amidst the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral in 1177. I enjoyed the period detail and information, which was good for setting the scene but never overwhelming or too heavy-handed. The characters were well-developed and despite no having read the other books in this series, it was easy to pick up their relationship and history. The denouement felt a bit forced, but overall it was an enjoyable read.

The High-Rise Diver by Julia von Lucadou. 5/5
This is aa elegant and harrowing story of a dystopian world in which career success is all–quite literally–and in which quitting a job, dealing with burnout, or wanting a different life than what has been prescribed for you is unthinkable. Your job performance determines where you live, who you can date, what you eat, and more. This sounds like it’s heavy-handed, but it never is: Lucadou deftly creates a world with delicate strands of information and description, weaving a complex, shimmering picture of a terrifying world.

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts. 4/5
This is a scorching account of what it is like to be young, uncertain of one’s self, and moored in the climate crisis. The narrator seeks meaning and the ability to communicate through writing, but depression and a sense of nihilism send her into unfulfilling relationships, casual sex, and a steadily declining sense that life is worth living. And she’s not entirely wrong: when the country is on fire and no one seems to care, what do you do?

Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories (LOA #338) by Octavia Butler. 5/5
This is an essential volume in anyone’s collection of speculative fiction. These are some of Butler’s very best works, and also serve as an accessible entry into her writing. Kindred in particular should be on every high school reading list. I’m delighted to see this collection and hope that the rest of her books will receive the same treatment.

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten. 4/5
I really enjoyed this novel, a mix of psychological horror, the gothic, and physical danger. However, it contains a serious problem in the description of Brigitta: intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled, and non-vocal people are not “children in an adult body.” This is a pretty awful misconception, and I strongly urge the author and publisher to remove this ableist description of the character. Change this, and it would be a 5-star review.

Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick. 5/5
A beautifully-written and compelling novel based on a true story, this book will appeal to all kinds of readers. Estelita Rodriguez’s life is fascinating and tragic, and here author Burdick uses information from her interviews with Rodriguez’s daughter Nina to create a dialogue between mother and daughter that is honest and painful and revealing. Writing a novel about real people is difficult, and can often end up trite or superficial, but Burdick does an outstanding job of making this very real story meaningful and moving.

Dryad Vol. 1 by Kurtis Wiebe. 3/5
I liked this first installment of a new series. Dryad is action-packed, and the characters are interesting and complex. It’s got a heavy Saga vibe to it, but I think that as the story develops, it’ll become more independent–the seeds for originality are already there. The visual elements are great–I really enjoy the contrast between locations and factions. I’ll be looking for more of this.

Hex by Fran Hodgkins. 3/5
I loved the idea of this book–a girl learns how to make enchanted hex signs from her grandmother, and finds that magic has a cost, that even with magic she can’t control everything, and that communities need collaborative strength. But the writing isn’t polished, the plotting is obvious and jerky, and it needs a round of developmental editing to make it really shine.

Shapers of Worlds by Edward Willett. 2/5
I really wanted to like this collection, but although it’s got top-notch authors, most of the stories were duds. It’s as if someone had swept up the dullest pieces by each author and gathered them here. Many of the stories seem to have been dashed off by authors as filler for other books or magazines–I didn’t feel that any of them built or shaped much of a new world. A few had bits and pieces of interesting ideas or language or characters, but overall, this isn’t a collection I’d recommend.

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian. 5/5
This is a delicious book, full of fantastic detail and beautiful writing. Set in Boston in 1662, we follow the life of Mary Deerfield, a formidable young woman who seeks a better life for herself, first through legal means and then through careful and meticulous plotting and planning. The author deftly creates the world of the Puritans in North America, their beliefs and everyday lives and language, and offers up complex characters with realistic internal conflicts and desires. The novel explores power and social hierarchies, gender and sexuality, and the relationship between religion and abuse. Highly recommended.

The Comfort of Distance by Ryburn Dobbs. 1/5
Ah yes, another thriller featuring an awkward/autistic/neurodiverse genius. The over-fetishization of the main character’s “different/difficult” brain/behavior made me want to throw my Kindle across the room. The author’s technique, too, of using plain language for most characters and then switching to flowerier language for the protagonist was both painful and hilarious. We autistics and folks with anxiety don’t go around thinking of animals making noises stentoriously, and listening to Wagner is hardly a positive characteristic for anyone, not a marker of any kind of higher intelligence or rarefied tastes, And the behavior of other characters is laughable–it’s like the author has never spoken to therapists, police officers, or anyone else about what it is they actually do or how they do their jobs. This novel needed a heavy developmental edit, a sensitivity read or three, and a big rewrite.

Lore by Alexandra Bracken. 1/5
A lot of YA seems to be focused on immortal figures and/or youth who are trained to kill one another to protect their families; Lore is certainly well within this genre. While some of these are ok stories–because the characters are multidimensional, Lore is not. It’s boring. The characters aren’t particularly compelling, and the language is often stilted and at odds with itself–one moment trying to be current and fresh, then ext portentous and speaking of “the ancient tongue” and other cringe-worthy constructions. The action drags, and the gods–or their mortal forms–come across like villains from low-budget 70s movies. And there are other issues. Lore’s BFF is a “magical Negro.” None of the women in the houses or bloodlines ever rose up against the misogyny and abuse? Why is anyone accepting the idea of “bastardy” in the 21st century? Why isn’t Lore at least a little smarter? Why is the plot and info about it so repetitive? Why did I spend the time to finish this? I don’t know, but I can tell you: don’t bother.

Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology by S.B. Divya; Mur Lafferty; N.K. Jemisin; Cory Doctorow; Ken Liu. 3/5
A mixed bag of short pieces, drawn from the archives of the podcast Escape Pod. Some of these were familiar–they’ve been widely reprinted–and others were new. I enjoyed the stories by Cato, which was quite clever, Kowal, Kingfisher, and Jemisin, but a good many of the others were just meh.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. 2/5
This was a bit of a disappointment. I think the author is trying to make a bigger statement than she actually does–and the topic of women’s words and language is a very important topic! But her unwillingness to create real, lasting tension anywhere in the book diminishes the ideas she’s trying to communicate through the novel; problems are easily resolved with little fuss, unpleasant characters who cause problems disappear without much of an impact, the protagonist lives in a comfortable bubble–when the narrator does begin to address class and inequality, she draws away without much engagement. And the very end came as a rather nasty blow, with its hailing of white colonialism as a savior of indigenous Australian languages without noting the immense problems rooted in that attitude.

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
Charlaine Harris never fails to delight me. In this novel, the third to feature gunslinger-for-hire Lizbeth Rose, Lizbeth heads to the Holy Russian Empire–San Diego, to be precise–to spring her lover Eli Savarov from jail. But the job is complicated by politics, families, magic, and the fact that Lizbeth can’t legally carry guns in the Empire. I loved the development of returning characters, particularly Lizbeth’s sister Felicia, and the wonderful new characters who inhabit this book, Eli’s mother and sisters especially. Lizbeth’s voice is honest and plain and Harris’s storytelling is gold. Readers will probably want to read the previous two novels featuring Lizbeth before this one, as it relies pretty heavily on the events of the earlier books, but I do think it can stand alone as long as readers are willing to enjoy the ride and look into Lizbeth and Eli’s past adventures later.

Reviews: a great gothic novella for Halloween and much much more

The Blind Light by Stuart Evers. 2/5
I almost gave up on this, and am still not sure I shouldn’t have. This is a novel about time and trust and the slow building and erosion of that trust. Two men serve together and learn how to use each other, calling it friendship, and this using leads to betrayal. Their wives remain married to the men for protection and for stability–another kind of use. Their children learn to use and not use their parents, each other, friends. Ultimately, this is a dark and cynical novel, slow and often dull, with little to redeem it for the reader.

The Removed by Brandon Hobson. 5/5
The Removed is an incredible book, a book full of honesty and pain and the ethic of keeping on. It’s about dispossession and racism, and about youth and age in dialogue with one another. It’s got passages of sweeping magnificence and as mundane as describing litter, and it ‘s all woven together masterfully in a story that will resonate with me for a long time. The characters are real and flawed and their hopes are true and painful: there’s the daughter who lies to conceal her hurt and history, the gentle and awkward foster child, the wife watching her husband’s dementia whittle him away, the son who has to confront his fears and self-loathing. I felt for all of these characters, and I think other readers will feel for them too. This would be a great book for discussing along with a history of the Cherokee, US colonialism, and race in America today.

Thinking Again by Jan Morris. 2/5
There’s a point near the end of this book where Morris makes a comment along the lines of “perhaps I’ll regret this book” and yes, I think she will. Or maybe not: who knows? The book is a compilation of diary entries and, poorly edited, reads like someone found scraps of said entries blowing in the wind and tried to fix them all together. Morris’s trademark raconteur personal is on display, but often ill-advisiedly, and her tone, once a quasi-acceptable one (albeit given to imperialist apologizing), now feels ignorantly out of touch and lacking in compassion. But did Morris ever exhibit compassion before? I re-read some of her work after reading this, and realized that no, she’s always been brutal and has always written from her position of great privilege and dismissing those she’s deemed beneath her. So perhaps it isn’t so much that Morris will regret this book, but that I regret having read it.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht. 1/5
Oh my goodness was this dull and trite, and no amount of cute literary or pop culture jokes (like a character name Jeremy Brett and so many more) was going to help it. What we have here is a space opera that includes every trope and character type including the kitchen sink all packed into what I think the author wanted to be a fast and catchy romp. But it’s dragged down by all of the extraneous references and stock characters, and there’s not enough originality to get it off the ground.

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah. 4/5
This is a fascinating book about religion and community, telling the story of how one young woman finds comfort in religion and meaning in her life as she becomes a steadfast believer. Young Afaf sees her father become pious and her mother become cynical and depressed after the disappearance of Afaf’s older sister. And loose ends, Afaf first attends prayer services with her father and finds that the local religious community offers a version of the family support she craves. Years later, though, Afaf’s religion is exactly what causes a white man to target the girls’ school she runs, where he kills 14 students before encountering Afaf. The characters and their beliefs and struggles and actions feel very real, and I think this book could help teach tolerance and understanding between people of different faiths. I hope it gets picked up by book clubs and school reads.

Dangerous Women by Hope Adams. 4/5
This is a well-written and compelling historicization of an actual trip made by women convicted of crimes in England and transported to Australia, with a good solid murder mystery thrown in. The author does a good job of describing the difficulties of life for women at the time and how gendered laws and social conventions frequently forced them into crimes both small and large in order to survive. The account of women sewing on board made me look up the real quilt that was made–it is stunning. All in all, a good historical mystery.

Khalil by Yasmina Khadra. 5/5
Khalil takes the reader on a journey into understanding religious radicalization and the path out of it, documenting a young man’s fears and desires and his search for meaning in a world where few human lives are attributed with it. I want everyone to read this book, to try to understand what happens when religion is used for violence and violence becomes the only way someone can achieve recognition or–as many feel–can achieve something important. Khalil is every boy raised by and with violence and in poverty and without education, every young man who finds solace in a form of belief that includes the tenet that to act for the religion equals love from that religion’s god, and, perhaps more importantly, that god’s living representatives.

High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann. 5/5
This is a beautiful and intense meditation on grief and emotional trauma, full of difficult and brutal imagery and at the same time tenderness. Kampmann takes on troubled psyches and regrets amid fields of climate change and poverty; intimacy and distancing; and the value of life and labor. Waclaw’s journey from oil rig to oil rig and city to city illustrates the fragility of the world and of the individual within it. A harrowing, stunning read.

Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart. 5/5
The adventures of the Kopp sisters continue in a fascinating and fun new book. I’m usually leery of epistolary novels, but author Amy Stewart has proven that they don’t have to be stodgy–this one is lively and I Ioved reading Norma’s and Fleurette’s voices. Each Kopp is doing her bit for the war–Norma in France with pigeons, Fleurette touring military bases, and Constance working for what will become the FBI, recruiting and managing smart women as part of her work in seeking out domestic sabotage and other threats. It helps to have read previous Kopp sisters novels before reading this one, but don’t despair–if you haven’t yet, you’re in for a treat.

Portrait of Peril by Laura Joh Rowland. 1/5
I’d hoped that this series had improved since I read from it last, but no: the protagonist continues to be a shallow and often rather dim and conservative person, despite her continual protesting to the contrary. A main character goes missing, but you hardly notice, because his presence is never terribly interesting–he’s window-dressing made to make the books seem inclusive and their characters open-minded. People talk in exclamations and make dramatic statements, then never follow up, and in the end, I couldn’t care much about who did what when and to whom.

Winter Honeymoon: Stories by Jacob M. Appel. 4/5
Compelling stories about families, loss of control, generational relationships, and living through crises in America. Well-written, with interesting characters and dilemmas, all meant to make the reader think and remember and relate.

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken. 3/5
A collection of stories, many of them interlinked, in which characters confront the awkward truths of their lives, their relationships, and their desires. While some of the pieces featuring recurring characters become repetitive, there are also small gems in the collection, focusing on parenthood, marriage, and existential crisis.

A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León. 4/5
This is a great example of how what seems to be genre fiction–in this case, a thriller–can also serve as social commentary and education. Yolanda, an FBI agent, goes undercover with a Black organization that is seeking justice for the damage done to its community by a local industrial giant. The more she involves herself with the group, the more aware she becomes of why we need Black Lives Matter and other groups working for change.

The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths by Olivier Barde-Cabucon. 1/5
A Baroque mystery set among the powerful of pre-revolutionary France, this novel offers numerous famous and original characters, all of whom are unfortunately rather two-dimensional and boring. While the murder mystery at the heart of the book is is fairly well-constructed, the amount of extra baggage this novel carries weighs it down with gratuitous and over-written subplots and side plots. The Inspector himself is an incompetent and gullible figure with little internal interest–he’s perhaps the most cardboard of the characters. Numerous spies twirl in the orbit of the court, making for threads begun and not really ended; women are objects, even to characters who consider themselves above such considerations; and the entire novel is slow and ornamented to the point of ridiculousness.

Stel Parad by Lisa Menzel. 4/5
This is a dazzling and rich novel that careens from fever-dreams to police drama to exploration of spiritualities and beliefs in min-19th century America. It’s a novel to be read slowly and more than once, as multiple readings provide new insights into all of the connections the author makes across the novel’s many narrators and events.

The (Other) You by Joyce Carol Oates.2/5
A collection in which the inner lives of all of the characters are revealed to be miserable in the face of aging, full of regrets, secretly hating their friends and partners, and ready to die. Many of these intertwined stories ponder about paths not take, decisions that might have been made differently, and in each case, we read the flailings of disintegrating memory and hallucinations, bitterness and anger, and the desire to remain young and in control. AS a meditation on age, these are dark tales, but they are even darker if we consider them at all honest appraisals of humankind.

The Haunting of Beatrix Greene by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, Vicky Alvear Shecter. 4/5
This is a great little horror novel/ghost story in the tradition of M. R. James and all other things gothic. The characters and places are nicely detailed with depth and interest, and the hauntings have excellent layers and causes that the authors reveal slowly and deliciously. I’m not sure why the authors title it like a TV series (Season 1, Episode 1 and so on), but it’s true that it would make a great mini-series.

Reviews: Black Futures, The Photographer of Mauthausen, and more

Half Life by Jillian Cantor. 1/5
I really wish people writing about music and musicians had actual musicians read their work before publishing it. Most orchestras don’t call the pianist the “principal piano,” and being the pianist for an orchestra does not mean playing non-stop piano concertos with said orchestra. Not every piece is a “song.” Not every musician has or needs perfect pitch, and having it doesn’t automatically make you a good musician.

Now that I have that off my chest: this novel fictionalizes the life of Marie Curie and, in parallel, imagines a life for her–as Marya–had she not gone to Paris to study when she did. The author is clearly trying to create numerous parallels between these two lives, including having Marie’s sister Helena marry Jacques Curie in the version where Marya stays in Poland. Because of this very tight connection between the parallel worlds, though, the story is restricted in imagination and originality. The storytelling is a bit heavy-handed: it’s obvious from the start that Marya’s husband will cheat on her with Leokadia; that Marya will return to him; that Marya and Pierre Curie will feel attracted to one another; that the real-life affair between Marie and Paul Langevin will be mirrored by Pierre and Jeanne Langevin; and so on. Ultimately, the novel is a bit of a slog with few rewards.

The Photographer of Mauthausen written by Salva Rubio; drawn by Pedro J. Colombo; colored by Aintzane Landa. 5/5
This is an outstanding graphic novel about the power of testimony and the forms that testimony can take. Crafted with detail and attention and compellingly written, this book is an important contribution to literature about resistance and organization in WWII concentration camps, as well as an illustration on the need for historical accuracy, evidence, and documentation. This should not only be very well-received among regular graphic novel readers, but also those interested in WWII, the history of photography and journalism, and current activism. There’s some swearing and of course images of the atrocities of Mauthausen, but I’d recommend this nonetheless for readers ages 12 and up. I’d love to see it taught in schools and chosen by book clubs for meaningful discussion.

The Ravine by Wendy Lower. 2/5
This memoir follows the work of the author in seeking out more information about a devastating photograph of the murder of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War. The author’s explanations and descriptions of the war and its various entities is often simplistic, and while her writing about the power of photography and its use during the war and after is more engaging and informative, she remains at a distance in the narrative, even as she sifts fragments of human bone from a mass grave. The writing is often stilted and in the passive voice. I don’t know if this is to make the work seem more scholarly–it is non-fiction, but not scholarly at all–or because of her own lack of ease with the subject matter. Unfortunately, the book ends with tepid platitudes and is, as a whole, unsatisfying.

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser. 1/5
In this fairy tale, when a middle-aged woman is left by her husband, she discovers that she has inherited a house and its valuable contents in Scotland from a distant family member. Off she goes, Cinderella to the ball! Once in the house, she makes friends in the town and begins a friendship with the local bookseller, who happens to be rich and handsome, albeit emotionally very, very screwed up. The heroine wins him over and makes him want to be a better person, although why, I don’t know–he’s emotionally abusive and violent at times. But it’s a fairy tale, so apparently that doesn’t matter. And he promises to be better. Then he gets into a fistfight with his brother, but the heroine helps t hem reconcile. Did I mention it’s a fairy tale? In the end, everyone is happy. There’s a token Sassy Black Friend and Devoted Lesbian Couple, in place apparently to make the story more diverse than it really is: it’s about white, financially comfortable people having mid-life crises and overlooking really serious issues in other people in order to convince themselves that they are still sexy, still desirable, still valuable in a society that values those attributes. It was all kind of sad to read.

Black Futures by Kimberly Drew; Jenna Wortham. 4/5
An excellent collection of writing and art by Black artists on topics ranging from reparations to BLM to food cultures to music. This will be especially valuable for educational use and reading groups.

The Project by Courtney Summers. 2/5
A thriller about cults and belonging, in which the protagonist is an easily-swayed and not terribly smart young woman seeking her sister. A lot of plot elements don’t make a lot of sense, and the denouement was predictable. A round of developmental editing would have helped round out the characters more and made the author consider certain plot choices that seem arbitrary or irrelevant.

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day. 1/5
In a dystopian world where children are trained to become astronauts in their teens, protagonist June is a precocious, self-centered, thoughtless child who grows into a hubristic, self-centered, thoughtless, and reckless adult. Driven to show that she is always, always right and better, June rejects the critical necessity of teamwork in engineering in order to follow her own agenda, leading to the ends of others’ careers and health. In addition to having one of the least sympathetic narrators I’ve ever read, this book offers a view of engineering and science that is completely antithetical to the way those things should work. Engineers are unethical, withholding vital information; they keep deadly secrets in space; they behave like children. Perhaps this is intended as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let the cult of genius aggrandize itself unchecked, but I think the author genuinely thinks this is all heroic or realistic or something. Want good books about women in space? Go read The Calculating Stars and its sequels instead.

Riddle Field by Derek Thomas Dew. 1/5
While I appreciate that this collection of prose poems and poems may have been cathartic for the author, it’s not very good writing. There’s an overflowing of constant flowery language and a sense of desperation in trying to create images, and ultimately not much of it coheres. There is so much repetition that words and phrases become less effective and meaningful and turn into a drone to be ignored. I wish the author had gone a few rounds with an editor–or, if they did, had been able and willing to edit to develop a more honed work.

The Radium Girls: Young Readers’ Edition by Kate Moore. 1/5
To begin with, while newspapers of the times may have called the women who used radioactive paint to paint clock dials “radium girls,” we now live in a time when we should be calling them women, because they were. Many may have been young, yes, but they were still working women who don’t deserve to be remembered with the belittling name of “girls.” Moore used “girls” in her original edition of this book and does so even more in this “young readers’ edition,” and it’s disrespectful and infuriating.

I’ve read the non-young-readers’ edition of this book, and came away from this edition confused as to who the author and publisher think the young readers’ edition is for. The regular edition is perfectly fine for average readers ages 13 or so and up, and this young readers’ edition lifts whole passages out of it without change. At the at the same time, this new edition includes new text that is astonishingly condescending to readers of, say, 8 and older. So the target audience for this is very unclear. The cutesy material added to dial down the ages for the marketing of the book is pretty horrifying given the seriousness of the topic.

As in the original edition, too, the author spends a lot of time detailing how pretty the dial-painters were, as if their beauty is what made it so awful that they died in the ways that that did, rather than the fact that they were human beings who were routinely lied to in their workplaces. Whether their hairstyles were “cute” or their smiles “shy” is objectifying and irrelevant.

Finally, the writing just isn’t very good. It’s often repetitive and full of tired phrases and cliches, and not terribly compelling. The author introduces errors of scientific fact as well. I can’t in any good faith recommend this book or its original edition because of these myriad issues.

Olav Audunssøn by Sigrid Undset. 2/5
After reading the translator’s outstanding introduction to this I thought I’d be in for a treat, but alas the repetition and unending grinding of slow-moving plot points and relationships didn’t keep my attention.

Reviews: werewolf bites, hollow places, and a badass Final Girl

Kitty’s Mix-Tape by by Carrie Vaughn. 5/5
This is a fun collection of short stories set in the fabulous world of Kitty Neville, werewolf extraordinaire. Readers will enjoy stories of established characters like Rick, Kitty, and Ben, as well as stories involving new characters and settings. The stories are delicious small bites.

Call My Name, Clemson by Rhondda Robinson Thomas. 5/5
This is an outstanding work of scholarship, memoir, and call to action, documenting the enslaved persons on whose labor Clemson University was built and operated, the pervading institutional racism of the University, and the struggle of Black professors to hold the University accountable. Thomas’s Call My Name public history project is a groundbreaking collaborative work, and this is reflected in the essays and responses in this book. This is an essential read for anyone interested in social justice, racism, higher education, reparations, and grappling with American history.

The Girl Without a Name by Suzanne Goldring. 1/5
Dick–or Stevie (why does this man have two names?)–has a stroke, and in trying to help him recover by talking about his past, his daughter tries to figure out why he has a photo of an unknown young woman. She thinks she finds out, but she doesn’t. In flashbacks, the reader learns that her dad was, in fact, a dick, manipulating women and using them as a way to cope with PTSD. The mystery woman, we also learn in flashbacks, was an almost unbelievably naive and simple person who yearns after Dick/Stevie for most of her life, until he leaves her to die and she finally gets a clue. Told in very simple and bland language, this novel seems as though it was written specifically for an audience of new adult readers, but it’s not the kind of book to get anyone hooked on reading.

Unmarried Women of the Country Estate by Charlotte Furness. 1/5
This is a well-intentioned book that is also, unfortunately an object lesson in what happens when writers without training in history, gender studies, or related fields take on complex historical matters. Author Furness uses mostly primary sources, largely ignoring the vast and important body of scholarly literature already about this topic. Furness’s long quotes from the primary sources go uncontextualized; the author often simply sums these up by simply stating that they are important, but never delves into why they are important, leaving these claims unexplored and unsupported. The lives of these women are important–as many historians have written. I wish Furness had read their work before or while writing this.

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare by Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. 5/5
This is an excellent resource for educators and anyone interested in Shakespeare. The editors provide thoughtful and up-to-date commentary on the sonnets and their origins, and a carefully glossed presentation of each sonnet to assist readers.

The Cry of the Lake by Charlie Tyler. 2/5
Described in the blurb as a thriller, this novel is in truth a complicated revenge story in which a traumatized, manipulated girl creates an entirely fictitious identity for herself and her (also traumatized) sister, meticulously planning to frame a man for murder. The hand of the author as deus ex machina is a bit too obvious throughout, and there’s very little feeling of true tension as to whether the wrongdoers will be caught and punished, or the innocent vindicated and helped. The characters are out of melodrama, and those whose actions and behaviors are truly odd are never viewed as such by those around them, which detracts from any sense of reality.

Last Cast at a Baggage Auction by Eric J. Guignard. 2/5
Dear authors, you know, when you set a book in the past, a past when people often used homophobic and transphobic terms in everyday conversation, that doesn’t mean that YOU need to use those terms in your characters’ conversations. You can establish the setting in ways that don’t perpetuate harm. The protagonist in this novella is a crude, immature jerk, which is too bad because his being so has no real role or purpose in the overall premise, which is a pretty good one involving the intersection of technology and the supernatural.

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow. 3/5
This is a book that preaches to the choir. If you understand everything Doctorow writes about here in terms of cybersecurity and government ops and private industry-as government, then it’s a mostly fun ride through the chaos of modern warfare and political force while watching the narrator develop a conscience, or at least kind of a conscience. If you don’t know much about this, then you might find this hard going. It could be educational, which I think is one of Doctorow’s motives in publishing it, but you’ll still need other sources on ethical hacking and related topics.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong. 3/5
Former lovers who are the scions of their families’ gangs team up to fight a supernatural monster in 1920s Shanghai. Using Romeo and Juliet as inspiration, this novel is full of Shakespearean easter eggs for those in the know, and a fine creature-horror read for those who aren’t. The author does a nice job weaving together the supernatural, political, and personal strands of the story, and captures the complexity of the time period well. Many of the characters, though, are undeveloped sketches, and I could have done without the cliched ending of “but wait, there’s more,” especially I don’t think a continuation is necessary or even the best route to take with the premise.

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson. 5/5
I read this in a blaze–not because it was bad, but because it is a fantastic ride of a horror story of the creature variety, with fights and twists and poignant moments and some very true high school student behaviors and a Final Girl to blow away all other Final Girls. In a small town in Oregon, the local med-tech company starts experimenting on high school students, and as you’d expect, things do not go well. Altered students rampage, killing and infecting the town, while adults fall into induced comas, only to be murdered by said students. Lucia, who has been a survivor all her life, leads a handful of friends though a harrowing pursuit as they seek shelter and safety. It’s a terrific race against attackers and time to the very last page. If you like horror, creatures, conspiracies, big business gone bad, people getting their comeuppances, and Strong Female Protagonists, you’re going to love this.

Machine by Elizabeth Bear. 5/5
A space opera the incorporates aliens, the Marie Celeste, hospital drama, disability, sabotage, and jumping through space–Machine has it all. Bear brings disability and physical otherness to the fore with her openly disabled protagonist, Dr. Jens, and the many different other forms of sapient life aboard the ambulance and hospital where they work in space. All of the various threads and themes of the novel are beautifully woven together, and the result is a thriller that is a blast to read.

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. 5/5
The Hollow Places is a wonderfully spooky delight. Kara and Simon show that you can be both from the American South and intelligent and SFF fans. I love that they have this experience together–that this isn’t one of those novels where only one character has a strange experience that can never be believed or understood by anyone else. I love that their relationship is one of growing friendship, and that romance is off the table. I love the realness and honesty of all of the characters’ voices I love the consideration of how things in one world or dimension have consequences in another, eve if it’s as seemingly small as missing work–no “and when we got back, only 5 minutes had passed!” tricks here. The atmospheres of the two worlds Kara and Simon experience are beautifully crafted and written, and the Hollow Places are scary as hell.

Body Talk by Kelly Jensen. 3/5
This is a collection of essays by people with bodily differences and disabilities for disabled or bodily different readers. The authors include writers and advocates and activists, musicians and actors and others, all of whom share their experiences with their bodies in a society where they are treated as Other. Topics range from body positivity and fat acceptance to gender identity, from using makeup to scoliosis, from eating dosorders to paralysis. Many of the essays are good–well-written and compelling. Others are weaker, and there is repetition among the essays that probably should have been avoided. But overall, this is an appropriate collection for readers who are unaware or only somewhat aware of how society treats bodily difference and how the different or disabled experience society.

The Conductors by Nicole Glover. 3/5
A nice historical mystery, with magic added in. Hattie and Benjy are former enslaved people who have worked as Conductors on the Underground Railroad–guides with magical powers who helped other enslaver people escape to the North. Now settled in Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Civil War, they are called on to help newly arrived freed people and solve mysteries. In this novel the couple is faced with a killer who marks their victims with magic commonly thought of as “cursed,” and find their own friends and relatives targeted for violence. An interesting concept, and the characters–who are initially somewhat unlikeable–develop and become more interesting and sympathetic as the story progresses.

The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan. 1/5
In this mannered, 1950s-styled novel, a Bletchley Park alumna-turned-informal-spy and her husband, reunited after WWII, seek out a Soviet spy amidst the churches of London. The woman has poor communication skills, loves churches more than her husband, and is oblivious about many things, despite being called a person with great observation and pattern-finding skills; her husband is jealous, a chauvinist, and has poor communication skills; this is not a functional relationship and throughout I kept telling the woman to leave, but she didn’t. There is a lot of pressing of hands and bodies before dramatic turning away from each other, all very 1940s novels kinds of things. The spy hunt also lacks drama or much interest, and of course the spy is found to be close to home for the protagonists.

Reviews: New SFF, the cities we live in, and drama

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 ed. Jonathan Strahan. 5/5
An excellent collection of short SFF stories from writers who are now very well known and others who deserve to be. What’s especially nice about this anthology is the inclusion of stories by famous authors that haven’t been widely anthologized elsewhere, and that play against the author’s type a little bit. Strahan’s introduction is long and repetitive, and could have used considerable editing, but you can skip it and get right to the stories.

The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan. 1/5
In this mannered, 1950s-styled novel, a Bletchley Park alumna-turned-informal-spy and her husband, reunited after WWII, seek out a Soviet spy amidst the churches of London. The woman has poor communication skills, loves churches more than her husband, and is oblivious about many things, despite being called a person with great observation and pattern-finding skills; her husband is jealous, a chauvinist, and has poor communication skills; this is not a functional relationship and throughout I kept telling the woman to leave, but she didn’t. There is a lot of pressing of hands and bodies before dramatic turning away from each other, all very 1940s novels kinds of things. The spy hunt also lacks drama or much interest, and of course the spy is found to be close to home for the protagonists.

The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister. 1/5
In this novel, told through a courtroom drama and flashbacks, a young woman is in trial for the death of one of her companions in a catastrophically bad expedition to the Arctic. Virginia Reeves is hired by a wealthy woman whose husband and his crew have disappeared in the Arctic. Reeves’s background is as a guide for colonists in the American West, which does not make her the right person to lead this expedition, as the novel shows: she’s not a good leader or planner in almost every situation the author throws at her. Ultimately, members of the expedition die, Reeves is charged, and as her trial takes place, various secrets come to light. For a book about the Arctic, there’s remarkably little about the expedition’s time there; and there’s nothing that gives us any indication of why Reeves gets her nickname of “The Arctic Fury.” There’s even less about most of the other expedition members, and not nearly enough about their relationships to get any real sense of how they all operated together, or why these relationships cause such hand-wringing in Reeves’s mind. In short, this is a novel trying, perhaps, to be a bit gothic, but which just left me wondering why all of the characters were so incompetent and why I should care about any of them.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. 5/5
Black Sun is the first in a series, a powerful and compelling introduction to a SFF world based on the cultures, cities, and religions of indigenous, Pre-Columbian American civilizations. Full of detail and depth and complex, conflicted characters, it is written with great skill and beautiful timing and plotting. Everything about this feels real and immediate, and there is so much more I can’t wait to learn about the cultures presented here, the characters, and, of course, what happens next. The book ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, albeit one constructed so well that it also feels like an appropriate point to pause, so be prepared. But go read it, right now.

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars; Kurt Kohlstedt. 3/5
A nicely illustrated overview of basic architectural and civil engineering objects and design in use in modern cities, this book offers short histories and vignettes about relay stations, urban reuse, warning symbols, manhole covers, and other things we encounter in daily city life. The histories are interesting enough, but rarely include the systemic issues that have contributed to the reasons for why many things as they are; a notable omission is the fact that overpasses across the Southern State Parkway were designed to keep buses (implicitly only used by BIPOC) from accessing the beaches the Parkway went to. A section on water fountains focuses on those in the UK, sidestepping discussion of the segregated fountains of Jim Crow America. Coverage of claiming stakes in the 1800s in the US briefly mentions that the “government began to force indigenous peoples into an area called Indian Territory [….] later, tribes were again forced to relocate.” This wasn’t relocation: it was genocide. There *is* a section of curb cuts, a major accessibility issue, but it treats disability activists as inspiration porn. Overall, this is a pleasant and interesting but a bit superficial book; those who enjoy it will want to search out more detailed and nuanced materials for further reading.

Warmaidens by Kelly Coon. 2/5
I really enjoyed Coon’s Gravemaidens, the first book in this series, so I eagerly anticipated this sequel. It was, however, a disappointment. The plot is a a bit of a retread of the first book–remove the evil despot–and the characters are universally flat. They’ve all been saddled with new abilities as well as each now having a more significant flaw, but it feels like these attributes have been added as if the characters leveled up, like in D&D. The characters experience failure after failure, and while failure is great for plot, the characters need to be learning from those failures–and these never seem to do that, which is enormously frustrating. While it’s good to see that the feminist ethos of the first book is still very present, it feels much more self-conscious in this volume, often expressed through interior character monologues rather than by actions and actual conversations between characters. In addition, readers will not be able to understand what’s happening in this book, from plot to character development and relationships, without having read the first book.

Best of Summer Reading, Part 1

A quick round-up of my 5-star books for the summer so far:

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.

Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.

This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.

Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. 5/5
Uncrowned Queen is an excellent biography of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and a savvy political figure active in the Wars of the Roses. Thoroughly researched, the book is an entertaining and detailed read, and Tallis does a great job of making all of the often complicated bloodlines and inheritances clear and relevant. Readers interested in the Tudors and their history will enjoy this account of Margaret’s careful planning and plots to install her son on the throne, as well as the detail Tallis provides on Margaret’s estates, clothes, and jewelry, all managed and and used for specific purposes to secure her life, that of her her heir, and her freedom and positions over the course of her life.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. 5/5
This is a luminous book, a guide to Macdonald’s life and ways of thinking, and, along, the way, a meditation on birds and nature and change and cows and falcons and deer. I can’t wait to be able to give this book to people who love words and nature and will savor every poetic phrase and observation.

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa. 5/5
A stunning and magnificent book about World War II in Japan and America that everyone should read. Serizawa’s writing is beautiful, brash, and wholly enthralling as she charts the emotions and reactions and relationships that touch on one Japanese family over many generations. Serizawa’s tiny details, a sense or proportion, and the ability to write unflinchingly about horror and trauma make this book outstanding.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
A gorgeous Gothic novel full of the traditional elements of the genre, expertly handled and made interesting and new again. Moreno-Garcia gives readers a lot of hints throughout, but while they were obvious it never felt too heavy-handed. Her use of characters who can communicate in both English and Spanish, keeping non-Spanish speakers from understanding, was a good device, but could have been more powerful if she’d replaced Spanish with an indigenous language to further emphasize difference and the eugenicist beliefs of certain characters. The novel serves as a fantastic allegory for colonization and corruption.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna. 5/5
This is a wonderful book about the power of women and allyship and playing the long game to achieve something truly spectacular. Young women, ostracized from their communities, are trained as warriors….but when the biggest battle comes, there is a startling and liberating secret that has to come out. I loved this book, which draws from West African myth and lore, has well-developed and diverse characters, and is masterpiece of layered stories and motivations.

Devolution by Max Brooks. 5/5
Having taken on zombies in World War Z, Max Brooks now tackles Bigfoot/Sasquatch in his new novel. Like World War Z, Devolution is structured as a journalistic account, using interviews, diaries, and other materials from the world of the novel to create a fast-paced and compelling thriller about one so-called utopia and how its residents handle the arrival of aggressive and hungry Sasquatch after Mount Rainier erupts. The characters are deftly created, and I appreciated the fact that women were the main characters and leaders of the group. Anyone who has enjoyed Brooks’s other work, likes dystopias or apocalyptic settings, or likes tales of the unknown will get a kick out of this fun and clever book.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek. 5/5
An astonishing and brilliant book intended to–and effective at–capturing the world and language of late 14th-century England. A former priest, an archer, and a noblewoman on the run find themselves traveling together to Calais in a time of plague, war, and uncertainty. Exploring social mores, religious belief, gender, sexuality, politics, and more, Meek creates a wondrous tale of resistance and persistence.

Book reviews: In the Neighborhood of True and more

Interstellar Flight Magazine Best of Year One by Edited by Holly Lyn Walrath. 3/5
Interstellar is a new speculative publication, and this collection gathers numerous pieces from their first year in operation. It’s a bit of a mix, quality-wise. While the interviews are great, some of the essays could have used more polishing prior to their initial publication; others require more contextualization for inclusion as stand-alone pieces here. As the magazine continues, I’d like to see more collections like this, but less of the unedited fan appreciation essays and more pieces that are a little deeper, more thoughtful, and more nuanced.

Enemy Rising by C. J. Fisher. 1/5
This is one of those books that has an interesting idea that is full of potential–zombies in an alternate-universe Colonial India–but needs a lot more work before going out into the world. The dialogue is just not good: it changes tone frequently, is full of random emotional changes, and is stilted and tells too much. Overall, it needs more showing and less telling, and each chapter could benefit from outlining for clarity and plot. followed by rewriting. I’d love for this to get a big developmental edit and a copyedit–there are punctuation issues galore–before being published. I can read the book it could become in this version, but it needs a lot of work to get there.

After Sundown by Mark Morris (Editor). 2/5
This collection of horror is a mixed bag. A few pieces stood out as truly excellent, among them “Swanskin” by Alison Littlewood and Simon Bestwick’s M. R. Jamesian “We All Come Home.” Other authors had good ideas but couldn’t figure out quite what to do with them, as evinced in C. J. Tudor’s “Butterfly Island,” in which the ending feels unsatisfactory. I was horrified and appalled, though, by Michael Marshall Smith’s “It Doesn’t Feel Right,” which uses stereotyped symptoms of autism to represent monstrosity among children. I am autistic, and I strongly recommend that this chapter be removed from the volume. It is exactly the kind of misrepresentation that so many of us in the SFF community are working against. Otherwise, it’s a fine if not stellar collection.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. 2/5
I think this book is intended to be heartwarming, the kind of book people love because it has quirky characters who have seemingly overcome impossible conditions and survived if not triumphed nonetheless. But I found it an enormously sad book, peopled with individuals whose decisions, not always based on reason, led them into misery. The author’s use of trauma as a plot device isn’t uncommon, but I don’t think it’s handled well here, especially in regard to the PTSD suffered by a minor character whose role, quite honestly, does nothing to serve the book and could be removed. While the characters’ adventures and development was good , I never found their ultimate relationship of close friends convincing, at least not on the part of the Miss Benson of the title, and I found the conclusion of Enid’s story to be a convenient cop-out along the lines of “and then I woke up!”

Interviewing the Dead by David Field. 2/5
In this mystery, a Wesleyan clergyman and two scientists team up to solve a mystery involving apparent apparitions and deaths in London. While the mystery itself is interesting, the characters are a bit over the top in terms of speech and action and never quite come together as realistic, remaining stereotypes throughout. A romance between the clergyman and one of the scientists feels forced and unnecessary.

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.

Book reviews: super awesome #OwnVoices lit and more

Here at Dawn by Beau Taplin. 1/5
Inspirational and instructional poetry in the vein of advice from people who have never experienced severe depression, who think that everyone believes in god, and that their own experiences and slight reworkings of cliched phrases are valuable. The prose poem about sex could have been lifted from a bad Cosmo column from the 1980s, the constant “pick yourself up/change you life/embrace joy” maxims are tired and wearying, and the language is pedestrian, with sentiment off in the maudlin woods far too often to entrance.

The Skylark’s Song by J.M. Frey. 1/5
An uncomfortably romanticized account of a woman’s relationships with men, both supposed friends and enemies, who assume that bodies and physical actions can and should be traded for other favors or help, and an even more romanticized example of how Stockholm Syndrome might develop between a captor and a prisoner. The book does demonstrate how women can be pushed into such trading and psychological states. In more specifics, the novel recreates the French-German part of WWII in a fantasy world with names borrowed from Canadian place names, albeit without doing the work of acknowledging the origins or settler-colonialist histories of them. The author may be enthusiastic about steampunk and having written the book on a bet, but neither is to be celebrated in this poorly thought-out pastiche.

Daughters of Darkness by Sally Spencer. 1/5
A PI-centered mystery novel, this book is an excellent example for English instructors who tell students to “show, not tell” in their writing: this book is 100% about telling and not showing, and as a result is boring and plodding.

The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green. 1/5
This is a locked-room murder mystery, with the added quirks of the narrator being an alien and the setting a supposedly haunted house. The mystery of the murder is predictable and easy and pointless, while the haunted house part serves to propel–possibly? in a tiny way?–the narrator’s multi-book arc about finding more of his own kind. The characters are flat and ridiculously, badly gendered, the narrator himself is an unappealing, condescending jerk, and the entire book is mostly banal talk and little action.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg. 4/5
A collection of sometimes intertwined stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is poetic, a book for which slow reading is necessary and worthwhile. Van den Berg’s deft writing is for savoring and rereading on the page in order to fully appreciate the craft. The plots, such as they are, are nebulous and unresolved, and the characters equally wispy, their motivations unclear, their specific experiences undetailed to a point of dissatisfaction. But the themes of each piece are powerful and ever-present: violence, homelessness, power; this amalgamation of the concrete and the unsettling is what makes these stories succeed, both individually, and with their occasional linkages.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang. 4/5
Bestiary is a raw and unflinching examination of parental violence and psychological warfare, the fighting of self against history and trauma, and the ways in which co-dependency becomes anger and hatred and inability to live at ease. It tells intergenerational stories of fact mingled with folklore, blended with history and escapism. Throughout there is beautiful writing and heart-breaking writing and writing about disgust and disgusting things, and at times I wasn’t sure if this rollercoaster would make me feel exhilarated or make me nauseated, but I persevered, and found the experience worthwhile.

The Night Witches by By Garth Ennis and Russ Braun. 2/5
This graphic novel about the Soviet Union’s legendary “Night Witches”–crack aviators who fought against Germany in the Second World War–follows several women who join, train, and fight. Written and drawn in a traditional, fairly realistic style, the content will be difficult for some readers. There’s a military leader forcing one of his men to rape a woman, suicide, a medic biting through a man’s arm to try to save him, the eating of a dog,
It’s a very “talky” comic, with a lot of telling and less showing: panels are often crowded with speech balloons to the detriment of allowing the art to function as an equal. And the book engages in the use of fake Cyrillic lettering, an annoying affectation. The dialogue often includes slang from British culture, which makes it seem less realistic and jarring in context. The Afterword to the book is perhaps its greatest strength, offering readers information on the history of the Night Witches and air warfare, although readers should be warned that it glorifies such warfare.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley. 2/5
In this non-fiction work, author Stanley chronicles the life of a Japanese woman in the 1800s based on the woman’s voluminous correspondence with her family members. But the book focuses on standard descriptions of places and events, and there’s actually very little material that quotes these letters directly. The result is a book that drags and is full of historical material that I could read in any book about Japan during this time. The author missed a big opportunity in not letting her subject’s own voice lead the narrative.

A History of Magic, Witchcraft, and the Occult. 5/5
A lavishly illustrated introduction to magic and ritual around the world, this volume provides historical context and information for those seeking basic information, and offers details of documents, objects, and art depicting magic for those interested in more detail or visual inspiration. Accessible and informative commentary accompanies each image and provides an overview of various topics in the history of magic.

A Choir of Crows by Candace Robb. 2/5
A new installment in a series set in medieval York featuring the town’s clergy and an investigator and his family. A slow and cliched start that never really picked up made this a bit of a slog. Readers of earlier books in the series might enjoy it more, but I found the characters a bit dull and the dialogue uneven in its approach to seeming both from a different time and still contemporary.

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.

Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.

This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.

The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson. 4/5
An eminently readable and detailed book about four men involved with the development of the OSS/CIA at the end of the second World War and through the first decade of the Cold War. Anderson includes information about specific operations and spies, the tradecraft of the day, and the interaction between the CIA and the politicians who worked with or against it. Anderson is careful to remind readers about who’s who as the telling of this history becomes more complex, always making sure that his writing is clear and easy to follow. Limited in its focus by design, it’s a good read for those interested in this point in world history or the art of spying in general.

Bernard of Clairvaux by Brian Patrick McGuire. 4/5
This is a very personal book about Bernard of Clairvaux, his time period and politics, and the author’s relationship with Bernard as a historical figure. Clearly written and designed for general audiences, this biography delves into church factions, warring kings and dukes, and complex social issues with elegance and ease. It’s a great introduction to the medieval in Western Europe and its influential figures.

A Demon-Haunted Land by Monica Black. 4/5
This excellent study of belief in faith healing and witchcraft in the immediate post-WWII era in Germany is a fascinating read complete with intrigue, denazification, schemers, and thousands of people desperate to believe in anything to get past war injuries, trauma, and guilt. Relying on primary sources and previous scholarship, Black crafts a detailed account of the postwar psyche, seeking to heal from the past even as many used wartime connections and power to create new opportunities for themselves. Written in an accessible manner for general readers, this would be terrific for book club or similar read-and-discuss forum.