Category Archives: Book reviews

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..

Books and other doors to other worlds

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. 4/5
A lovely fantasy novel. January has grown up the ward of a rich many who supports archaeology and is always seeking the rarest things for his collection. He employs January’s father, who goes to remote locations hunting such things, or so January thinks until the day her father manages to send her his autobiography. In it, he explains that the world is full of doors that open into other worlds, and that many of them are inhabited; he himself is from such a world, and his travels hide his true purpose: to find January’s mother, lost in a different world. Not only does January believe in this, she realizes that she has a special gift: she can create such doors and move through them. As such, she’s very valuable to her guardian and his friends, who are unpleasant and supernatural, and there’s a long chase right out of one of January’s beloved pulp novels in which she must get away, find her father, and protect her friends–one of whom is also from another world, and does quite a lot of protecting of January herself–before the bad guys get hold of her. I loved the descriptions of the other worlds, and the characters, while not as deep as I’d have liked, were engaging enough.

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff. 3/5
A good post-apocalyptic, people-eating zombie novel set in Ireland and on one of its offshore islands. Orpen, her Mam, and Maeve, her Mam’s lover, live mostly safely on their small island after a zombie plague kills off most of the world. Maeve trains Orpen on combat; Mam teachers her about medicinal herbs. When Mam and Maeve must travel to the island, Orpen, still a small child, fends for herself. Mam comes back infected, and Maeve forces Orpen to begin making the hard decisions and even harder actions her life now requires.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. 4/5
A meditative book on grief and loss and the necessity of communication. When Edward, 12, is the sole survivor of the plane crash that killed 191 other people–including all of his immediate family–he’s taken in by his distant aunt and uncle. He soon builds a family of his own, though, and eventually discovers why his own family has been so remote. While Edward’s story progresses, the stories of the rest of the passengers on the flight also move forward in small minutes and large actions, until we understand that they too–like us all–need to be able to communicate with one another. The dreamy and fairy-tale like qualities of the writing sometimes deflect from the harsh realities that the characters face, but I think most readers will want that gentleness, given the subject matter.

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot. 4/5
An utterly engaging and intriguing narrative of poems about a child–later a young woman–and her ability to see beauty in death, despite the social and familial pressures not to do so. The writing is evocative and visual–and visceral–and the reading experience that it provides is unique and lasting.

Book review: Poetry, the Kopp sisters, graphic novels, and the outstanding Rebel Girls

Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein. 2/5
This fantasy novel started off with promise and some beautiful writing: in a grove in the woods, a girl incorporates a sprite into her body, and has to learn to control it and when to let it take control. The grove is owned by her great-aunt, a recluse who write a best-selling fantasy novel herself but became plagued by fans and hides from them. So far, so good. But then the story’s development gets unfocused and the writing changes, becoming flat and dull, and the plot becomes ever-more complicated and full of nonsensical actions on the parts of the characters, who also fail to develop beyond the two-dimensional. The sprite-carrying protagonist soon finds her life infiltrated by an obsessed fan of her great-aunt; soon the fan has killed Ivy’s dad and taken over control of Ivy and her three younger sisters, Ivy leaves, and there are gaps in the story where she simply says “years went by.” The sprite in her body comes and goes in mentions so inconsistently it’s as if it’s not really part of the story, and Ivy’s sisters, the evil guardian, and other characters do seemingly random and bizarre things that are unrelated, or, equally strangely, pick up conversations ended seemingly months or years before as if nothing had intervened. The book reads like it needed a lot more developmental editing and another year or two to be fully cooked.

The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois. 1/5
This novel, intended possibly as a latter-day, more grotesque Lord of the Flies, is unfortunately poorly written . badly conceived, and almost unreadable. I don’t know what the intended audience is, I can’t tell what the purpose of some of the asides are, and I can’t figure out why anyone published this as it is. I thought perhaps it was the translation that is bad, but I read a few passages of the original French online, and it’s terrible too. Don’t bother with this one.

The Library of Lost Things by Laura Taylor Namey. 5/5
This is an outstanding YA book in which–and I am grateful–no one gets pregnant or raped or is a cutter or drinks too much, but in which young adults are smart and thoughtful and good friends to one another and deal with challenges and problems with honesty and humor and intelligence. Darcy is a reader with an unusually good memory; her best friend Marisol is the only person who knows that Darcy is also dealing with a mother who is a hoarder, a manipulative grandmother, and the stress of trying to keep the landlord and property manager out of the apartment she shares with her mom, which is packed high with hoarded stuff. In her last year of high school, Darcy is forced to deal with all of these things, and survives, and even blooms, thanks to Marisol and a new friend, Asher, who is recovering from a car accident and has trauma of his own. There’s a slow-burn romance, a reckoning with the grandmother and mother, and more, as Darcy grows into a stronger and better-equipped adult.

A Midnight Clear by Sam Hooker; Seven Jane; Alcy Leyva; Laura Morrison; Dalena Storm; Cassondra Windwalker. 2/5
An ok collection of horror and horror-ish stories set in late December. None of these seemed particularly great to me, but others might like them. There are elves and murder and Cthulhu and werehumans and kids dealing with winter gods and the Stanley Hotel.

Working Juju by Andrea Shaw Nevins. 5/5
This is an excellent academic study of how beliefs about Caribbean magics and the fantastic have been treated by whites and used in film and fiction by both Caribbeans and non-Caribbeans. Nevins provides a thorough and fascinating introduction to the varieties of supernatural belief and syncretic religions in various parts of the Caribbean, and then illustrates how they have been received, first by colonists and later by creators in popular media. The discussion of zombism and ghosts in legend and film is clear and thought-provoking, as is the consideration of the Caribbean paranormal in the works of Tobias Bcukell. I recommend this highly for anyone who works in religion, popular culture, diaspora, or Caribbean studies, and for general readers who are fans of movies or books in which the supernatural Caribbean appears.

Hotel Dare by Terry Blas. 3/5
This graphic novel has gorgeous artwork that uses traditional Mexican figures and styles, but the story is a bit of a mess and very heavy-handed in its message of family unity, although it also includes chosen family with blood family. Three siblings travel to their grandmother’s hotel in Mexico where they discover portals to other worlds. Each travels to a different one, making new friends who all then join together in a quest for the siblings’ grandfather, who disappeared into a portal years ago and for whom their magic-using grandmother has been searching. Some of the plot lines are worthy of a telenovela, which is probably deliberate given the early reference to telenovelas in the book. With a little editing and a lighter touch on the moral of the story, this would have gotten a higher rating from me.

Book of Beasts by Edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond. 5/5
A lovely and fun collection of the creatures that adorn medieval manuscripts, tapestries, and other media. A great source for teachers, artists (including needleworkers, stained class-makers, and sculptors in addition to the more obvious illustrators), and writers and gamers. The context and explanations for the different mythological and real animals is useful and interesting.

Footnotes by Peter Fiennes. 2/5
I have very mixed feelings about this book. Once, it might have been described as “delightfully bitchy” or some such, but nowadays the kind of sniping the author Peter Fiennes engages in just seems petty; and it’s inconsistent and silly, too. He repeatedly notes that one of his sources for the book, Celia Fiennes, was a bad speller; but she was born into a time when spelling, although becoming regularized, was still not standard, and certainly not so across all of England. He enjoys taking the wind out of people’s sails on the smallest of matters–the cost of a haircut in Wales vs. in the London suburbs, for example. But at the same time the writing is often beautiful and about places where the atmosphere and sense of history is difficult to convey to readers. He communicates what I think is a common reaction to pollution and the end of species and great forests: a mixture of rage, urgent desire to fix things, and the sense that doing so won’t make a difference. He’s selected interesting writers with whom to interact and follow, but all of them are white and financially comfortable. It’s a very English book–I dare anyone who has ever lived in England to read it and not hear the author’s accent as they do–in that Fiennes seems uncomfortable with delving into the more complicated or emotional contexts of the writers’ lives and travels, instead smoothing over much of it with sarcasm and unfunny snarkiness.

Modern Sudanese Poetry by Translated and edited by Adil Babikir. 4/5
This is a much-needed book, as there is almost no other Sudanese poetry in English translation on the market. While the introduction is repetitive and the translations often awkward, the poems are nonetheless striking and urgent. I was especially struck by the sense of mortality and the horrors of the recent civil war in Sudan and the ways in which many of the poets navigated this trauma through a combination of direct address and metaphor using nature imagery. I recommend this to casual readers of poetry in addition to scholars and those interested in the land and its people.

Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart. 5/5
Hurrah for the return of the Kopp sisters, who in this latest book are off to a women’s national service camp on the eve of WWI. Constance soon finds herself in charge of the operation, while her sisters throw themselves into their various passions with gusto. Constance soon finds that she enjoys teaching hand-to-hand combat and firearms safety and skills, and by the end of the book has decided where her future might lie. Along the way, there’s the story of a former sex worker who rose to fame as the “other woman” in a murder case, and her fears of being discovered, which of course she is, albeit only by Constance and a few trusted others. As always, the book is well-written and engaging, and historically engaged. Readers don’t have to have read the previous books in the series to enjoy this one, although it would help to explain a few things glossed over in this book. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Half Way Home by Hugh Howey. 3/5
I mostly enjoyed this novel, in which colonists raised in tanks are awoken early by the AI that governs their lives. Of 500, only 58 survive, and, only half-trained in their various areas of specialization–psychology, farming, geology, mining–they make a go of living on the planet they’re supposed to colonize. But politics and alliances and the development of power groups appears immediately, and it’s only by leaving the colony at great peril do some of the colonists discover the truth about the planet, the AI, and how they will need to function to live. There’s a lot of action and thinking (and some scenes that feel a bit like they were written for a film treatment) that works, but there’s also quite a bit of gender essentialism, and none of the characters really feel developed or even individual. There’s room for improvement, and since this seems like the beginning of a series, I hope those improvements come about in future installments.

Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler. 5/5
This is an excellent and detail-oriented adaptation of Butler’s classic Parable of the Sower. Like the recent release of her novel Kindred in the same format, it omits very little of the original dialogue and internal thoughts of the protagonists, and captures the fear and excitement that the novel so beautifully balances.

Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan. 5/5
This is a great book. Everyone ages 9 and up should have this put in their hands to read ASAP. When her anti-choice younger sister Helen is rumored to have had an abortion by their Catholic school’s mean girls clique, her pro-choice, riot grrrl sister Athena and her friends build a campaign to counter the accusations and to make everyone rethink their positions on shame, privacy, and autonomy. Along the way, Athena, whose collections of zines and punk rock albums is a solid reading and playlist for anyone interested, deals with a romance with a jerk (her ultimate response to him is empowering, y’all. It’s a terrific scene), her relationship with a black football player who’s been admitted to the school for his athletic prowess and is the victim of blatant racism and manipulation, and the desire to become a stronger person (her mantra, “What Would Kathleen Hanna Do?,” referencing the singer of Bikini Kill, is one I am totally adopting.) Keenan deals with difficult topics in a sophisticated way, captures the feeling of being a young woman in high school in the 90s, and the politics and behavior–and the fashion–of the time with aplomb. Go read it, give it to the kids in your life, recommend it to your library patrons, teach it in your classrooms. Go.

Trinity Sight by Jennifer Givhan. 1/5
Calliope, a professor, is driving when she experiences what she thinks is an earthquake. But she finds almost all of the population in her area missing–empty cars litter the highways, her neighbors are gone, as are her husband and son. Taking charge of the six-year-old girl from next door, she embarks on a long and nonsensical road trip. Along the way she encounters people turned to stone, Coyote the Trickster, and some very angry Zuni gods, who appear to be getting revenge on the atomic bomb testing of the 1940s. Throughout, Calliope protests that she’s a scientist and that none of this can be real. She also falls in love with a traveling stranger, apparently giving up on ever finding her husband again. But through magic and fighting, Calliope and her fellow travelers are returned to the world they know. This could have been a good read, but the prose is positively purple throughout and horribly overdone; the plot has holes the characters walk through, the “science” Calliope and others cite is mostly BS and badly presented to boot, and the characters have no depth. A good developmental edit could have made this a fun and interesting book, but it’s too messy and wordy by half.

Book reviews: dystopia, Lovecraftian stories, and a few academic books

The Other F Word by Angie Manfredi. 5/5
A stellar collection of essays, poems, prose poems, cartoons, memoirs, and other work on being fat and learning to love your body. I wish I’d had this book around when I was 12 and at the beginning of being continually fat-shamed by my family. The diversity of viewpoints, including men’s, women’s, and enby voices, queer, IPOC, ace, ace, aro, and others is fantastic and much-needed. In addition r the writings in the book, it offers links to shops, blogs, Twitter accounts, and more that are helpful for and supportive of fat people. Give this to fat kids and their parents. Give it to your fat friends and your not-fat friends. Let it help you teach folx that fat is not something to be ashamed of, that fat people deserve the same expect as thinner folx, and that being fat doesn’t mean you have to be unhappy or limited in what you do.

Divine Intervention by Spencer Stoner. 1/5
A badly drawn, poorly lettered, mediocre, and boring fantasy adventure. I want my graphic novels to have originality, decent plot, and interesting characters who develop. This isn’t it.

The Disappeared by Amy Lord. 5/5
This is an outstanding book about fascism and authoritarianism and sacrifice and resistance and resilience and hope. In a Britain under authoritarian rule, Clara Winter’s father, a literature professor, is arrested and “disappeared” when Clara is eleven. Her mother marries the major who oversaw the arrest in order to protect Clara, paying a heavy personal price. When Clara herself becomes a literature professor and falls in love with a colleague in the history department, she becomes involved in a project to spread dissent; when her partner is similarly arrested, she becomes even further involved ins plot to overthrow the government. Deftly written and full of the pain of making choices in impossible situations, coming to terms with self-sacrifice and the costs of war, this book is an excellent and all-too-real meditation on political silencing and the ways individuals react to and cope with brutal regimes.

In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant. 5/5
Revisiting H. P. Lovecraft’s work from previously unexplored points of view has become popular again recently, thanks to books by Ruthanna Emrys, Edgar Cantero, and others. Mira Grant—who also writes as Seanan McGuire—offers yet another take on Lovecraft’s Deep Ones in this intense and intensely atmospheric novella. Starting out with a trio of teenage mystery-solvers seeking one last case, this work quickly turns to a tale of the desire to belong, biological imperatives, and epigenetic haunting. I loved it all and wished it had been even longer, although its length also feels perfect and well-planned. Ideal for those enjoying the reclamation of Lovecraft from his racism, sexism, and other biased -isms and anyone who likes a good ghost story.

Rehearsing Revolutions by Mary McAvoy. 5/5
McAvoy offers a compelling and fascinating study of some of the most important theatrical experiments of the twentieth century: the drama and theater of labor colleges and organizations. Long-ignored, here projects involved playwrights, actors, and others interested in the state of labor and labor movements i.n the US. Using thousands of primary source documents and paying close attention to the work already done on labor and the arts, McAvoy crafts a detailed and important assessment of these projects and their effects in theater, the labor movement, and individual careers. This is a must-read for anyone interested or working in American theater, the history of labor movements and work, and the arts in early twentieth century America.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy by Edwin Wong. 2/5
The idea the author promotes in this book is that dramatic tragedy always involves bets: Macbeth bets that killing Duncan will lead to Macbeths’s political ascension, for example. But while the theory is an interesting and potentially valuable one, the author never engages with the enormous body of existing scholarship on the tragedy or dramatic form. His lack of desire or ability to propose his theory in dialogue with theory is a serious failing of the book, and as such I can’t recommend it. This is a shame, because if the author ha chandler the topic using a more scholarly approach, his ideas could be taken far more seriously and as part of the ongoing conversation in theater studies about form, motivation, and other things.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. 4/5
This is a solid entry into Atkinson’s series featuring Jackson Brodie. The main story lines are compelling and interesting, although the framing device–the wedding of Brodie’s daughter–seems completely tacked on and unessential. There’s also quite a bit of fatphobia, which depresses me, because Atkinson is so often a more sensitive writer. But all in all, the book will appeal to her regular readers as well as mystery/thriller readers.

Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston. 2/5
I read The Hot Zone when it came out and enjoyed it a lot, and so I assumed I’d like this by the same author. Unfortunately, it’s slow and pedantic, and reads like it’s written for 8-year-olds to understand. The information is fascinating, but the delivery is unsophisticated. It needs a developmental edit for audience, repetition, and flow.

The Woman in the Veil by Laura Joh Rowland. 3/5
An okay mystery set in Victorian London featuring a group of investigators–a photographer, an aristocrat, a foundling, and their retinue–working for a paper. While the mystery is the sort in which people find lots of clues but in the end are unable to make use of them because the villain reveals themself, it was a fairly well-plotted and -paced read. The subplot of the protagonist’s father was mostly just annoying, though, so in future books I hope there will be less of that; and despite the protagonist’s constant comments about worrying she’d lose her job, that particular concern never seemed very plausible.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 5/5
Beautiful, eloquent, moving. In an alternate universe where certain people can “conduct” or move themselves or others through space and time, the Underground seeks to assist enslaved people escape from plantations. This will get enormous press and well-deserved praise.

More book reviews: Yoon Ha Lee is amazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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