Category Archives: Book reviews

Reviews: 7 for the last day of the year

The Montreal Stetl by Zelda Abramson & John Lynch. 5/5
An excellent ethnography of the Shoah survivors who settled post-war in Montreal. Researched with care and respect, and with ethics and a thoughtfulness and intellect not often found in today’s non-fiction, The Montreal Shetl is an important and beautifully crafted book about Jews in North America, their lives as immigrants and outsiders, and the power of their testimonies.

Ghosts of Gotham by Craig Schaefer. 5/5
Smart and brilliant, this thriller is a roller-coaster ride into a world where gods and demigods and semigods and immortals are all still around and occasionally move not just the scenery but the course of the action as well. Lionel Page, a reporter who has spent his career debunking frauds of the purportedly psychic type, becomes involved in an ever-shifting and complex race to track a murderer, keep old gods from killing, and learn some life-saving magic. Along the way readers meet his mentor, Maddie, members of an elitist cult, several cool witches, and some very hungry ghouls. Super fun.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher (excerpt). 4/5
I really want to read the rest of this book! The dystopian/apocalyptic setting is rich and nuanced, and I liked the characters and premise. (Please change the dog’s name, though: “Jip” is a variant of “Gyp(sy)” and is offensive.) I want to know more about this world and its people and how they are surviving and what they value.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (excerpt). 4/5
A promising start to what I think will be an engrossing novel. Two cultures, two faiths, and two women appear to be poised to break new ground in their own territories by managing political and personal challenges. One, trained from birth to ride dragons in defense of her kingdom, attains her goal of becoming a dragon ride, but her willingness to take risks by sheltering outsiders and seeking answers about her heritage place her in a precarious spot. The other, a servant of the leader of her matriarchal society, is being manipulated by political forces as she seeks political knowledge herself. I hope the full book will be available to read soon.

The Unicorn Anthology by Peter S. Beagle, Garth Nix, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia A. McKillip, Bruce Coville, Carlos Hernandez, Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Yolen, Nancy Springer, Cailtin R. Kiernan, Margo Lanagan. 1/5
Lots of people will buy this book, in part because of Peter Beagle’s name. But they shouldn’t. And it’s a damn shame that Tachyon has pushed Beagle to co-edit it and write an Introduction. As his Introduction states, eloquently and bitterly, Beagle has become “the unicorn guy.” It’s not what he wanted; he thinks his best work is still his first novel, the ghostly romance A Fine and Private Place. But he’s been hemmed in by the unicorn-lovers and especially those who would capitalize on them. This book is an attempt to do just that–cash in on the unicorn-lovers, who may or may not know Beagle’s views on the matter. A lot of these stories are good, but many of them are from other, readily available anthologies, such as Zombies vs. Unicorns, which is very-well represented here (by which I mean: just go read Zombies vs Unicorns instead of this book).

I won’t even get into the problems of all of the pieces in which “virginity” is given actual consideration in the course of the story.

Leave Beagle alone. Go read his unicorn book, and his other books, and the other books that this anthology borrows from. But don’t keep asking him to be “the unicorn guy” anymore.

D-Day Girls by Sarah Rose. 1/5
This book will sell well to general readers. It shouldn’t. It’s disorganized and messy, and both condescends to its readers and lacks essential information on its topic. Author Sarah Rose makes sweeping generalizations about France and its citizens during WWII; misstates historical facts; engages in inaccurate and sometimes offensive hyperbole; and has apparently done little research into the role of women in war, women in WWI, or the history of war in general. She refers to figures in the book by their first names, which diminishes them in contrast with the leaders: she gives Hitler his self-appointed titles, though. She characterizes figures in the book with no documentation to do so: is this person really “sniveling,” was this one “no longer fecund” and why do those things matter? She uses outdated and unacceptable ethnic terms–“gypsy” comes to mind–and uses other inappropriate or incorrect words that an editor should have caught (“snarked,” “fulsome,” others). I’d like to read a good book on the work of women–who, no matter how young, were not “girls”–in the French Resistance in France during the war, but this definitely isn’t it.

Do The Dead Dream? by F. P. Dorchak. 1/5
After wading through several introductory essays in which people claimed that the stories in this book were good, I found that, in fact, they were not. These are unedited, formless, and self-indulgent stories that all too often go on far too long. The author fancies himself a genius, which apparently means that he can mix up multiple genres (badly), be sexist, and run wild with all caps or italicized writing….all for no reason. It’s kinda like early Stephen King but with no editor and no rewrites and less imagination. Pretty much unreadable.

2018 Review round-up

I read 66 new or soon-to-be-published books through NetGalley and about 100 more that were already commercially available this year. You can follow me on Goodreads for all of my non-scholarly reading and reviews. Here’s what I liked that came out this year or will be out in early 2019:

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle
The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Women and War in the 21st Century: A Country-By-Country Guide by Margaret D. Sankey
Hildegard of Bingen by Honey Meconi
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar
There Are Things I Know by Karen B. Golightly
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
The Lady in the Cellar: Murder, Scandal and Insanity in Victorian Bloomsbury by Sinclair McKay
The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #2 and #3) by Katherine Arden
Guardian (Steeplejack #3) by A.J. Hartley
Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt
Salt by Hannah Moskowitz
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood
The Barrow Will Send What it May by Margaret Killjoy
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Night and Silence by Seanan McGuire
Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia by Foxfire Fund Inc
Driving to Geronimo’s Grave: and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale
Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit (Kopp Sisters #4) by Amy Stewart
Selling Dead People’s Things: Inexplicably True Tales, Vintage Fails & Objects of Objectionable Estates by Duane Scott Cerny
So Lucky by Nicola Griffith
Stone Mad (Karen Memory #2) by Elizabeth Bear
The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey
Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3) by Becky Chambers

4/5 books published in 2018 include:
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
The Penguin Book of Hell, ed. Scott G. Bruce
Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1) by Tomi Adeyemi
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry
Revenant Gun (Machineries of Empire #3) by Yoon Ha Lee
The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt by Randall Sullivan
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Victory Disc (The Vinyl Detective #3) by Andrew Cartmel
Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington by Patricia Miller
A Borrowing of Bones (Mercy & Elvis Mysteries #1) by Paula Munier
Night and Silence (October Daye #12) by Seanan McGuire
Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985 by Valerie Korinek
Deep Roots (The Innsmouth Legacy #2) by Ruthanna Emrys
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman

Review: folklore and magic to love, and YA that disappoints

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden. 5/5
This is the exhilarating and beautiful conclusion to Arden’s Russian trilogy. Beginning with death and ending with resurrection, it is at its heart a romance in the oldest sense of the word, and a story about a girl and a horse. When Vasya, a young woman gifted with the ability to see and communicate with the old pagan spirits of Russia, is condemned to death by a conflicted and zealous priest egged on by a chaos demon, it appears that the new religion of Christianity will cause the old spirits to become extinct. But Vasya throws herself into unknown lands, magic, and war to find a way to allow both faiths continue. This is an epic full of beautifully worked language and images that still retains a sense of humanity and humor among the characters, as mythic as they often are. And I love these books for the relationships between Vasya and the horses with whom she can speak. Her stallion Solovey is a rare treasure in literature about horses. This entire series is on my permanent list of fantasy I recommend to anyone seeking magic in history, history in magic, and the beauty of folklore.

Glow : Book I, Potency by Aubrey Hadley. 1/5
This is the most amazingly bad thing I have read in a long time. In the author’s attempt to write YA, they create inexplicably bizarre characters whose actions make no sense, a plot line that borrows from the worst of 1950s low-budget, low-creativity sci-fi, and dialogue that is pedantic and expository to a ridiculous degree: dialogue that tells…and tells…and tells, instead of writing anything that shows. If this had been satire, it might have been funny. But since it’s not, it’s just bad.

Review: another winner

Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt. 5/5

A great rollicking Western about a gang of outlaw women and their exploits in the 1870s. Led by a freed slave and an Englishwoman with a knack for training horses, this group gets revenge for one of its leaders, runs a ranch, helps out the nearest town, hides and saves abused folks, and lives life to the fullest. People get shot; people die; people get saved; people find love. A wonderful book all around. This will especially appeal to women and girls looking for representation in a historical setting, anyone interested in the “wild west,” and readers who love a well-told adventure story with complex and interesting characters.

Review: Salt by Hannah Moskowitz

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz. 5/5

This is a terrific and fast-paced novella telling the story of four orphaned siblings sailing the oceans in search of monsters to kill and information about their parents. Each character is well-drawn and strongly individual and true to life, the descriptions of the sea-monster hunts are exciting, and the whole thing is perfectly paced. I loved it. It’s a great book for anyone 12 and up, folks who love adventure stories, who wanted a little more excitement in Swallows and Amazons, who like cryptozoology, who like sailing, and who want a fresh and interesting bunch of characters.

Reviews: Death and Hell

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. 4/5
I really liked this slow-paced, somewhat wandering but frequently enchanting tale that takes place in a small English town with borders on the land of death. A child is found in the river, apparently dead, and brought to a pub, where she seemingly comes back to life. She does not speak, and she could be one of several children gone missing in recent years. As the story of the child’s true identity unfolds, so do the related tales of the publican and her family, a local aristocratic couple, a mixed-race family, and the myth of the river’s ferryman. Beautifully written.

The Penguin Book of Hell by Scott G. Bruce. 4/5
A great compendium of writing on hell and hellish places from ancient Greece and Rome through early and later Christianity, as well as the more literal hells of the Shoah and other genocides. The excerpted texts are presented with backgrounds about their authors and time periods, and offer fascinating information about how people have conceptualized hell in different social, political, and geographical contexts.

Reviews: Two to Miss

The Waking Forest by Alyssa Wees. 1/5
Written with a Gothic sensibility and lush and formal language, this book is like a lovechild of The Virgin Suicides, Hans Christian Anderson, and every banal YA about Girls With Powers who are also, unfortunately, not very intelligent. Characters are described to the nth degree, everyone is Mysterious and Dark, dreaming is waking and waking is dreaming and visions are reality and reality is—who cares? I suppose this was intended to be “darkly beautiful” with intrigue and secrets at every turn, full of magical animals and magical people and non-magical people and some kind of ideas of what is Just and Fair, but it’s a hot, boring mess.

The Crate by Deborah Vadas Levison. 1/5
If ever a book needed a developmental edit, it’s this one. The author attempts to tell the story of how traumatic it was–or wasn’t, maybe? for her family to find out that one of their hired handymen had killed his partner and left her in a crate under the deck of their country house. Along the way, the author tries to connect this trauma with her parents’ experiences in the Holocaust. It doesn’t work, and the author comes off as naive, privileged, and not terribly bright. The other figures in the book–her husband, her brother, her kids, and even her parents–are all one-note creations and the story itself is surrounded by badly out-of-chronology anecdotes that confuse the timeline and are totally irrelevant. This might have made a good magazine article, pared down to its essentials and written well, but as a book it’s not worth the time it takes to slog through it.

Reviews: a miscellany

There Are Things I Know by Karen B. Golightly. 5/5
This is a great children’s book about an observant and clever little boy who is kidnapped and must rely on his wits to save himself. It’s about the power of watching and listening, and of knowledge and knowing how and when to trust someone. Author Golightly creates a unique and true voice in young Pepper, one that I think many kids and parents will find relatable and honest. And while the book serves to teach a lesson, it’s never pedantic or preachy–it’s an adventure story that will help children learn to protect themselves.

Looking for Lorraine by Imani Perry. 4/5
At the beginning of this book, the author discusses her connections with and similarities to Lorraine Hansberry, and intimates that this will be a personal kind of biography. And while it is beautifully written and well-conceived as a biography, I never felt the connections Perry suggests are present. Instead, it’s a good introduction to Hansberry and her closest friends and a few of her lovers, and it’s a pleasant read, meandering from moment to moment in Hansberry’s life. It emphasizes her social justice concerns and work, but it tells us that she was passionate rather than letting her own words do that work. It tells us that she was young and gifted and black, but quotes her own words only fleetingly. It’s an excellent book, but that introduction promised so much more.

The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred. 2/5
I wanted to like this book. It’s elegantly written and has some very interesting ideas about the nature of self and life and death, and makes use of historically-relevant metaphorical figures. But it is dull, and it is repetitive, and all of the elegance and metaphor in the world can’t help it move along a little faster and in a way that makes any of the characters seem anything but cardboard.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi. 1/5
In this book, a group of incredibly wealthy and powerful young people–and some of their poorer friends, some of whom are actually the wealthy folks’ slaves, gather together–or are forced to–in order to pull off a heist that will return one of said wealthy young people to the ranks of even more wealthy and powerful people. Everyone is young and gorgeous and magically talented and wears fabulous clothes and entertains in grand and whimsical and decadent places and ways and what a bunch of incredibly horrible snobs, who believe that your bloodlines make you better than other people and who use people in horrible ways to attain recognition of said bloodlines and what an utter waste of paper and ink.

Reviews: Dystopia for sale

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. 5/5
In a small medieval village in England, a priest narrates his story backwards, allowing the reader to linger on simple words and constructions that slowly reveal the story as a whole. A man has died. But how, and why? And who surrounds the man, and the priest, in the village? Who is touched and touched by this tale? Harvey’s language is ravishing and spare and evocative and perfect for the ekphrasis of this novel. Balancing between narrative and description and prose poetry and incorporating the everyday misery and joy of life, this novel is one to savor and treasure and teach and share.

A People’s Future of the United States by Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. 5/5
A great collection of short stories that speculate on the future of the United States…or whatever it becomes. The stories by Charlie Jane Anders, Tananarive Due, N. K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, Daniel José Older, and G. Willow Wilson show why these authors had and deserve large audiences and followings. All of the stories feature “badass” characters, as requested by the editors, and they all do deliver, from people who keep information free and available to those who physically protect others. This will make a great gift for readers who want tightly written dystopic fiction in which there are still threads of hope.

Welcome to Dystopia by Gordon Van Gelder. 3/5
Dark and witty and smart and depressing stories about a future in which technology controls just about everything, and anything can be done to you, or your friends, or the planet, by technology. The theme is, of course, dystopia, but while the stories are individually mostly good reads, the collection as a whole starts to feel rather Luddite in nature about a third of the way through. The writing throughout is solid, but the repetitiveness of similar ideas dulls.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. 2/5
Three sisters have been raised by psychopathic parents in an isolated compound, being forced to engage in rituals that inflict physical and psychological harm on themselves and each other. When first their father disappears, followed soon after by arrival of three strangers and then the disappearance of their mother, the sisters are forced to face new possibilities and realities. Narrated by the sisters, this is an incredibly disturbing read that asks audiences to examine the nature of religion and other belief systems, the roles of education and ignorance in families, societies, and institutions, and the ways in which women victimize other women. Content warning for rape, incest, murder, and other violence.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun. 1/5
I can’t tell if this was supposed to be dismal or absurdist or both. A nameless male protagonist whose work centers around killing pests is sent to work in a similarly unnamed city far from home, where society has crumbled and the city is filled with trash and pestilence. The protagonist should get no sympathy, however, as he’s an admitted rapist and abuser, and as his life and the meaning in it spiral away, well, I cared less and less. I think on the surface this is a metaphor for inhumanity, and on a deeper level suggests that everyone is capable of violence. Content warning for rape and other violence.

Reviews: Oak Island and an unreliable narrator

The Curse of Oak Island by Randall Sullivan. 4/5
A solid and engaging history of Oak Island and the many and varied attempts to locate its “treasure,” Sullivan creates a chronological narrative of the treasure hunt, digging into primary sources to learn more about the treasure hunters, their beliefs about what the treasure was, how they went about trying to get it, and why they failed. Neither too detailed nor too broad in scope, Sullivan’s book will find readers among armchair explorers, historians, and conspiracy-theorists alike.

A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa Sheinmel. 3/5
A bright but unreliable narrator tells the story of her summer program experience gone bad. Hannah finds herself in a psychiatric hospital after her roommate at a prestigious summer program falls from a window and remains in a coma. But it’s all a misunderstanding, Hannah tells the readers, and proceeds to try to convince herself of that as well. The unreliable narrator trope is handled well, and brittle, overachieving Hannah reminds me all too well of someone I know who has similar problems telling reality from perception.