Category Archives: Book reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Summer Reading, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book reviews: In the Neighborhood of True and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book reviews: super awesome #OwnVoices lit and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Reviews: Sasquatches attack, Gothic longing, and Margaret Beaufort

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

A Flood of Posies by Tiffany Meuret. 1/5
This dystopian SFF novel mixes supernatural floods, addicts, betrayals, strange new aquatic life, extreme and terrible metaphors and similes, and hackneyed conventions into a nearly unreadable narrative without any compelling characters or real plot lines.

An Alternative History of Britain: The Tudors by Timothy Venning. 1/5
What if this book had actually explored the consequences of radical differences in Tudor history? What if the author had not just repeated known histories? What if the editor had asked the author to write shorter, more direct sentences? What if the author wasn’t so enamored with the passive voice and long tangents? If this book had been an alternative version of what it is, it might have been interesting and even maybe good.

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

Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti. 1/5
A gothic novel with all of the trappings: dead children, a spooky house, murky personal histories, sleepwalking, the lot. While the set up–missing girls and young women in a small New England town–is fine and the primary setting of the house and grounds detailed and interesting, none of the characters are very compelling or deep. The author’s reliance on the trope of mad women, jealous women, and vengeful women perpetuates stigmas against the mentally ill and the longstanding stereotype of women as unstable, unable to communicate clearly, devious, and two-faced. There are also several inconsistencies and poorly-reasoned aspects to the story that undermine its chances of being successful for careful readers.

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

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

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

Seven Endless Forests by April Genevieve Tucholke. 3/5
Drawing heavily on Arthurian myth (and names) as well as Norse, Welsh, Italian, and other mythologies and folklores, this fantasy novel is narrated by Torvi, a young woman on a quest to reclaim her younger sister, an addict, from a group of “wolf-priests” who get high on yew berry poison and ravage villages and settlements, killing nearly everyone in their paths. Torvi teams up with a druid, a group of knife-wielding bards, and a band of archers to track down Uther, the leader of the wolf-priests. But each character also has a quest–pulling a legendary sword from a tree, translating a book of tales, conjuring a ghostly king. While Tucholke has some truly brilliant ideas and descriptions of original and fantastic people, places, and things, the narrator herself remains very flat and two-dimensional, as does her sister, whose arc readers will predict from miles and miles away. The dialogue doesn’t help–sometimes it’s very formal and flowery and at other times casual and more modern, even between the same characters in similar circumstances. And the references to pre-existing myths are often heavy-handed: Torvi’s mother is named Igraine, a child named Pellinore creates a round table, a knight named Lionel passes through. Tucholke’s idea of renaming places by slightly changing real-world place names is also grating: there’s an island of Creet, for example. The Kindle copy I read also had a lot of strike-throughs and replaced words, and these show that simpler words are often replaced by more elaborate ones. I’d advise the author and editor to resist this: it’s done so often that it distances the story from the reader and makes it more difficult to empathize with the characters. The epilogue seems akin to simply writing “time passes” and sets up a sequel, but the novel would be stronger with a chapter that didn’t try to summarize so many things: it reads like a report.. All in all, this is a solid draft of a novel with some excellent and imaginative ideas that just needs to add some more depth to the characters, particularly Torvi, to be a real stand-out.

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

Book reviews: Jo Walton, James Meek, and stuff for isolation reading

The Garden of Lost Memories by Ruby Hummingbird. 1/5
A novel very obviously targeted to appeal to fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, this work focuses on the development of a friendship between Elsie Maple, in her 60s and traumatized by her past, and Billy, age 10, who moves in next door to Elsie when his mother takes him and flees her violent husband. There are trials and tears but everything works out well in the end with happiness (much of it apparently connected with wealth) and positive personality and relationship changes for everyone. While the third-person narration for Elsie’s story was ok, the first-person narration for Billy’s was uneven. Sometimes the author succeed in making him sound like a child, but too often the narration slipped into a far more mature and worldly voice, making it seem as if Billy’s first-person narration was shifting between his actual youth and later childhood memories.

While I’m sure some readers will weep over this one, I found it derivative and manipulative, mawkish and tedious.

The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson. 2/5
Angry teens with terrible parents deal with the aftermath of a school shooting. It was difficult at times, however, to feel sympathetic for the narrators, who are pretty eager to engage in physical violence. There are some grammar errors of the “mom drove Jordan and I to school” type, and I don’t know what a violinist would be doing in band. Although the author includes a long note at the end of the book stating that people shouldn’t blame or stigmatize mental illness because of school shootings, she still uses pejorative language in the book.

Creeping Jenny by Jeff Noon. 3/5
An entertaining pastiche of noir detective novels and M. R. James’s occult stories set in small English-like towns. A bit uneven in the writing and approach, but overall a fun read, especially for fans of M. R. James, James Hynes, Angela Carter, and movies like MIdsommar.

Or What You Will by Jo Walton. 2/5
This heavily meta-conceptual novel is divided into two kinds of narration: a second/third-person narration by an author’s imaginary friend/alter ego/internal voice, and a fantasy novel, drawing heavily on Shakespeare, that the author is writing during the timeframe of the book. I enjoyed the imaginary friend narrative a lot–it’s engaging and different and a pleasure to read. It is full of fun and quirky and useful references to other books and written works. But the other half–the Shakespeare-influenced world in which Miranda has sons with both Caliban and Ferdinand (Called Ferrante) and in which visitors from the “real world” drop in and in which technological progress has been halted in exchange for an end to death–rapidly became too pedantic, much like Walton’s Thessaly novels. So this is very much a mixed bag for me.

Prelude for Lost Souls by Helene Dunbar. 2/5
I’d really like authors to do their homework when writing about music and musical instruments. A piano is central to this YA melodrama about spiritualists and ghosts set in a fascist version of Lilydale, but the author seems to think that keys are attached directly to strings. This is just one of many weird and incorrect assumptions Dunbar makes about mechanical objects–including cars–and other things in an ultimately dull story of several teenagers making decisions about their lives and futures. The characters are flaccid and their decision-making processes, though, are erratic and changeable and nonsensical, and in the end I didn’t really care what any of them did or didn’t do because they just weren’t interesting or compelling. The fascism of the town might have hit a greater nerve if it had been more present and less of an afterthought.

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

Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie. 3/5
An uneven psychological not-quite-thriller about the lives of women in one family that was interned during the second World War in the Japanese camps. The narrator appears even-keeled and rational, until it’s apparent she isn’t at all. Her mother, whose present is a direct expression of the trauma of her time as a child in the camp, is the narrator writ large; heartbreaking scenes reveal the narrator’s grandmother as a person utterly broken by the government and circumstances. This is a work in which all of the characters are mentally ill and there’s no “normate”–only our own ideas of what that might be.

Open Fire by Amber Lough. 3/5
I enjoyed this novel about a young woman in pre-Revolutionary Russia who joins up with the all-women’s Battalion of Death in the First World War. Katya is the daughter of a dedicated Tsarist military leader, but working in an armaments factory, she becomes interested in the Bolshevik movement. She becomes an informant and decides to join the all-women’s battalion as a way of proving herself to her father, herself, and her nation. Lough offers great details about the organization and training of women in this real-life battalion, but avoids much of the political context in which it functioned historically. Ultimately, readers are left wondering how Katya’s political views will settle, and what will happen to her when the battalion’s founder is executed and the battalion is disbanded after the establishment of the communist regime.

Simantov by Asaf Ashery. 1/5
I have no idea what’s going on with this book. There are killer angels, police investigators who use tarot readers and clairvoyants and numerologists to try to solve crimes, mysterious figures with murky pasts, people who need to be in couples therapy, uncomfortable parent-child relationships, seemingly random entrances and exits and musings. I found it chaotic and not in an entertaining or well-written way. The gender struggles referred to in blurbs came across as annoying and petty rather than universal and important, and neither the characters nor the plot were compelling enough for me to give the disorganization a pass. Maybe it’s better in Hebrew?

The Figure in the Photograph by Kevin Sullivan. 1/5
This is an oddly flaccid book. The author loves the passive voice, and also seems to love characters whose behavior veers strangely from the emphatic to the disinterested, who wait for things to happen to them, and who engage with others in rather oblivious and disaffected ways. The narrator, photographer Juan Camaron, assists the Glasgow police in helping identify a serial killer by taking photos of the area in which the crimes have occurred on a regular basis, then comparing the images. He’s got a long backstory that doesn’t add much to either the plot or the character’s development, and Juan ends up being a very dull figure throughout. None of the other characters are particularly interesting or developed either, and their lack of agency makes for a very boring novel indeed.

The Forbidden Promise by Lorna Cook. 3/5
A historical mystery and a slow-burn modern romance. The romance is slow-burn only because the characters are immature and rubbish at talking to each other or thinking like adults rather than like schoolchildren. The historical mystery is more compelling, involving a downed pilot in Scotland and the daughter of the family that owns the estate on which he crashed, but both narratives drag somewhat until the reveals at the end. Not quite as good as the author’s first book, but still not a bad read.

Book reviews: Boojums in space and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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