Category Archives: Book reviews

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book reviews: Best of 2019

This year’s 5-star books.

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

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

Book reviews: horror, war, verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book reviews: fantasy, travel, autism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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