This Shining Life by Harriet Kline. 1/5
This is a despicable book, full of the kind of thinking that leads parents and other caregivers to kill their autistic children and themselves. I read this on the International Disability Day of Mourning, and couldn’t help but to connect the story of Ruth and her autistic son Ollie with the horrific crimes committed every year against autistic people. Ruth continually expresses her despair at having and her inability to “cope” with Ollie, and by pleading with her son and with the universe in general for her child to be normal and not “overreact” to her husband positions herself in the category of people who think that perhaps death is better than being autistic, and that death might be preferable to “having to care” for an autistic person.
The book also stigmatizes mental illness, suggesting that people should just get up and get on with their everyday lives. This willpower method of addressing depression is a dangerous one. Depression is an illness and needs proper treatment, not “tough love” or the badgering of other people. Not once in the book does anyone suggest that Ruth, her sister, and their mother could or should seek out professional care for their depression.
Finally, there’s nothing to suggest that author Kline spoke with autistic people or had autistic readers for this book. Her depiction of Ollie, an autistic child, relies on tired and inappropriate tropes. Her writing suggests that he is pitiable and sad and incompetent at communication and basic functioning. His own father–the saintly, perfect Rich, who is a problematic character in his own right–writes him a letter telling Ollie that he will grow up to be a “strange man.” How awful to tell your child that they will be subject to such a label. I am autistic, and I am really glad I didn’t grow up in Ollie’s family.
I’d like to give this zero stars.
Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung. 5/5
This is a gem of a collection, focusing on a Chinese family with divided lives. The narrator recounts her memories of her father, a hard, unemotional man who remains in Hong Kong to work while sending his family to Canada. After his death, the narrator questions her father’s intentions and beliefs, and his treatment of her and the rest of the family. This is a meditation on grief and the loss of a parent, and is poignant and moving in its honesty and depiction of the complexity of emotions an adult child has when a parent dies. I recommend it highly.
The Sisters of Reckoning by Charlotte Nicole Davis. 3/5
I loved the first book in this series and was pretty happy with the sequel until the very end. After all of the work the women and men of the story go through to begin a resistance movement–and all of the storytelling build up that entails–the author gives readers a cop-out ending: the people rise up with little harm to them and the bad guys just give up, and give up very quickly. It feels like Davis hit the limit for her word count and slapped on a quick, short ending.
The characters are interesting and diverse, and their relationships with one another are satisfying. I liked the metaphors and actualities of the lives of those living underground, and how Davis clearly built a large world for these books. The detail with which all of this is created is excellent. But the book felt like the second in a trilogy, building up to what I thought would lead into another book about the revolution the characters were fomenting. The abrupt ending was an unpleasant surprise. Alas.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton. 1/5
This novel, incorporating real-life figures from Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, is a big, melodramatic mess. The actions and words of the characters were so over-the-top that it was difficult to read without laughing out loud. I was really disappointed, because the actual history of this period in Cuba, and the women who made it, is a thrilling story and was hoping for a more realistic story crafted around their lives.
The Barbizon by Paulina Bren. 5/5
Bren’s The Barbizon is an informative and often entertaining read about New York’s famous hotel for women. Focusing on the building’s relationship with Mademoiselle magazine and its editors, and the Katherine Gibbs school and its secretarial students, Bren takes readers through the building’s entire history, telling stories about its famous and not-so-famous residents. My mother was a Katie Gibbs graduate, and while she didn’t live at the Barbizon–she commuted–I loved reading about New York and the ways in which women navigated it in the period when she had been there. Bren makes it clear from the start that the Barbizon was a place for upper- and some middle-class women, and that, until quite late in the 20th century, all white. By connecting the hotel with its famous residents, such as the guest editors of Mademoiselle, including Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, Bren deftly crafts the story of the magazine as well. This book should find loads of readers and is terrific for a book club or group of any kind.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon. 4/5
In this intense novel, a young woman raised in a religious compound escapes, but not before she’s been unknowingly subjected to experiments that will change her body in dramatic ways. This is a story of race and and conspiracies and survival and motherhood and desire that breaks the boundaries of genre: it’s a thriller, a political commentary, and erotica all in one. Vern, 15 and pregnant by the leader of an all-Black religious community, flees into the woods, where she gives birth to twins and raises them for four years, her only encounters with others being rare, passionate trysts with a woman who seems to know the area a little too well. As her children grow, Vern decides to leave the forest to seek out a safe haven, but the journey is difficult and dangerous. Hunted by her former lover and physically changing day by day, Vern ultimately chooses to fight the powers that truly run the cult. This book and its intersectional foci would be an outstanding read for any discussion group.
What Abigail Did That Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. 5/5
This is an utterly wonderful new addition to the Rivers of London series, featuring Abigail, Peter Grant’s talented and determined cousin. Armed with enough knowledge of magic to be dangerous, she takes on a haunted house trapping teens inside–all with a little help from talking foxes and her friend Simon. I loved every minute, and can’t wait to learn more about the foxes and their intelligence network in future books in the series. Abigail is a great narrator: smart and knowing and likable. I want more of her, too.
Four Hundred Souls by Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. 5/5
An astonishing and necessary book full of essays and poetry all trying to explain and trace the legacies of enslavement in the United States and its colonies. Each short entry is packed with information and new ways of thinking about this issue, and the poems are stellar and hard-hitting and brilliant. A companion piece to the 1619 project, this book is essential reading for all Americans, if not everyone everywhere.
Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses. 5/5
An utterly brilliant book that I am recommending to anyone who writes or teaches writing. Salesses unpacks the white, male history of the writing workshop and writing criticism, and uncovers how what is taught as “good writing” is just something that ticks the boxes these writers have made. By encouraging the use of different forms and approaches to writing, and with suggestions for changing the oppressive value structure present in writing and writing evaluation, he asks us all to rethink how we write and teach writing.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain. 1/5
I didn’t enjoy this much. The premise is fine–a detective coping with trauma and her own destructive urges goes to her hometown to recover and gets involved in a missing-persons case–but the characters were all rather dull, and the tension wasn’t very tense. There were a lot of reddish herrings that were all pretty obviously so, and a lot of messy plot points that went nowhere.
I was also pretty angry that McLain used the Polly Klass tragedy as part of her framing device. It felt exploitative and cruel, Perhaps McLain felt that by using it, she was drawing attention to the thousands of girls and women go are abducted and killed each year, but it doesn’t come across that way in the novel. Instead it uses the Klaas family’s ordeal as entertainment, and I wish an editor had told McLain that it was inappropriate.
We Two Alone by Jack Wang. 5/5
This is a beautifully-written and collated collection of short stories, each chronicling a different, and often unexpected, aspect of Chinese immigrant life. The characters are expertly crafted and the story lines, while short, and are deep and engaging–I wanted to read more, to know what happened next. But the stories are perfect as they are, and made me aware of politics and events I should have known more about in the experiences of Chinese in North America. This is an excellent book for book clubs and schools, especially if read in conjunction with other factual and literary accounts of late 19th and 20th century Chinese and American history.
Valentino Will Die by Donis Casey. 4/5
This is a fun romp through 1920s Hollywood, full of great slang and fabulous clothes and real-life stars. I enjoyed the quick pace and Casey’s framing of the novel as a silent film itself. Film buffs, history lovers, and anyone who likes a mystery will enjoy this take on the death of Rudolph Valentino and the LA underworld. I’m going to go read the first installment of the series–this is the second, but you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy it or understand what’s going on–and will look forward to more.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. 1/5
In the editor’s note at the beginning of this book, the editor notes that they love this newest novel by Weir because it pushes the science. It also pushes all credibility and sense. I have a very strong willing suspension of disbelief, but this went too far, making it much more a fantasy–of about a five-year-old–than anything else. If you enjoyed the technical creativity of The Martian, you’ll want to give this one a pass.
Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo. 5/5
This is a stunning and imaginative work in free verse that focuses on the immigrant experience. Nima struggles with discrimination and hatred and the legacy of her mother’s trauma, growing up in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. When a tragedy occurs, Nima escapes into spaces of danger and new awareness, guided by a hungry ghost. This is a book that should be celebrated and shared and read by everyone. The language is beautiful and striking, and Nima’s is a compelling and authentic voice. This book should be embraced by book clubs and libraries and schools.
Murder in the Cloister by Tania Bayard. 3/5
A nice mystery involving class, gender, and revenge, set in medieval France and featuring writer Christine de Pizan. This will appeal to readers of historical mysteries and the medieval period, and those who enjoy fiction featuring real-life figures. The writing is clear and the descriptions are good, and the author is careful to explain historical viewpoints as opposed to those of the present.
I’ve set up a Julia Perry Working Group on Humanities Commons. You can access the group here, where you’ll find a discussion board, a list of members, and my complete files of Perry’s music. These are all downloadable, and I’ve provided citation information including copyright and dates of composition where I have them.
I hope this is useful for anyone interested in Perry’s life and work, and helps facilitate the study of her music.
Composer Lisa Neher and Librettist Kendra Leonard present the One Voice Project Virtual Micro Opera Festival, a weeklong festival of micro opera world premieres. Every day from March 22-26, a new 5-minute unaccompanied opera written by Neher & Leonard will be released on YouTube.
The operas feature acclaimed opera singers from across the United States, including tenor Hugo Vera (Metropolitan Opera), mezzo Margaret O’Connell (Center for Contemporary Opera), soprano Audrey Yoder (Pacific Opera Project), tenor Zach Finkelstein (New York City Opera), and mezzo Lisa Neher herself (Opera Theatre Oregon).
The festival channels the artistic brilliance of opera singers who have frequently found themselves without work and artistic outlets during the pandemic. Each opera is a self-contained story, with plots that address women in sport, the life of musicians during the pandemic, and resilience in the face of obstacles. Several works were composed in collaboration with the singers, with plots drawn from their experiences over the last year. These operas are offered through a Pay as You Can model as a way to make opera accessible to all.
Immediately following the final release on Friday March 26, audiences are invited to a donation-based Talkback and Q&A Reception with the artists, hosted by Gina Morgano of the Practice Parlour Podcast.
|WHAT:||The One Voice Project Micro Opera Festival|
|WHEN:||Mon March 22 – Fri March 26, 2021 |5:00 PM PDT: Operas Released Daily
Fri March 26, 2021 | 5:10 pm PDT: Zoom Talkback and Q&A Reception
|WHERE:||Operas Released as YouTube Premieres: https://www.youtube.com/LisaNeher|
|COST:||Pay as You Can. We invite you to make a donation to @Lisa-Neher on Venmo or firstname.lastname@example.org on PayPal in support of the artists. Consider donating your one-hour salary. All proceeds will be split evenly between the artists.|
Register to receive a link to each day’s micro opera premiere and to RSVP for the Talkback and Q&A Reception with the Artists.
|Monday, March 22 | 5:00 pm PDT||Wide Awake in a New City: Hugo Vera, Tenor|
|Tuesday, March 23 | 5:00 pm PDT||Par for the Course: Audrey Yoder, Soprano|
|Wednesday, March 24 | 5:00 pm PDT||Momentum: Lisa Neher, Mezzo-Soprano|
|Thursday, March 25 | 5:00 pm PDT||Woman Waits with Sword: Margaret O’Connell, Mezzo-Soprano|
|Friday, March 26 | 5:00 pm PDT||Now Available: Zach Finkelstein, Tenor|
|Friday, March 26 | 5:10 pm PDT||Talkback and Q&A Reception with the Artists, Hosted by Gina Morgano of the Practice Parlour Podcast|
Wide Awake in the New City
When you move to a completely new place in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, things are not exactly normal. Raul struggles to unpack and settle into his apartment, wondering if he can serve his students while teaching virtually and finally questioning what he’s doing in his life. His despair turns to excitement and hope with a little change of view.
Wide Awake in the New City acknowledges the uncertainty and doubt we all feel while keeping the flame of hope alive for the future.
This opera was written for tenor Hugo Vera and is based in part on his own life experiences moving during the pandemic. Thanks to Hugo for suggesting the inclusion of Spanish phrases in this opera and consulting on grammar.
Par for the Course
One of the greatest athletes of all time, Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias excelled at every sport she tried. She won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 summer Olympics and later turned to golf, winning 10 Ladies Professional Golf major championships. She often faced sexism in her work and from reporters who criticized her involvement in athletics and her unladylike personality. Known for her brash confidence, she would often say at competitions, “Okay, Babe’s here! Now who’s gonna finish second?”
Sport has played an important role in both of our lives and we are passionate about representing women in sport on the opera stage. We were drawn to Babe by her confidence, her passion for sport, and her example of excellence in spite of a society that was often against her. This micro-opera envisions the moment in which Babe learns that her attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open has been rejected.
Par for the Course was written for soprano Elisabeth Halliday-Quan for Rhymes With Opera’s 2020 Pocket Opera Workshop.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor, registered under the initials “K.V.” Switzer. At this time, her own coach believed that a marathon was too far for “fragile women” to run, even though Roberta Gibb had become the first woman to run Boston (without a registration) the year before.
During the race, Kathrine was attacked repeatedly by race manager Jock Semple, who yelled, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” (referring to her race bib, number 261). As her boyfriend at the time, Tom Miller, fought him off, Switzer describes feeling frozen with fear and embarrassment in the face of the assault. She wondered briefly if she should quit, but she kept going, finishing in 4 hours, 20 minutes.
After her run, women were banned from racing in men’s events. In 1972, the Boston Marathon established an official women’s race.
Woman Waits with Sword
Woman Waits with Sword celebrates self-reliance. In 17th century France, Alberte-Barbe D’ernécourt, Dame (noble lady) de Saint-Baslemont, has been protecting her people from invaders during the Hundred Years’ War. But when an intruder tries to claim her home and ignores her because of her sex, she becomes the Chevalier (knight or noble lord—assumed to be a man) de Saint-Baslemont and challenges him to a duel he cannot turn down.
This opera was written for mezzo-soprano Margaret O’Connell.
A singer stuck at home expresses anxiety and frustration about his musical career and the treatment of artists by opera companies and ensembles. He wonders how Covid-19 will change the shape of future performances and how to create art during such a challenging time. Amid these struggles, he finds a reason for optimism.
This opera was written for tenor Zach Finkelstein, and the plot was developed in conversation with Zach about his experiences and feelings as a professional singer dealing with the artistic and career ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I know, I said I wasn’t going to do work on Julia Perry, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help other people research her music and life. Or maybe make an edition or two. So here is a list of the copies of manuscripts I have, a beginning of a works list for her. This list is compiled from the Walker Hill Collection at the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and other documented sources (such as the presumed lost Viola Sonata, which is referenced in documents of the Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau). You’ll notice that these do not have dates–I’ll try to add those as I I discover them. I have PDF copies of all of these; please email me if you want any of them.
As far as permissions for recording or creating editions of Perry’s works, well, the situation is difficult. In her 1992 book Piano Music by Black Women Composers: A Catalog of Solo and Ensemble Works, Helen Walker Hill lists Lucie Perry Bigbie as the representative of Perry’s estate. I have not been able to locate this person anywhere, which leads me to think that Perry’s works may be orphan works. However, I searched the Copyright Office’s Public Catalog, and there is also no record of many of her works being copyrighted, which puts them in the public domain.
A Partial Works List for Julia Perry
“Alleluja” for Medium Voice and Organ. Full Score. Manuscript. Dedicated to Virginia Shuey.
“Be Merciful Unto Me, O God” for Chorus of Mixed Voices, with Soprano and Bass Solos. Piano-vocal score. Printed.
The Beacon, for 2 English Horns, 2 Tenor Saxophones, 2 Bassoons, and 2 Trumpets. Full Score. Manuscript.
“By the Sea,” for High Voice and Piano. Text by Perry. Full Score. Printed.
“Carillon Heigh-ho” for four-Part Chorus of Mixed Voices (divided). Full Score, with piano for rehearsal only. Printed.
The Cask of Amontillado. Opera in One Act. Libretto by Julia Perry and Virginia Card. Full Score. Printed.
Contretemps for Orchestra. Full Score. Manuscript.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in Two Uninterrupted Speeds. Full Score. Manuscript.
Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra. Full Score. Manuscript.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Full Score. Manuscript.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Piano-violin reduction. Manuscript.
A Dance for Chamber Orchestra. Full Score. Manuscript.
Divertimento for Five Wind Instruments. Full Score. Printed. Edited by Helen Walker Hill and Christopher Hahn.
Fisty, a play. Typed text.
Frammenti: dalle lettere di Santa Caterina for “piccolo orchestra, coro e solo voce (soprano)’. Full Score. Manuscript.
“Free at Last.” Voice and piano. Printed.
“Graves of Untold Africans.” Typed text.
Homonculus C. F. for Percussion and Harp. Printed.
Homage to Vivaldi for Orchestra, Full Score. Manuscript.
“How Beautiful are the Feet.” Voice and Piano/organ. Full Score. Printed.
“Hymn to Pan” for SATB and organ or piano. Full Score. Manuscript.
“I’m a Poor Li’l Orphan in this Worl,’“ for Voice and Piano. Full Score. Printed.
“Lord! What Shall I Do.” Voice and Piano. Full Score. Printed.
“Miniature” for Piano. Full Score. Printed.
“Parody,” for Voice and Piano. Text by Patricia Sides. Full Score. Manuscript.
“Pastoral,” for Flute, 2 Violins, 2 Violas, Cello, and Bass. Full Score. Printed.
“Our Thanks to Thee,” Anthem for Thanksgiving, or General Use for Chorus of Mixed Voices, with Contralto Solo. Vocal-organ score. Printed.
“Popping Popcorn,” for Piano. Full Score. Manuscript.
Prelude for Piano. Full Score. Manuscript.
“Quartette” for Wind Quintette (Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet, Eb Alto Saxophone, Bassoon). Full Score. Manuscript.
Quinary Quixotic Songs (formerly Tryptich) for Bass-Baritone and Five Instruments (Flute, Bb Clarinet, Viola, Baritone Horn, Piano). Full Score. Printed. Edited by Helen Walker Hill and Christopher Hahn.
The Selfish Giant: a Sacred Musical Fable in III Acts. Piano-vocal score. Manuscript.
“Serenity” for Bb Clarinet. Full Score. Manuscript.
“A Short Service,” from The Mystic Trumpeter, for Tenor and Trumpet. Full score. Manuscript.
“Short Piece for Orchestra.” Full score. Manuscript.
Sonata for Viola and Piano. Lost.
“Song of Our Saviour,” for Chorus of Mixed Voices Unaccompanied. Full score with piano for rehearsal only. Printed.
Soul Symphony. Parts. Manuscript.
Soul Symphony II, III. Full Score. Manuscript.
Soul Symphony. Full Score. Printed. Edited by Helen Walker Hill and Christopher Hahn.
“Spreading Peanut Butter,” for Piano. Full Score. Manuscript.
A Suite Symphony for Orchestra. Full Score. Manuscript.
Symphony No. 4. for Orchestra. Full Score. Printed. Edited by Helen Walker Hill and Christopher Hahn.
Symphony No. 13 for Wind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet, Eb Alto Saxophone, Bassoon). Full Score. Printed. Edited by Helen Walker Hill and Christopher Hahn.
Symplegades (opera). Sketches. Manuscript.
Symphony in One Movement for Violas and String Basses. Full Score. Manuscript.
Three Spirituals for Full Orchestra. Full Score. Printed.
Three Spirituals for Full Orchestra. Parts, some identified and some not. Manuscript. Two files.
“Ye, Who Seek the Truth,” for Chorus of Mixed Voices, with Tenor Solo. Vocal-organ score. Printed.
Today, my poem “Frost Ascending” is out in Climbing Lightly Through Forests, a collection of poetry honoring Ursula K. LeGuin, edited by R. M. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley and published by Aqueduct Press. I am incredibly honored to be part of this collection.
Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost by Lindsay Marcott.
This is a smart and well-crafted retelling of Jane Eyre in the period immediately before Covid-19. Jane, a writer needing work, takes on a job tutoring Sophia, daughter of the wealthy Evan Rochester. This Jane is a bit tougher and smarter than the original, maybe because she can use the internet to look things up, and she’s also got more personality and agency. Rochester’s accused of murdering his wife, former supermodel Beatrice, whose brother prowls around Jane and Evan trying to get evidence. I liked the interactions between Jane and Sophie and Jane and her friends, even though they’re all lightly sketched and not terribly diverse. I’m not entirely convinced that the ending is what it seems to be–I’d love to know what other readers think. Alternating chapters between Jane’s and Beatrice’s POVs make things more interesting from the mystery side of things, and the setting is appropriately Gothic. A fun beach read, if you can stay away from riptides.
Stampede by Brian Castner. 1/5
At the beginning of this book, author Castner states that in order to make the book realistic, he’s decided to use racist slurs like the n-word and other terms. I’m so tired of white authors doing this. Dear authors: you can convey racism without repeating the violence of using that word. He also uses “good time girls” to describe sex workers and uses a variety of other offensive terms in his quest to bestow period parlance on the book. And the book itself is rather dull, full of repetitive details and adjectives that rely on gender, age, and race stereotypes without actually telling the read about anything useful. The writing made it difficult to tell when Castner was providing historical narrative and when he was embellishing or speculating, and ultimately disappointed me.
The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould. 1/5
In this rather meh paranormal thriller, Logan, a young woman, learns that one of her fathers made a deal with the Dark, a malevolent force, to bring her back to life when she died as a child. With her fathers revisiting the town where this occurred, teens have begun going missing. The Dark has begun killing teenagers. Logan teams up with the girlfriend of the first teen who went missing to discover what’s going on. They do. They get rid of the Dark and find the body of the first missing man. And of course they fall in love. There are several subplots and tensions between Logan and the dad who made the deal with the Dark. This is one of those books where you just kind of wish people would talk to each other like most people do and there’d have been fewer dead people. It’s the kind of book where you want to yell at the dad who can’t seem to talk to his daughter, but instead leaves her notes buried in a grave. Who does that? At one point, Logan decides that Ashley, the seemingly-straight girlfriend of the first missing man, is definitely not her type, but they end up together anyway in a soap-opera-level predictable moment. This could have been so much better if Gould had had the characters had use their brains,
When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown. 4/5
This is a sad story, but one full of truth. So many books are being written right now (especially by white writers) about Black characters in the immediate pre- and post-Civil Rights era in the South that end with what white writers think is triumph and uplift: Black women going to college, or joining the movement and bringing about serious material or social change to their communities, or marrying into white families, or being accepted by white society. But not every Black woman wanted those things: Opal, a young Black woman, wants the love of her family, to marry a good man, and to feel safe. She works alongside her grandmother as a cleaner for a white family. While this particular family is “good,” some of their relatives are members of the KKK, intent on terrorizing the small Black community to which Opal and her grandmother belong. There is a Klan raid on their community, and later Opal is almost raped. Opal finds herself attracted to the white family’s son and to the Black preacher’s son; she has to rethink her Christianity a bit after coming into contact with the work of the local roots woman; and she has to grapple with how her employers view her. The end of the book is a little pat and neat, but the trauma and fear the author describes is harrowing, and real, and needs to be recognized.
The Northern Line by Judy Simons. 2/5
A detailed memoir and history of Jewish families in the north of England, this book is clearly written with love and pride. However, none of the figures or their stories are made particularly compelling, and the writing shows sings of outdatedness and judgement I am uncomfortable with, for example describing sex workers as “whores” and assuming they have poor morals and are unclean. This might be useful for someone studying the Jewish communities of the North, but overall it seems more of a book written for family members than the general public.
Cleopatra by Alberto Angela. 1/5
How does something this sexist get published today? The author objectifies Cleopatra beyond belief, making her body the center of his attention, and assuming it was the center of her peers’ as well. The research is spotty and outdated, and I am appalled that this book even exists.
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley. 2/5
Written in a mannered style reminiscent of 1950s British writers, this SFF novel is a turns engaging and fresh and at others slow and dragging. The unevenness keeps me from recommending it strongly, although readers who are interested in the philosophical questions of space exploration and the uses of SFF to investigate the same regarding colonialism will like it.
The Savage Instinct by Marjorie DeLuca. 5/5
This is an excellent novel a la The Yellow Wallpaper, told in the first person by a woman whose husband had her forcibly admitted to an insane asylum after she suffered a traumatic miscarriage. Leaving the asylum to return to her husband. she finds him much changed, and begins to understand that he has been after her inheritance the whole time. Relying on advice from women many others find mad or evil, she plots her escape. Author De Luca uses the real-life figure of Mary Ann Cotton, convicted of poisoning members of her own family, as one of the narrator’s mentors, and the very ending is a fabulous twist. Readers who enjoy the Gothic will like this book, as will anyone with an interest in the rights and treatment of women in the 19th century.
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur. 5/5
This is a devastating book about mental illness and family secrets and domestic abuse. A young scientist struggles with her relationships and work, and when her mother dies, she experiences a collapse, unable to find a path back, unable to find coherence in her life and the lives of her brother and father. Seeking a kind of therapy through folklore, she batters her way forward, moving and thinking erratically. This novel captures schizophrenia and paranoia in a remarkable, first-person narrative, and aptly describes the kinds of confused reactions from those who unknowingly witness it.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw. 5/5
This is a book of astonishing beauty and originality and horror and I loved it. A small group of friends with complicated relationships and secrets and traumas meet for the wedding of two of them in a haunted Japanese mansion, where the images of yokai like tankui and kitsune, painted on panels, follow and cluster and watch what unfolds. And what does unfold is not unexpected, but told in new language: a ghostly bride demands company. Khaw’s language is poetic without losing the edge of modernity: the ghost’s first words are “like a sound carried on the last ragged breath of a failing record player;” a woman’s “lipstick game as sharp as a paper cut;” knee-high ferns are “like vegetal cats.” Khaw captures the intersection of the magical and the eerie: “the night stretched chandeliered with fireflies” inside rooms are “ossuaries: the books suppurating flat-bodied beetles.” I could go on, but really what I’m saying is: go read this book. Even if you think you are not a fan of horror, or of fantasy, or of the drama of youth, go read. This is a treat for any reader.
The Silence of the White City by Eva García Sáenz. 1/5
If you’re looking for utter fantasy and a lack of realism in your mystery novels, then this is for you. The characters and their actions are all completely over the top and unbelievable. The presence of Basque lore is far less than the blurb suggests, and the writing overall is cliched.
Firekeeper’s Daughter – Sneak Peek! by Angeline Boulley. 5/5
PLEASE give me the rest of this book! This is a terrific novel about young Native people in and around an Ojibwe reservation, touching on tribal registration laws, how traditions are kept or abandoned, and the poverty and drug use among all ages. Narrator Daunis is an athlete, a caregiver, a sister, and daughter whose goals and hoped-for future are continually shifted because of illness and violence. Her voice is compelling and her narration conveys information about tribal life and local practices without being pedantic, and I can’t wait to read the rest of this book.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark. 5/5
In this novel of wonders and fables, P. Djeli Clark returns to the world of his novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015, an alternate Cairo where humans and djinn live together, where magic is real, and where the old Egyptian gods are still very present. A Master of Djinn includes ornate and sophisticated world-building, interesting and layered characters who evolve and grow, and an excellent plot that involves issues of colonialism, class, power, and sorcery. It’s a masterclass in building characters, from investigator Fatma who learns a lot about her own desires to her new work partner Hadia, whose wide-eyed eagerness becomes fierce competence to Fatma’s lover Siti, who is forced into a difficult kind of coming out. The city itself is a character, and a beautifully shifting one, full of surprises good and bad. At the heart of the book is the threat and abuse of colonial powers, in this case, Britain, which having been forced out of most of Egypt prior to the novel, still has citizens in Cairo who are passionate about subjecting the Arab world to white supremacy. It’s a timely book and a joy to read.
View from Pagoda Hill by Michaela Maccoll. 1/5
In this novel, the author draws on her family history, imagining her great-great-grandmother Ning’s life in China and her life in America. In an afterword, Maccoll explains all of the information she had about her ancestor and her desire to write about her; unfortunately, she omits from the novel the most details and information that she found that she details in the afterward. The novel itself is slow, especially for younger readers, and shallow and boring. It was a slog to get through all of Ning’s travails, which were all described superficially. Ning doesn’t react to things much, so we don’t know how she really feels–her voice is subsumed by the author’s, who tells readers what Ning feels or thinks in condescending or Polly-anna-ish language. It’s a big disappointment, because Ning’s real story must have been fascinating and one of both great suffering and confusion, and ultimately, survival.
Following Nellie Bly by Rosemary J Brown. 1/5
In this book, a rich woman entertains herself by traveling to all of the places visited by Nelly Bly in Bly’s 80-day round-the-world trip. Author Brown doesn’t recreate the trip, but leisurely takes in the sights at each stop, and tells readers about her lush surroundings, luxury hotel experiences, couture shopping, and other activities that are totally irrelevant as to why Bly made her trip or what she was really about. It’s an excuse for junkets and the book serves as an excellent example of how the 1% live. Go read Bly’s original account of her trip instead–yes, it is problematic in terms of race and class, but not nearly as problematic as Brown’s book.
The Willow Wren by Philipp Schott. 5/5
A quiet and yet stunning memoir-by-proxy of a boy’s life in Nazi Germany and the aftermath there of WWII. Ludwig loves the outdoors, spending hours identifying birds and plants. But as the war nears its end and his home in Leipzig is bombed, he and his older brother are sent to a Hitler Youth camp, where conditions range from harsh to deadly. His brother is sent to the front and other boys are trained to serve in tank units despite their youth. After the Soviet army arrives and sends the boys to relatives, Ludwig and his family try to resume some kind of normal life, but food shortages and the high death tolls of the war make their survival nearly impossible. Beautifully written by Ludwig’s grandson based on his grandfather’s memories, this book chronicles a little-discussed aspects of the war and its toll on non-Nazi civilian adults and children.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. 5/5
I rave about Becky Chambers’s books to everyone, and this one is no exception. Part of her Wayfarers series, this follows a handful of aliens of different species and backgrounds when they find themselves stuck while traveling on difficult missions. They’re cared for by a warm and caring host and her child, both of whom are completely endearing and serve more books about them and their business and guests. Political differences flare up, friendships are made, and extraordinary events occur. Like all of Chambers’s books, this is space opera at its most beautiful, full of kindnesses and learning and understanding and helping. It’s the healing read you need right now.
From the Moon I Watched Her by Emily English Medley. 4/5
Told from the perspective of a young girl, this novel takes on mental illness, rape, homelessness, and religious abuse. Medley deftly channels a child’s desire for attention, confusion about conflicting views, and willingness to submit to parental demands, creating a narrator for whom the world is a terrifying kaleidoscope, never stable and rarely predictable. The trauma the novel presents and the inability or unwillingness of its adult characters to address it ring true, particularly given the setting of suburbia in the late 1970s. Ready for book clubs and discussion groups, this should be a very successful book.
Leather and Lace by Magen Cubed. 4/5
A fun romp that began as Supernatural (the tv show) fanfic and now has a life of its own, this novel features a slow burn romance between two hunters of the supernatural, one of whom happens to be a vampire himself. I enjoyed the very real emotional rollercoaster and difficult relationship choices the characters struggled with and the light banter they shared while tracking down a pair of weredeer gone bad. I’m not a big fan of Supernatural, but Cubed makes her story so original and cute that it should appeal to a wide range of fans, non-fans, and those who don’t even know the show.
A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy. 1/5
This was a sample of the novel rather than the whole thing. While the writing is fine, the plot is a little tired: women must fight each other for the title of Queen, even—especially—if they’re related. So we’ve got the clearly evil and bloodthirsty older heir spoiling for a fight with the younger, who as the protagonist just wants to go out and party among the common folk. I think the author might imagine that she’s turning fantasy feudal politics upside down by making the women fight, but really it’s just perpetuating the sexism of every other fight-for-power book out there. That, plus the classism, didn’t make me want to read more than the sample given.
Midnight in Cairo by Raphael Cormack. 3/5
This is a lively account of the women who dominated Cairo nightlife in the 1910s and 20s. Cormack offers detailed narratives for each woman’s life and activities as singers, dancers, actors, producers, and influencers. There’s a lot of solid information but also a lot of repetition and some clear errors not caught in the editing process. It would have been helpful for Cormack to have included more nuanced context about the period, its politics, and mores, but if readers are looking for history that is relatively entertaining rather than scholarly, this will fit the bill.
The Vines by Shelley Nolden. 1/5
This is so poorly written that I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. It needs serious editing for grammar, style, punctuation, and much more. The idea is interesting, but the writing is so bad that it doesn’t matter.
The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas. 2/5
A fantasy novel of the traditional swords and sorcery type. The world-building is pushed early and often, making the plot seem secondary to all of the information readers need to take in at the very beginning to understand the novel’s politics, factions, religions, industries, classes, and so on; it would have made for a better and less fraught read if this had been introduced more gradually and naturally. The plot is fine, I suppose, but neither it nor the characters are particularly compelling. Everyone’s got secrets, everyone’s hiding from someone, everyone’s got great skills at something. It was more like reading about somebody’s D&D campaign than a novel.
What does it mean to be creative? Is creativity earned? Does it have to be worked at? How important is it in your writing? Five working creatives–a musician, a dancer, a poet, a non-fiction writer, and a visual artist–gather to talk about their process, their triumphs, their struggles, and the ways that they use creativity and it uses them. Famed author Margaret Atwood says the biggest misconception about creativity is to think only geniuses have it. At Writespace, we completely agree. Join us to listen and be inspired about your own.
Join me! I’ll be talking about creativity and my creative process in writing Protectress at this fantastic panel sponsored by Writespace on 23 January 2021.
Tickets are $10-50 (pay what you can) and are available at Eventbrite.
This afternoon I synched up a bit of music that silent film accompanist Hazel Burnett marked to use for Calamity Jane in *In the Days of 75 & 76*. See the notes on YouTube for more info: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMhjfhPsQcQ
Upcoming talks and workshops:
23 January, 4-6 pm CST: Writespace Panel: Creatives on Creativity, with author Karleen Koen (moderator), Dr. Tony Medina (Creative Writing, Howard University), Kay Sarver (visual artist, blogger, co-owner of Houston’s Archway Gallery), Adam Castañeda (dancer and choreographer, Pilot Dance Project), and author Karen Celestan.
9 February, “Navigating the Antebellum South in Silent Film,” Washburn University.
13, 20, and 27 February: Writing Local Workshop through Writespace: Have you ever wanted to write about the stories from your home town or another specific place you’ve been to or lived in? The history of that Art Deco building and the people who lived in it, or maybe how your city coped during World War I? Maybe you want to dig in to local history to add detail to a story you’ve already begun, or want to make sure your characters are using the right kinds of slang. In this workshop, we’ll investigate tools and techniques for writing about local history, whether from a non-fiction, fiction, or poetic point of view. You’ll learn how to use free online resources to find information from newspapers, census records, and other documents, as well as small museums, local historical societies, and other places. We’ll talk about creating characters that are in keeping with their localities, including how they speak, interact with others, and participate in local customs. This workshop is open to students from anywhere, writing about any place!
18-21 Feb, “Nostalgia and Cultural Memory in Music for The General (1927),” Historical Fiction Research Network conference. I’m giving this paper one more academic outing to get feedback from a non-musicology audience before I begin reworking it into an article.
I’ll also be at the MLA Digital Project Showcase (7 Jan) and at the Opera America conference on New Music (26 Jan).