Pennsylvania, I am coming to visit you!

Next Friday, Feb 21! :

“Music and Mental Illness in Shakespeare” – Dr. Kendra Preston Leonard

Date: Friday – February 21, 2020
Time: 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM
Location: Mary Kintz Bevevino Library, McGowan Room
Kendra Preston Leonard, PhD – Scholar, Musician, and Executive Director, The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive. This presentation will examine the musical and visual depiction of mental illness in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. By watching and listening to the acting, direction, and musical accompaniment assigned to Hamlet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, & Edgar in various film adaptions, we can understand how what Shakespeare calls “madness” was thought about in the Early Modern period, how it interacted with and was described by music, and how these associations between madness and music continue in film adaptions of the plays. This presentation will be held on Friday, February 21 from Noon-1:30 pm in the Mary Kintz Bevevino Library, McGowan Room. This speaking engagement is part of the series Intersection:(Dis)ability and the Arts. Sponsored by the Department of Fine Arts, the Soyka Fund for the Humanities, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts-a state agency, and the Medical and Health Humanities Program. This event is free and open to the public.
CONTACT: Dr. Ryan Weber
Phone 570-674-6182
More Information

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.

Update: Where am I? Winter and Spring 2020

Upcoming talks and events:

8 February 2020:  “Opera in the Silent Cinema: New Findings from Archival Sources,” Opera and Popular Culture Since 1900 conference, Dee J. Kelly Alumni Center, Texas Christian University.

21 February 2020: “Music and Mental Illness in Shakespeare,” “Intersections: (Dis)Ability & the Arts,” lecture series, Catherine Evans McGowan Room of the Mary Kintz Bevevino Library, Misericordia University.

28-29 February 2020: “Jewishness between Performance and Appropriation: Music for The Merchant of Venice on Film,” AMS-Southwest chapter meeting, Moores School of Music, University of Houston.

6-7 March 2020: “Searching for Women in Silent Film Music,” Darkwater Women in Music Festival, UNC-Pembroke.

15 April 2020: Reading of “Moon-Crossed” at the Shakespeare Association of America annual conference, Denver, CO.

16 April 2020: Respondent, “The Supernatural and Transcendent in Shakespeare on Screen” seminar, Shakespeare Association of America, Denver, CO.

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?

Moon-Crossed at Shakespeare Association of America

7 pm, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Why does Bertram dislike Helena so? Because she’s a werewolf, of course! Moon- Crossed, a response to and parody of All’s Well That Ends Well, examines the concept
of the monstrous woman, women’s power and influence in early modern drama, and the ways women in Shakespeare’s plays use their wealth, bodies, and minds to survive hostile situations. Drawing from Shakespeare’s plays, the Malleus Maleficarum, Marie de France’s “Bisclavret,” Shakira, Charles Addams, and more, Moon-Crossed is a fun and fast- moving play for all theater and pop culture aficionados.

Book reviews: Best of 2019

This year’s 5-star books.

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.

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.