Lots of books: set on ocean liners, Asheville, WWI, and dystopias

Murder in Rat Alley by Mark de Castrique. 3/5
This is a solid mystery/thriller about two PIs, the local police department, the FBI, and very old secrets. While at first I though the author was pushing the Asheville names and places a little hard (in full disclosure, I grew up there), this eased off a bit as the action got underway. The characters aren’t terribly well developed, and the banter between Nakayla and romantic and PI partner Sam is often of the put-down kind, which I loathe, but most of the book is well-written and very cleverly conceived. I’ll be recommending the series to Asheville friends and family, as well as others who know the area well.

Can I Tell You About Dyscalculia? by Judy Hornigold. 1/5
I have dyscalculia, and I was hoping in this book to find a good resource–the kind I could have used when I was young. But it’s not to be. The definition of dyscalculia provided here is very limited, and doesn’t encompass the many forms of this neurodiverse condition. The advice is repetitive, and the recommendations for tools that help aren’t necessarily things young readers–or parents–might know about (“tens frames”?) I was also disappointed by the tone and by the overall leanings and activities of the book, which are to teach dyscalculic kids to find ways of working around their disability and to present as normate.

The Deep by Alma Katsu. 3/5
A nice little thriller about a woman who isn’t sure of who she is, imposter syndrome among the upper class, the Titanic, and the Britannic. A young woman flees home and takes a job as a stewardess on the Titanic, where she’s plagued by memories that don’t seem to be hers and demanding first-class passengers who believe in the occult. She survives, and takes a position as a nurse on the Britannic, where she encounters a man she knew from her earlier work. There are indeed supernatural forces afoot, and author Alma Katsu does a good job of keeping them concealed until the very end of the novel. A good blend of the historic, the what-if, and the outright fantastical, but a few plot holes do nag after the end.

The Green Years by Karen Wolff. 1/5
The story of a boy’s journey to manhood following the First World War, this novel isn’t terrible, but it’s boring. The characters are uniformly flat, and none of them seem capable of making decisions or thinking with any depth about the world, their lives, or anything else. None of them are very appealing, either, in part because they’re such stereotypes, and none are interesting or inspiring enough to make the reader to want to know what happens to them or what they do. The various events recounted don’t really constitute a plot, and none of them are particularly interesting or revealing or treated in unique ways.

A Cold Trail by Robert Dugoni. 1/5
Things I don’t want to read in any genre: Overly long sentences with too much detail in them; fat-shaming; sexism; ageism; stereotyping; dialect; rushing characterization; poorly organized paragraphs. This book has them all.

The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair by Margaret St. Clair. 4/5
I love these stories of the fantastic by Margaret St. Clair and wish they’d been more widely available sooner. Her writing is sharp and concise, and her stories are excellent forays into SFF, including the more human elements of the genre. The collection is marred only by a terrible and stiff introduction by Ramsey Campbell, who seems intent on telling readers that “male writers did it first” in regard to everything St. Clair wrote. So skip the intro and jump right into the stories.

Reverie by Ryan La Sala. 2/5
Set in the present, this novel follows a high school student finds that he’s missing large pieces of his memory. Trying to figure out exactly what happened to him, he discovers that he and others at his school can control rogue “reveries,” or fantastical situations and dreams that slip into the real world. Pitted against a world-hopping con artist and magician, the kids have to figure out how to end the reveries and save people from disappearing into them forever. The idea isn’t bad, but the writing isn’t clear and there are all sorts of unnecessary plot elements and distracting asides and such. It needs a developmental edit and a revision.

Beyond The Moon by Catherine Taylor. 4/5
I’m not usually a huge fan of time travel novels, but this one–in which a woman living in 2017 travels to 1917 and takes on the life of a woman killed in an automobile accident–avoids most of the predictable pitfalls of the genre. Louisa, in her 20s and mourning the recent death of her only family, is sectioned under British law and forced into an institution by the police. When she begins to explore the building, she finds her self slipping in time to the First World War, when it was used for wounded soldiers. She and a soldier fall in love, but she cannot be seen or heard by anyone else in the time period. After brutal treatment at the hands of the modern caretakers, however, she enters the past and makes her way in the world there, eventually uniting with her beloved in an exciting escape through time. A nicely written fantasy romance with good period detail and a total lack of fuss about paradoxes and so on. Give in to the fantasy, and enjoy.

Stories I Can’t Show My Mother by Ann Tinkham. 3/5
This collection is posited as erotic short stories, but the stories are more about abuses of hierarchy, power, and consent. They aren’t stories I couldn’t show my mother–they’re perfect as examples for case studies for gender studies classes, discussing power in relationships, #metoo, and other important issues.

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock. 4/5
This is a great YA book about child trafficking and immigration. Told through various viewpoints, including those of the child immigrant who is trafficked for manual labor, those who profit from his work, those who seek to stop trafficking, and others, the novel is set in a dystopian England where the poor are shuttered into enclaves, where cheap labor is used for all sorts of industry and business. After escaping from one abusive and exploitative situation, the primary protagonist seeks out other work and news of his mother, but ultimately–and heartbreakingly–returns back to his original place of life and work, reasoning it is better that the other options available to him. I recommend this for classrooms (grades 5 and up, maybe?), library book clubs and youth reading groups, and for kids and parents/guardians/family to read together.

Listen to the Wind by Susanne Dunlap. 3/5
This novel, the beginning of a series, traces the lives and traumas of two childhood friends who are unexpectedly separated and equally unexpectedly reunited, and those around them, including genial friars, evil monks, a rapist, his horrible mother, a loyal servant, and more. Set in the thirteenth century, the book is well-researched if somewhat purple in its prose. The plot is fine, although it is a bit cliched: a peasant girl disguises herself as a boy, then participates in a bed-trick, swapping places with her noble patron. The noble patron also disguises herself as a man in order to escape an arranged marriage and to be with her true love. A fine historical romance, just don’t expect complex characters or a lot of reason behind many of their actions.

Family of Origin by CJ Hauser. 2/5
I was looking forward to reading this because I’d enjoyed other work by the author, but I was disappointed. While the writing is solid and the concept of family is explored in depth here, I found the characters to be lacking depth and humanity. The supposed surprises and shocking events of the past are neither, and the characters’ many irrational ideas and actions came across as silly and foolish. The in medias res structure of the book–where there are flashbacks going increasingly far back from the book’s present–felt messy and over done. One or two major flashbacks, sure, but by the end of the book, the farthest-away flashbacks felt irrelevant and impeded the flow of the narrative.

The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills. 4/5
A good novel for elementary school readers. Like all of the women and girls in her Cree family, Shelly can catch ghosts in her hair. She and her grandmother do this for a living , with her grandmother leading and Shelly apprenticing. Together they catch the ghosts of people, pets, and even insects and send them on to whatever comes next. But when Shelly’s mom dies unexpectedly, her ghost doesn’t show up, and Shelly becomes anxious, scouring the graveyard and asking ghosts everywhere if they’ve seen her. The relationships between Shelly and her grandmother and the ghosts are full of honest emotion and well written for the target audience, and I liked the #ownvoices factor in the author’s use of Cree beliefs and customs..

Where am I? Autumn 2019

Want to hear me speak about my research, read my poetry, or attend an opera for which I’m the librettist? Here’s my schedule–so far–for late 2019.

21 August: “Medievalism, Myth, and Music for The Lion in Winter,” Representations of Early Music on Stage and Screen conference, Birmingham City University. I’ll be participating via Skype, and my session begins at 8 am Central. I’ll also share it to Humanities Commons CORE afterwards.

25 September: “Shakespeare, Madness, and Music” public lecture at Sun Prairie Public Library, Sun Prairie, WI. 6:30 pm in the Community Room.

26 September: “Shakespeare, Madness, and Music” public lecture at Black Earth Public Library, Black Earth, WI. 6:30 pm, location TBD.

11-13 October: Houston Poetry Fest. Open to all. I’ll be reading 2-3 poems, probably on Saturday, 12 October. More details as they emerge.

18 and 19 October: Texas Music Library Association meeting at Rice University in Houston. I’ll be there regardless of whether I present; feel free to ask about my recent work on Melody magazine, undertaken with the assistance of a Music Library Association Dena Epstein award.

31 October: Premiere of The Harbingers, an a capella opera a libretto by me and music by composer Rosśa Crean. 7:30 pm, Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago.

Books and other doors to other worlds

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. 4/5
A lovely fantasy novel. January has grown up the ward of a rich many who supports archaeology and is always seeking the rarest things for his collection. He employs January’s father, who goes to remote locations hunting such things, or so January thinks until the day her father manages to send her his autobiography. In it, he explains that the world is full of doors that open into other worlds, and that many of them are inhabited; he himself is from such a world, and his travels hide his true purpose: to find January’s mother, lost in a different world. Not only does January believe in this, she realizes that she has a special gift: she can create such doors and move through them. As such, she’s very valuable to her guardian and his friends, who are unpleasant and supernatural, and there’s a long chase right out of one of January’s beloved pulp novels in which she must get away, find her father, and protect her friends–one of whom is also from another world, and does quite a lot of protecting of January herself–before the bad guys get hold of her. I loved the descriptions of the other worlds, and the characters, while not as deep as I’d have liked, were engaging enough.

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff. 3/5
A good post-apocalyptic, people-eating zombie novel set in Ireland and on one of its offshore islands. Orpen, her Mam, and Maeve, her Mam’s lover, live mostly safely on their small island after a zombie plague kills off most of the world. Maeve trains Orpen on combat; Mam teachers her about medicinal herbs. When Mam and Maeve must travel to the island, Orpen, still a small child, fends for herself. Mam comes back infected, and Maeve forces Orpen to begin making the hard decisions and even harder actions her life now requires.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. 4/5
A meditative book on grief and loss and the necessity of communication. When Edward, 12, is the sole survivor of the plane crash that killed 191 other people–including all of his immediate family–he’s taken in by his distant aunt and uncle. He soon builds a family of his own, though, and eventually discovers why his own family has been so remote. While Edward’s story progresses, the stories of the rest of the passengers on the flight also move forward in small minutes and large actions, until we understand that they too–like us all–need to be able to communicate with one another. The dreamy and fairy-tale like qualities of the writing sometimes deflect from the harsh realities that the characters face, but I think most readers will want that gentleness, given the subject matter.

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot. 4/5
An utterly engaging and intriguing narrative of poems about a child–later a young woman–and her ability to see beauty in death, despite the social and familial pressures not to do so. The writing is evocative and visual–and visceral–and the reading experience that it provides is unique and lasting.

Book review: Poetry, the Kopp sisters, graphic novels, and the outstanding Rebel Girls

Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein. 2/5
This fantasy novel started off with promise and some beautiful writing: in a grove in the woods, a girl incorporates a sprite into her body, and has to learn to control it and when to let it take control. The grove is owned by her great-aunt, a recluse who write a best-selling fantasy novel herself but became plagued by fans and hides from them. So far, so good. But then the story’s development gets unfocused and the writing changes, becoming flat and dull, and the plot becomes ever-more complicated and full of nonsensical actions on the parts of the characters, who also fail to develop beyond the two-dimensional. The sprite-carrying protagonist soon finds her life infiltrated by an obsessed fan of her great-aunt; soon the fan has killed Ivy’s dad and taken over control of Ivy and her three younger sisters, Ivy leaves, and there are gaps in the story where she simply says “years went by.” The sprite in her body comes and goes in mentions so inconsistently it’s as if it’s not really part of the story, and Ivy’s sisters, the evil guardian, and other characters do seemingly random and bizarre things that are unrelated, or, equally strangely, pick up conversations ended seemingly months or years before as if nothing had intervened. The book reads like it needed a lot more developmental editing and another year or two to be fully cooked.

The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois. 1/5
This novel, intended possibly as a latter-day, more grotesque Lord of the Flies, is unfortunately poorly written . badly conceived, and almost unreadable. I don’t know what the intended audience is, I can’t tell what the purpose of some of the asides are, and I can’t figure out why anyone published this as it is. I thought perhaps it was the translation that is bad, but I read a few passages of the original French online, and it’s terrible too. Don’t bother with this one.

The Library of Lost Things by Laura Taylor Namey. 5/5
This is an outstanding YA book in which–and I am grateful–no one gets pregnant or raped or is a cutter or drinks too much, but in which young adults are smart and thoughtful and good friends to one another and deal with challenges and problems with honesty and humor and intelligence. Darcy is a reader with an unusually good memory; her best friend Marisol is the only person who knows that Darcy is also dealing with a mother who is a hoarder, a manipulative grandmother, and the stress of trying to keep the landlord and property manager out of the apartment she shares with her mom, which is packed high with hoarded stuff. In her last year of high school, Darcy is forced to deal with all of these things, and survives, and even blooms, thanks to Marisol and a new friend, Asher, who is recovering from a car accident and has trauma of his own. There’s a slow-burn romance, a reckoning with the grandmother and mother, and more, as Darcy grows into a stronger and better-equipped adult.

A Midnight Clear by Sam Hooker; Seven Jane; Alcy Leyva; Laura Morrison; Dalena Storm; Cassondra Windwalker. 2/5
An ok collection of horror and horror-ish stories set in late December. None of these seemed particularly great to me, but others might like them. There are elves and murder and Cthulhu and werehumans and kids dealing with winter gods and the Stanley Hotel.

Working Juju by Andrea Shaw Nevins. 5/5
This is an excellent academic study of how beliefs about Caribbean magics and the fantastic have been treated by whites and used in film and fiction by both Caribbeans and non-Caribbeans. Nevins provides a thorough and fascinating introduction to the varieties of supernatural belief and syncretic religions in various parts of the Caribbean, and then illustrates how they have been received, first by colonists and later by creators in popular media. The discussion of zombism and ghosts in legend and film is clear and thought-provoking, as is the consideration of the Caribbean paranormal in the works of Tobias Bcukell. I recommend this highly for anyone who works in religion, popular culture, diaspora, or Caribbean studies, and for general readers who are fans of movies or books in which the supernatural Caribbean appears.

Hotel Dare by Terry Blas. 3/5
This graphic novel has gorgeous artwork that uses traditional Mexican figures and styles, but the story is a bit of a mess and very heavy-handed in its message of family unity, although it also includes chosen family with blood family. Three siblings travel to their grandmother’s hotel in Mexico where they discover portals to other worlds. Each travels to a different one, making new friends who all then join together in a quest for the siblings’ grandfather, who disappeared into a portal years ago and for whom their magic-using grandmother has been searching. Some of the plot lines are worthy of a telenovela, which is probably deliberate given the early reference to telenovelas in the book. With a little editing and a lighter touch on the moral of the story, this would have gotten a higher rating from me.

Book of Beasts by Edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond. 5/5
A lovely and fun collection of the creatures that adorn medieval manuscripts, tapestries, and other media. A great source for teachers, artists (including needleworkers, stained class-makers, and sculptors in addition to the more obvious illustrators), and writers and gamers. The context and explanations for the different mythological and real animals is useful and interesting.

Footnotes by Peter Fiennes. 2/5
I have very mixed feelings about this book. Once, it might have been described as “delightfully bitchy” or some such, but nowadays the kind of sniping the author Peter Fiennes engages in just seems petty; and it’s inconsistent and silly, too. He repeatedly notes that one of his sources for the book, Celia Fiennes, was a bad speller; but she was born into a time when spelling, although becoming regularized, was still not standard, and certainly not so across all of England. He enjoys taking the wind out of people’s sails on the smallest of matters–the cost of a haircut in Wales vs. in the London suburbs, for example. But at the same time the writing is often beautiful and about places where the atmosphere and sense of history is difficult to convey to readers. He communicates what I think is a common reaction to pollution and the end of species and great forests: a mixture of rage, urgent desire to fix things, and the sense that doing so won’t make a difference. He’s selected interesting writers with whom to interact and follow, but all of them are white and financially comfortable. It’s a very English book–I dare anyone who has ever lived in England to read it and not hear the author’s accent as they do–in that Fiennes seems uncomfortable with delving into the more complicated or emotional contexts of the writers’ lives and travels, instead smoothing over much of it with sarcasm and unfunny snarkiness.

Modern Sudanese Poetry by Translated and edited by Adil Babikir. 4/5
This is a much-needed book, as there is almost no other Sudanese poetry in English translation on the market. While the introduction is repetitive and the translations often awkward, the poems are nonetheless striking and urgent. I was especially struck by the sense of mortality and the horrors of the recent civil war in Sudan and the ways in which many of the poets navigated this trauma through a combination of direct address and metaphor using nature imagery. I recommend this to casual readers of poetry in addition to scholars and those interested in the land and its people.

Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart. 5/5
Hurrah for the return of the Kopp sisters, who in this latest book are off to a women’s national service camp on the eve of WWI. Constance soon finds herself in charge of the operation, while her sisters throw themselves into their various passions with gusto. Constance soon finds that she enjoys teaching hand-to-hand combat and firearms safety and skills, and by the end of the book has decided where her future might lie. Along the way, there’s the story of a former sex worker who rose to fame as the “other woman” in a murder case, and her fears of being discovered, which of course she is, albeit only by Constance and a few trusted others. As always, the book is well-written and engaging, and historically engaged. Readers don’t have to have read the previous books in the series to enjoy this one, although it would help to explain a few things glossed over in this book. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Half Way Home by Hugh Howey. 3/5
I mostly enjoyed this novel, in which colonists raised in tanks are awoken early by the AI that governs their lives. Of 500, only 58 survive, and, only half-trained in their various areas of specialization–psychology, farming, geology, mining–they make a go of living on the planet they’re supposed to colonize. But politics and alliances and the development of power groups appears immediately, and it’s only by leaving the colony at great peril do some of the colonists discover the truth about the planet, the AI, and how they will need to function to live. There’s a lot of action and thinking (and some scenes that feel a bit like they were written for a film treatment) that works, but there’s also quite a bit of gender essentialism, and none of the characters really feel developed or even individual. There’s room for improvement, and since this seems like the beginning of a series, I hope those improvements come about in future installments.

Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler. 5/5
This is an excellent and detail-oriented adaptation of Butler’s classic Parable of the Sower. Like the recent release of her novel Kindred in the same format, it omits very little of the original dialogue and internal thoughts of the protagonists, and captures the fear and excitement that the novel so beautifully balances.

Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan. 5/5
This is a great book. Everyone ages 9 and up should have this put in their hands to read ASAP. When her anti-choice younger sister Helen is rumored to have had an abortion by their Catholic school’s mean girls clique, her pro-choice, riot grrrl sister Athena and her friends build a campaign to counter the accusations and to make everyone rethink their positions on shame, privacy, and autonomy. Along the way, Athena, whose collections of zines and punk rock albums is a solid reading and playlist for anyone interested, deals with a romance with a jerk (her ultimate response to him is empowering, y’all. It’s a terrific scene), her relationship with a black football player who’s been admitted to the school for his athletic prowess and is the victim of blatant racism and manipulation, and the desire to become a stronger person (her mantra, “What Would Kathleen Hanna Do?,” referencing the singer of Bikini Kill, is one I am totally adopting.) Keenan deals with difficult topics in a sophisticated way, captures the feeling of being a young woman in high school in the 90s, and the politics and behavior–and the fashion–of the time with aplomb. Go read it, give it to the kids in your life, recommend it to your library patrons, teach it in your classrooms. Go.

Trinity Sight by Jennifer Givhan. 1/5
Calliope, a professor, is driving when she experiences what she thinks is an earthquake. But she finds almost all of the population in her area missing–empty cars litter the highways, her neighbors are gone, as are her husband and son. Taking charge of the six-year-old girl from next door, she embarks on a long and nonsensical road trip. Along the way she encounters people turned to stone, Coyote the Trickster, and some very angry Zuni gods, who appear to be getting revenge on the atomic bomb testing of the 1940s. Throughout, Calliope protests that she’s a scientist and that none of this can be real. She also falls in love with a traveling stranger, apparently giving up on ever finding her husband again. But through magic and fighting, Calliope and her fellow travelers are returned to the world they know. This could have been a good read, but the prose is positively purple throughout and horribly overdone; the plot has holes the characters walk through, the “science” Calliope and others cite is mostly BS and badly presented to boot, and the characters have no depth. A good developmental edit could have made this a fun and interesting book, but it’s too messy and wordy by half.

Book reviews: dystopia, Lovecraftian stories, and a few academic books

The Other F Word by Angie Manfredi. 5/5
A stellar collection of essays, poems, prose poems, cartoons, memoirs, and other work on being fat and learning to love your body. I wish I’d had this book around when I was 12 and at the beginning of being continually fat-shamed by my family. The diversity of viewpoints, including men’s, women’s, and enby voices, queer, IPOC, ace, ace, aro, and others is fantastic and much-needed. In addition r the writings in the book, it offers links to shops, blogs, Twitter accounts, and more that are helpful for and supportive of fat people. Give this to fat kids and their parents. Give it to your fat friends and your not-fat friends. Let it help you teach folx that fat is not something to be ashamed of, that fat people deserve the same expect as thinner folx, and that being fat doesn’t mean you have to be unhappy or limited in what you do.

Divine Intervention by Spencer Stoner. 1/5
A badly drawn, poorly lettered, mediocre, and boring fantasy adventure. I want my graphic novels to have originality, decent plot, and interesting characters who develop. This isn’t it.

The Disappeared by Amy Lord. 5/5
This is an outstanding book about fascism and authoritarianism and sacrifice and resistance and resilience and hope. In a Britain under authoritarian rule, Clara Winter’s father, a literature professor, is arrested and “disappeared” when Clara is eleven. Her mother marries the major who oversaw the arrest in order to protect Clara, paying a heavy personal price. When Clara herself becomes a literature professor and falls in love with a colleague in the history department, she becomes involved in a project to spread dissent; when her partner is similarly arrested, she becomes even further involved ins plot to overthrow the government. Deftly written and full of the pain of making choices in impossible situations, coming to terms with self-sacrifice and the costs of war, this book is an excellent and all-too-real meditation on political silencing and the ways individuals react to and cope with brutal regimes.

In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant. 5/5
Revisiting H. P. Lovecraft’s work from previously unexplored points of view has become popular again recently, thanks to books by Ruthanna Emrys, Edgar Cantero, and others. Mira Grant—who also writes as Seanan McGuire—offers yet another take on Lovecraft’s Deep Ones in this intense and intensely atmospheric novella. Starting out with a trio of teenage mystery-solvers seeking one last case, this work quickly turns to a tale of the desire to belong, biological imperatives, and epigenetic haunting. I loved it all and wished it had been even longer, although its length also feels perfect and well-planned. Ideal for those enjoying the reclamation of Lovecraft from his racism, sexism, and other biased -isms and anyone who likes a good ghost story.

Rehearsing Revolutions by Mary McAvoy. 5/5
McAvoy offers a compelling and fascinating study of some of the most important theatrical experiments of the twentieth century: the drama and theater of labor colleges and organizations. Long-ignored, here projects involved playwrights, actors, and others interested in the state of labor and labor movements i.n the US. Using thousands of primary source documents and paying close attention to the work already done on labor and the arts, McAvoy crafts a detailed and important assessment of these projects and their effects in theater, the labor movement, and individual careers. This is a must-read for anyone interested or working in American theater, the history of labor movements and work, and the arts in early twentieth century America.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy by Edwin Wong. 2/5
The idea the author promotes in this book is that dramatic tragedy always involves bets: Macbeth bets that killing Duncan will lead to Macbeths’s political ascension, for example. But while the theory is an interesting and potentially valuable one, the author never engages with the enormous body of existing scholarship on the tragedy or dramatic form. His lack of desire or ability to propose his theory in dialogue with theory is a serious failing of the book, and as such I can’t recommend it. This is a shame, because if the author ha chandler the topic using a more scholarly approach, his ideas could be taken far more seriously and as part of the ongoing conversation in theater studies about form, motivation, and other things.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. 4/5
This is a solid entry into Atkinson’s series featuring Jackson Brodie. The main story lines are compelling and interesting, although the framing device–the wedding of Brodie’s daughter–seems completely tacked on and unessential. There’s also quite a bit of fatphobia, which depresses me, because Atkinson is so often a more sensitive writer. But all in all, the book will appeal to her regular readers as well as mystery/thriller readers.

Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston. 2/5
I read The Hot Zone when it came out and enjoyed it a lot, and so I assumed I’d like this by the same author. Unfortunately, it’s slow and pedantic, and reads like it’s written for 8-year-olds to understand. The information is fascinating, but the delivery is unsophisticated. It needs a developmental edit for audience, repetition, and flow.

The Woman in the Veil by Laura Joh Rowland. 3/5
An okay mystery set in Victorian London featuring a group of investigators–a photographer, an aristocrat, a foundling, and their retinue–working for a paper. While the mystery is the sort in which people find lots of clues but in the end are unable to make use of them because the villain reveals themself, it was a fairly well-plotted and -paced read. The subplot of the protagonist’s father was mostly just annoying, though, so in future books I hope there will be less of that; and despite the protagonist’s constant comments about worrying she’d lose her job, that particular concern never seemed very plausible.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 5/5
Beautiful, eloquent, moving. In an alternate universe where certain people can “conduct” or move themselves or others through space and time, the Underground seeks to assist enslaved people escape from plantations. This will get enormous press and well-deserved praise.

More book reviews: Yoon Ha Lee is amazing

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett. 4/5
In this dystopian novel, young women are forced from their small and conservative community to an island where they must spend a year fending for themselves and trying to avoid the hunters—called poachers—who would kill them and sell their body parts as elixirs of youth back to the community. Tierney has witnessed two of her sisters depart for and return from this rite, broken and scarred. She’s been raised with live-sustaining and saving skills, and soon learns that her understanding of science, above the beliefs of the other women in magic, will save her and as many other women she can convince to believe her. The characters are well-drawn and evolve in interesting ways; the setting is original while not too alien to understand; and the writing is well-paced and vivid. In the end, Tierney’s discoveries hint at resilience and resistance among the women of the com, and with that, a hope for change.

Pricked by Scott Mooney. 2/5
This book, set in New York and its parallel fairy city, the Poisoned Apple, has some clever ideas, terrible puns, and the potential to be part of a fun series, except that it’s also a contradictory hot mess. A woman with the magical ability to change people’s emotions is tasked with finding a kidnapped non-magic man—all fine and good. But the author both claims the main character is a feminist and has her goad her male assistant by asking him sic he’ “always going to be the woman” in tough situations; later the character calls Harlem “a place tourists go to die.” Other unfortunate digs include those made at fat characters and “fly over country.” There’s also a nasty comment that the kidnapping agrees with a character because it’s caused her to lose weight. If the book went through a round of developmental editing and some sensitivity reading, it could be a winner. As is, though, it’s its own poisoned apple.

Died in the Wool by Melinda Mullet. 4/5
A nice mystery set in and around Edinburgh and the whisky business. Although one of a series, this requires no previous knowledge of the previous books in the series. The protagonist, a former reporter and photographer who has taken on a number of business and charity responsibilities, is smart and engaging as she finds herself in the middle of a dispute between a landowner and women’s shelter that escalated to murder. Several twists keep the plot moving, and the resolution is a satisfying one. I think many readers will enjoy leaning about the whisky business and, possibly, the care of sheep (I says this as someone who first learned about single malts, at about age 11, by way of Dick Francis’s novel Proof.)

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan. 1/5
Some readers may find this novel of a social experiment set in the eighteenth century a fascinating intellectual story, but I just found it tedious. An eccentric and wealthy landowner interested in all things scientific offers a relative fortune to anyone who agrees to live in a cellar and without human contact for seven years. The only man who applies is desperately poor; his journey of exploitation is a difficult one, even as he is contacted by servants and provided with material luxuries. Above ground, the story of his keeper is predictably problematic but also, alas, dull.

Wake, Siren by Nina MacLaughlin. 2/5
If the folks in Ovid’s Metamorphoses were from New York and somewhat uncouth, they might sound like these retelling of their stories from MacLaughlin. Some of the reworking are fun in terms of humor and eroticism, but I didn’t really feel like these offered new insights or changed the relevance of the stories. There’s a lot of justifiable anger in the stories, but little in the way of new reckonings or new angles, Still, this collection might find a home in literature classes on adaptation or revisiting classical works.

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott. 1/5
This would have made a solid feature-length article, but as a book, there’ just isn’t enough meat. Abbott tries to tell a story about t he business and professional lives of the figures involved in the case of Prohibition-era liquor magnate George Remus, but never quite manages to bring everything together in a coherent tale. Her dips in and out of prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrand’s personal life aren’t well-connected with her professional story, and Willebrand’s encounters with Remus never quite seem to be very dramatic or interesting either. There’s a lot of repeated material and a good deal of testimony from court cases that doesn’t shed any additional light on the people or issues involved, and it ends up feeling like filler. A good developmental edit might have turned this into a better book, but as is, I can’t recommend it.

Blood On The Stone by Jake Lynch. 1/5
An unfortunately dry and slow-paced murder mystery set in Oxford in 1681, as Charles II meets with Parliament. The characters might be interesting and t he plot might be okay if the pacing wasn’t so lethargic and the language was more lively, but I found this a dull read.

I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum. 5/5
A terrific collection of Nussbaum’s writing on television, this book is personal, witty, and thought-provoking. Critic Nussbaum explores tv writing, fans, commercialism, product placement, dealing with the legacies of predatory actors and directors, and other crucial topics in the medium. Highly recommended for tv and film consumers.

Pawsitively Poisonous by Melissa Erin Jackson. 1/5
Intended as a cozy mystery set in a cat-centric town and featuring a magic user who invents toys and makes potions for the townspeople, this novel unfortunately leaves the cozy far behind when the protagonist starts using her magic to manipulate and force people into doing things against their will and without their consent. It’s a disturbing book, in which the central figure gives herself the rights to alter people’s lives to get what she wants, both inside and outside of a murder investigation.

[Dis]Connected by Courtney Peppernell; Tyler Knott Gregson; Noah Milligan; Caitlyn Siehl; Raquel Franco; Wilder; Alicia Cook; Komal Kapoor; KY Robinson; NL Shompole. 2/5
In this collection, 12 writers contributed poems, and then each one wrote a story using a line from a different writer’s poem. The result is very uneven. None of the works particularly stand out, and the stories’ incorporations of lines from the poems—which are bolded in the stories—are forced and awkward. I’d rather have read more work from each author without the gimmicky structure of the collection.

Ghost Trippin’ by Cherie Claire. 1/5
I get it that the American South is mythologized and adored unthinkingly and also loathed and despised, often for good reasons, but to start off a book set in the South with a joke that references Deliverance and banjos (and, therefore, rape and the idea of unintelligent and violent locals) is just not a good way to get people to like your book. The other stereotypes that follow aren’t any better, nor is the continuous judging of Southern art, homes, terrain, and people. This is one in a series, and the presentation of the background material is disjointed and difficult to follow. Throughout the book, the narrator laughs at the names of people, places, and animals; drinks booze with Tylenol, a combination that could easily make her dead, not just someone able to speak to those who are; is ableist and classist; and does things that make no sense. A heavy edit could make this something good, but as it is, I can’t recommend it.

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee. 5/5
Excellent, clever, and often funny stories mostly about Shuos Jedao, a primary character from Lee’s trilogy set in the same universe. drawing on Lee’s own experiences as an Asian-American in Texas. I loved these origin stories and escapades and gaining an even better feel for the world in which they’re set. I recommend these stories and the full Machineries of Empire series.

Buried in the Stacks by Allison Brook. 2/5
Just not for me, I think. The writing was simple and the dialogue felt unnaturally formal and expository. But for people who want an easy read at a fairly low level of vocabulary and such (maybe 6th grade level?) and who like mysteries and ghosts, this might be a fit.

Reviews: alternate histories, multiverses, and new takes

Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon. 5/5
This is a great read. In a society where leaders who die are entombed with three young women as sacrifices, a young healer is trying to hold her father together after the death of her mother in childbirth. When her sister is chose to accompany the dying leader to the grave, the healer knows she has to cure him to keep her sister from dying as well. But the palace is full of intrigue and plots, and it takes skill, cunning, and a group of excellent friends to put together a plan to save all of the women. The world-building is good, the characters are strong and real, and the novel is filled with glittering details and bits of lore I found fascinating.

If, Then by Kate Hope Day. 5/5
This is a lovely meditation on the possibilities of the multiverse and the incalculable potential lives we all lead. Told through the stories of a group of neighbors in Oregon living under the shadow of a volcano, Day’s storylines weave in and out of different timelines and paths. Each neighbor has visions of what might happen–or be happening–in their lives in alternate universes, and the entanglements of their lives and visions propels them into new beginnings, new outlooks, and new ideas. A doctor sees herself falling in love and living with a coworker; her husband sees himself as a homeless, unstable ex-academic; a woman who has left academia and had a baby sees herself with different children and careers. The book is elegantly and often beautifully written, and the characters–and their different selves–are well-drawn and developed. This would be perfect for book clubs and groups of friends to read together.

Small Kingdoms and Other Stories by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
I absolutely loved this collection of stories about a former professional trainer of spies and special ops teams turned high school principal. The twists were excellent and often unexpected, and the characters were smart and sharp. Harris captures the environment of the small town, Southern school with wicked precision. Anyone who enjoys thrillers will like this book.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. 5/5
This is a brilliant reimagining of superheroes and super-villains, set in the many wars of the twentieth century. When an experiment causes a small number of the world’s population to become changed, governments rush to snap up those who can serve best as weapons. The novel follows two heroes, Oblivion and Fogg, from their training as young adults through their service in WWII, Vietnam, and other conflicts. Along the way they work with other changed people, men and women with widely varying powers and abilities and motivations, negotiating lives no one else will fully understand. This is an intelligent novel, a superhero story with deep philosophical roots, with a great sense of history and the consequences, historically speaking, of action and inaction, and a fabulous read with fascinating characters and ideas.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz. 4/5
Both a send-up of an homage to the private school novel, The Swallows details what happens when the girls at a school find out about the crass and cruel contest the boys run in ranking the girls’ prowess at oral sex. Told from multiple viewpoints, The Swallows is a testament to girl power, a self-mocking parody, a story of trauma and abuse, and a novel of self-discovery. Recommended for anyone who has previously enjoyed this genre, including books like The Secret History or Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch. 3/5
A decent reversal of traditional fairy tales. In the world of the Darkwood, the government’s Inquisitor-like Huntsmen use a magic mirror to hunt down witches–people with magic powers. But the witches are often helpful and sometimes fairly useless in their powers–one turns everything she touches into baked goods, for example. When Gretel–who does math, something no girl in this world does–is branded a witch, she flees to the Darkwood, where she quickly finds comrades to help her fight back against the Huntsmen, who are intent on destroying her village, family, and friends. It’s a cute read, although the constant use of “trousers!” as a swear word is grating after a few pages. Good for elementary school-age kids and family to read together.

One Night in Georgia by Celeste O. Norfleet. 3/5
I have very mixed feelings about this book. In 1968, three college women and an initially-unwanted college man decide to drive back to school from New York. Naive Veronica, whose father is forcing her to marry against her will for business reasons, takes her brand new, bright red Ford Fairlane convertible and packs it with her friends Daphne–a fragile flower–and Zelda, the novel’s protagonist and a putative lawyer for civil rights. Daniel, attending college near the women, goes along to ostensibly protect them. But this isn’t a simple road trip, because driving through the South in 1968 while black is incredibly dangerous, and Zelda, Daphne, and Veronica are headed to Spelman College, and Daniel attends Morehouse University. Passing through sundown towns and dealing with racist and brutal cops, gas station attendants, restaurants, and more–and encountering a few decent white and black people along the way–Zelda and Daniel fall in love, Veronica and Daphne realize the importance of Zelda’s work in civil rights, and things go wrong and stay that way when the group is involved in the shooting of a white man.

On the one hand, this novel does an excellent job of illustrating just how dangerous it was–and often still is–to be black in the American South, On the other, the characters in this novel make such unbelievably foolish choices and do such vacuous things that I wanted to yell at them all. The story is a tragedy, and one based in racism, but the author could have written the same tragedy without having made the women all be so dismissive or ignorant of their surroundings.

The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman. 3/5
Although I felt that this novel got off to a slow and rocky start, I ended up enjoying it. In a world where a large part of the population have powers, political extremists are trying to take away their rights. Some individuals have elemental powers–like the characters in Avatar: the Last Airbender, to make a pop culture connection–while others can see possible futures or sense and alter emotions. A group of friends with various powers finds itself trying to prevent multiple deaths of those in the group while also mentoring young people with powers, navigating their own complex personal lives, and dealing with state and police minders. As the group works to protect its own from targeted attacks, the pace and intensity of the novel picks up, and races to a satisfying end. While it’s set in Tel Aviv, I didn’t get much of a sense of the city, and there are some grammar and syntax errors that result in some confusing passages.

After Yekaterina by K.L. Abrahamson. 2/5
The premise–a murder/conspiracy mystery set in a tiny, autonomous, Russophone country in an alternate reality–is a good one. But the writing is repetitive, sluggish, and needs a heavy copyedit, and the descriptions of women throughout are sexist and off-putting. The male gaze is overwhelming. There are also a few too many echoes of Gorky Park in this as well, which will inevitably invite comparison–and this book will not come out the winner in that.

Becoming Beatriz by Tami Charles. 1/5
I am not sure I have the right or enough words to express how much I loathed this book. Beatriz is a gang member, selling drugs in schools and on the street. Her brother runs the gang until he’s killed by a rival gang. Beatriz becomes depressed and takes a hiatus before resuming her gang activities. Oh, and Beatriz is a dancer who loves Debbie Allen on Fame! and wants to become a professional dancer. And apparently in the world where Beatriz lives, you can do just that–or at least get a great start–with a few tough dance classes and supportive teachers and friends. I learned more about dealing drugs in this novel than about Beatriz’s efforts as a dancer, because the dance parts are all glossed over with exclamations of dance terms–plie! Jete!–and banal descriptions of Beatriz’s happiness dancing. It demeans the intense training and work dancers do in the real world, and it’s terribly facile and often silly. While the author tells the reader that Beatriz faces real danger in leaving the gang, this too is mostly ignored. Beatriz herself is an entirely unlikeable, immature, egocentric character, and the other characters in the novel are created as such obvious foils for her—such as Nasser, the brilliant new Haitian arrival to the neighborhood who represents everything Beatriz distrusts but is also perfect, and Amy, the vicious leader of the rival gang who ordered the hit on Beatriz’s brother–that everything is very obvious and lacking in subtlety. Another few drafts, some workshopping, and some realism in the dance portions of the book would strengthen it immensely, but as is, it’s not ready for prime time.

Lots of new reviews

A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian. 5/5
This is a gorgeous and wonderful novel about the women and girls of a Bangalore slum. Told in the first person plural, the book dips in and out of macro and micro issues in the community, its history, and its future. Subramanian’s writing is fresh and lively and I adored the nuanced ways in which she handles gender, sexuality, and disability. The novel takes on sexism and education, the ways in which women can subvert the masculine paradigm that seemingly rules the community, and engages with the role of white aid workers and others who seek to help the poor but are clueless of how their subjects and targets feel about them and how they live.

Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings. 5/5
This is an outstanding examination about fatphobia body size, especially in regard to black women. The author uses primary sources from the history of the United States to draw attention to the ways in which fat women, and fat black women in particular, were and are thought of by white society. Engaging with class, the medical establishment, religion, and education, Strings deftly identifies patterns of thought in Europe and America that gave rise to anti-fat stigma and the fear of the fat black woman. I recommend this highly for all women.

The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook. 4/5
This is a sweet romance and really good historical mystery. I liked that it was set in a real town requisitioned by the Ministry of Defense during WWII and that the research done by present-day characters was accurately portrayed. The characters were charming and real, and I enjoyed the honesty about how relationships work and the communication necessary for them to do so. For readers who like romance but not extra-explicit sex, I think this will be perfect, and readers who like Kate Morton’s books and others of that kind will enjoy it immensely.

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott. 4/5
I really enjoyed this clever and knowing Gothic-and-supernatural tale. Travel to the small English town of Rotherweird, where no one is allowed to know the town’s history or ask about the origins of its inhabitants. There you’ll find scheming villains, society snobs, a nocturnal acrobat, a man with a mysterious past, and a newly-arrived teacher for the local school, who, with a little help from his predecessor, sets into motion a fun and quirky ride into another dimension, a vast catalogue of secrets, and a little romance.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. 4/5
This is a really good book with something for almost everyone. Evvie Drake has suffered from years of her husband’s emotional abuse when she decides to leave him. But on the way to her car, she receives news that he’s been in an auto accident, and he dies. Over the course of the next year, she rents out part of her house to a former baseball player who’s lost his ability to pitch; deals with her in-laws, her aging father, and her absent, insensitive mother; learns to communicate better with everyone; blows up and repairs friendships; falls in love; and finds happiness (and therapy). Pitched (pun intended) as a romance, this book is really a lot of genres, and I found it a particularly good abuse-recovery narrative. The baseball parts are fun, as is the small-town setting is great, and the characters develop in excellent ways. My only quibbles are: I wish the author had given Keith Olberman’s mother her name instead of describing her as an offshoot of the male celebrity; and that she’d chosen another team name than “Braves” for one of the teams mentioned. We’re trying to get rid of team names that are culturally insensitive, not creating more. Overall a good read.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow. 3/5
Four novellas providing context for how and why people might deal with futures in which corporate control of everyday life, financial collapse, or other disasters befall the world. I most enjoyed the first of these, in which a smart woman and her allies struggle with corporate control of their lives. The characters were great and well-crafted, and the story was real and thoughtful. In the second, which I found somewhat overlong and tedious, Superman–under a different name here, I assume to avoid copyright violations–wants to get involved with actually making individuals’ lives better, but doesn’t know how to do so in the complicated racial and social landscape. In another, insurance companies determine who lives and who dies, until there’s a revolt. And in the final novella, which is probably the least original and interesting, a man uses his wealth to try to protect himself from a societal collapse, only to die from disease alone. Readers of dystopian fiction will enjoy this, as well as those interested in the ongoing struggle between corporations and individuals, the victims of majority/government brutality, and how and why the future of the world looks the way it does.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 2/5
A young woman accidentally gets a shard of bone in her hand, bringing back to quasi-life one of the gods of the underworld. Bound to each other until he can remove the shard, the pair goes off to find three of his missing body parts–his ear, his eye, and a finger bone. Along the way the god becomes more human and the woman more entranced with his physical beauty. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing, but overall the story reifies the power of men–living and dead and otherwise–over women in Latin American cultures. The formulaic horse-trading of the adventure was predicable.

Watchers of the Dead by Simon Beaufort. 2/5
This is the kind of mystery novel wherein the protagonists do a lot of research, much of it not adding up, then are trapped/kidnapped/accosted by the perpetrator, who monologues about why they’re doing what they’re doing and then leaves the protagonists to die in an ineffectual and often silly way. The protagonists escape, of course. In this case the plot is accompanied by several red herrings, none of which seem terribly urgent, and the subplot dealing with one protagonist’s love life, which is mostly just an annoyance and doesn’t ever feel very important. The majority of the characters are pretty flat; the exceptions being one of the investigators, Hulda Friedricks, who is unfortunately still described in sexist terms–at one point being likened to a harpy–and a giddy great-aunt, who, it is implied, is loose with her morals and the bottle, another sexist stereotype.

The Inside City by Anita Mir. 2/5
Where A People’s History of Heaven offered a fun and fascinating window into an Indian slum and is a great success, The Inside City’s attempt to do something similar is not successful. This novel, set mostly before Partition, follows a Muslim child who has been prophesied to do great things and his family, Unfortunately, the mother is devout to the point of lacking all common sense, the father is largely absent, and the sisters are non-entities. The child himself is a not very interesting, and his activities generally end in disappointment. The book had ideas with promise–the setting, the discovery of history and learning its role, along with superstition, in shaping the world, the book’s long scope. But it’s tedious and fails to live up to any of the initial ideas the author sets out.

The Immortal City by Amy Kuivalainen. 1/5
This could have been a good urban(ish) paranormal thriller. But it isn’t. It’s full of problems. The plot: a scholar of Atlantis is drawn into a conspiracy to raise old and bad gods when she’s called to consult on a murder case in Venice. She inserts herself into the case and then meets a nearly-immortal Atlantean man into whose meditation she has astrally projected. He turns out to have been instrumental in wrecking her career as an academic, but they fall in love anyway. There are police folks involved, but their roles are to flatter the scholar and to serve as a comparison point for her. The author’s treatment of academia is unbelievable, as is the police reaction to the scholar, and let’s not even get into the scholar’s idiotic behavior. Also, everyone is “hot”–the cop, the scholar, the immortal, his friends…. and the gender politics of the book are a mess, with the scholar constantly being useless/needing to be rescued/bait and the other female characters being either foils for the protagonist’s perfection or more beautiful immortals. There’s rape and torture of women, a woman’s self-sacrifice for men, and more. The initial idea–that a scholar who had found a forgotten alphabet was called on to help decipher more of that same alphabet, which was being used in ritual killings–is fine. The rest is a disappointment.

False Bingo by Jac Jemc. 1/5
This collection of short stories frequently touches on the true and depressing aspects of life without hope for anything better. Intended to be realist, it is, but in ways that depressed, anxious, stressed, or lonely readers could easily become suicidal by reading it. I’m not looking for happy endings or happy stories, necessarily, but these bludgeon you.

The Resurrectionists by Michael Patrick Hicks. 1/5
Over-written and remarkably misogynist and racist, despite what I’d hoped early on would be a black hero figure, this novella describes the work of white doctors who are intent on bringing forth Lovecraftian horrors into post-Revolutionary War New York. The gore and body horror is described in minute and tedious detail, and the inclusion of stereotypes like the sexy exotic black sex worker with the good soul makes this a definite miss.

Shakespeare and Madness: Two Upcoming Talks

I’ll be giving presentations on mental health and Shakespeare at the Prairie Sun and Black Earth libraries in the Madison, WI, area on September 25 and 26, drawing from my research on Shakespeare, madness, and music, as part of a library-sponsored series on engagement between the mental health and the humanities. I’ll share more details as they emerge and closer to the events.

Want to read what I’ve done so far in this area? You can read my book Shakespeare, Madness, and Music athttps://hcommons.org/deposits/item/mla:719/, and my article “Listening to the Gaoler’s Daughter” athttps://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:14493/.

Interested in having me do a talk, workshop, or other event? Contact me at kendraprestonleonard at gmail dot com!