Review: Tieber, Claus and Anna K. Windlisch, eds. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice.

[Author’s Note: This review was commissioned by an editor at Current Musicology about four years ago for CM’s 50th anniversary, then apparently got lost in an editorial shuffle, and was finally rejected for not being critical enough and for including chapter overviews. You can decide whether it’s useful for you.]

Tieber, Claus and Anna K. Windlisch, eds. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xx + 265 pp. ISBN 978-1-137-41071-9.

Over the course of the last thirty years, the scholarship on the music and sound of the silent film era—generally agreed on as the period from the inception of the moving image to about 1926—and the early sound period has grown exponentially. In the United States, this scholarship, generally focused on the film industry in America, has been created mostly by a small group of male film and musicology scholars who have, in turn, inculcated their own male protégés in the field, where they continue to locate the center of the silent film music world in North America. It is therefore an enormous pleasure to read Claus Tieber and Anna K. Windlisch’s outstanding collection The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice, which includes essays on the sound of silent film all over the world by both men and women in the discipline.

Although the editors erroneously bemoan the lack of scholarship on film sound and music studies, they make an excellent case for expanding the range, scope, and variety of approaches to studying silent film sound and music by offering thirteen strong chapters, each on a previously unexplored facet of the topic. This volume has its origins in a conference at Kiel University in 2013, and this genesis is evident in the relative short length of most of the chapters. Nonetheless, the essays presented here are fascinating and valuable in their own right and will serve as springboards for further research on the materials they describe, analyze, and catalogue.

The collection is divided into two sections: the historical practice of silent film sound, and new approaches to silent film music history and theory. The first section begins with Julie Brown’s masterpiece of archival research on the organization and use of music libraries for silent film accompanists and orchestras in Britain. Brown’s research on the surviving library of the Royal Theatre Picture House in Bradford, North Yorkshire, England, reveals the ideals held for such libraries and the variety of music accessible to performers for the theatre and the reality of what was available and used in everyday accompanying. She analyzes the methods of organizing this kind of library and the genre system, and helps limn the difference between practices in Britain and those in the United States. Brown’s essay is followed by an equally beautifully researched and presented chapter by Christopher Natzén on accompanimental practices in Sweden from 1905 to 1915. Natzén also digs deep into the archives, in this case those of the Swedish State Archive for Sound and Image. Comparing film programs accompanied by lie performers and those for which mechanical sound reproduction was provided, he finds that the means of sound and music production heavily influenced the kinds of films that were shown in Swedish cinemas. He presents findings on films show with and without live musicians, the role of women musicians in accompanying silent films, and how the rise of mechanical musical devices guided the formation and practices of the Swedish Musicians’ Union, among other important information. Chapter 3 keeps the focus on Europe: Marco Targa has been researching the role of live orchestras in Italian silent film picture houses for some time now, and it is wonderful to see his work appear here in English. Targa discusses the development of a specific repertoire for the small theatre orchestras at the heart of his work and provides a detailed set of appendices that offers a list of major Italian films from the silent era and the status of the music that would have been performed with them, as well as a musical commentary, or quasi-cue sheet, for three films.

The next two chapters take us to German-speaking cultures: Urszula Biel explores performer and cinema culture in Upper Silesia, and editors Tieber and Windlisch look at music in the silent cinemas of Vienna. Biel’s archival research leads her from the make up of and levels of playing in cinema orchestras to the working conditions of the musicians themselves, a crucial aspect of silent film music history that has not received the attention it deserves, despite Biel’s work here and contributions on conditions in England by Annette Davison. Biel then expands her survey to discuss genre and the use of vocal music in cinemas, which is also a neglected area here brought into the light. She concludes with a brief account of stage practices, opening a window onto the variety acts that were presented in cinemas before the film was shown. Tieber and Windlisch’s study of Viennese theatres and their music for silents is no less important and wide-ranging. They craft a highly detailed panorama of the state of cinema music in the musical city in the 1920s, taking into consideration public taste and local pushback against touristic desires for endless Mozart. They cover the development of film as a “legitimate art” in Vienna and the lavish musical talents applied to film accompaniment before the Great War, when it was not uncommon for every movie house to employ a string quartet, an organist, and one or more solo vocalists. Readers learn about the social status of these musicians, their labor organizations, and backgrounds in the context of the on-going evolution of music for silent films in the city. We learn that Erich Hiller’s score for the Asta Nielson film Der Schwarze Traum, composed in 1911, is the earliest composed for a specific German-language film, and that this event, along with music cinematic music-making, went unremarked-upon, and that the media simply ignored the musical aspect of films, which is why all of this research is all the more valuable.

Chapter 6, by James Buhler and Catrin Watts, traces the American attitudes towards European cinematic music practices by way of The Moving Picture World, one of the most prominent trade journals in film during the silent era. By focusing on the MPW’s Paris dispatches and the European movie theatre tour of MPW editor W. Stephen Bush, Buhler and Watts find a rich vein of criticism and comparisons between cultures. Bush, whose tour took place in 1913, found film exhibitions and the quality of musical accompaniment high in London and in Berlin, but less so in Italy, where despite singing the praises of productions shot in the natural light, he found fault with what he deemed the low-class tastes of the audiences. In France, Bush found the entire industry underperforming, and the music was so poor as to not even receive mention. In this all-too-brief essay on one American critic’s views of European film culture, Buhler and Watts offer solid analysis and great details and leave countless options for further research open.

The final chapter of the first section ends with another chapter that could easily be expanded into a book that every cinema and film music scholar would want. Olympia Bhatt examines the origins and trends in Indian cinema in the 1920s, and leads the reader through a highly readable and fascinating history of Indian cinema, music, and cultural practices involving the film industry. She addresses gender and caste segregation, and how these and other prejudices inherent in the culture of the time affected the ways in which films were exhibited and accompanied, offering a brief but intense masterclass on different types of Indian music at the same time. From the tabla to the Gramophone, Bhatt provides an essential introductory text on film and music in India during this period.

The second half of the book begins with an analysis of a newly discovered score by Erno Rapee for John Ford’s The Iron Horse. Here, author Peter A. Graff offers a close reading of the compiled score and investigates the ways in which Native American characters and whites are musically depicted. In the film, the villain is a white man who murders while in disguise as a Native American; Graff finds that while Rapee used some of the common “good Indian” vs. “bad Indian” musical tropes, he creates a score that ultimately depicts the villain as a corrupting force on the Pawnee and Cheyenne tribes he mimics. This nuanced reading of a score that might have been otherwise dismissed as characteristically racist should establish a model for careful analyses and re-considerations of complex societal issues in film music from the silent era.

Chapter 9, by Maria Fuchs, compares the 1927 Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik with Rapee’s Motion Picture Moods, and finds that the former devotes more pages to theory than the latter. In using the Handbuch as a measure of musical hermeneutics, Fuchs suggests that it offers a scholarly yardstick by which pieces can be measured; while this kind of comparison does offer a sense of the Handbuch’s compilers’ preferred tastes and styles, there is little information on how the book was used or how widely it was used in theatres. This chapter is, unfortunately, awkwardly translated from the German and contains several typographical errors, as well as some organizational confusion, which make it somewhat less useful than it might otherwise be. The following essay, by Francesco Finocchiaro on Eisenstein and music in Battleship Potemkin, also suffers from organizational problems and, in this case, a serious lack of editing. The author avails himself of every possible bit of jargon offered by his subject, and is unafraid of confusing his reader by writing single fragments of sentences and complete sentences that are entire paragraphs—and pages—long. The thesis of the chapter appears to be that by using musical metaphors for theoretical concepts, one can understand Eisenstein’s thinking and creative processes in a new way. Coupling this with the idea of musical landscape—that a visual scene can be built with structures that mirror the musical structures of the accompanying music—Finocchiaro cites the scene of the mists moving over the port of Odessa in the film. However, after all of the theorizing that brought him to this point for analysis, the author offers only Eisenstein’s own free-verse description of the scene. There are a few musical examples, which would have helped, perhaps, if they were analyzed and not simply described. Because of typographical errors in the chapter, I wonder if some of the language here is the result of a poor translation, but no translator is credited, so I can only assume that the language used is deliberately obfuscatory. This chapter is one you can skip, unless you’d like to use to to teach students how not to write.

In Chapter 11, Marion Saxer returns us to the world of the real with an investigation into the composition of new scores for abstract art films from the 1920s. In looking at a number of films created in the 1920s in Germany that feature geometrical objects in motion, animations of shades of single colors, or capture light projections, Saxer finds that several originally had companion scores, now mostly lost. Thus new music was commissioned from Bernd Thewes to accompany them. Saxer offers an in-depth account of Thewes’s compositional practices, aided by musical examples from select scores, and carefully explains how the music and film fit together. She extends this analysis to suggest that collaboration such as this one represents digital culture as a whole in that otherwise impossible constructions between the old and new, the live and recorded. In using live musicians for performances of the new scores while showing the films, Saxer says, we see a state of hypermediacy and a meta-reflexive state, phenomena worth further exploration and consideration in all approaches to music and silent film.

The final two chapters of the book engage with this idea of hypermediacy and meta-reflection. In Chapter 12, Marco Bellano calls for more investigation into the effect of multiple scores for individual films. Citing the lack of alternative scores for silent films on video—which typically offer one or two score options at most—he writes that most viewers today see silent films with just one accompaniment attached, whereas in practice, audiences may have experienced multiple musical and sonic environments for the same film. With digital technologies continuing to improve, and the proliferation of silent films online with various accompaniments, however, we are gradually reaching a point at which comparisons between any number of proposed or actual scores for a single film can be undertaken. Bellano proposes a methodology for making such comparisons, using Metropolis as a case study, and notes that another offshoot of this research could be the effect of the same music used for different films and the application of what is essentially hauntology to film music studies. In the last chapter, Jürg Stenzl takes up Bellano’s challenge and examines two scores for the 1923 film La Souriante Madame Beudet. In this well-researched and entertaining finale to the book, Sturzl introduces the reader to Germaine Dulac, the film’s director, and important but neglected French director whose works included elements of feminism, surrealism, and avant-garde techniques and ideas. Mme Beudet, a psychological and technical masterpiece of its time and place, has two scores associated with it: a score compiled of primarily French works by Debussy, Milhaud, Satie, and others, created by American Arthur Kleiner, and a second, more recent score by Manfred Knaak, composed in 2005. (A third score, apparently composed for piano in the 1960s by Carl Scrager, is apparently lost). Stenzl goes on to compare primary themes and materials from the scores, carefully contextualizing the radically different kinds of music used and what their meanings might symbolize to audiences watching the film. In short, he argues that in addition to studying reception as a phenomenon of a work’s life, we must also look at the history of a film’s various musical interpretations in order to more fully understand its place in history and culture. And that thought—that we must go beyond current (often male composer-focused and US-centric) modes of thinking and analyzing silent film music, sources, reception, and afterlives, and seek out new voices and help underrepresented scholars and works find an audience—very neatly sums up what this book is all about.

Making Mythology draft cover

The cover design for Making Mythology has arrived:

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Contents

Professor Medusa
Epilogues for Caliban
Apparations
Making Mythology
Moscow’s Rejected Margaritas
Four Songs for Lady Macbeth:
–Shout Dirge
–The Song of the House Martin
–Lady, Maid, Invocation
–Cradle Carol
My Golem
How to Use a Labyrinth
March to June
From Wild Sleeping Waters:
–Frost Ascending
–My Antlers
–Talisman
–Falls and Finds
–Selenic Lore
–Stock
–Kupala Night
–Change of Season
Coyote Sits
The Swimmer
All of the Leaves:
–My Mother is a Poem by Yeats
–Concerning Hobbits
–Presentiment
Varnished
Invasive Species
A Haiku Year
Texas Suite:
–Blackjack Agitato
–Pumpjack Andante
–Highway Drone
At the Cinema, 1927
East Wind to Paradise
Supplications to the Water Gods:
–Chevy in the Hole
–Bayou St. John
–Brumadinho
–Another Thing about Flint
–The Texas Water Code
Unseen Stars
The Departure of Welcome
A Forest that is a Desert:
–In the Stony Mountains
–Shadow Reel to Last Breath
–Hospice
Stheno in Suburbia

Book blogging: new project

My new book project is currently titled Hearing the Elizabethan World: Music for the English Early Modern on Screen.

It’s not an entirely new project, though. I’ve been working on this topic since about 2014, and have published articles and given papers on it–see the bibliography below. But now I’m committed to writing it all up as a book. Like Music for the Kingdom of Shadows, it’s a project that would really benefit from being online, full of links and video and music. But I’d also like it to be widely available in print, so part of the work I need to do on it is think about publishers who would either want to publish it as an ebook or would be amenable to having an online companion site where all of the links and media could reside. Other work I’ve done has had companion sites–my Richard III chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies (companion site here), for instance–but I don’t know how widely those sites are used. Do readers go from reading on a Kindle or in print to the site?

It’s also important to me that the book, in whatever its final form, be affordable (ahem, Oxford, $200 for that above-mentioned Handbook is not acceptable). I’d like it to be completely Open Access, but right now I’m not sure what presses would allow that. University College London Press looks like a good choice, but I don’t have an institution to fund the fee (£5000-7000) that their OA platform requires.

I’ll be blogging the book-writing process here. Here’s my working TOC:

Introduction: Media and Music for the English Early Modern
This will establish the framework of the book, in which I will discuss the function of the cinematic or televisual soundtrack as an essential part of a screen work in its role in providing additional information to the viewer beyond the dialogue and visual elements about the setting, characters, and action. I will also discuss the role of music in creating the fictional world of the screen work, using Umberto Eco’s and Jaako Hintikka’s theories of doxastic worlds (fictional worlds with small deviations, created in the screen work, from our own real world) in literature and screen media. Although I expect the audience of this book to be primarily musicologists and film studies scholars, it is likely that it will be useful for those engaged in history and interdisciplinary studies as well. I will discuss several large-scale aspects of life—and our modern interpretations thereof—in the Elizabethan period: gender, religion, nationality, race, disability, and social status. In using these three aspects to frame the book, I will be creating analytical constructions that are useful for not only hearing this particular historical period as depicted in screen works, but which is also applicable to other historical periods used as the setting of other screen works.

Chapter 1: Music for Mute Elizabeths and Silent Shakespeares
An examination of the music published for and used to accompany silent films set in the Elizabethan period, dealing with Elizabeth, Shakespeare, and other figures of the period. Based on work I’ve presented at REMOSS and other conferences.

Chapter 2: Establishing England and Englishness
Using research on music in heritage film, propaganda film, and other screen media, I tease out the ways in which Englishness is musically signified from early sound film to the present, using case studies of select films and television series.

Chapter 3: Musicking Gender in Elizabethan Screen Media
Does what the label says, including film, television, and online media.

Chapter 4: Bad Chanting: Evil Monks, Treacherous Priests, and the Religious Other
How the music in sound films informs perception of religious discord and violence in screen media depicting the period.

Chapter 5: The Elizabethan Other
Race and disability. Possibly two separate chapters. Possible combined with Chapter 4 for a chapter on all kinds of Otherness. Suggestions welcome.

Chapter 6: The Sounds of Social Status and Legacy
How does music tell perceivers who’s in power? How do we understand hierarchy as communicated through music? What are composers trying to say about the legacies of important Elizabethan figures with their scoring choices?

Conclusion: Avenues for Further Research
To quote Buffy, where do we go from here? (Ludomusicology, for one place.)

Book reviews: a fantastic new Latinx SFF book, depression, and more

Sisters of Shadow and Light by Sara B. Larson. 1/5
Two sisters grow up in a derelict castle surrounded by a sentient hedge, where their controlling mother sulks a lot and tells them nothing about their missing father–who happened to be from another plane. One of the girls is presented as normate, while the other has superpowers in healing and growing and is presented as neurodiverse, although not in a positive way. When two men are able to get through the hedge, seeking knowledge, the hedge absorbs one of them, leaving the younger to serve as a hero and potential love interest for the sisters. There is much melodrama and wow emotions and more italics than any single book should ever have, I found it ableist and weirdly centered on men as heroes and women as victims and neither of the narrators–the sisters–are particularly interesting and serve mostly to induce the melodrama.

Freedom Libraries by Mike Selby. 1/5
This is a great topic for a book and it deserves a solid, scholarly, complex treatment. It does not get one in this book, which jumps around chronologically within chapters. includes anecdotes and asides, and displays a lot of hero worship by the author for his subjects. Simply stating–in often gushing tones–the importance of these libraries and telling dramatic stories about who in the Civil Rights movement learned to read where and how they got their library cards doesn’t approach the kind of depth at which the freedom libraries should be studied, analyzed, and presented. I hope one day there is a book that does that.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata. 5/5
This is a beautifully written and crafted mystery, love story, homage to Latinx SFF and history, and a joy to read. Follow the stories of writers, pirates, parents, children, physicists, journalists, and the other rich and complex characters of this novel and learn about the glory of writing from the imagination, the past, and the hoped-for future. In the 1910s, Adana Moreau writes SFF with a decidedly personal twist, calling up her childhood in the Caribbean. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Saul and Javier search for her son, trying to return his mother’s last manuscript to him. Zapata’s writing about the Caribbean, New Orleans, and Chicago is evocative and gut-wrenching, and his voice–through Adana Moreau–is a beautiful attempt to honor the women of SFF and particularly Latinx SFF who have been neglected.

The Almanack by Martine Bailey. 2/5
A tedious and overlong murder mystery focusing on a small English village in the 18th century, The protagonist, who had escaped the village to London, where she became a sex worker, returns at her mother’s request only to find her mother dead and having left cryptic messages behind. The protagonist, her stalker, her putative suitor, and others are part of a complex and unnecessary tangle of past relationships and grudges that complicate the story. The characters are awkward and flat and inconsistent in their behavior, the plot is unnecessarily dragged out, and much of the writing uses over-sued ideas, phrases, and set pieces.

The Silent House by Nell Pattison. 3/5
A murder mystery set in a Deaf community in England. The protagonist was fairly well-developed, as we secondary characters. i liked the information given on interpreting from BSL to English and vice versa. A quick read for folks who enjoy thrillers and mysteries.

The Virgin of Prince Street by Sonja Livingston. 1/5
In this wandering, disorganized, often hard-to-follow memoir, a woman searches for religious meaning in the Catholicism of her youth. Not my cup of tea, but more importantly not well-written.

The Body by Bill Bryson. 2/5
It’s nice to read a new book by Bryson in which he seems to have gotten over the bitterness (especially about aging) that made several of his most recent books unpleasant. And while The Body is written in something similar to his old, familiar, entertaining style, there are several issues that will keep me from buying it for friends. 1. it’s hard to be precisely up-to-the-minute with books on science, but a lot of the data Bryson cites is quite old and misleading. Referring to the BMI, for example, is problematic because it is known to be a terrible indicator of, well, anything, and it’s been long-condemned by medical professionals. There are other errors of fact as well: it’s “Down syndrome,” not “Down’s,,” for example. 2. It’s ableist and sexist. The book could have used a sensitivity reading by a disabled person, who would have asked Bryson to remove a lot of the language of “suffering” and “lack” that appears. Bryson often refers to measurements and statistics about women by citing men first and then portraying women as the different or other. Although he does an excellent job of pointing out gender bias in scientific studies, his framing is redolent of those studies themselves. 3. It’s not really necessary: as Bryson himself cites numerous other, recent books about the human body and human health, it’s unclear why he though his addition was needed. Sure, the historical anecdotes are interesting, but they’ve been used numerous other times in other books on the same topic.

From Chernobyl with Love by Katya Cengel. 1/5
This memoir by a journalist who has worked in various locations in the former Soviet Union should have been fascinating. Instead, it’s disorganized an disjointed, a badly stitched-together collection of anecdotes that are rarely connected to anything larger or more important beyond the author’s trite observations and apparent need to document the dating scene for young women at the places she worked. It reads like a badly or hastily written blog–or both–and needed a much heavier developmental edit before hitting the shelves.

Apple, Tree by Edited by Lise Funderburg. 1/5
Give that the authors in this collection are generally excellent, their writing about their own parents was surprisingly boring. This wasn’t interesting in the context of the authors’ works. nor was it terribly interesting as biographical, anecdotal, or other reading.

Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum. 5/5
I’m late to review this, but it is everything great other reviewers are saying. Rabbits for Food is a smart, often funny novel that is nonetheless a no-holds-barred examination, description, writing-out, rumination on, discussion of, testament to depression and what it does and feels like. It is impeccable.

More poetry news

I’m very happy to announce that I’ve just signed a contract with Unsolicited Press for my novella in verse, Protectress.

When Medusa, a priestess of Athena, is raped by Poseidon, Athena betrays Medusa, cursing her and later sending Perseus to kill her rather than punishing her rapist. Medusa and her sisters find diverse ways to survive and make it to the modern world, but Medusa’s lingering trauma and Athena’s unending scorn eventually force the gorgons to confront the goddess. The confrontation and resolution of the issue, however, take entirely unexpected turns.

This is a work that has developed out of the #MeToo movement, questions of feminist identity and values, and the power of compassion. It will resonate with readers interested in modern-day—and particularly feminist—updates of myths and legends, readers who liked Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Madeleine Miller’s Circe, Emily St. John’s Station Eleven, Seamus Haney’s translation of Beowulf, and Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, readers looking for queer representation, and readers of fantasy.

More details as they emerge.

Book reviews: New mysteries, magazine writing, and non-fiction

The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus by Alanna McFall. 5/5
A quirky and lovely book about friendship, grief, anger, and love. When Chelsea, a ghost, decides to travel from New York to San Francisco for her brother’s wedding–which was delayed because of her death two years earlier–she’s unexpectedly accompanied by Carmen, also a ghost, and Cyndricka, a mortal woman who is one of the few in the world able to see and hear ghosts, and who is a mime. Together they encounter other ghosts, some in need of help and others who are a threat; a kitten; helpful and malicious people; and, finally, some truths about themselves, their pasts, and their futures. The characters are diverse in race, sexuality, disability, and more; there’s a lovely emphasis on the value of learning languages and on questioning cultural norms. This would be a great book club read, or a parent-and-kids read.

Mortal Music by Ann Parker. 2/5
A historical mystery set in San Francisco among the upper class, involving musicians and PIs. While the setting was interesting and the musical details handled well, the plot wasn’t terribly captivating and none of the characters were appealing enough for me to end up caring much what happened.

Fear on the Phantom Special by Edward Marston. 2/5
A rather slow-moving mystery that focuses on the disappearances of two men in the same location, ten years apart. A railway detective and his railway-hating assistant spend many hours interviewing and investigating a small town and its populace; the author provides several suspects but in the end reveals he culprit to be one mostly ignored the rest of the time. A side plot of equal tedium adds nothing to the novel overall.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2019 by Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. 4/5
Solid investigative articles on everything from health issues to drug dealing to immigration, culled from major magazines in 2019. I could have done without the editor’s overly self-praising introduction, but the rest offers interesting and good reads from excellent journalists.

Music by Ted Gioia. 2/5
Gioia notes early in this book that he’s been writing it for 25 years. That shows: his conception of how music history is taught and written about and discussed is about 25 years out-of-date, and his work in this book suffers badly from it. The book would have been a powerful call to action and change two decades ago, but today, with hundreds of fantastic, progressive, new, and radically different approaches to music historiography in practice, both for “art” and “pop” musics, Gioia’s work is out of touch, and the book’s claims come far too late for it to be relevant or useful.

The Death of Baseball by Orlando Ortega-Medina. 4/5
A compelling novel about the early and late lives of two queer men, about abuse and abusing, about trauma and toxic masculinity. Intense and real and wrenching, this is a meditation on parent-child relationships, families, and desire in many forms. CW for violence.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis. 5/5
I really enjoyed this adventure story about a group of young women who have escaped servitude at a brothel and are on the run to freedom in a fantasy world not unlike the American West in the 1800s. The presence of ghosts, magic, underground railroads, and class and gender conflict are all well-realized and help develop a fascinating world. I was also really pleased that there were protagonists who were people of color and that there were queer protagonists, and yet weren’t treated as “magic Negros” or other stereotyped tropes. I’m looking forward to a sequel focusing on the one character who stays behind when the others escape so that she can help others.

Thin Ice by Paige Shelton. 4/5
A very solid thriller about a writer who, having been abducted by an unknown person and escaped, flees to Alaska to recover. There she assists the local police in solving a mystery and begins to remember more of what happened to her when she was abducted. The author points strongly to the perp, but ends the novel without confirming it, as the protagonist is launched into another police investigation that undoubtedly leads to the next novel in this series. The characters are interesting and well-written, and the descriptions of Alaska add nice details.

Cartier’s Hope by M. J. Rose. 2/5
A little revenge story, part of a series offering free publicity for various high-end jewelers. Protagonist Vera is a society lady with some sad love affairs in her past. She works in disguise as Vee, a working-class reporter who chronicles New York’s tenements, unsafe factories, and other social issues. When Vera discovers that her father and her mother’s brother were lovers being blackmailed by a publisher, she comes up with a plan to expose the publisher for his nefarious deeds without exposing her family to scandal. Along the way she has a romance with a jeweler who works at Cartier’s, learns about paste gems, and gets beaten to revenge by her mother. The romance elements are either cringe-worth (the narrator recounts having her cellist lover play her like his cello) or without chemistry (her relationship with the jeweler seems added just so there can be an element of sex). The family relationships are messy and come and go in importance to the rest of the plot elements. The plot overall is convoluted and silly. For such smart and potentially interesting characters, I expected more intelligent thinking.

Bubblegum by Adam Levin. 1/5
I am sure that there are people who will love this novel set in an alternate America, but I found it tedious. The narrator, a schizophrenic, details his life in a very meta memoir filled with fantasy, memories, rants, and pithy commentary, but it’s a slog to read and not terribly original.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva. 4/5
A terrific set of short stories about characters connected through their place of residence before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this book offers outsiders great details about the absurdities and tragedies of life during this period, sprinkled liberally with sardonic humor in the Russian vein. For readers who have enjoyed writing by the satirical Russian masters and post-USSR fiction and memoir, this will be welcomed.

The Dozier School for Boys by Elizabeth A. Murray, PhD. 1/5
This book suffers from not knowing what its target audience is. It gives in-text definitions for very basic terms, yet seems geared for an adult audience. It’s also poorly organized and lacks cohesion, detail, and context. It reads like a bad synopsis of police and scientific reports.

Silo Boys by Amy-Brooke Odell. 1/5
A mediocre small-town mystery, where the high school football players are heroes to everyone and the young women who date them are defined by their relationships with the team stars. The characters were unconvincing, as was the first-person voice that was more appropriate for a third-person omniscient narrator.