Reviews: werewolf bites, hollow places, and a badass Final Girl

Kitty’s Mix-Tape by by Carrie Vaughn. 5/5
This is a fun collection of short stories set in the fabulous world of Kitty Neville, werewolf extraordinaire. Readers will enjoy stories of established characters like Rick, Kitty, and Ben, as well as stories involving new characters and settings. The stories are delicious small bites.

Call My Name, Clemson by Rhondda Robinson Thomas. 5/5
This is an outstanding work of scholarship, memoir, and call to action, documenting the enslaved persons on whose labor Clemson University was built and operated, the pervading institutional racism of the University, and the struggle of Black professors to hold the University accountable. Thomas’s Call My Name public history project is a groundbreaking collaborative work, and this is reflected in the essays and responses in this book. This is an essential read for anyone interested in social justice, racism, higher education, reparations, and grappling with American history.

The Girl Without a Name by Suzanne Goldring. 1/5
Dick–or Stevie (why does this man have two names?)–has a stroke, and in trying to help him recover by talking about his past, his daughter tries to figure out why he has a photo of an unknown young woman. She thinks she finds out, but she doesn’t. In flashbacks, the reader learns that her dad was, in fact, a dick, manipulating women and using them as a way to cope with PTSD. The mystery woman, we also learn in flashbacks, was an almost unbelievably naive and simple person who yearns after Dick/Stevie for most of her life, until he leaves her to die and she finally gets a clue. Told in very simple and bland language, this novel seems as though it was written specifically for an audience of new adult readers, but it’s not the kind of book to get anyone hooked on reading.

Unmarried Women of the Country Estate by Charlotte Furness. 1/5
This is a well-intentioned book that is also, unfortunately an object lesson in what happens when writers without training in history, gender studies, or related fields take on complex historical matters. Author Furness uses mostly primary sources, largely ignoring the vast and important body of scholarly literature already about this topic. Furness’s long quotes from the primary sources go uncontextualized; the author often simply sums these up by simply stating that they are important, but never delves into why they are important, leaving these claims unexplored and unsupported. The lives of these women are important–as many historians have written. I wish Furness had read their work before or while writing this.

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare by Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. 5/5
This is an excellent resource for educators and anyone interested in Shakespeare. The editors provide thoughtful and up-to-date commentary on the sonnets and their origins, and a carefully glossed presentation of each sonnet to assist readers.

The Cry of the Lake by Charlie Tyler. 2/5
Described in the blurb as a thriller, this novel is in truth a complicated revenge story in which a traumatized, manipulated girl creates an entirely fictitious identity for herself and her (also traumatized) sister, meticulously planning to frame a man for murder. The hand of the author as deus ex machina is a bit too obvious throughout, and there’s very little feeling of true tension as to whether the wrongdoers will be caught and punished, or the innocent vindicated and helped. The characters are out of melodrama, and those whose actions and behaviors are truly odd are never viewed as such by those around them, which detracts from any sense of reality.

Last Cast at a Baggage Auction by Eric J. Guignard. 2/5
Dear authors, you know, when you set a book in the past, a past when people often used homophobic and transphobic terms in everyday conversation, that doesn’t mean that YOU need to use those terms in your characters’ conversations. You can establish the setting in ways that don’t perpetuate harm. The protagonist in this novella is a crude, immature jerk, which is too bad because his being so has no real role or purpose in the overall premise, which is a pretty good one involving the intersection of technology and the supernatural.

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow. 3/5
This is a book that preaches to the choir. If you understand everything Doctorow writes about here in terms of cybersecurity and government ops and private industry-as government, then it’s a mostly fun ride through the chaos of modern warfare and political force while watching the narrator develop a conscience, or at least kind of a conscience. If you don’t know much about this, then you might find this hard going. It could be educational, which I think is one of Doctorow’s motives in publishing it, but you’ll still need other sources on ethical hacking and related topics.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong. 3/5
Former lovers who are the scions of their families’ gangs team up to fight a supernatural monster in 1920s Shanghai. Using Romeo and Juliet as inspiration, this novel is full of Shakespearean easter eggs for those in the know, and a fine creature-horror read for those who aren’t. The author does a nice job weaving together the supernatural, political, and personal strands of the story, and captures the complexity of the time period well. Many of the characters, though, are undeveloped sketches, and I could have done without the cliched ending of “but wait, there’s more,” especially I don’t think a continuation is necessary or even the best route to take with the premise.

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson. 5/5
I read this in a blaze–not because it was bad, but because it is a fantastic ride of a horror story of the creature variety, with fights and twists and poignant moments and some very true high school student behaviors and a Final Girl to blow away all other Final Girls. In a small town in Oregon, the local med-tech company starts experimenting on high school students, and as you’d expect, things do not go well. Altered students rampage, killing and infecting the town, while adults fall into induced comas, only to be murdered by said students. Lucia, who has been a survivor all her life, leads a handful of friends though a harrowing pursuit as they seek shelter and safety. It’s a terrific race against attackers and time to the very last page. If you like horror, creatures, conspiracies, big business gone bad, people getting their comeuppances, and Strong Female Protagonists, you’re going to love this.

Machine by Elizabeth Bear. 5/5
A space opera the incorporates aliens, the Marie Celeste, hospital drama, disability, sabotage, and jumping through space–Machine has it all. Bear brings disability and physical otherness to the fore with her openly disabled protagonist, Dr. Jens, and the many different other forms of sapient life aboard the ambulance and hospital where they work in space. All of the various threads and themes of the novel are beautifully woven together, and the result is a thriller that is a blast to read.

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. 5/5
The Hollow Places is a wonderfully spooky delight. Kara and Simon show that you can be both from the American South and intelligent and SFF fans. I love that they have this experience together–that this isn’t one of those novels where only one character has a strange experience that can never be believed or understood by anyone else. I love that their relationship is one of growing friendship, and that romance is off the table. I love the realness and honesty of all of the characters’ voices I love the consideration of how things in one world or dimension have consequences in another, eve if it’s as seemingly small as missing work–no “and when we got back, only 5 minutes had passed!” tricks here. The atmospheres of the two worlds Kara and Simon experience are beautifully crafted and written, and the Hollow Places are scary as hell.

Body Talk by Kelly Jensen. 3/5
This is a collection of essays by people with bodily differences and disabilities for disabled or bodily different readers. The authors include writers and advocates and activists, musicians and actors and others, all of whom share their experiences with their bodies in a society where they are treated as Other. Topics range from body positivity and fat acceptance to gender identity, from using makeup to scoliosis, from eating dosorders to paralysis. Many of the essays are good–well-written and compelling. Others are weaker, and there is repetition among the essays that probably should have been avoided. But overall, this is an appropriate collection for readers who are unaware or only somewhat aware of how society treats bodily difference and how the different or disabled experience society.

The Conductors by Nicole Glover. 3/5
A nice historical mystery, with magic added in. Hattie and Benjy are former enslaved people who have worked as Conductors on the Underground Railroad–guides with magical powers who helped other enslaver people escape to the North. Now settled in Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Civil War, they are called on to help newly arrived freed people and solve mysteries. In this novel the couple is faced with a killer who marks their victims with magic commonly thought of as “cursed,” and find their own friends and relatives targeted for violence. An interesting concept, and the characters–who are initially somewhat unlikeable–develop and become more interesting and sympathetic as the story progresses.

The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan. 1/5
In this mannered, 1950s-styled novel, a Bletchley Park alumna-turned-informal-spy and her husband, reunited after WWII, seek out a Soviet spy amidst the churches of London. The woman has poor communication skills, loves churches more than her husband, and is oblivious about many things, despite being called a person with great observation and pattern-finding skills; her husband is jealous, a chauvinist, and has poor communication skills; this is not a functional relationship and throughout I kept telling the woman to leave, but she didn’t. There is a lot of pressing of hands and bodies before dramatic turning away from each other, all very 1940s novels kinds of things. The spy hunt also lacks drama or much interest, and of course the spy is found to be close to home for the protagonists.

Where am I? August-November 2020

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 the next few months. All times Central.

13 August: Poetry Reading at Writespace Houston on Facebook Live. No Facebook account necessary. 7 pm.

14 August: YouTube premiere of The Harbingers, a one-act a cappella opera with music by Rosśa Crean and libretto by me. Recorded in performance on 31 October 2019 at Rosehill Cemetery’s May Chapel in Chicago. 7 pm.

20 September: Curating Your Poetry Chapbook workshop through Writespace Houston. Join me in this workshop and learn about curating a chapbook manuscript that you can submit to publishers or publish yourself. We’ll talk about how to choose which of your poems to include, put them in an order that makes sense from an artistic and literary point of view, and prepare them for submission or self-publishing. 3 pm.

24 September: “Using Your ‘Research Pantry’,” workshop, Texas Music Library Association and American Musicological Society-Southwest Chapter joint meeting, 2 pm.

26 September and 3 October: Writing About Ghosts workshop through Writespace Houston. In this workshop, we’ll discuss finding inspiration in history and historical materials; how to research the past for your work and keep track of what you find; how to approach writing about the past in terms of language, like using slang and speaking conventions of different time periods; and develop new or on-going projects that beckon the ghosts of the past into our words.

Reviews: New SFF, the cities we live in, and drama

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 ed. Jonathan Strahan. 5/5
An excellent collection of short SFF stories from writers who are now very well known and others who deserve to be. What’s especially nice about this anthology is the inclusion of stories by famous authors that haven’t been widely anthologized elsewhere, and that play against the author’s type a little bit. Strahan’s introduction is long and repetitive, and could have used considerable editing, but you can skip it and get right to the stories.

The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan. 1/5
In this mannered, 1950s-styled novel, a Bletchley Park alumna-turned-informal-spy and her husband, reunited after WWII, seek out a Soviet spy amidst the churches of London. The woman has poor communication skills, loves churches more than her husband, and is oblivious about many things, despite being called a person with great observation and pattern-finding skills; her husband is jealous, a chauvinist, and has poor communication skills; this is not a functional relationship and throughout I kept telling the woman to leave, but she didn’t. There is a lot of pressing of hands and bodies before dramatic turning away from each other, all very 1940s novels kinds of things. The spy hunt also lacks drama or much interest, and of course the spy is found to be close to home for the protagonists.

The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister. 1/5
In this novel, told through a courtroom drama and flashbacks, a young woman is in trial for the death of one of her companions in a catastrophically bad expedition to the Arctic. Virginia Reeves is hired by a wealthy woman whose husband and his crew have disappeared in the Arctic. Reeves’s background is as a guide for colonists in the American West, which does not make her the right person to lead this expedition, as the novel shows: she’s not a good leader or planner in almost every situation the author throws at her. Ultimately, members of the expedition die, Reeves is charged, and as her trial takes place, various secrets come to light. For a book about the Arctic, there’s remarkably little about the expedition’s time there; and there’s nothing that gives us any indication of why Reeves gets her nickname of “The Arctic Fury.” There’s even less about most of the other expedition members, and not nearly enough about their relationships to get any real sense of how they all operated together, or why these relationships cause such hand-wringing in Reeves’s mind. In short, this is a novel trying, perhaps, to be a bit gothic, but which just left me wondering why all of the characters were so incompetent and why I should care about any of them.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. 5/5
Black Sun is the first in a series, a powerful and compelling introduction to a SFF world based on the cultures, cities, and religions of indigenous, Pre-Columbian American civilizations. Full of detail and depth and complex, conflicted characters, it is written with great skill and beautiful timing and plotting. Everything about this feels real and immediate, and there is so much more I can’t wait to learn about the cultures presented here, the characters, and, of course, what happens next. The book ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, albeit one constructed so well that it also feels like an appropriate point to pause, so be prepared. But go read it, right now.

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars; Kurt Kohlstedt. 3/5
A nicely illustrated overview of basic architectural and civil engineering objects and design in use in modern cities, this book offers short histories and vignettes about relay stations, urban reuse, warning symbols, manhole covers, and other things we encounter in daily city life. The histories are interesting enough, but rarely include the systemic issues that have contributed to the reasons for why many things as they are; a notable omission is the fact that overpasses across the Southern State Parkway were designed to keep buses (implicitly only used by BIPOC) from accessing the beaches the Parkway went to. A section on water fountains focuses on those in the UK, sidestepping discussion of the segregated fountains of Jim Crow America. Coverage of claiming stakes in the 1800s in the US briefly mentions that the “government began to force indigenous peoples into an area called Indian Territory [….] later, tribes were again forced to relocate.” This wasn’t relocation: it was genocide. There *is* a section of curb cuts, a major accessibility issue, but it treats disability activists as inspiration porn. Overall, this is a pleasant and interesting but a bit superficial book; those who enjoy it will want to search out more detailed and nuanced materials for further reading.

Warmaidens by Kelly Coon. 2/5
I really enjoyed Coon’s Gravemaidens, the first book in this series, so I eagerly anticipated this sequel. It was, however, a disappointment. The plot is a a bit of a retread of the first book–remove the evil despot–and the characters are universally flat. They’ve all been saddled with new abilities as well as each now having a more significant flaw, but it feels like these attributes have been added as if the characters leveled up, like in D&D. The characters experience failure after failure, and while failure is great for plot, the characters need to be learning from those failures–and these never seem to do that, which is enormously frustrating. While it’s good to see that the feminist ethos of the first book is still very present, it feels much more self-conscious in this volume, often expressed through interior character monologues rather than by actions and actual conversations between characters. In addition, readers will not be able to understand what’s happening in this book, from plot to character development and relationships, without having read the first book.

Upcoming workshops at Writespace Houston

Join me for my upcoming workshops at Writespace Houston (you don’t need to live in Houston to join!):

Curating Your Poetry Chapbook
Chapbooks and poetry collections are staples of the poetry world–but how do they come together?
INSTRUCTOR: Kendra Preston Leonard
TIME: Sunday, September 20th, 3:00 – 6:00 PM CDT
PRICE: Early-Bird until Tuesday, Sept.15th: $45 for members, $60 for non-members. After Tuesday, Sept. 15th: $55 for members, $70 for non-members. Become a member here. Scholarships available here.
LOCATION: Online via Zoom
CAP: 15
Got poems? One way to get them out in the world is to publish them individually in magazines and journals, but it’s by no means the only way. Chapbooks and poetry collections are staples of the poetry world–but how do they come together?
In this workshop, bring your work and learn about curating a chapbook manuscript that you can submit to publishers or even publish yourself. We’ll talk about choosing which of your poems to include, putting them in an order that makes sense from an artistic and literary point of view, and preparing them for submission or self-publishing. All levels of experience are welcome, and you don’t need to have a lot of poems written yet to learn about the process.
Writing About Ghosts
In this class, we’ll explore using history in writing.
INSTRUCTOR: Kendra Preston Leonard
TIME: Starts Saturday September 26th and runs until Saturday, October 3rd, with scheduled video chat sessions on two Saturdays, September 26th and October 3rd, 10 – 11:30 AM CDT
PRICE: Early-Bird until Monday, Sept. 21st: $85 for members, $100 for non-members. After Monday, Sept. 21st: $100 for members, $115 for non-members. Become a member here. Scholarships available here.
LOCATION: Online via Zoom and Google Classroom
CAP: 15
History surrounds us and makes our world what it is. Every object, every sidewalk, every house or jail or meeting spot is dappled with layers of stories, events, and emotions. In this class, we’ll explore using history in writing, whether you’re interested in historical novels, writing a family history, or creating an epic poem about a famous—or notorious–event. We’ll talk about how to find inspiration in history and historical materials; research the past for your work and keep track of what you find; approach writing about the past in terms of language, like using slang and speaking conventions of different time periods; and develop new or on-going projects that beckon the ghosts of the past into our words.

Experience The Harbingers on YouTube

Join me on August 14, 2020 at 7:30 pm Central time for the YouTube premiere of The Harbingers, a cappella opera with music by Rosśa Crean and a libretto by yours truly. I’ll post the link for the video on the 14th.

The Harbingers was premiered on Halloween night 2019 at Chicago’s beautiful Rosehill Cemetery in the beautiful Horatio N. May Chapel.

Composed for 10 vocalists, The Harbingers brings together mythical gods of death to debate the ultimate fate of a doctor who has recently died. The Celtic Donn sings the afterworld into existence, where the doctor’s Soul finds herself surrounded by soft light and a gentle breeze, and in the company of the psychopomp and angel of death Azrael. But this calm moment ends abruptly as gods of the afterlife arrive to take the soul to their realms. The Soul is claimed first by Hel of Norse legend, and then the Morrigan of the Celtic world. The Turkic and Mongolian god Erlik, too, lays claim to the Soul, and the arguing gods call upon the Greek Fates–Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos–to judge their claims. This process is interrupted by the appearance of Sekhmet, a god of Egyptian myth, who tries to woo the Soul, promising her great things. As the Fates examine the Soul’s life, the complexities of that life repel some gods and attract others, and the Soul must decide whether to accept the invitations of a death god, be reborn, or leave the destiny of her afterlife up to chance in the river that leads to the afterworlds.

Best of Summer Reading, Part 1

A quick round-up of my 5-star books for the summer so far:

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.

Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.

This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.

Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. 5/5
Uncrowned Queen is an excellent biography of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and a savvy political figure active in the Wars of the Roses. Thoroughly researched, the book is an entertaining and detailed read, and Tallis does a great job of making all of the often complicated bloodlines and inheritances clear and relevant. Readers interested in the Tudors and their history will enjoy this account of Margaret’s careful planning and plots to install her son on the throne, as well as the detail Tallis provides on Margaret’s estates, clothes, and jewelry, all managed and and used for specific purposes to secure her life, that of her her heir, and her freedom and positions over the course of her life.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. 5/5
This is a luminous book, a guide to Macdonald’s life and ways of thinking, and, along, the way, a meditation on birds and nature and change and cows and falcons and deer. I can’t wait to be able to give this book to people who love words and nature and will savor every poetic phrase and observation.

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa. 5/5
A stunning and magnificent book about World War II in Japan and America that everyone should read. Serizawa’s writing is beautiful, brash, and wholly enthralling as she charts the emotions and reactions and relationships that touch on one Japanese family over many generations. Serizawa’s tiny details, a sense or proportion, and the ability to write unflinchingly about horror and trauma make this book outstanding.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
A gorgeous Gothic novel full of the traditional elements of the genre, expertly handled and made interesting and new again. Moreno-Garcia gives readers a lot of hints throughout, but while they were obvious it never felt too heavy-handed. Her use of characters who can communicate in both English and Spanish, keeping non-Spanish speakers from understanding, was a good device, but could have been more powerful if she’d replaced Spanish with an indigenous language to further emphasize difference and the eugenicist beliefs of certain characters. The novel serves as a fantastic allegory for colonization and corruption.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna. 5/5
This is a wonderful book about the power of women and allyship and playing the long game to achieve something truly spectacular. Young women, ostracized from their communities, are trained as warriors….but when the biggest battle comes, there is a startling and liberating secret that has to come out. I loved this book, which draws from West African myth and lore, has well-developed and diverse characters, and is masterpiece of layered stories and motivations.

Devolution by Max Brooks. 5/5
Having taken on zombies in World War Z, Max Brooks now tackles Bigfoot/Sasquatch in his new novel. Like World War Z, Devolution is structured as a journalistic account, using interviews, diaries, and other materials from the world of the novel to create a fast-paced and compelling thriller about one so-called utopia and how its residents handle the arrival of aggressive and hungry Sasquatch after Mount Rainier erupts. The characters are deftly created, and I appreciated the fact that women were the main characters and leaders of the group. Anyone who has enjoyed Brooks’s other work, likes dystopias or apocalyptic settings, or likes tales of the unknown will get a kick out of this fun and clever book.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek. 5/5
An astonishing and brilliant book intended to–and effective at–capturing the world and language of late 14th-century England. A former priest, an archer, and a noblewoman on the run find themselves traveling together to Calais in a time of plague, war, and uncertainty. Exploring social mores, religious belief, gender, sexuality, politics, and more, Meek creates a wondrous tale of resistance and persistence.

Premiere of Fire and Dust

Get your tickets now to the NEO Voice Festival, being held online July 24-25, 2020, to hear the premiere performance of Stephen Vincent Casellas‘s settings of two my poems in his new work “Fire and Dust” for soprano, piano, and fixed electronics. Here is the text:

“Isolation and Old Observance”
Mind your fire at home,
so come May it will burn in the fields.
Watch for the dawn through the window,
as the Bede searched for her in his books.
Make three joyful leaps alone,
to have dancing together this summer.
Apart on the land, feed the hares their crops,
apples in sun on the cross-quarter day.

“Ossuary Garden”
under artfully arranged brambles bodies
each creates cathedrals of ribs where
the grubs may take communion,
where each offers vertebral apartments
for beetles, side by side by side,
or feeds the ever-growing rosebush

beneath, tunneling, building, knocking down
like the sea to sandcastles the once-cat
feeding the ever-growing rosebush

gone-hound enriching the violets and weeds
feeding the ever-growing rosebush