Tiffany Ng is one of the world’s top carillonists in addition to being an excellent scholar and teacher. She has rung bells old and new, commissioned new music for carillons, and teaches at the University of Michigan, where she’s developing all sorts of new resources for carillonists. She’s a strong advocate for making sure that works by minority composers are performed, and has recently written two guides for helping performers and instructors program more diverse composers. Check out her outstanding (and open access!) “International Bibliography of Carillon Music by Women, Nonbinary, and Transgender Composers” and her (also open access) annotated bibliography of African American carillon music (originally published in the journal GCNA Bulletin).
If you’d like to perform the piece, you can buy a digital download (in multiple keys, even!) from Lisa’s site. I’d love for this to become part of singers’ repertoires.
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.
A Flood of Posies by Tiffany Meuret. 1/5
This dystopian SFF novel mixes supernatural floods, addicts, betrayals, strange new aquatic life, extreme and terrible metaphors and similes, and hackneyed conventions into a nearly unreadable narrative without any compelling characters or real plot lines.
An Alternative History of Britain: The Tudors by Timothy Venning. 1/5
What if this book had actually explored the consequences of radical differences in Tudor history? What if the author had not just repeated known histories? What if the editor had asked the author to write shorter, more direct sentences? What if the author wasn’t so enamored with the passive voice and long tangents? If this book had been an alternative version of what it is, it might have been interesting and even maybe good.
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.
Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti. 1/5
A gothic novel with all of the trappings: dead children, a spooky house, murky personal histories, sleepwalking, the lot. While the set up–missing girls and young women in a small New England town–is fine and the primary setting of the house and grounds detailed and interesting, none of the characters are very compelling or deep. The author’s reliance on the trope of mad women, jealous women, and vengeful women perpetuates stigmas against the mentally ill and the longstanding stereotype of women as unstable, unable to communicate clearly, devious, and two-faced. There are also several inconsistencies and poorly-reasoned aspects to the story that undermine its chances of being successful for careful readers.
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.
Seven Endless Forests by April Genevieve Tucholke. 3/5
Drawing heavily on Arthurian myth (and names) as well as Norse, Welsh, Italian, and other mythologies and folklores, this fantasy novel is narrated by Torvi, a young woman on a quest to reclaim her younger sister, an addict, from a group of “wolf-priests” who get high on yew berry poison and ravage villages and settlements, killing nearly everyone in their paths. Torvi teams up with a druid, a group of knife-wielding bards, and a band of archers to track down Uther, the leader of the wolf-priests. But each character also has a quest–pulling a legendary sword from a tree, translating a book of tales, conjuring a ghostly king. While Tucholke has some truly brilliant ideas and descriptions of original and fantastic people, places, and things, the narrator herself remains very flat and two-dimensional, as does her sister, whose arc readers will predict from miles and miles away. The dialogue doesn’t help–sometimes it’s very formal and flowery and at other times casual and more modern, even between the same characters in similar circumstances. And the references to pre-existing myths are often heavy-handed: Torvi’s mother is named Igraine, a child named Pellinore creates a round table, a knight named Lionel passes through. Tucholke’s idea of renaming places by slightly changing real-world place names is also grating: there’s an island of Creet, for example. The Kindle copy I read also had a lot of strike-throughs and replaced words, and these show that simpler words are often replaced by more elaborate ones. I’d advise the author and editor to resist this: it’s done so often that it distances the story from the reader and makes it more difficult to empathize with the characters. The epilogue seems akin to simply writing “time passes” and sets up a sequel, but the novel would be stronger with a chapter that didn’t try to summarize so many things: it reads like a report.. All in all, this is a solid draft of a novel with some excellent and imaginative ideas that just needs to add some more depth to the characters, particularly Torvi, to be a real stand-out.
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.
There have been a plethora of articles and posts online about Shakespeare writing King Lear and other plays during an outbreak of plague in London in 1606. These pieces of writing range from the (supposedly) inspirational to the historical, and can be found to suit every outlook–those who think this period should be used to create or learn or better ourselves, those who push back at that notion, those who are just exhausted by it all.
My poem “Rewriting King Lear in a Time of Pandemic” is a response to all of these writings and ideas, and is published today by TEJASCOVIDO, an extraordinary poetry project run by Laurence Musgrove, professor of English at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, who has done a great service to readers and writers seeking to explore and discuss and dramatize and take stock of out different experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tomorrow, April 30, 2020, 89.9 FM in Portland–All Classical Portland–will broadcast “Strawberry Man” by Lisa Neher and me, as performed by Arwen Myers in her Artslandia broadcast from last week. Tune in at 3 pm Pacific time to hear it and four other pieces from Arwen’s recital. Here’s the full line-up:
Emerson Eads: Of Life & Light
William White: Vocalise
Lisa Neher: Strawberry Man
Stacey Philips: In the Moment
Nicholas Emerson: Smells Like Quarantine Spirit
The Garden of Lost Memories by Ruby Hummingbird. 1/5
A novel very obviously targeted to appeal to fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, this work focuses on the development of a friendship between Elsie Maple, in her 60s and traumatized by her past, and Billy, age 10, who moves in next door to Elsie when his mother takes him and flees her violent husband. There are trials and tears but everything works out well in the end with happiness (much of it apparently connected with wealth) and positive personality and relationship changes for everyone. While the third-person narration for Elsie’s story was ok, the first-person narration for Billy’s was uneven. Sometimes the author succeed in making him sound like a child, but too often the narration slipped into a far more mature and worldly voice, making it seem as if Billy’s first-person narration was shifting between his actual youth and later childhood memories.
While I’m sure some readers will weep over this one, I found it derivative and manipulative, mawkish and tedious.
The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson. 2/5
Angry teens with terrible parents deal with the aftermath of a school shooting. It was difficult at times, however, to feel sympathetic for the narrators, who are pretty eager to engage in physical violence. There are some grammar errors of the “mom drove Jordan and I to school” type, and I don’t know what a violinist would be doing in band. Although the author includes a long note at the end of the book stating that people shouldn’t blame or stigmatize mental illness because of school shootings, she still uses pejorative language in the book.
Creeping Jenny by Jeff Noon. 3/5
An entertaining pastiche of noir detective novels and M. R. James’s occult stories set in small English-like towns. A bit uneven in the writing and approach, but overall a fun read, especially for fans of M. R. James, James Hynes, Angela Carter, and movies like MIdsommar.
Or What You Will by Jo Walton. 2/5
This heavily meta-conceptual novel is divided into two kinds of narration: a second/third-person narration by an author’s imaginary friend/alter ego/internal voice, and a fantasy novel, drawing heavily on Shakespeare, that the author is writing during the timeframe of the book. I enjoyed the imaginary friend narrative a lot–it’s engaging and different and a pleasure to read. It is full of fun and quirky and useful references to other books and written works. But the other half–the Shakespeare-influenced world in which Miranda has sons with both Caliban and Ferdinand (Called Ferrante) and in which visitors from the “real world” drop in and in which technological progress has been halted in exchange for an end to death–rapidly became too pedantic, much like Walton’s Thessaly novels. So this is very much a mixed bag for me.
Prelude for Lost Souls by Helene Dunbar. 2/5
I’d really like authors to do their homework when writing about music and musical instruments. A piano is central to this YA melodrama about spiritualists and ghosts set in a fascist version of Lilydale, but the author seems to think that keys are attached directly to strings. This is just one of many weird and incorrect assumptions Dunbar makes about mechanical objects–including cars–and other things in an ultimately dull story of several teenagers making decisions about their lives and futures. The characters are flaccid and their decision-making processes, though, are erratic and changeable and nonsensical, and in the end I didn’t really care what any of them did or didn’t do because they just weren’t interesting or compelling. The fascism of the town might have hit a greater nerve if it had been more present and less of an afterthought.
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.
Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie. 3/5
An uneven psychological not-quite-thriller about the lives of women in one family that was interned during the second World War in the Japanese camps. The narrator appears even-keeled and rational, until it’s apparent she isn’t at all. Her mother, whose present is a direct expression of the trauma of her time as a child in the camp, is the narrator writ large; heartbreaking scenes reveal the narrator’s grandmother as a person utterly broken by the government and circumstances. This is a work in which all of the characters are mentally ill and there’s no “normate”–only our own ideas of what that might be.
Open Fire by Amber Lough. 3/5
I enjoyed this novel about a young woman in pre-Revolutionary Russia who joins up with the all-women’s Battalion of Death in the First World War. Katya is the daughter of a dedicated Tsarist military leader, but working in an armaments factory, she becomes interested in the Bolshevik movement. She becomes an informant and decides to join the all-women’s battalion as a way of proving herself to her father, herself, and her nation. Lough offers great details about the organization and training of women in this real-life battalion, but avoids much of the political context in which it functioned historically. Ultimately, readers are left wondering how Katya’s political views will settle, and what will happen to her when the battalion’s founder is executed and the battalion is disbanded after the establishment of the communist regime.
Simantov by Asaf Ashery. 1/5
I have no idea what’s going on with this book. There are killer angels, police investigators who use tarot readers and clairvoyants and numerologists to try to solve crimes, mysterious figures with murky pasts, people who need to be in couples therapy, uncomfortable parent-child relationships, seemingly random entrances and exits and musings. I found it chaotic and not in an entertaining or well-written way. The gender struggles referred to in blurbs came across as annoying and petty rather than universal and important, and neither the characters nor the plot were compelling enough for me to give the disorganization a pass. Maybe it’s better in Hebrew?
The Figure in the Photograph by Kevin Sullivan. 1/5
This is an oddly flaccid book. The author loves the passive voice, and also seems to love characters whose behavior veers strangely from the emphatic to the disinterested, who wait for things to happen to them, and who engage with others in rather oblivious and disaffected ways. The narrator, photographer Juan Camaron, assists the Glasgow police in helping identify a serial killer by taking photos of the area in which the crimes have occurred on a regular basis, then comparing the images. He’s got a long backstory that doesn’t add much to either the plot or the character’s development, and Juan ends up being a very dull figure throughout. None of the other characters are particularly interesting or developed either, and their lack of agency makes for a very boring novel indeed.
The Forbidden Promise by Lorna Cook. 3/5
A historical mystery and a slow-burn modern romance. The romance is slow-burn only because the characters are immature and rubbish at talking to each other or thinking like adults rather than like schoolchildren. The historical mystery is more compelling, involving a downed pilot in Scotland and the daughter of the family that owns the estate on which he crashed, but both narratives drag somewhat until the reveals at the end. Not quite as good as the author’s first book, but still not a bad read.
As promised, here is a micro-chapbook of my poetry.
Many people have been writing about the fact that King Lear was written during a time when the theatres were closed due to plague, and while I didn’t like the implication that we should all be creating masterpieces as we isolate and quarantine ourselves from Covid-19, this line of thought did prompt me to re-read the play. The collection is named from it: in 3.2, the Fool sings:
The first set of poems in the collection use works and ideas from King Lear, as well as those generated by anagramming “King Lear” and “Covid” together. Other poems touch on times of personal isolation, rituals, history, and my local habitation.
Fortunes Fit is available through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license for free. You can download it here from the Humanities Commons CORE Repository.
I’ve decided to write a mini-chapbook and give it away for free before the end of March. I’m taking suggestions for poem topic–contact me on Twitter (@K_Leonard_PhD) with your recommendations!
I’m the featured writer on Oyster River Pages this week! Read my interview about writing poetry and lyrics here: https://www.oysterriverpages.com/issue-3-contributor-showcase/kendraleonard.