Hello, my dear blog readers! Hopefully you are cozy and warm while reading this. You may have noticed I didn’t post any book reviews for October. I’m combining October and November’s reviews because of National Novel Writing Month. Once NaNoWriMo started, it practically took over my life. Everything else had to wait. So here are all of the reviews in one post. Thanks for your patience!
Remember, the following reviews will cover what worked well in the books I read. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
Let’s start with the one that left me most aggrieved. When I picked up A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims, I couldn’t wait to read it. Here was another Two Dollar Radio (my favorite small press publisher) book and it had excellent reviews. Even better, it was about zombies in Louisiana, a state I rarely find represented in stories. Throw in the added bonus of an experimental form and I couldn’t wait to dig in. I quickly realized this book wasn’t something I was going to enjoy. The novel was not my cup of tea, and I could go on—in great detail—about why, but for now, let’s just focus on the positive.
Synopsis from the Two Dollar Radio website:
Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
What worked well:
- If you’re going to use footnotes in a novel, you may as well go all out. Usually, footnotes work in academic texts and not novels because different pacing is needed; you study an academic text, taking time to ruminate on the words written on the page, while you expect to read at a steady pace through a novel. And, indeed, don’t expect A Questionable Shape to be well paced—the length and pervasiveness of the footnotes destroy any hope for that right away. But, if one insists on using footnotes in a novel, why not use them like you would in an academic textbook? After all, footnotes are often used to reference something else. Sims does that in his novel as well, making the footnotes a vehicle for Vermaelen’s endless references and internal diatribes.
- Taking a step back from the gore and violence usually associated with zombies, to consider our humanity and what makes us human, is never a bad thing. Sims does this in his novel and, while I didn’t find it all to be successful, I did greatly appreciate his refreshing attempt.
Who should read A Questionable Shape:
- Those who hate genre fiction, especially zombie novels
- Fans of dead philosophers and run-of-the-mill masculine heroes
- Readers who enjoy long-winded jeremiads
- Those who appreciate a Nick Carraway-like narrator
A friend recommended I read Dubliners by James Joyce after I mentioned that I wanted to read Ulysses for my 2019 reading challenge, which consists of classics published before the 1950s. Taking her up on her advice, I picked up an annotated and illustrated copy of the book from the Bellevue Public Library. I think what left me the most satisfied was Joyce’s daring. His publication attempts fell through many times, but he didn’t give up. He insisted his stories, of which possess little of the modern short story structure preached about in MFA classes, be published and—in an age where self-publishing was a great deal more difficult—finally managed to make it happen. Needless to say, I find his persistence thrilling, even if I found the actual stories to be less so.
Synopsis from Amazon:
Detailed notes accompany fifteen short stories that evoke the character, atmosphere, and people of Dublin at the turn of the century
What worked well:
- Joyce gives us a peek into Dublin: its people, its pleasures, and its pitfalls. After reading so many novels by English writers, it’s a relief to read something about Ireland, from where the majority of my ancestors emigrated.
- Joyce’s characters are more complex than they first appear to be. It is the complexities of these characters that most intrigued me.
Who should read Dubliners:
- Readers who appreciate stories that don’t adhere to contemporary short story structures
- Those who may be interested in Dublin, especially during the early 20th century
- Readers who enjoy narrators of different ages
- Fans of free indirect discourse
With my La Vista Public Library card, I checked out a book titled Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis, which happened to be shelved in the adult fiction section despite the novel’s young adult narrator. Likely the librarians understood that serial murders via cannibalism might be viewed as more of an adult topic. I was at first intrigued by Maren’s ghoulishness, especially since this was toted in some spheres as a feminist novel, and indeed the story started out strong. But it quickly fell apart, feminist undertones and all. In addition, the author’s note about veganism—equating the cannibalism of the novel to eating animals—really tainted the book for me. Still, Bones & All is memorable for a lot of reasons, and there is something to be said about Maren’s own personal journey to find herself and embrace who she is, even if the result is horrifying.
Synopsis from Macmillan’s website:
Maren Yearly is a young woman who wants the same things we all do. She wants to be someone people admire and respect. She wants to be loved. But her secret, shameful needs have forced her into exile. She hates herself for the bad thing she does, for what it’s done to her family and her sense of identity; for how it dictates her place in the world and how people see her–how they judge her. She didn’t choose to be this way.
Because Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them. Ever since her mother found Penny Wilson’s eardrum in her mouth when Maren was just two years old, she knew life would never be normal for either of them. Love may come in many shapes and sizes, but for Maren, it always ends the same-with her hiding the evidence and her mother packing up the car.
But when her mother abandons her the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, and finds much more than she bargained for along the way.
Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she’s looking for herself.
Camille DeAngelis’ Bones & All is an astonishingly original coming-of-age tale that is at once a gorgeously written horror story as well as a mesmerizing meditation on female power and sexuality.
What worked well:
- When is the last time you’ve read anything about a ghoul? I mean zombies? Sure. Ghosts? You bet. Ghouls? I’ll wait. Even if you’ve read fifteen ghoul books lately, it’s always interesting to read a book from the perspective of a monster—not anti-heroes but villains. After all, Maren kills people by eating them. As revolting as cannibalism is—and it’s quite disgusting in the book—you have to admit that the common hero tales out there don’t always cut it. Sometimes you want to know what the villain thinks. Maren’s humanity, which wars with her ghoulish tendencies, creates excellent tension.
- It makes my skin crawl a little to remember how well the descriptions worked in this novel. Even when the violence is implied, DeAngelis gives us just enough to continue to freak us out. And the devil is always in the details.
Who should read Bones & All:
- Fans of books about damsels in distress and their handsome saviors
- Those who enjoy books with speculative elements, especially horror and fantasy
- Readers who enjoy books from the perspective of the villain
- Those who can stomach violence and gore
I wanted to read some more poetry, so I decided to take Blue Horses by Mary Oliver out of my to-be-read pile. Perusing Oliver’s biography, I figured out she was born in Ohio, like me. I ended up enjoying reading Blue Horses and was moved by several of the poems.
Synopsis from the Penguin Random House website:
In this stunning collection of new poems, Mary Oliver returns to the imagery that has defined her life’s work, describing with wonder both the everyday and the unaffected beauty of nature.
Herons, sparrows, owls, and kingfishers flit across the page in meditations on love, artistry, and impermanence. Whether considering a bird’s nest, the seeming patience of oak trees, or the artworks of Franz Marc, Oliver reminds us of the transformative power of attention and how much can be contained within the smallest moments.
At its heart, Blue Horses asks what it means to truly belong to this world, to live in it attuned to all its changes. Humorous, gentle, and always honest, Oliver is a visionary of the natural world.
What worked well:
- I can’t honestly claim to be the best judge of poetry. However, I can tell you what I find enjoyable. I found Oliver’s poems to be plainspoken but witty and accessible. I especially enjoyed the good-natured jab at Whitman and Leaves of Grass.
- The poems were also full of beautiful nature imagery. As someone who has a deep appreciation for natural landscapes, I love when a poet can capture the loveliness and mystery of said places with their chosen words. Oliver does this with a noticeable wisdom.
Who should read Blue Horses:
- Readers who enjoy nature imagery
- Fans of well-written, plainspoken poems
- Those who appreciate witty mischief
- Readers who want to read the work of a well-established poet
Around Halloween, I wanted to read a ghost story. I finally cracked open This House is Haunted by John Boyne. It’s likely you may recognize Boyne’s more famous work, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I didn’t realize he’d written that book when I won This House is Haunted from a giveaway by Other Press. So I began the book without any expectations—aside from wanting a good ghost story. The book is written in “Dickensian prose” and even features Dickens as a character in the beginning. So it starts out bold. I was intrigued. In the end, though, the story was too formulaic and the characters were too flat for my tastes.
Synopsis from the Other Press website:
Written in Dickensian prose, This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.
From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past. Clever, captivating, and witty, This House Is Haunted is pure entertainment with a catch.
What worked well:
- I did enjoy Boyne’s prose. He seemed to capture the vernacular of the time period, which was probably a difficult and tedious task to pull off as a writer.
- The supernatural happenings were interesting enough. Who doesn’t enjoy a deadly, vengeful ghost from time to time? Though I really wish I’d known more about the ghost herself, Eliza’s encounters with the specter kept me reading.
Who should read This House is Haunted:
- Fans of “Dickensian prose”
- Readers who enjoy ghost stories, especially ones set in the 19th century
- Those who enjoy stories about motherhood
- Readers who like stories about English class politics
After a month of reading stories I didn’t particularly love, I was nervous to start The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. After all, the book had received a lot of hype, which made me instantly skeptical. But when I began to read Jemisin’s work, my heart soared. Here was a writer that could challenge me, that could make me think, that could offer me new ways of looking at language. Her work reminded me so much of geniuses like Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler. Jemisin gave me an entertaining story, complex characters, and sentences that would make any seasoned writer green with envy. Add that to the way she examines identity and plays with point of view and there’s nothing left to say but I love this book.
Synopsis from Hachette’s website:
This is the way the world ends…for the last time.
A season of endings has begun.
It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.
It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.
It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.
This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.
What worked well:
- It’s much more of a challenge to find what didn’t work well in this book. As I mentioned before, the way Jemisin plays with point of view and then ties that into identity is genius. Downright genius. It thrilled me. But I can’t really say more than that without massive spoilers—so go read it and find out!
- Not many writers can pull off an interesting plot and complex characters. Usually it’s either one or the other (or in some cases, neither). Jemisin does this flawlessly. She gives us people who naturally wield the earth as a weapon and as a result are feared and subjugated. The story avoids many of the major cliches usually found in speculative genres and improves upon the tropes it does tap into. I am still a little stunned by the awesomeness that is The Fifth Season.
Who should read The Fifth Season:
(Um, anyone who reads? Like, this story is awesome. C’mon. Okay fine.)
- Readers who enjoy science fiction, fantasy, and horror
- Veteran speculative readers looking for something challenging and exciting
- Those who enjoy stories that grapple with ideas of identity and power
- Fans of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison
So I’ve had some poetry collections sitting on my shelf for quite a while now and I decided to go ahead and read them. I started with 3arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck. While not my favorite poetry collection, I did enjoy Beck’s tribute to Arab singers.
Synopsis from the Rattle website:
3arabi Song is a song of sorrow and joy, death and dance. Yes there is unrest, war, and displacement in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt. But there is also survival, music, and love. Iconic Arab singers like Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and Abdel Halim Hafez, inhabit these poems—they mourn and celebrate. So do children, parents, refugees, and lovers. These poems want to hum you stories that straddle the personal and the political, in an English riddled with Arabic words. The voices in them want to mourn for loved ones and broken homelands, but they also want to sing, as Asmahan does, ‘inta inta imta—you you when / will you know I love you.’
What worked well:
- Beck does a nice job balancing the political with the personal in this collection. Balance in general, I think, is a quality of her work that should be praised. There’s a balance between Arabic and English (the translation notes at the end help a great deal), between tragedy and triumph, between influences of the West and influences of the Middle East. The result is a robust collection, filled with interesting juxtapositions.
- Another wonderful aspect of 3arabi Song is the examination of song and language. I found Beck’s explanation of Arabizi to be particularly interesting.
Who should read 3arabi Song:
- Readers who enjoy poems in multiple languages
- Those who appreciate Arabic songs and culture
- Fans of poems using refrains
- Those who may be interested in learning more about Arabizi
The other poetry collection I’d acquired from Rattle was Turn Left Before Morning by April Salzano. This collection by a mother of a child with autism really struck a chord with me.
Synopsis from the Rattle website:
Turn Left Before Morning explores the daily struggles involved in parenting a child with autism. These poems map a mother’s quest for understanding of a world that requires a significant shift in perspective and a new definition of what it means to love a child. The key to navigating the rough terrain of autism is not something she discovers, but is instead something that has been subtly guiding her all along: autism is as wonderful as it is terrifying, as humorous as it is heartbreaking, in alternating and equal measure.
What worked well:
- The brutal honesty offered in these poems makes this collection undeniably strong. Each felt like a strong punch to the gut.
- There is a lot of beauty in this complex relationship between mother and son. The plainspoken poems reflect this with gripping and convicting language that has the power to move the reader.
Who should read Turn Left Before Morning:
- Readers seeking poems about autism
- Parents of children with autism
- Fans of plainspoken poems
- Those who can appreciate and grapple with complex situations and relationships
The final poetry collection I’d been meaning to read was The Language of Rain and Wind by John Krumberger. I picked this out of a “free books” giveaway pile at Creighton University, because I was intrigued by the title. I found the poems to be interesting enough to keep me reading.
In lieu of a synopsis, here are some quotes of praise about The Language of Rain and Wind from the Backwaters Press website:
‘In poems sometimes elegiac, sometimes celebratory, often both, John Krumberger acknowledges his self-appointed task: “as a Scorpio who feels / the ground beneath the ground, / I lay my ear down to hear / the rocky, carbon, root-ash loam / breeding with the old year’s bones.” Past and present commingle in beautiful and disturbing ways to create “rank, rain-watered, worm-riddled” layers, and The Language of Rain and Wind is replete with modest gestures that offer “brisk benediction before quicklime and dark.” Oddly affirmative, these poems born of passionate listening speak as naturally as the elements and touch us as rain and wind might, lightly, but with memorable effect.’
• Michael Waters – Author of Darling Vulgarity
‘These empathetic poems are rich with the realities of other lives. John Krumberger doesn’t miss much: there is a wide (and deep) range of concerns in these pages. Here is a writer who knows how to listen and to watch, who can make vividly surprising, daring imaginative connections without raising his voice; the complexities are all the more strongly felt for the overall naturalness of his manner and the skillful quietness of his voice. These are indelibly human poems; I loved reading them.’
• Michael Dennis Browne – Author of Things I Can’t Tell You
What worked well:
- Beautiful images and sensory details bring the poems to life on the page.
- The third section, which expresses intimate moments with patients, was rather striking. Many of the lines delivered there were haunting and powerful.
Who should read The Language of Rain and Wind:
- Those interested in psychology
- Fans of poems rich with sensory details and striking images
- Readers who like poems focused on human relations
- Fans of poems about nature
I read #43 through #45 in the Ghost City Press micro-chapbook series. You can find all of them here.