Assembly by Natasha Brown – A Book Review

I often pick up thin books in the “new” section at my library simply to try out authors I haven’t read before or for the experience of a quick read. I knew nothing about Assembly other than that I liked its cover and it only had about 100 pages.

Within the first ten pages of Assembly, author Natasha Brown captured my attention and never let it go.

Assembly is told from the perspective of a Black woman living in England. She’s successful in the corporate world of finance, yet that success comes with a price. No, this is not the stuff of fantasy or thrillers. This is the stuff of stifling your personality, putting up with loads of reprehensible behavior, ignoring your own desires to honor the sacrifices made on your behalf, and grinding day in and day out to finally achieve what you long ago earned.

And yet …

Our narrator can’t help but acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, especially as she visits her “old money” boyfriend’s mansion. His ancestors’ wealth was predicated upon her ancestors’ suffering, and even if a direct line of connection cannot be made, that connection remains even if tangentially so. He does nothing as his wealth grows day by day; she must make her wealth grow day by day.

There’s also the issue of her health. She’s young, ascending, and destined for great things as long as she keeps grinding, so of course she has every reason in the world to preserve her health.

Or so you would assume.

Short, potent, and brutally blunt, Assembly is a little bit novella, a little bit poem, a little bit indescribable, but very well written with a powerful voice.

If you’re looking for a book that actually says something, try Assembly by Natasha Brown.

All the Horses Of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie – A Book Review

I chose this book at my local library because it was so slim. I wasn’t familiar with the author, Sarah Tolmie, at all, nor did I have a particular interest in the horses of Iceland. However, it was touted as fantasy and published in association with Tor, so I figured it was worth a shot.

In the end, I didn’t love All the Horses Of Iceland, but I didn’t dislike it either. The premise of the novella seeks to explain how Iceland gained its horses. Great travels ensue, as does magic, ghosts, trading, and tribal warfare. Yet, even with that being said, All the Horses Of Iceland is an intimate book that doesn’t delve too deeply into any of those things. It touches the surface, offers just enough to propel the story forward, and then keeps racing to the end.

I’m not sorry I read All the Horses Of Iceland. I’m always excited to experience a new (to me) author, but I can’t necessarily say I’d recommend it, either. I believe there is an audience for this book, it’s simply not me.

News Of the World by Paulette Jiles – A Book Review

I’ll be honest, I grabbed this book from my local library’s shelf because I recognized the cover from HBO Max and it looked like a fast read. I have not seen the movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks, nor did I particularly want to. You see, from the trailers I watched, the story did not seem all that appealing. A man riding from town to town reading newspapers? No thanks.

Little did I know, however, that News Of the World is actually about so much more.

The novel begins around 1870 as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a man in his early seventies and veteran of multiple wars, is hired to return a ten-year-old girl to her relatives near San Antonio. This isn’t just any girl, however. This is a girl who has lived with the Kiowa for four years after they killed her family and took her captive. She has fully immersed herself in the Kiowa ways–she seems to have no recollection at all of her previous life. Kidd is headed towards San Antonio anyway, and so he agrees to take her with him.

Though Kidd does indeed read the news of the world to those isolated in Texas, the story is really about the bond he forms with the girl–Johanna–as they must evade danger at every turn and even, at times, face it head on. A patient–though very tough–man with children and grandchildren of his own, Johanna is more than just a passenger to Captain Kidd–she’s perhaps his last chance to do something meaningful in this world.

Paulette Jiles has written a story that is genius in its apparent simplicity. I could easily recount to you the major beats of the entire book. Make no mistake, though, Jiles sprinkles in such nuanced detail that you feel as though you are riding right along with Captain Kidd and Johanna in that covered wagon of theirs. The landscape, the clothing, the politics–Jiles deftly describes all of it with brief, potent, easy to envision passages.

Best of all? The book ended exactly how I wanted it to. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but Jiles’ writing style reminds me quite a bit of Proulx and McCarthy, and so I naturally had great concern for Kidd and Johanna. In this case, at least, Jiles decided both had already been through enough trauma, which I greatly appreciated. I am definitely excited to read more by Jiles. Plus, you know what? I think I will indeed watch the film adaptation now.

Night Of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones – A Book Review

While visiting the Normal Public Library, this cover and title jumped out at me as it resided in the “new” section. I read the back cover copy, became intrigued, and promptly checked it out. Plus, I had this feeling that I knew the author from somewhere.

Once I got the book home and started reading it, I realized that I enjoyed another work by Stephen Graham Jones called Mapping the Interior.

Night Of the Mannequins proved … interesting. The back cover led me to believe it would be a literal monster story–a story about mannequins coming to life. Instead the book presents a young man seemingly suffering from a psychosis of some sort who wants us to believe that he believes a killer mannequin is on the loose. His strategy for delaying the murder of many innocent people? Kill the mannequin’s primary targets instead so that the mannequin won’t commit any collateral damage. Those primary targets happen be the narrator’s closest friends.

It’s a strange story, to be sure. Part of me wanted to read it as a simple serial killer tale. Another part of me wanted to interpret it as a satire poking fun at modern day film. Yet another part of me felt it could be a story sympathizing with those who completely break from reality. Maybe it’s all of the above? Maybe it’s none of the above?

At just 130 pages, I didn’t mind going along for the ride. I personally didn’t particularly enjoy the book nor would I recommend it, but I’m sure there’s an audience out there for it. That’s the beautiful thing about books–there’s a reader for each and every one of them.

Later by Stephen King – A Book Review

I erroneously declared years ago that Stephen King’s best fiction writing days were behind him. As with Elevation, he continues to prove me wrong.

I thoroughly enjoyed Later for a few very simple reasons. First, it’s a short, concise, fast read. Second, it sticks to a main plot and does not deviate at all. Third, it’s a flat-out good story.

When you first start reading Later, you’ll be a little concerned that you’ve already experienced this story. It’s about a child who sees dead people. Of course, nobody has their finger on pop culture’s pulse more so than Stephen King and he references The Sixth Sense very quickly in Later. He is fully aware this premise has already been explored. However, because this book is part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, it tries to focus mostly on a crime element.

The main character is a young boy named Jamie who is recruited by his mom’s cop-friend, Liz, to help stop a mad bomber from killing hundreds. Why bring in the boy, you ask? Because the mad bomber is dead but the bomb is still set to go off. At that point, Stephen King can’t help himself and the already supernatural premise becomes more about seeing dead people than crime, but that’s okay. He could have published this book separate from the Hard Case Crime imprint, it’s not necessarily reliant on a crime or a hard-boiled mystery, but it works just fine as it is. I’m certainly not complaining!

Well, on that note, I do have one small complaint. It’s briefly mentioned early on that Jamie doesn’t know who is father is–it was something of a throw-away line. King’s only narrative detour arrives when he tosses in a monkey-wrench at the very end regarding that father. For me, it proved really distracting and detracted from the overall story. I would have left it out and leave well enough alone, but I’m obviously not King’s editor.

Overall, though, I truly loved reading this book. Short fiction Stephen King is a powerhouse–all that imagination packed into a tiny container. It’s honestly so much fun. If you’re a King fan, Later is top-notch King. If you’ve never read King (which is unlikely, I know), Later would be a wonderful first experience. The narrative voice is on point, the story is interesting, the pace is perfect, and it’s just creepy enough without scaring the pudding out of you.

Star Wars – The High Republic: The Rising Storm – A Book Review

In this second novel of the The High Republic series, author Cavan Scott continues the story initiated in The Light Of the Jedi. Set roughly 200 years before The Phantom Menace, Marchion Ro and his Nihil minions still plot against the Republic. They will do anything to disrupt peace, including a brutal attack against civilians at the Republic Fair, a moment meant to bring the galaxy together.

The first half of The Rising Storm focusses on setting up the Republic Fair and further establishing characters such as the Jedis Stellan Gos, Elzar Mann, and Bell Zettifar. It also allows us to better know Chancellor Lina Soh, reporter Rhil Dairo, and a new character named Ty Yorrick, whom we are led to believe received Jedi training in her youth before going renegade.

To be honest, the first half of the book goes into such detail regarding the Republic Fair and those characters involved that it began to get just a touch boring.

… And then the Nihil attacked.

The second half of this book is nonstop, full-on action. Scott proves masterful at maintaining plot and story amidst constant unfolding physicality. Writing action is no easy feat, but he pulls it off very well. The first half took me a while to get through; I couldn’t put it down during the second half.

There are also some surprising character beats throughout the novel. Characters change. Characters suffer. Characters die.

Which leads to my only general complaint about The High Republic. As potent as some of the characterization is, I cannot connect to most because I simply can’t picture them in my mind. I’ve been a Star Wars fan my entire life, but that doesn’t mean I have memorized every species ever mentioned. I think including a sketch of each character included in the book would be very helpful and assist me with picturing them better in my mind, and therefore helping me bond with them. Yes, I know there are many websites out there with official art, fan art, etc. I’m afraid I’m not willing to put quite that much effort into it. A character guide within the book would be most helpful to those of us unwilling to invest time on the Internet.

In the end, I’m enjoying The High Republic series and The Rising Storm is an exciting installment to the overall tale. I’m not sure where exactly all of this is going or how long it’s supposed to last, but I’m definitely along for the ride.

The Annual Migration Of Clouds by Premee Mohamed – A Book Review

I picked up The Annual Migration Of Clouds by Premee Mohamed while browsing my local library. I’m currently interested in reading novellas, so this slim work caught my eye.

The story takes place in a future where the climate fully turned against humanity. Pockets of civilization exist without any of the comforts or interconnectedness that we presently enjoy. Reid belongs to a small community that, as far as they know, could be among the last left in the world. However, she’s very smart, and when a letter arrives inviting her to a school far, far away, she wants to leave her world behind in order to take a chance on this new life. The only problem is, no one who has left for this school has ever actually returned, nor is there any real proof that it even exists.

Of course, at that point of the book I figured we would join Reid on her journey to this new world, but the story instead zigs and chooses to focus on a pig hunt, one that, if successful, could provide Reid’s mother with plenty of food and bartering power for after Reid leaves. You see, she suffers deep guilt for even thinking about leaving her mother behind to fend for herself, especially since her father left them long ago. Unfortunately, Reid has never hunted before, not on such a huge scale, and isn’t quite prepared for the endeavor. Furthermore, she suffers from a common disease called Cad, which is a parasite that will literally do whatever it takes to keep its host alive until it decides otherwise. Cad is a hereditary condition, one that will one day kill Reid’s mother and one that will ultimately kill Reid as well.

As you can see, there are a lot of big ideas in The Annual Migration Of Clouds. It explores the nuances of an interwoven (albeit small} community, the complicated bonds of family, where our climate crisis could actually lead, the hope for a brighter future, the power of remaining in place for comfort’s sake, and the horrifying evolution of viruses and fungi.

That being said, I appreciated that Mohamed didn’t spend too much time on any of these things. She drops the reader into this world, provides just enough context to familiarize the reader, and then allows the characters to get on with their lives. She seems to value the “less is more” approach, an outlook that I believe serves the book well.

Unfortunately, this technique also leaves a great deal of questions for the reader, perhaps too many questions for some. The pig hunt is resolved and serves as the primary physical conflict in the book, but many, many other aspects of the plot are left unfinished. Perhaps Mohamed plans to one day further investigate these unresolved issues–perhaps she does not. Personally, I’m fine with it either way.

At just 155 pages, The Annual Migration Of Clouds is a brisk, well-paced book written in an unexpected, interesting way. Those seeking a tidy ending may find it dissatisfying, while those interested in experiencing complex ideas delivered briskly and without much explanation may find it exhilarating. Again, because it’s so short, The Annual Migration Of Clouds is an easy book to take a chance on.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw – A Book Review

I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I absolutely grabbed Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw off of the shelf at my local library because its cover jumped out at me. Also, it’s very thin–just 124 pages–and I’ve been on a novella kick of late.

In my opinion, even for such a short book, Nothing But Blackened Teeth is overwritten with flat characters and incessant redundancies.

The book is told from Cat’s perspective. She, Phillip, Faiz, Talia, and Lin are spending the night in an abandoned mansion in Japan. They are a group of friends who love ghosts–the mansion is supposedly haunted–and Phillip became ordained specifically so that he could marry Faiz and Talia. Everyone has history with everyone, the mansion is indeed haunted, they bicker through most of the book, and then the mansion exacts its will upon them … thankfully.

From start to finish, Phillip is the rich, good-looking one. Every single time he’s mentioned, there’s an accompanying bit describing his handsomeness. Cat, the narrator, is sad, has dated two-thirds of the men in the group, and does not get along with Talia at all–the tropes are strong. Lin shows up late and doesn’t seem to like any of them but Cat. Faiz is just glad Talia is willing to marry him. There’s zero chemistry between these characters, and I honestly found them the epitome of “one-note.”

Which leads to my other criticism of the book–there’s far too much unnecessary description. People, objects, emotions–they are described more or less in the same way, just with different words, throughout the piece. The constant descriptions struck me as “filler” while nothing in particular happened until the very end.

Though I finished it, I can’t particularly say I embraced Nothing But Blackened Teeth. It clearly wasn’t for me. However, I still love that cover.

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Gram Jones – A Book Review

Most of my recent reads come from a list of recommendations by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” Mapping the Interior is from among those many wonderful books.

Written by Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior is a concise 107 pages. It’s told from the perspective of a Native American boy nearing his teens. His mother moved he and his little brother–who seems to have some health challenges–off of their reservation and into a lackluster trailer. The boy reveals his father died some time ago, so no one is more surprised than he when that very same father appears in their home. Their real father is dead and buried, though. This is something … different.

For such a slim book, Mapping the Interior dives into some rather poignant issues such as poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, bullying, brotherly love, motherly love, disabled family members, and absentee fathers. Running throughout all of these themes, however, is a sense of dread as a monster seems to persistently lurk.

At times surreal, Mapping the Interior plays with the reader a bit as it teases fantasy while dealing very much in reality. Those two genres eventually merge and it becomes difficult to separate fact versus fiction as our narrator may or may not be totally reliable. There were several moments in the book when I had to read a paragraph over to be certain I read it correctly, but this wasn’t a bad thing. Mapping the Interior demands your engagement.

My only criticism of the book pertains to the ending. It managed a consistent, fast-moving pace until the very end, when the pace suddenly hit lightspeed. I understand the point Jones wanted to make about fathers and sons, but the last ten pages of the book were frustratingly rushed. In all honestly, the last ten pages should have been given another hundred pages if not an entire follow-up book.

If you like thoughtful, brief works that aren’t afraid to dabble in horror, I highly recommend Mapping the Interior.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter – A Book Review

I once again must thank Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” for suggesting yet another novella, this time the book called Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter.

At just 114 pages, this novella is a series of paragraphs and stanzas exploring the utter heartbreak of a man after losing his young wife. He must now raise their two boys alone, and he hasn’t a clue how to do so. A crow appears to guide the man through his grief, comfort the children, and help out in any possible way. However, Crow’s also there to encourage chaos, to promote carnage, and to spout madness.

Crow is a complicated figure in this book, especially because I’m not convinced he was ever really there at all. Or perhaps he was grief personified. Or maybe he represented the delicate balance between tranquility and turmoil that exists perpetually within our daily lives. It would also make sense if he was death. Maybe he was just a crow? Like I said–complicated.

As I mentioned, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is a quick read due to its unconventional formatting. Somewhere between prose and poem, the novella flies by for the invested reader.

That being said, I had a hard time making the time to read it. I found myself a little disinterested throughout, though, I will admit, the last few pages were strikingly emotional.

I think everyone who reads Grief Is the Thing With Feathers will have a different encounter. The material is both universal and very specific, yet everyone will connect with it in some capacity. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but I do admit that it’s a book every reader should experience for themselves.