Category: Reviews

Book Review: Safely Endangered Comics by Chris McCoy (2019)

Friday, April 19th, 2019

Poor Pluto

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

UK-based cartoonist Chris McCoy has a weird, absurdist sense of humor, and I am so into it. Whether it’s talking spiders with delusions of grandeur, average Joe narwhals, or planets posting Facebook updates, the strips in Safely Endangered Comics tend toward the bizarre, in the best way possible.

Most of the comics earned at least a chuckle, peppered with a legit guffaw every ten pages are so. I hadn’t heard of McCoy’s webcomic, Safely Endangered, before today, but now it’s on my must-read list.

Naturally, my favorites are any and every panel that features a dog, but there’s plenty of socially awkward, geeky, and downright creepy goodness to choose from.

If enjoy the work of Reza Farazmand, Alex Norris, Jake Thompson, or Jomny Sun, this one’s a sure thing. Fans of Sarah Andersen and Allie Brosh will probably love it too.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters (2019)

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Not one of Winters’s best.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread. My poet in the black frock coat kneels in prayer beneath the windows in the ceiling that bathe his head in a weak winter light, bronzing his brown curls and the back of his neck. He bends his face toward the floorboards, toward the crypt down below him, and I will the spirits of the dead beneath him to whisper a song.

“I’m the best part of you, Edgar Poe.”

— 2.5 stars. DNF at 58%. —

DNFs are never fun, but this one really hurt. Poe was perhaps my first literary crush, and I’ve enjoyed several of Cat Winters’s previous books, so The Raven’s Tale seemed like a slam dunk for me. But when, reclining on the floor of my library, reading about Poe’s angsty teen years, I found my attention wandering to books I’d already devoured sitting right there next to me head, begging for another go, I knew it just wasn’t meant to be. My heart had already moved on, even if my brain was too stubborn to accept it. (That came the next day, when my copy of Sawkill Girls arrived at the public library.)

Whereas most books about Edgar Allan Poe concentrate on his teen years, Winters goes back a little further. Here, Poe is seventeen years old, on the verge of escaping to the University of Virginia, a three day’s drive from his philandering, abusive, and cruel foster father, John Allan. Allan has been pressuring Edgar to forgo his artistic pursuits in favor of something more profitable – and is not above using his wealth as leverage. The son of traveling performers, Edgar longs to fit in with his “high-born” peers. In love with – and secretly engaged to – a young woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, Poe is torn between his muse and his need to belong.

In this case, Poe’s “muse” is a living, breathing creature given corporeal form by Winters. She appears to him as a teenage girl: a girl with hair the color of a raven’s feathers, a girl who drips shadows and leaves footprints of coal, whose eyes burn like embers and who inspires in Poe his most deliciously macabre and grotesque thoughts. But can Edgar learn to nurture that which he fears?

The plot sounds amazing, but in execution it just feels tedious. The first half of the book mostly consists of Eleanor – as Poe christens his muse – chasing Edgar around Virginia like a spurned lover: “Edgar you can’t escape me, this is who you are, why won’t you commit yourself to me!!!!” Meanwhile Edgar just wants to pass for one of the good ole boys. Yawn.

There are some pretty great things here, like Eleanor’s necklace made of molars; Rosalie Poe’s admission that she has a muse (want to know more please); and the similar ‘secret life’ of the Allan family’s slave, Judith (need to know more please). Sadly, though, it just wasn’t enough to keep me going. *emo face*

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Stillwater Girls by Minka Kent (2019)

Friday, April 12th, 2019

An enjoyable read, despite the implausible ending.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues.)

The ramshackle, one-room cabin nestled deep within Stillwater Forest is the only home nineteen-year-old Wren knows. Here she lives with Mama, and her younger sisters Sage and Evie. Her father and older sister Imogen are buried under the willow tree out back, having both died when Wren was just a baby.

Wren knows little of the “real” world – the one Mama has fought hard to protect her from. She’s never seen a television set, listened to recorded music, or experienced the joys of indoor plumbing. She can read and write, though her library is closely scrutinized by Mama. But she is is content enough. And why not? The world beyond their modest homestead may as well be gone, wiped off the map, for Mama’s apocalyptic descriptions of it.

So when young Evie falls sick and Mama flees with her into the forest in search of help, Wren knows it’s serious. When they fail to return – after fifteen days, twenty-eight, sixty-three – and with their supplies dwindling and winter barreling down on them, Wren is terrified to consider the possibilities. Yet it’s only when a stranger breaks into their cabin, seemingly in search of Mama, that Wren can will herself to act.

Meanwhile, thirty-something Nicolette exists in what may as well be another ‘verse. A wealthy heiress married to a celebrated photographer, on the surface Nic has it all. It’s only her closest friends who know the truth: Nic struggles with seasonal depression (although, unlike the rest of us plebes, she’s able to drop everything and spend three months in Florida every year. Oh, to have cash monies!), which was exacerbated by an emergency hysterectomy in her late 20s. Unable to bear children, she convinced her husband Brant to apply as a foster home. But when she finds a picture of an unfamiliar young girl in Brant’s sock drawer – sporting his same sea-green eyes and deep dimples – and discovers that he’s been siphoning money from her trust fund, Nic worries that even a child could not save their crumbling marriage.

The lives of these two women collide, altering each in unthinkable ways.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Stillwater Girls: it’s fast-paced, entertaining, and compulsively readable. Until Wren and Nic actually meet, I found it difficult to guess how their different narratives would intersect.

The main criticism I’ve seen from other reviewers is that the ending is eye-rollingly ridiculous…and it is. But I kind of don’t care? Like, this is such a breathless, easy read, and it came at a time when I was in desperate need of help out of reading slump (thanks, The Cassandra!), so I think this cushioned some of the disappointment over such an implausible twist.

Honestly, just don’t get your expectations up, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2019)

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

A horrifying, based-on-a-true-story addition to the growing body of #MeToo literature.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against girls, women, and children, including rape.)

We won’t have to leave the people we love? says Neitje. Greta points out that the women could bring loved ones with them. Others question the practicality of this, and Ona mentions, gently, that several of the people we love are people we also fear.

Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not harm another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year-old child.

Mariche can contain herself no longer. She accuses Ona of being a dreamer. We are women without a voice, Ona states calmly. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams— so of course we are dreamers.

Between 2005 and 2009, a group of nine men raped hundreds of women, girls, and children in an isolated Bolivian Mennonite settlement called Manitoba Colony. In many cases, the men – fellow believers and members of the community – were related to the victims, who were their sisters, cousins, aunts, nieces, etc. Using belladonna procured from a veterinarian in a neighboring Mennonite colony, the men blew the sedative through doors and windows, incapacitating entire households, and then spent the night assaulting their victims, alone or in groups. Victims would wake up sore and bruised, sometimes with dirt, blood, and semen staining their sheets, or with grass in their hair. Many of the victims had no memory of the assault, while others recalled the night’s events in fragments and flashes.

Though many of the women and children were reluctant to recount their experiences (the children, especially, lacked words with which to describe what had been done to them), the sisters – Mennonites refer to all members of the community as “sisters” and “brothers” – began to whisper amongst themselves. Word spread, as it always does. The leaders of Manitoba Colony – men, them all – dismissed the women’s experiences as “wild female imagination,” or punishment wrought down by God or Satan for unnamed sins. The perpetrators were given otherworldly origins: they were demons and ghosts, whose manifestations for which the women were ultimately responsible. Or the women were simply lying, either to cover up adultery or for attention.

The rape ring was finally uncovered when two men were caught trying to break into a neighbor’s home in June of 2009. They gave up a few of their friends, and so on, until nine men – between the ages of 19 and 43 – were implicated. The trial took place in 2011; the rapists were sentenced to 25 years apiece, while the veterinarian who supplied the drug got 12 years. Officially, 130 victims were identified during the trial, but the number is likely much higher. The case shone a light on domestic violence and sexual assault in conservative, insulated Mennonite colonies. Indeed, in a follow-up visit to Manitoba Colony for Vice in 2013, journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky discovered evidence that the mass rapes are still happening. (Google “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia” to see the report, as well as a two-part documentary available on YouTube.)

The fact that the case even went to trial is remarkable in itself. While Mennonites, like all religious groups, have various factions and adherents ranging from liberal to more conservative, the Manitoba Colony is on the extreme end of the spectrum. Mennonites have their origins in 16th century Netherlands; due to religious persecution, its converts spread around the globe over the intervening centuries. Named after the Canadian province they fled in the early 1900s, the Manitoba Colony eventually settled in Bolivia thanks to an agreement with the country, that they would be largely autonomous and free to govern themselves. In terms of law enforcement, except in cases of murder, the Manitobans are free to handle crime as they see fit.

Manitoba leadership only turned the rapists over to the Bolivian government for their own safety: they were afraid that, if the men remained in the colony, they would be killed by the victims’ male relatives. With no police force or judicial system, local ministers “investigate” and mete out punishment for wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, crimes of this nature largely go unpunished and tend to reoccur.

Enter Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, which the author somewhat cheekily describes as “both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.” (Burn.) In this reimagining of events, the rapists were indeed turned over to the Bolivian government (in this case, it was because of Salome with a scythe, vs. men with pitchforks, which I love). However, the colony’s remaining men, having had a change of heart, have traveled to the nearest city to post bail for their brothers. (This plot hole is my only issue with the story: why bring the accused back to await the trail date when they were sent away for their own safety? Is it because they recanted their confessions?)

The women have two days before they return, rapists in tow. Two days to decide what their response should be.

They have three options, as they see it:

1. Do nothing.
2. Stay and fight.
3. Leave.

And so eight women climb into a disused hay loft for a surreptitious meeting/debate. Eight women, and one man to record the minutes – because women, only schooled to the age of twelve, are not taught to read or write. Luckily, the man is sympathetic to their plight, and a bit of a rebel/outcast himself. A group of sisters who have already thrown their caps into the do-nothing camp? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong; Women Talking is not heavy on action. While I’d argue that it is suspenseful, the tension is understated: what will the women do to defend themselves, if anything?

There’s a lot of talking in this book: as another reviewer noted, it’s right there in the title. And probably this isn’t everybody’s thing. But I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. And, when it was over, I spent a few more hours reading about the case online. It’s horrifying, not just in the sheer scope of abuse, but in the bizarre stories used to explain it away. (Rape apologism on LSD.) Perhaps most horrifying is how completely the women were – are – trapped by circumstance, as becomes evident as the narrative unfolds.

Not only are the women illiterate (by design), thus unable to read a map; they have no idea where they live in relation to the outside world. Their colony is remote and they have only horses and buggies for travel. They speak only Low German in a Latin American country. Leaving is difficult, while fighting arguably goes against their pacifist beliefs. But staying and continuing to endure the abuse? Being forced under threat of excommunication to forgive their rapists? Unthinkable.

What is their duty to God? To the patriarchs of their colony? To their community? To their faith? To their children? To themselves?

As I devoured the book, I found myself wondering just how much of it is true, and what is merely artistic embellishment? As it turns out, most of the more outrageous details are fact. The youngest victim was a three-year-old toddler (though it’s unclear if she actually contracted an STD, as Miep did in the book). The women were denied counseling by the colony elders, on the reasoning that, if they were unconscious and unaware during the attacks, what harm could it have done? (In fact, Low German-speaking counselors volunteered to visit the colony and work with survivors, free of cost; colony leaders turned them away without so much as mentioning it to the women.) The women were “encouraged” to forgive their attackers; if they failed to do so, they received a personal visit from Bishop Neurdorf, “Manitoba’s highest authority.”

An especially appalling detail, not mentioned by Toews: Old Mennonite women are not allowed to testify (nor vote, hold office, etc.). At the trial, the victims’ male relatives had to offer testimony on their behalf. Women were not allowed to speak of the violence inflicted on them – not even at the trial of their oppressors.

So as bad as Women Talking is, I have to believe that the reality is so very much worse. Especially since the hayloft meeting – the most hopeful part of the book – is a flight of the female imagination, so to speak.

Also, Toews spent the first eighteen years of her life in a Mennonite community, so I’ve got to trust that she knows that of which she writes.

While it’s tempting to blame the mass rapes on the Mennonite religion – and, indeed, the patriarchal power structure, fear of outsiders, and physical and linguistic isolation of the colony certainly contributed to the sheer scope and longevity of the crimes – rape is … everywhere. As I write this review, a NYT piece just broke a scandal involving the systemic rape of nuns by priests, who then forced their victims to abort the resulting pregnancies (just proving that their opposition to abortion is less about babies and more about power over and control of female bodies). There’s even a great moment when Mejal “not all men”s the proceedings – to which Ona replies: “Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

Anywhere that women (or girls, or boys, or LGBTQ people, or the disabled, or POC, etc.) are dehumanized, objectified, and othered; anywhere that one group is given total or near-total power over others; anywhere there is inequality and certain segments of the population are marginalized, discriminated against, and disbelieved, there will be rape. Whether it’s an isolated Mennonite colony in eastern Bolivia, or a college dorm room in Columbus, Ohio. In the office of a powerful Hollywood producer or the Oval Office.

The question becomes, what are we – you and I – going to do about it?

There’s nowhere to flee, and “nothing” has been the status quo for far too long.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: oh no by Alex Norris (2019)

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

oh yes

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Being human – self-aware, cognizant of your own mortality, sentient, capable of feeling pain, sorrow, and embarrassment (etc.) – can really suck sometimes. (Most times.) Luckily there are little moments of joy, like Alex Norris’s webcomic Webcomic Name, featuring the delightfully non-gendered little pink blob of oh nos. Pinky wields the catchphrase “oh no” (and self-referential panels about the running gag) like a … sword? Baseball bat? Pillow over the face? Blanket fort with which to deflect the outside world? I’m not exactly sure, but the result is at once comically entertaining and morbidly depressing.

Norris tackles disappointments both small (stepping on a friend’s shoe; making accidental eye contact on the bus; cooking fails) and large (poor self-esteem; environmental degradation; the powerlessness on the individual in the face of megacorporations; death), all met with the same refrain: oh no. It’s absurd, it’s portentous, it’s relevant and relatable AF – for better or worse. Mostly worse.

Bonus points for the anti-zoo strip. Truer panels have never been scribbled.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields (2019)

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Hugely disappointing.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and racist and misogynist violence, including rape.)

This—the butchery, the dripping floor—was what kingdoms of men did to one another. We were no more than instruments of hatred.

DNF at 65%.

Mildred Groves has always been haunted by visions. Actually, “haunted” is the wrong word: as terrible and disturbing as her visions are, Mildred welcomes them, like an old friend or security blanket. They make her powerful. Different. Unique. Yet they also make her an outcast, a lightening rod, a target for bullies. Turns out that people don’t very much like hearing about the calamity that’s about to befall them.

Things come to a head not long after the death of her beloved father. At their riverside memorial Mildred pushes her mother into the water. After this she’s put on house arrest, of a sort: sentenced to take care of Mother, in all her failing health. An unemployed, friendless spinster at twenty-something. In Mildred’s quest to be the perfect daughter, her visions flee soon afterward. So when she has a prophecy that she will be employed at the newly built Hanford Research Center in Washington, helping to defeat Hitler, she eagerly plans her escape.

With her strong secretarial skills and unusual mind, Millie is quickly hired as physicist Dr. Phillip Hall’s secretary, where she’s privy to sensitive information about “the product” they’re developing at Hanford. Her escalating visions, accompanied by bouts of sleepwalking, tell her things, too: glimpses of bodies with the skin melted off, eyeballs oozing into nothing, a river choked with corpses. Yet when she questions the ethics of what they’re doing at Hanford – continuing to develop a nuclear weapon even after the surrender of the German forces – she’s dismissed as misguided, hysterical, or crazy. Or, worst of all: threatened with dismissal on mental health grounds, sending her straight back to Mother’s depressing and oppressive home in Omak.

Part historical fiction, part reimagining of the Greek myth of Cassandra, I thoroughly expected to love The Cassandra. Unfortunately, it’s just…not good.

As other reviewers have noted, the characters are all one-dimensional – especially the abusive Mother and sister Martha. They’re such caricatures that I wondered for awhile if Mildred might be an unreliable narrator, but I really didn’t get any confirmation of this in my reading. Like, Mother deserved to take a tumble into the Okanogan River, and then some. And yet there’s no indication that anyone sees Mother and Martha’s treatment of Mildred as wrong. Which in itself seems wrong. It’s all just really weird and frustrating.

Ditto the rampant sexism, which is certainly appropriate for the era – but, in order to make it somewhat bearable, we need a character who questions, challenges, stands up against it. A contrast or aspiration. Mildred seems the obvious choice, and yet. Nada.

I struggled with DNF’ing this book more than most; even though I hated every minute of it, I found the plot interesting enough to want to know how the story ends. The final nail in the coffin came as I was perusing Goodreads reviews, and saw that Millie is brutally raped at the 70% point. I was 65% in, and that was it for me. I don’t appreciate rape scenes to begin with, and I certainly wasn’t willing to sit through one for this story.

I usually love the unpopular books – especially feminist scifi written by women – but sadly I’m with the haters here. Hard pass.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Cretaceous by Tadd Galusha (2019)

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

This ain’t The Land Before Time.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The synopsis for Cretaceous describes it as the journey of a young T-Rex to reunite with their family before death can separate them for good. Well, actually, I guess I just assumed that the protagonist was the juvenile dinosaur (I blame the inevitable The Land Before Time flashbacks!), but the summary really doesn’t specify. So that’s on me. Either way, I’d describe Cretaceous as more of a revenge story than anything else.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex family at the heart of this story is a nuclear unit: father, mother, several children. Dad has just returned with a kill when the family is viciously attacked by a group of albertosauruses, leaving just two survivors: one of the babies, and mom, who was on the other side of a waterfall when the massacre took place. Only after she hunts down the dinosaurs who killed her family does mom go in search of junior (hence, revenge story). They reunite, if only briefly; such is life, especially in such a cruel and unforgiving place.

For having absolutely zero dialogue, Cretaceous is a surprisingly moving tale. Also: bloody, gory, and raw. The two dueling themes seem to be the harshness of survival in the animal kingdom, and the unrivaled bond between parents and children. Terror and ruthlessness meets love and martyrdom. It makes for a compelling read, even if relentless deaths are a little hard to take. (CERA!!!!)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner (2019)

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

“We may not have forever together, but we have right now.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues.)

I don’t know who watches Midnite Matinee or why. I mean, I have some idea from letters we get. Here’s my guess: it’s lonely people. People who don’t have a lot going on in their lives, because they have time to sit at home on a Saturday night (that’s when we air in most markets, including our home market) and flip through channels. People who aren’t rich, because if they were, they’d have more entertainment options. People who aren’t hip, because if they were, they’d seek out higher quality entertainment options. People who don’t truly love to be frightened, because if they did, they’d find actual scary movies. People who prefer their awful movies straight, with no commentary, because otherwise they’d watch old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. People who still write letters. It’s a very niche crowd. Most of all, I think it’s people who love to be reminded that sometimes you do your best and you come up short, but there’s still a place in the world for people like that. People like them.

Delia

You don’t always know at the time when you’re experiencing one of those random memories you’ll carry all your life. When nothing momentous happened other than driving a little too fast in the direction of Florida, at dusk, with your best friend by your side and, at your back, a guy who’s really good at kissing you. Still, you remember it until the day you die. But this time I know.

Josie

Delia Wilkes and Josie Howard are best friends, soon-to-be-graduates, and local Jackson, Tennessee celebrities (okay, so I use that term loosely). Delilah Darkwood and Rayne Ravenscroft – as they are otherwise known – host Midnite Matinee, a campy public access show that screens terrible B-rated horror films culled from the depths of obscurity (and the ’80s, or so one would assume), performing cheesy skits before, after, and during. Though it’s what brought them together, the show means very different things to each young woman: for Josie, it’s a doorway into a career in tv; for Delia, it’s a way of reaching out to her absentee father, who abandoned Delia more than a decade before, leaving her family in ruin. The tapes she diligently combs through every week? Belonged to her dad, the man formerly known as Dylan Wilkes.

With the end of high school barreling down on them, Delia and Josie have plenty of tough decisions to make – not the least of which involves the future of Midnite Matinee. Josie’s parents are leaning on her hard to enroll in Knoxville, so she can take that Food Network internship her mom lined up for her. But moving away from Jackson will mean leaving Delilah Darkwood and Rayne Ravenscroft – and Delia herself – behind. And then there’s Lawson, the handsome MMA fighter who’s slowly but surely worming his way into Josie’s heart.

The girls hatch a plan to ‘take Midnite Matinee to the next level,’ involving a road trip to Orlando, a horror con, and an eccentric Hollyweird type name Jack Devine. Spoiler alert: things go sideways, as they tend to do.

So Jeff Zentner based Delia and Josie (or, perhaps more accurately, Delilah and Rayne) on two very real people: Marlena Midnite and Robyn Graves, the hosts of Midnite Mausoleum. He also volunteers at Tennessee Teens Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, working with aspiring musicians. These facts are relevant because Zentner does a pretty rad job portraying female friendships (and cheesy late night horror shows), probably based in no small part on his own real life experiences.

I really love Delia and Josie together; their banter is fun and authentic, and Bufie makes a pawsome sidekick. (The twins I could do without, though the commentary on Basset hounds and beagles and what constitutes a valid opinion is entertaining and relevant as heck.) There are a lot of really great one-liners in here; to wit: “The leather cuff is the fedora of the wrist.”

Typically Zentner writes pathos with a little bit of humor sprinkled in; Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is the inverse. While I think he’s at his strongest in the former (and the heavy scenes are indeed my favorite bits here), the latter is still entertaining too.

Josie and Delia’s looming graduation really took me back to my own senior year in high school (and then college), and not always in a comfortable way. I empathize with both girls, in different ways: I both identified with Delia’s “sad sack” outlook on life (depression knows depression) and felt the push-pull conflict tearing Josie to pieces in my very marrow. (Like I said, PATHOS is Zentner’s JAM.) The bit about Buford in the last few pieces simply destroyed me. (Shadow, I miss you so much, my sweet babygirl.)

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to binge watch. I need some laughs, okay.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One (Women Are Some Kind of Magic #3) by Amanda Lovelace (2019)

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Feels like déjà vu.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape, as well as depression and self-injurious behaviors.)

when i tell you i’m still waiting for my hogwarts letter, what i mean to say is i never meant to be here for so long.

– forever wandering lost & wandless.

you are sad now.
you are not sad forever.

this is me
pressing
my finger
to the sand,

delicately
drawing
your name
there,

& then
stepping back
so i can
watch

you
as you’re
finally
carried away.

– goodbye.

The third and final poetry collection in Amanda Lovelace’s Women Are Some Kind of Magic series, The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One engages with many of the same subjects and themes as The Princess Saves Herself in This One and The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One: rape and sexual abuse, interpersonal violence, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, mental health, and sexism and misogyny. The result is both biting and beautiful, if a little repetitive: it feels like we’ve been down this road before.

To be fair, my expectations might be to blame: with the book’s fairy tale-esque title, I was hoping for more retellings in this collection. Maybe in the vein of “Small Yellow Cottage On The Shore,” Lovelace’s contribution to the [Dis]connected anthology. Especially nautical-themed poems featuring mermaids … and perhaps a narwhal or two! But the mermaid imagery is kept to a minimum, and there aren’t really any reimagined fairy tales or fables to be found.

Yet, in the afterward, Lovelace describes The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One as the denouement in a series meant to help her come to terms with her experiences of abuse and violence, and perhaps commune with other survivors and potential survivors. I’m not entirely sure she hit the mark with each book – because, again, they kind of all blur together for me, rather than representing separate and distinct pieces of a larger whole – but, clearly, my expectations going in were way off the mark.

One way in which The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One deviates from its predecessors is by featuring pieces by guest contributors in the final section of the book, which is a nice change of pace. If you’ve read [Dis]connected, you’ll recognize some of the names right off the bat; if not, you might just discover a few new poets to check out.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman (2019)

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Probably should have held out for the audiobook…

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for xenophobia, Islamophobia, and violence against women.)

Ayser Salman spent the first three years of her life in Baghdad, Iraq – until her parents, both pharmacists, fled the “dictatorial regime of what was about to become Saddam Hussein’s Iraq” for the frigid climes of Columbus, Ohio. This would be the first of many moves: Along with her younger brother Zaid and a new sister, Lameace, Ayser and her family moved again when she was eight (Lexington, Kentucky), and again a year and a half later – this time to Saudi Arabia, where Ayser would attend an all-girls’ school. The Salmans found their way back to Lexington in time for Ayser’s junior year of high school: “a time of proms, underage drinking, and lots of teenage hormones.” Upon graduation, Ayser attended the University of Kentucky and, after a brief stint as a local news producer, the graduate film program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Now in her 40s, Ayser is a comedy writer, editor, and producer.

All this moving around – not to mention rotating schools even when the family stayed put – could be enough to make anyone feel alienated. An outsider. A fish out of water. Or, in Ayser’s words, at wrong end of the table. Add to this the fact that Ayser was a brown Muslim girl in predominantly white Christian spaces. (Or, during her time in Saudi Arabia – the one period in her childhood when Ayser felt like she belonged – a somewhat liberal Westerner in a conservative Arab country.) After years of trying to blend in, disappear even, it wasn’t until her 30s and 40s that Ayser embraced her differences.

The Wrong End of the Table is a series of short essays and vignettes about Ayser’s experiences: being an immigrant (usually the only immigrant) trying to navigate the treacherous waters of elementary and high school; maintaining a social life (especially with boys) under the watchful eyes of her parents; grappling with depression and anxiety in adulthood; embracing her Muslim identity and becoming more politically active in the wake of 9/11 (and, later, during a Drumpf presidency); and dating in her 40s.

I think I most enjoyed Ayser’s stories about her childhood in Columbus and Lexington, particularly as her Western sensibilities collided with her parents’ old school ways. For example, there’s the time a well-meaning boy at school gave Ayser a quarter:

My father walks in and Mom shoves the quarter in his face.
MOM: Talk to your daughter. A boy gave her this!
Dad takes a moment to put on his bifocals and studies the offending item.
DAD: Does he think you’re cheap?
My mother looks at me, satisfied.
DAD: He should have given you a silver dollar!
Now, Mom is disgusted with me, the quarter, and Dad.

The accounts of the Salmans’ time in Saudi Arabia are a little more harrowing; for instance, Ayser recounts the story of a classmate who tried for three years to escape her father’s custody and return to her mother in the States. That’s not to say that Ayser doesn’t mine these reservoirs for humor, either; to wit: Ayser’s very first time setting foot on Saudi Arabian soil:

We put our bags through the x-ray machine, and they were transported to a separate table where airport officials opened and searched them. This was before the age of prohibited liquids, so I couldn’t imagine what they would find that the x-ray hadn’t detected. A man wearing the traditional thawb and an official airport worker jacket eached into my bag, grabbed my Teen Beat magazine, and began combing through. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he tossed it in the trash behind him.

“Wait!” I protested as my mother nudged me to be quiet. The man shook his head and said, “Haram.”

Next, he found the loose magazine photos I had saved of Valerie Bertinelli lounging by a pool—I liked her hair in that picture and wanted to get mine styled in the same way. Nope. “Haram,” he said as he crumpled it up and tossed it aside.

Finally, he got to my prized diary, a small pink book with a lock secured on it to hide all my nine-year-old secrets. On the cover was a picture of a cartoon boy and girl smooching, similar to what you’d find on a Hallmark card. Mr. Haram studied it for a few minutes as if he were debating asking me to unlock it.

In Arabic, my mother said, “For children. She’s just a child.” That seemed to appease him. He put my diary back into my bag, but not before taking a sharpie and scribbling out the image of the boy and girl kissing on the cover.

I can only imagine my ten-year-old horror at having my diary manhandled and then defaced by a strange man.

As someone who’s found herself newly single in her (early) 40s, I also enjoyed Ayser’s many (many) anecdotes about disastrous dates and failed relationships. (Can you even with that Charlie!?)

In the forward, Reza Aslan discusses the importance of memoirs written by Muslim Americans to help shape the narrative about what it means to be “Americans who happen to come from Muslim backgrounds”; to combat the stereotypes and misinformation that have blossomed after 9/11 and the red hats’ hate-fueled Islamophobia. With increased visibility comes the potential to get it so very, tragically wrong; books like The Wrong End of the Table help push back. The value in this cannot be understated.

Yet, like so many humorous memories (Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn; Jenn Kirkman’s I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself; Tina Fey’s Bossypants; Amy Poehler’s Yes Please), The Wrong End of the Table seems like it’s better suited for the audiobook format. Like, I only chuckled a handful of times while reading TWEOTB, but I’m pretty certain I would have been guffawing had I been listening to Ayser tell these stories out loud. And that’s usually the case: the narrator-slash-comedian’s inflections, embellishments, emphases, verbal quirks – all add a certain something to the retelling that you just can’t get from the written word. I would’ve loved to have heard Ayser’s impressions of her parents, as just one for instance.

So if you have the opportunity to read the audiobook, take it! Trust me, they make commutes/dog walks/house cleaning/yard work go so much faster.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

A one-of-a-kind anthology, though hopefully not for long.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence against LGBTQ and Indigenous peoples.)

I knew the apocalypse had started before he said her name.

“Legends Are Made, Not Born” by Cherie Dimaline

Strange Boy and Shadow Boy realized at last that they had never been alone. They were just the first to free their hearts and fly in their own beauty.

“The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds” by Daniel Heath Justice

These are not my stories but they touch me, and they make me see the world outside as even more bright and beautiful than I did before I read them, and I know they will for you too.

“Letter From the editor” by Hope Nicholson

I don’t know that it’s truly one of a kind, but Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is the first anthology of Indigenous #OwnVoices LGBTQ SF/F I’ve ever come across – and hopefully not the last. The eight stories (and two essays/intros, and one poem) contained within these pages are pure magic, brimming with light and love and starstuff. And don’t forget the space puppies!

My favorite was easily né łe! by Darcie Little Badger, in which recently-dumped Dottie King, dvm, impulsively signs up as a veterinarian for a nascent Mars colony. Five months into the nine-month journey, she’s pulled out of stasis when the dogs’ pods malfunction. She falls in love with the Starship Soto’s pilot, Cora, over the care and feeding of forty rambunctious Chihuahuas – and one “defective” Husky. It’s sweet and fun and I’ve got to agree with Cora that rolling around in a dog pile (with dogs who might never die! MAGS I MISS YOU SO MUCH.) sounds like the very best way to pass a day.

Cherie Dimaline’s “Legends are made, not born” is impossibly beautiful, in so many ways. Set in a future and on a world that doesn’t look too terribly different from our own, the story’s protagonist is sent to live with a family friend when his mother dies in a snowmobile accident. Auntie Dave is “a six-foot Cree” who’s a little big magic.

Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds” is strange and lovely, with imagery that will take your breath away. In a dystopia of no obvious time or place, Strange Boy (and, eventually, Shadow Boy) fight against hatred and bigotry to bring color and kindness back to their people, against seemingly insurmountable odds.

With shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, “Perfectly You” by David A. Robertson a perfect scifi tale about fear and longing and regret. And taking chances and letting go. Some of the post-coma scenes just about tore my heart in two.

I also really loved “Valediction at the Star View Motel” by Nathan Adler, and not just because of the Charlotte’s Web references (though that ending did really bring me back: lazy summer afternoons, dog-eared, water-stained paperback clutched tight to my chest while dozing in the hammock out back).

It’s hard to say too much about any one story, for fear of spoiling the choicest bits, so best stop while I’m ahead. Suffice it to say that Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time has a little bit of everything: humor, beauty, compassion, ass-kicking. Not to mention androids who long to be human and pretty queer girls who can talk to nonhuman animals.

 

CONTENTS
Letter From the editor | Hope Nicholson 7
beyond the grim dust oF What Was Grace | L. Dillon 9
returning to ourseLves: tWo sPirit Futures and the noW | Niigaan Sinclair 12
aLiens | Richard Van Camp 20
Legends are made, not born | Cherie Dimaline 31
PerFectLy you | David A. Robertson 38
the boys Who became the hummingbirds | Daniel Heath Justice 54
né łe! | Darcie Little Badger
60 transitions | Gwen Benaway 77
imPoster syndrome | Mari Kurisato 87
vaLediction at the star vieW moteL | Nathan Adler 103
ParaLLax | Cleo Keahna 116
bios 118

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Window Horses by Ann Marie Fleming (2017)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Now I have to see the movie!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Window Horses is the graphic novelization of a 2016 animated film of the same name, written by Ann Marie Fleming and starring Sandra Oh (with what I can only assume is a brief cameo by Ellen Page, at least judging from the book). The story’s protagonist is a young biracial woman named Rosie Ming. Born to a Chinese-Canadian mother and an Iranian refugee father, Rosie was left in the care of her maternal grandparents after her father abandoned his family and her mother died in a tragic accident.

Fast food worker by day, Francophile by – who are we kidding, 24/7 – Rosie keeps her poetry a secret. That is, until she’s invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. Having self-published but one book of poetry, Rosie has no idea how the festival’s organizers discovered her. Though she’s nervous to travel to her father’s homeland – she’s never even been outside of Canada, for pete’s sake – and is plagued by imposter syndrome, Rosie knows that this is an opportunity she simply can’t pass up. Little does she know how truly life-changing the trip will be.

Window Horses is a sweet and heartfelt story: about the bonds of family and community, the stupid and even selfish things we sometimes do for love, and the power of words and poetry, with a little bit of a history/civics lesson thrown in, to boot. The art – primarily done by Kevin Langdale, with poems illustrated by a variety of other artists – is stunning. I especially loved how the breadth of different contributors and styles played off the poetry, adding extra depth and nuance.

The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way? Dietmar, or rather Mehrnaz’s insistence that he’s only rude to Rosie because “that is the way some young men are…,” you know, when they like a girl. Boys will be boys and all that nonsense. Blecht.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing by DaMaris B. Hill (2019)

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

“How many ways did you write women? How many ways did you right women?”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

The afflicted pray for healing—just as hungry people pray for bread, but when has God ever sent bread? In my recollection of the scriptures, God has always sent a woman.

bound

verb

simple past tense and past participle of bind.

adjective

tied; in bonds: a bound prisoner.

made fast as if by a band or bond: She is bound to her family.

secured within a cover, as a book.

under a legal or moral obligation: He is bound by the terms of the contract.

destined; sure; certain: It is bound to happen.

determined or resolved: He is bound to go.

Pathology . constipated.

Mathematics . (of a vector) having a specified initial point as well as magnitude and direction.

held with another element, substance, or material in chemical or physical union.

(of a linguistic form) occurring only in combination with other forms, as most affixes.

From Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, Ida B. Wells to Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones to Assata Shakur, A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is DaMaris B. Hill’s “love letter to women who have been denied their humanity.”

In its most obvious sense, these women are bound in a very real, tangible way: those shackled by the chains of slavery, or imprisoned in jail (often, as we’ll see, for defending themselves against physical abuse and sexual assault). But to be bound can also be a positive thing, an expression of love: to be bound to one’s ancestors, connected to one’s friends and family, accountable to one’s community. Here, Hill celebrates women who have been bound in both respects, sometimes simultaneously.

Poetry is a deeply personal and intimate form of communion, and it’s pretty hit-or-miss for me. I know what I like, even if I have no idea why I like it. And, sadly, as much as I was looking forward to A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing (I mean, THAT COVER!), most of the poems just didn’t do it for me.

First, the pros: Hill introduced me to a number of badass women I’d never heard of before, and whom I’d love to learn more about. I love the concept of the collection, and the way it’s laid out, with photos, biographies, and poems inspired by the subjects.

But the cons: I just had a ton of trouble getting into the poems themselves. Likewise, the short biographies of the women featured often seem incomplete, and are sometimes downright confusing. The most obvious example to come to mind is Joan Little, who is listed as born in 1953 with an “unknown” date of death. Wikipedia lists her as still alive, so…that’s weird. At the very least, it requires further explanation, right?

Poetry is hardly in my wheelhouse, though, and judging from the other reviews, I’m in the minority here, so don’t let my experiences dissuade you. Roxane Gay blurbed it, so.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams (2019)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Filled with peoples, worlds, futures, and acts of rebellion that you won’t soon forget.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against a variety of marginalized groups.)

You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

Seanan McGuire is an insta-read for me – but, even without her name attached to this project, A People’s Future of the United States is still a book I would have pounced on. With its riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, plethora of diverse contributors, and focus on futures that might be – at a time when the present is so damn depressing – there’s no way I could pass it up. And, rather than offer an escape from the now, the stories here challenge the reader to follow this thread to its possible conclusions; to imagine what this world could become, for better or worse; and to rise up, resist, and perhaps steer it to a better, more humane place.

My main issue with anthologies is that they tend to be uneven – but A People’s History of the United States is as close to uniformly awesome as you can get without being pure perfection. There are a few stories that I just found okay, and one that I skipped altogether. But most of the rest? Took my breath away.

For whatever reason (the first bit of the synopsis maybe?), I came to the table expecting visions of future utopias: suggestions for how we can fix this broken planet we call home. And while there are a few budding socialist Edens to be found here – Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World” springs to mind – most are of the dystopian variety. And that’s both okay and, let’s be honest, totally realistic. The good thing is that, within every story lurks a glimmer of hope. Sometimes it’s tenuous and fragile, but it’s there, waiting to be nurtured into fruition. My heart, you guys? Swelled so much that it felt fit to burst clear out of my chest. Some of these yarns are that darn shiny.

There are way too many to discuss them all, but here goes.

“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley is as strange as it is lovely. Half the time I was not entirely sure what I was reading, but I was sure I wanted more. In this far-off future dystopia, words are power (though “Knowledge [isn’t] enough.”), a power that’s been chained by the powers that be. Paper is outlawed, so Librarians like the Needle tattoo the stories of the world on their very skin: “manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.” (Tell me you didn’t feel those chills.) In the end – or the beginning, rather – these stories become a superpower of sorts, smoke let loose on the battleground. The first of many revolutions.

Sam J. Miller explores “the place of sex in a broader strategy of political resistance” in “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right.” Forced to seek anonymous, illicit sex in back alleys and swampy underpasses (Homosexuality? Illegal. Along with a laundry list of other identities and interests.), Caul finds himself in a parallel world at the moment of orgasm: “A place where what we do matters.” And so this tool of the state – he who installs phone cloners up and down the streets of NY, to help the government better surveil its residents – comes to realize that he can be used to dismantle it. (And tell me your heart didn’t sink down into the depths of your belly the day that Prince became contraband.)

In “Riverbed,” Omar El Akkad revisits the site of a mass human rights abuse on its fiftieth anniversary. After a group of suicide bombers attacked a US sporting event with massive casualties, Khadija Singh’s family was rounded up and taken to a detention center, ‘for their own protection.’ (Never mind that they are Sikh, and not Muslim. In her father’s words, Americans are “brittle with privilege.”) It was only after he escaped that her brother was murdered. On the eve of the unveiling of a gaudy new museum to ‘commemorate’ the tragedy, Dr. Singh returns to the property to retrieve her brother’s meager belongings, so that no part of him might remain in the place of his captivity.

Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls” is a biting look at a world in which contraception, made illegal (while boner pills thrive!), is dealt on street corners like cocaine or heroin. After being orphaned by a forced pregnancy that killed her mom, Alyssa goes to work for the Matriarchs, selling condoms to young women and her local patrolman (already father of nine) alike. There’s an arrest, and a shakedown involving a hypocritical Senator (founder of the Abstinence League!) who wants an abortion for his pregnant, unwed teen daughter (See: ‘The only moral abortion is my abortion.’), and a double-cross to save the day.

Also nestled under the “utopia” umbrella is “O.1” by Gabby Rivera, in which a plague called IMBALANCE (“a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed”) killed the 1% and left most of the rest of the population sterile. That is, until a couple named Mala and Orion Lafayette-Santana manage to conceive Baby 0.1 – and the personal quickly becomes the object of public consumption as the the Federation of Free Peoples rallies around this new life. When Mala, Orion, and their birth worker Deviana Ortiz go missing from their home in North Philly, panic – and a massive manhunt – ensues. Told from their alternating perspectives, “O.1” is a story of hope and resilience. This might be the only time I’ve wished for biological warfare, okay. Team Imbalance all the way.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is simply brilliant: I mean, drug-sniffing, made-that-way racist dragons, sated with collard greens and hot sauce, domesticated with love and affection, and then turned against their (common) oppressors? What’s not to love about that?

Ditto: the aforementioned “No Algorithms in the World,” in which Hugh Howey imagines what society with a guaranteed basic income might look like, from both sides of the generational divide.

In “The Referendum,” Lesley Nneka Arimah reminds us why we should always listen to black women.

And Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder” is an epic tale distilled into short story form that will leave you wanting more.

I’m certain I’m overlooking a few favorites, but this is a pretty good start. If you like smart speculative fiction, told by a diverse group of voices, with a strong foundation in the here and now, A People’s Future of the United States is a slam dunk.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Book Love by Debbie Tung (2019)

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

A love letter to books.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

— 3.5 stars —

A bad movie adaptation that taints your memory of a cherished book. That new book smell. Finding a few coins to buy a new book even though the pantry is painfully bare. Turning down social invitations in favor of night spent cuddled up with your favorite book. All-night binge-read marathons that leave you a zombie shell of yourself the next day.

Book lovers will see themselves reflected – and celebrated – in Debbie Tung’s latest collection of comics, Book Love. Drawn in the same style (and with the same quiet sense of humor) as her previous book, Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story, this is an endearing and relatable read that’s sure to win the hearts of book lovers. I saw myself in so many of her strips, from fantasizing about nesting in a library, to refusing to clean out my book stash. (Actually, I had to get rid of about 70% of my physical books for a cross-country move, and it damn near broke my heart. I still shipped 40 boxes of my babies fwiw.)

My only complaint is that the book starts to feel repetitive about halfway in, almost as thought there isn’t that much to say about bibliophilia, which certainly cannot be so!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (2018)

Friday, January 25th, 2019

“It’s like death and toffee.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and homophobic violence.)

“Russia is starting to mine the solar system, and Americans are going to be getting their unicorn horns polished and designing children with claws and rainbow auras.”

He is passing from his own world into another, where humans and gravity hold sway. Up there, he isn’t Snake. He is only Chimera624, property of the Blessed Cures Consortium. If I were to examine the Consortium’s books, would I find myself listed as property too?

When you’d read Dickens, and Dickinson, and you’d read selections of Greek mythology and stories by a woman called Brontë and even a few by a man called Vonnegut—or at least, when you’d read the parts of those books that made it through the Proto Authority’s redaction process—you sometimes thought about a different sort of life.

This was, in a way, the beginning of a fairy tale.

This book began as a thought that one might variously describe as cynical or realistic (personally, my vote is on “all of the above”). While researching medical and technological advances on the horizon, Dayton’s initial reaction was the obvious: amazaballs! (Yes, it is 2019 and I am still using that word. Sue me.) This was rapidly supplanted by the more pessimistic: “We will definitely find some way of messing this up in spectacular fashion.” The six stories in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful exist in the liminal space between the two, as helpfully illustrated by this chart in the Author’s Note:

(Not gonna lie, I loled.)

The stories take place in the vague and unspecified future: both not-so-distant, and many generations down the line (in the twilight of humanity, you might even say). While the tech is indeed amazing – from drive-ins that combine on-screen images with pictures on each car’s windshield to create a 3D experience, to the eradication of inherited diseases and body mods ranging from moving tattoos to wings and horns and gills and flippers – it kind of takes a backseat to how society chooses to interpret, respond to, and utilize these gifts. Unsurprisingly, theological and geopolitical rifts form. While many people welcome life-saving medical advances (cross-species organ harvesting; the merging of organic and robotic parts; gene manipulation to eliminate disease), the more frivolous cosmetic procedures (see: wings and horns and gills and flippers) prove controversial. Sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear-cut.

In Part 1: Matched Pair (“A few years from now…”), we meet Evan Weary on the eve of his sister Julia’s death, and his resurrection (of sorts). The semi-identical twins were born with the same genetic disease, which caused stunted growth and gradual organ failure in their too-short lives. Julia lies in a coma, while Evan prepares to accept (or “cannibalize,” depending on your POV) a myriad of her organs so that he might have a chance.

Part 2: St. Ludmilla (“A few more years from now…”) introduces us to Milla (so named for the titular saint), whose broken body was pieced together with a “meshline” after a devastating car accident. Because bigotry against “anyone who’d been severely damaged and then put back together” is on the rise, Milla downplays the fallout. But when Gabriel, the guy she’d been crushing on for years, discovers her secret, the consequences are … let’s just say deliciously felicitous. (Is it terrible that I wanted her to push him?)

In Part 3: The Reverend Mr. Tad Tadd’s Love Story (“Let’s leap ahead a little more…”), we learn a little more about Tad Tadd (never trust a guy with two first names!). Along with the tech, Tadd is the one character who remains a constant thread in all six stories. Tadd is an evangelical preacher who’s a hybrid of Jim Jones and Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church fame). As a young man, he railed against altering our bodies in any way that would make them less “human” – even upon penalty of death. But when his wife and young son are killed at one of his protests (and, let’s face it, it’s hard not to root for the Ethiopian “mob”), Tad does a 180…but in a way that still manages to be self-serving and does absolutely nothing to help his “loved” ones. Fast-forward decades, maybe even a century, and the man has several pairs of multi-colored (think: tentacles) and extra eyes on the sides of his head. Jump ahead even more, and the man is God. But even gods can fall. And I’d getting ahead of myself.

Part 4: Eight Waded (“A lot of time has passed…”) mostly takes place underwater, where our anti-hero Alexios lives. Created to his parents’ specs by Genetic Radiance and deemed a failure, young Alexios was given “employment” as a chimera wrangler at the lab’s sister facility, The Blessed Cures Consortium. Here he defends the company’s property – with the help of a dolphin pod, no less – and lures unsuspecting manatees to their repeated torture:

Chimera. It means a living thing that contains tissue from two or more distinct organisms. Humans have used pigs and sheep and even rats to grow human organs cheaply and safely. But manatees are so much larger, and their lumbering ways and gentle attitudes so ideal to peacefully cultivating alien tissue, that my employer, the Blessed Cures Consortium, chose them as far more perfect chimeras than lowly pigs. Also, they can hide manatees underwater and leave their competitors guessing.

Chimera.
Or, switched around:
Ah, crime.

A perfect job for an eleven-year-old with a big brain and no empathy. (Though, let’s face it, the kid’s as much as slave as the sea creatures.) I especially love that Dayton chose manatees to be the “living organ tanks”; unlike pigs and sheeps, manatees – with their chubby bodies and docile demeanor – are universally beloved. They are cute and cuddly and worthy of consideration and compassion; certain to arouse outrage when mistreated. Yet they’re no different from pigs in the ways that matter: both are sentient, capable of feeling pain (and joy and love and grief, etc.) and suffering.

Anyway, the whole chapter reads like something out of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. So yes, I loved it.

Part 5: California (“We are definitely in the future now…”) takes us to Russia, where teenagers Jake and Kostya are on the run, having just escaped from a slave camp on an asteroid where they were being forced to mine platinum. Russia and America now (or will soon) sit on opposite sides of the “Genetic Curtain”: whereas Russia and its colonies prohibit the joining of human and nonhuman, America has yoyoed to the other extreme, allowing pretty much any and every mod devised by science, medically necessary or merely cosmetic. Yet Russia makes some exceptions, most notably for its prisoners and those deemed “deviant.”

And so it is that a cryogenically frozen California boy from a world long dead, and a Russian boy who just so happens to like kissing other boys, find their half-robot selves on a train barreling toward Siberia. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Part 6: Curiosities (“They have left us far behind…”) brings it all home on a reservation for “proto” humans located just outside of Denver. Teens Luck and Starlock are star-crossed lovers: with their contrasting white and black skins, there’s no chance these crazy kids are going to be Paired by the humans in charge. Not when genetic purity is the goal (ironic, coming from the people sporting antennae and wings!). But when the sentries fall – literally, their wings fall off and they wither to nothing – the Protos venture out beyond the confines of their electrified fence to see if there’s anything left in the big wide world. You know what they say about the meek inheriting the earth.

While I liked each story well enough, my enjoyment grew with each new chapter. It was really fascinating to watch Dayton’s world expand and grow, and to see how the pieces fit together. Whereas I’d give Part 1 a 3/5 – it’s rather short, and thus short on details – after that it was smooth sailing. Each chapter is a little longer than the one before it, so that they range from short stories (Part 1) to novellas (Part 5 and 6 each occupy about 25% of the book). The larger the ‘verse, the more captivated I became. I couldn’t stop reading, and yet I never wanted it to end.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Sprig the Rescue Pig by Leslie Crawford & Sonja Stangl (2018)

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Because bacon had a mom.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher.)

Sometimes you know things, even if you don’t have words for them.

So even though he didn’t have the words, our words, this is what Pig knew on that blazingly hot day as he sped along a country road in a truck jam-packed with lots of other unhappy pigs, most of them bigger than he was.

Pig knew that this was no life for a pig.

Like all pigs, Pig – the narrator of this story – is smart. And scared, as well he should be.

Born, raised, and destined to die on a pig farm, surrounded by hundreds of his brothers and sisters, Pig knows that his situation is dire. Pig and his friends are packed so tightly into their home that there’s hardly room to turn around, let alone cool off in a nice refreshing mudbath. Fear taints the air. And then, one fateful day, they are forced into a box on wheels.

When the truck that’s taking him to certain death gets into a traffic accident, Pig makes a break for it. Luckily, he finds a forest nearby – and a peanut butter sammie. On the other end is a kind young girl named Rory.

Lucky for them both, Rory’s mom is awesome as heck (and quite possibly a vegan. A girl can dream!) They take Pig – now renamed Sprig – home and welcome him into the family. But it soon becomes obvious that a suburban backyard isn’t the ideal environment for a pig, and so Rory is faced with a difficult choice.

Spoiler alert: You will ugly cry until your eyes are no longer capable of producing tears.

Sprig the Rescue Pig is the flagship in a series of children’s books about farmed animals by Leslie Crawford and illustrator Sonja Stangl. My first experience with the series was its successor, Gwen the Rescue Hen, which I absolutely adored. You don’t find many children’s books that are truly animal- and vegan-friendly, and so I kept waiting for the catch: maybe we see Mateo snacking on a hamburger, or meet his purchased-from-a-breeder pet dachshund. But nope: this cranky killjoy vegan found not a single point with which to quibble. Gwen the Rescue Hen was a pure delight, through and through.

And so it is with Sprig the Rescue Pig. Like Gwen, Sprig is loosely based on a true story: of a pig who saved himself and wound up at an animal sanctuary. (I thought I remembered the incident in question, and so went Googling for it – and found a whole slew of such stories. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that farmed animals gladly sacrifice themselves to feed us. Just like humans, animals want to live – and there are plenty of stories of nonhuman resistance to prove it.) The art is exquisite and the story heartwarming. Sprig is perfect for kids of all ages, and those of us who are just kids at heart (or long to be).

As much as I loved Gwen, I think I enjoyed Sprig even more: the ending is sad and bittersweet, and perhaps more realistic too. The most joyous of tales are still sometimes tinged with sorrow – and sometimes, the kindest thing you can do for someone you love is let them go. (Incidentally, this message also makes Sprig ideal for helping children cope with the loss of a companion animal. I recently had to say goodbye to one of my besties and Sprig’s farewell frolic conjured up images of the Rainbow Bridge. SO MANY FEELINGS!)

Honestly, these books are awesome and radical and filled with hope, and couldn’t have come into my life (and the world) at a better time. I can’t wait to see which species of nonhuman animal Leslie Crawford and Sonja Stangl breathe life into next!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Friday, January 18th, 2019

A weirdly enchanting dystopia.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

They sleep like children, mouths open, cheeks flushed. Breathing as rhythmic as swells on a sea. No longer allowed in the rooms, their mothers and fathers watch them through double-paned glass. Isolation—that’s what the doctors call it: the separation of the sick from the well. But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?

[H]ow much quieter that ending would be, a whole world drowned in sleep, than all the other ways we have to fall.

The remote California college town of Santa Lora (population 12,106) is beset by two calamities one autumn in the not-so-distant future: an unrelenting drought, and a “sleeping sickness.” Sufferers collapse into a deep sleep, from which nothing can wake them. If not cared for with feeding tubes, heart monitors, physical therapy, and the like, the sleepers (as they are colloquially known) are apt to succumb to the disease. However, as the outbreak spreads from the college to the rest of the town, finding volunteers to tend to the sleepers becomes increasingly difficult. Especially as many of the carers drift into sleep as well.

We experience the initial days and long weeks of the epidemic through the eyes of various Santa Lorians: Sara and Libby Peterson, ages twelve and eleven, daughters of a survivalist dad who works as a janitor at the college, and a mother long dead of asthma-related complications. Ben and Annie, new parents and recent Brooklyn transplants who are employed as part-time visiting professors at the college. Nathaniel and Henry, senior professors who have been together since Nathaniel came out in middle age. Mei Liu, a Chinese-American freshman from San Diego who was hoping to turn over a new leaf at college – and “Weird” Matthew Baker, a fellow quarantinee from her floor. And Catharine, a psychiatrist flown in from LA to assess the situation in its earliest days.

The Dreamers isn’t so much a story about a viral outbreak, or the potential end of the world, as it is an exploration of human consciousness and the elusive nature of time. Walker has created a dystopia that’s surprisingly beautiful and enchanting; her prose is, in a word, mesmerizing. Likewise, The Dreamers is one of the more thoughtful and philosophical (would-be) apocalypse stories in recent memory.

Walker plays with time and reality in ways that are both frustrating (don’t believe everything you read!) and delightful. While they sleep the sleep of the dead, Walker’s sleepers dream: of other possible worlds (or all possible worlds), of the future, of days come and gone and yet to be. Scientists monitoring the patients’ brain activity are shocked by what they find: “there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep.” Some sleepers dream entire lifetimes into being. When, eventually, some of them begin to wake up, it is a little death of sorts. Who is to say which life is real, and which is the dream?

So yeah, The Dreamers is a bit of a mindfuck, in the best possible way.

Oh, and bonus points for the trolley problem reference. I don’t know if the author is one, but fans of The Good Place are likely to dig this story, I think (Matthew and Mei in particular).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab by Huda Fahmy (2018)

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Brilliant.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for Islamophobia, racism, and sexism.)

Cartoonist, educator, and former law student Huda Fahmy was born and raised in Michigan – but this doesn’t stop strangers from asking her where she’s really from, or commenting on the exoticism of her (midwestern) accent. Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab is a collection of her webcomics – originally seen on Instagram* – which deal with the racist, sexist, and xenophobic microaggressions she struggles with on the daily, as a Muslim WOC living in Drumpf’s America. (Spoiler alert: things were pretty shitty pre-2016 too.)

The result is usually cutting, often depressing, and yet (amazingly) always hilarious. Fahmy possesses a sense of humor that’s equally wicked and witty. She’ll have you lol-ing even as you die a little inside. People can be assholes, but Fahmy has discovered the secret recipe for making assholaid. (Erm, chocolate milkshakes? Idk.)

Don’t be a Small-Minded Susan, read this book! Pay special attention to Chapter 6: It Never Hurts to Hope, for some examples of allyship (and just plain human kindness) in action.

* Maybe this will be the straw that finally makes me create an account?

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: [Dis]Connected: Poems and Stories of Connection and Otherwise edited by Michelle Halket (2018)

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Uneven, yet ultimately worth it.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

“There is a story about a man who watched me bathe nude and was so overcome with adoration and desire that he approached me. They say I turned him into a deer before he could even speak and watched his hunting dogs rip at his flesh. Men have spent thousands of years romanticizing their unwanted advances, their assaults. They have spent just as long demonizing women for their anger and their retribution.”

– “The Unholy Wild,” Trista Mateer

Mama raised us on her own, a house full of girls, though it wasn’t really a house. We lived up on the third floor and every summer when the heat would rise, we would fight like animals over the bathroom for a cool shower and a few moments of privacy. And when the door-banging and screaming stopped and one of us was nursing bruised knuckles, Mama would call us out into the living room. “I am raising a house full of girls,” she’d say, her voice tired. And the three of us would look down at our feet, quiet and sorry. Because Mama only ever called us girls when we had really fucked up.

Otherwise, she called us her babies, and she loved us even more than she was afraid for us.

– “Ultra,” Yena Sharma Purmasir

It’s a shame, really, how humans try to take the things they’re not allowed to have.

– “Small Yellow Cottage On The Shore,” Amanda Lovelace

So the concept behind this collection of poems and short stories, explained by editor Michelle Halket in the intro, is brimming with promise and intrigue:

The concept and theme of the book are of being connected. We seem to live in a hyper connected world, yet we increasingly hear stories of loneliness, isolation and disconnect. This book is about connecting poets with each other; connecting poetry with short fiction; and publishing stories about connection and/or a lack thereof. The premise was this: Each of the fully participating authors was to submit three poems adhering to this theme. These three poems would be assigned to a randomly chosen counterpart. That counterpart would select one of the poems and write a short story based on it.

Like most anthologies, though, the result is somewhat uneven: There are pieces I loved, adored, and cherished – poems and short works of fiction that will stick with me for days and weeks to come. Others were merely forgettable, and there were even one or two that I skimmed or skipped altogether. That said, the gems are shiny enough to make the mining worth it.

Let’s start with the premise. Whereas I expected (rightly or not) a focus on technology, and how it binds us together – and drives us apart – the theme of connection was approached in a much more general way. More often than not, “connection” was just a stand-in for relationships, and all their messy bits: love and loss, joy and grief, rebellion and oppression. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I had hoped for a collection with a sharper focus. You might feel otherwise.

The convention of further linking each piece together by repeating a line from the previous work, while an interesting idea, didn’t work for me in practice: rather than feeling organic, the lifted lines mostly had a clunky feel to them. I don’t think it helped that they appeared in bold to further draw attention to them. I think it would have been more fun to let the reader spot the bridges for herself, no?

As for the pieces themselves, I’ll be honest: I picked up [Dis]Connected for one reason and one reason only – because Amanda Lovelace’s name was connected to the project. And her contributions do not disappoint! Her poems are among my favorites; “A Book and Its Girl” is both playful and lovely, and “Sisters: A Blessing” hints at what’s in store for us with her third installment in the Women Are Some Kind of Magic series, The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One.

Ditto: “Small Yellow Cottage on The Shore,” in which a sea witch must defeat the scariest monsters of them all – entitled white men – in order to save the love of her life, a selkie kidnapped for the purposes of sex trafficking and forced marriage. Oh, and her long lost love, another selkie similarly victimized. (The only thing I didn’t love about this story? That they let the dudebros live. This isn’t a silly prank or harmless mistake, but rather organized, systemic rape. LET YOUR RETRIBUTION RAIN DOWN FROM THE SKY! SLAY THEM ALL! LET NO RAPIST DRAW ANOTHER EARTHLY BREATH!)

[Dis]Connected also introduced me to some new favorites: every word Yena Sharma Purmasir writes is magic, from her short story “Ultra,” to the poems “Things That Aren’t True” and “If My Aunt Was On Twitter @lovelydurbangirl.” Trista Mateer’s “The Unholy Wild” gives a voice to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, along with a girlfriend and (an ever narrowing) place in contemporary society. It is wild and beautiful and fiercely feminist; it’s no mystery why I pictured her as a topless Leslie Knope. Iain S. Thomas’s “Driving With Strangers” is alive with some of the most achingly beautiful imagery you’ll ever read, while “A Way To Leave” by R.H. Swaney and Liam Ryan’s “The Train” are the most wonderful kind of melancholy.

The only piece I actively disliked – had a visceral “oh gross!” reaction to, in point o’ facts – is “Where the Sea Meets the Sky” by Cyrus Parker. A #MeToo story told from the perspective of the (accidental? are we really supposed to read it that way?) rapist, it just felt wrong and unnecessary. Our culture is overflowing with this POV; what are we to gain from experiencing a “date rape” through the perpetrator’s eyes? Hard pass.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)