Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke & Laura Silverman (2019)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

I don’t love every story – but the ones I love, I love HARD.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues, including eating disorders and social anxiety; bullying; and discussions of homophobia.)

I’ll probably never know what a space station careening through the atmosphere looks like, because I wasn’t looking up anymore. I was looking at him and smiling, and he was smiling back at me, and his braces were gleaming like starlight, and he whispered, “Shehecheyanu,” and I leaned forward, and I pressed my lips against his stars.

(“Indoor Kids” by Alex London)

I wish I’d had the experience, the wisdom then to tell him: To me, Jewish is knowing that you can’t be asked to have pride in one part of your identity and then be told to have shame about another part. Whoever asks you to do that is wrong. To be proud as a Jew is to be proud of everything you are.

(“The Hold” by David Levithan)

My chewing sounds like applause.

(“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz)

As you can certainly gleam (yes, I meant to say “gleam, with an m,” in deference to both this anthology’s overall shininess as well as the opening story; don’t @ me; and yes, that last was a hat tip to editor Katherine Locke’s highly enjoyable contribution, “Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero”; you can @ me on that one as you wish, because I have FEELINGS) from the title, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories is a collection of short stories written by Jewish authors, primarily for a Jewish, YA audience. Most are of the contemporary/realistic fiction persuasion, but there’s a little bit of fantasy and memoir sprinkled throughout.

I LOVE that this book exists – especially in this time and place in history – and it pains me equally to say that I didn’t fall in love with every single story. Them’s usually the breaks with anthologies, though. That said, I would recommend It’s a Whole Spiel on the basis of David Levithan’s essay alone. (In my notes I just wrote “wow”.)

I’ll admit, I wasn’t into “The Hold” at first. Whereas the rest of the pieces take the form of a more traditional short fiction story, “The Hold” is more of a nonfiction story without a clear structure, at least at the outset. But as the narrative begins to take shape, and Levithan recounts coming out as a young Jewish boy, in like with another boy from his temple who would later run away, vanishing without a goodbye, you know you’re being gifted with something special.

Our time together became a good dream, possibly the best dream. I never forgot it, but I remembered it less and less, as other dreams joined in. I’ve written about him hundreds of times, and I haven’t written about him at all until now.

This is the first thing I’ve read by David Levithan, but it won’t be my last.

“Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke is also a real treat, especially for self-professed nerds who prefer virtual spaces to “real” ones. (“I’m not tagging you, but you know who you are.”) Awkward in person, but a master with the written word, Gabe spends much of his free time writing fan fic for the website Milk & Honey, “a whole site dedicated to reimagining every canon character as Jewish” (and trying to figure out how to parlay his hobby into a winning college application). Little does he know that Yael, the owner of the site on whom he’s been crushing hard, is someone he knows in meat space – and that a shared love of the X-Men reimagined as the Maccabees might just give him/them a second chance.

Also amazing is “Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz. Like many of the stories in these here pages, “Neilah” centers around the theme of not being “Jewish enough,” of suffering from imposter syndrome, and ties this disconnect to the MC’s eating disorder. When she was dating her ex, a “good” Gentile boy who showered her not with love, but backhanded compliments or outright criticism, she shrank up and tried to fold into herself, to disappear. To be less: less loud, less big, less Jewish. But a new relationship with a devout Jewish girl named Mira is about to change all that. It’s an inspired analogy with an inspiring ending.

I really enjoyed editor Laura Silverman’s story, “Be Brave and All,” in which protagonist Naomi, dragged to the national JZY convention by her best friend Rachel, conquers her anxiety to stand up for something she believes in (gun control, which nicely ties this story to current events).

Many of the MCs in these stories are embarking on journeys in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical, whether meeting their new boyfriend’s family for the first time (during an earthquake! argh!), traveling to Israel on a Birthright trip, or attending a Jewish summer camp or convention. These tales are at their most satisfying when the protagonist experiences growth – but, weirdly, this is not always the case. (“El Al 328” by Dana Schwartz is just straight-up demoralizing. The ending felt like my life and was sad and uncomfortable AF.)

“Indoor Kids” by Alex London also deserves a shout-out, both for its nerdy space program backdrop, and its adorable M/M romance. And that writing! It takes a special talent to make braces seem so magical.

“Indoor Kids” by Alex London – 4/5
“Two Truths and an Oy” by Dahlia Adler – 3/5
“The Hold” by David Levithan – 5/5 wow
“Aftershocks” by Rachel Lynn Solomon – 3/5
“Good Shabbos” by Goldy Moldavsky – 2/5 did not care for the abundance of footnotes
“Jewbacca” by Lance Rubin – 3/5
“El Al 328” by Dana Schwartz – 1/5 ugh?
“Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke – 5/5 amazing
“He Who Revives the Dead” by Elie Lichtschein – 3/5
“Be Brave and All” by Laura Silverman – 5/5
“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz – 5/5
“Find the River” by Matthue Roth – 2/5
“Ajshara” By Adi Alsaid – 2.5/5
“Twelve Frames” by Nova Ren Suma – 3/5

(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: Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy edited by Mindy McGinnis, Demitria Lunetta, and Kate Karyus Quinn (2019)

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

four out of five stars

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

I found out that there was much knowledge that Chira had kept from me. The women of the village knew that a man was necessary for procreation; they just did not see his value for anything else.

(“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta)

Most women didn’t smile. Those that would usually kept walking, a little faster than before. But this one stood directly in front of them, a tremendous grin on her face as though nothing pleased her more. The men felt triumphant.

Except several moments passed and she was still standing there, smiling wider and wider. One of the men coughed. The other smiled back, weakly.

“You need something else, hon?”

She said nothing. Her smile kept growing. Grotesque now, her lips stretched as far as they could go, teeth shining in the morning sun.

(“Smile” by Emilee Martell)

It may look like we are scared. Like we are running. But we are not. I am not. Not anymore.

(“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn)

The second I saw Mindy McGinnis’s name on this book, I hit “request” without knowing anything else about it. As it turns out, I got extra lucky, because feminist horror stories? Are my peanut butter, jam, and jelly. Incidentally, Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy (that title! gives me goosebumps!) started its life as a Kickstarter campaign – the funding of which made the world just a wee bit richer.

This anthology is every bit as awesome as it sounds. Inspired by, uh, let’s just say “events” (current, past, and future), the women who populate these stories have had enough: of the cat-calling, non-consensual sharing of nude pics, and bullying. Of sexual harassment and assault. Of being gaslighted, dismissed, silenced, and ignored. Of being told to smile, or not; to laugh, or not. Of being mistreated because of their gender in a supposedly equal world. And they’re fixing for revenge. Let’s do some vicarious living, shall we? Bonus points if some of this badassery spills out into the “real” world.

So, listen. Did I love some stories more than others? Sure, but that’s an anthology for you. There was really only one story I didn’t much care for; the rest are entertaining at worst, downright life changing at best. If you do nothing else, read it for editor Kate Karyus Quinn’s “The Change,” which needs to be a summer blockbuster like yesterday.

“Vagina Dentata” by Mindy McGinnis – ?/5

A woman walks into a plastic surgeon’s office (one of maaaany) and requests dental implants in her vag. It’s an exciting concept, but at barely a page long, the story ends before it even begins. This made me extra-sad seeing as McGinnis is one of my favorites, an insta-read, and I would have wanted more even if the story was 1000 pages long.

“You Wake With Him Beside You” by Cori McCarthy – 4/5

An unexpected and cutting poem about escaping one unhealthy relationship only to become trapped in another: “you wonder about the Titanic, was it so bad? / you’re drunk on melancholy, and it’s not even eight AM.” I think we’ve all been there, yeah?

“The Weight of Iron” by Amanda Sun – 3.5/5

Accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death as a sacrifice for “seducing” the innkeeper (read: being sexually assaulted by the innkeeper), Galen finds redemption, understanding, and revenge in the most unlikely of places – her would-be executioner. This story gets a little weird, but the ending is lovely and delicious.

“What She Left Behind” by E.R. Griffin – 4/5

In 1976, a young woman named Erin Wilcox vanishes from her bedroom; the only clue, a faux diamond earring discarded in the dirt below her window. Forty-two years later, her ghost reaches out to the home’s newest resident, a girl named Mel who understands Erin’s trauma all too well. I think my favorite part of this story is the multitude of baddies – or rather, how Griffin guts the Nice Guy ™ trope.

“After the Foxes Have Their Say” by Tracie Martin – ?/5 WTF happened

There’s a prison in the desert. A Warden who takes a wife who takes off with a caravan of orphans, on account of they’re girls and she doesn’t like how the men folk are eyeing them. And then there’s a daughter. Honestly, I have no idea what this story is about, though the imagery of your heart waltzing around in someone else’s rib cage will strike a chord with anyone who’s loved and lost.

“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta – 5/5

When Dr. Janet Sayre’s colleague, Dr. Peter Harvey, disappears while studying an isolated South American tribe, she travels into the Amazon rainforest in search of him. Here, she encounters the Ayhua, a community made up exclusively of women:

The women of this small village have developed a society completely devoid of male influence. Women provide everything for themselves and take the responsibilities that other native tribes have delegated to men, including hunting, protection, and all leadership roles. They have remained undiscovered and untouched from modern ideas and ideals. They live their entire lives within a twenty-mile radius of their birthplace, and they seem to exhibit no curiosity about the outside world. They are exceptional among all other cultures and present us with a unique opportunity to study what has in the past only been a hypothetical: What path would a society take if it were women, and not men, who ruled the world?

Though there are many children present – children who are mothered communally – Sayre and her companion, a linguist named Cassie, cannot figure out how the women are becoming pregnant. Nor do they know what becomes of the male babies. As she becomes closer to the women who have so generously welcomed them into their home – chieftess/medicine woman Chira in particular – Sayre must decide to what lengths she’ll go in order to protect her adopted family.

This story a) is bonkers; b) has the potential to become a racist, imperialist mess; c) is handled with care; and d) would make an amazing horror film, but only in the hands of screenwriters and directors and producers who would nurture it with an equal amount of care. This is easily one of my favorite stories in the book, and the length makes me feel like Golilocks discovering that perfectly sized bed.

“@Theguardians1792” by Jenna Lehne – 4/5

Kind of like The Chain, but swap out the land lines for twitter and kidnapped children for humiliated/injured/murdered misogynists.

“Gravity” by Kyrie McCauley – 5/5

All of the girls in the narrator’s family are cursed:

We bear the curse of levity. Laughter. Humor and mirth. But we cannot stop it, so even when things go wrong, a feeling of joy surges over us, like a wave obliterating a sand castle. One crest of foaming water, and our pain is erased from the world forever. That is how our sadness feels. Temporary. Gone before it ever reaches the surface. Also, we float.

She has to wear weights to keep her tethered to the earth, and the only time she can connect with her negative emotions is when she’s submerged in a large body of water. Her sweet, unassuming demeanor is a curse, but also a defense mechanism, meant to camouflage her from predators (nothing to see here), i.e. men. But her best friend Odette is the only one she cares about.

“Gravity” is a beautiful, surreal F/F romance story that “feels like braids coming undone.” I’m counting down the days until the release of McCauley’s upcoming debut novel, If These Wings Could Fly.

“The Guardrail Disappears” by Melody Simpson – 3.5/5

This is your standard Law & Order: SVU episode wherein a young woman realizes that she’s been kidnapped and raised by a stranger – but in a not-so-distant future, complete with autonomous vehicles.

“Good Sister, Bad Sister” by Azzurra Nox – 3/5

“Good Sister, Bad Sister” is a like your classic YA werewolf story, only the protagonist is a young Muslim woman whose mother is pressuring her to wear a hijab, and instead of using her newfound powers to dominate the basketball court and woo her crush, Dilay gets revenge on the dude who assaulted her older sister Sanem. I really dig the idea, but the writing feels a bit clumsy in places.

“Vigilante Lane” by S. E. Green – 4/5

The protagonist of this story is a close cousin of Alex Craft, she of Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. But with a little more gore.

“We Have But Lingered Here” by Liz Coley – 4/5

In which a nonbinary fight choreographer named Jules drafts the recently summoned spirits of Shakespeare’s plays to help her slay a demon – namely, her abusive father. This is a great story on its own, but I REALLY wanted to see the fallout.

“The Whispers” by Lindsey Klingele – 5/5

Inspired by the Suffragettes, the young women of Little Falls have run amok: refusing perfectly good marriage proposals; announcing their intentions to remain single; laughing and cavorting in public; and just generally flouting decency and societal norms. And so the men of the town devise a modest solution: cut out their voice boxes so that they need not be heard. It’s no wonder that, before long, the Falls will run red with blood. This is another gem that needs to grace the big screen, shut up and take my money please!

“Smile” by Emilee Martell – 4/5

This story is best summed up by that one Broad City “smile” gif + the movie Teeth. File alongside “Vagina Dentata” as a story that’s freaking amazing, but entirely too short for civility.

Also, while we’re talking gifs, I went searching in my blogging folder for “betty,” to find the cover image for this book. A Betty White gif also popped up and now I cannot think of Betty Bites Back without also thinking of this.

You’re welcome.

“Potluck” by Kamerhe Lane – 4.5/5

A story of a wake, told by the foods prepared for it. Or, perhaps more accurately, by the female hands that made the food.

“To Mary,” someone says. Or maybe they all say. Hard to tell. “She’s free.”

Very weird and experimental but, ultimately, fierce AF.

“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn – 5/5 holy shit

This story, y’all. WOW. What a note to end on.

A little bit Children of Men, a little bit Wilder Girls, “The Change” takes place in a near-future dystopia in which the next generation of young women, upon reaching puberty, sprout spikes and scales and quills and wings and fangs. Like the levity in “Gravity,” these biological weapons are defense mechanisms that women can use against their most dangerous predators: men. Only Mother Nature’s attempt to level the playing field backfires, and women become regulated, restricted, hunted.

Except. When our unnamed narrator gets her period, nothing happens: “I changed, but nothing changed.” As news of her existence spreads and she and Mother are beset by men who want her to bear their children, to make more of her – sweet, docile, unarmed women – they go into hiding. But they cannot outrun Adam’s Soldiers (“To be a member / they removed the same rib given to Eve.”) … but maybe that’s not a bad thing? Only by confronting the patriarchy does Eve’s daughter discover her true power.

Side note: I would love for Betty White to play Daughter’s ill-fated driver in the movie adaptation of this, for reasons.

(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: This Place: 150 Years Retold by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, et al. (2019)

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

A powerful look at Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racist violence against Indigenous peoples, including colonialism, kidnapping, forced assimilation, and land theft.)

Though the body of post-apocalyptic Indigenous literature is much smaller than I’d like (Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice and the 2016 scifi anthology Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time are the only two that spring immediately to mind), in my own experience, one observation seems to cut across them all: that, for Native Americans and Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened – is happening – in the form of colonialism. For them, “post-apocalyptic” is not sub-genre of science fiction, or an escape from the banality of everyday life, or even a warning of what could happen, if we continue down our current path. Rather, “post-apocalyptic” describes their current reality, their lives, their struggles, their continued resistance. No matter how many times I encounter it, it’s a statement that always bowls me over.

While This Place: 150 Years Retold is not really a science fiction anthology (“kitaskînaw 2350” by Chelsea Vowel notwithstanding), it’s hard not to view the comics in this collection from an apocalyptic lens.

The ten comics featured in This Place explore various historical figures and events in Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective: from Sniper Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, who served in WWI, killed 378 enemy soldiers and captured 300 more, and went on to become the most decorated Indigenous soldier in Canadian history…only to be repeatedly denied loans after the war (“Peggy” by David A. Robertson and Natasha Donovan), to a fictionalized account of a mother’s stand against CA’s kidnapping of Indigenous children, spurred in part by the young boy she failed to save when she was in foster care herself (“Nimkii” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Ryan Howe, Jen Storm, and Donovan Yaciuk).

While both the artwork and storytelling is a little uneven (par for the course in anthologies), for the most part I found this a pretty solid collection of historical graphic stories. The result is fierce, cutting, and sorely needed. I hope this lands in high school syllabuses on both sides of the border.

(tbh, a grounding in Canadian history is a plus, but by no means necessary.)

(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: 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.

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Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geeks edited by Hope Nicholson (2018)

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

As dazzling as the cover!

four out of five stars

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

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I enjoyed The Secret Loves of Geeks even more than its predecessor, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls.

I had Geek Girls on pre-order, something I rarely do (unless there’s a can’t-miss deal involved), in no small part because Margaret Atwood’s name was attached to the project. (FAVORITE.) The day the book arrived, I pounced on it, but my enthusiasm quickly waned when I realized that the “secret loves” referenced in the title were actual interpersonal relationships and not, as I assumed, guilty pleasures. I was seriously soured on relationships at that point. Well, relationships not involving dogs, anyway.

As a recent widow, I’m still not very keen on the topic (feeling hecka cynical over here), but the breadth of diversity found in The Secret Loves of Geeks won me over. (Also it probably helped that my expectations were adjusted accordingly.) In a mix of personal essays and comics, the contributors share their own stories and anecdotes (and even the occasional piece of advice) about love, in all its triumphs and tragedies. Most of the stories are about romantic love, yes, but platonic love and familial love and love of fictional ‘verses also represent. There are coming out stories, and stories about grief and loss. Comics about trans headcanons and essays about how Buffy’s journey parallels that of the author, a trans woman.

It’s hard to point to a favorite or two; by the time I finished the anthology, I realized that I’d starred at least half of the pieces! There were only a smattering I didn’t care for, and just two I skimmed through or skipped altogether.

Levi Hastings’s “So Say We All” kind of broke me, and not just because I’m grieving too. I think the ghost dog is what set me over the edge.

“Trolling for Lesbos” by Gabby Rivera is also great, and boasts the best title of the bunch. America just jumped to the top of my wishlist.

Ivan Salazar’s “The Walter Mercado Effect” is as informative as it is touching and entertaining, and Gwen Benaway’s “Being the Slayer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Burden of Trans Girlhood” slayed me (sorry not sorry).

But what is more feminine than fighting for your humanity? Men have their humanity handed to them. It’s preordained. Women are the ones who fight to make our way and work to have our partners respect us. People praise the sweet girl but they never acknowledge the bitch who gets shit done. So here’s to Buffy, a complex and powerful woman in a world of paper-thin girls. You’re my inspiration.

Some of the artists – Hope Nicholson, Margaret Atwood (duh!), Valentine De Landro, Amy Chu, Gabby Rivera – were already on my radar, but The Secret Loves of Geeks gave me a whole new roster to explore. Definitely a good thing.

(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: All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell (2018)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

“‘Peace, love and empathy,’ Annabelle murmurs, and then we fade away.”

four out of five stars

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

“All my life, people have told me what to do or taken what’s mine. The same is true for you! We’ve been raised among pirates who call themselves gentlemen. And I’m ready to turn the tables. I’m ready to take what’s mine and maybe a few things that aren’t.”

(“The Sweet Trade” by Natalie C. Parker)

We lived. We survived to whisper our names to each other even if we could not yet confess them to anyone else.

(“Roja” by Anna-Marie McLemore)

Anna-Marie McLemore. Malinda Lo. Sara Farizan. Dahlia Adler. Mackenzi Lee. If the lovely and delightful concept of All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages wasn’t enough to have me drooling over this book, the list of authors attached to the project would have easily sealed the deal.

Though they all fall under the heading of historical fiction (fwiw, as someone who was herself a young adult during Y2K, it’s hard for me to think of a story set in 1999 as “historical”), the seventeen short stories found here stretch across a variety of genres: fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romance, etc. This can sometimes make for a jarring transition between stories, but for the most part their LGBTQ protagonists bind them together almost seamlessly.

Anthologies tend by their very nature to be at least a little uneven, but All Out is consistently enjoyable, if not downright awesome. The lowest rating I gave any one story is a three, and these are few and far between. Most of my notes are downright gushy; two stories merited a “fucking amazing!” (“Molly’s Lips” and “Every Shade of Red”); there was one “pure magic” (“Healing Rosa”); and of “The Inferno & The Butterfly” I said simply “great” (I think I was struck speechless tbh).

What I like best – other than the exquisite storytelling and abundance of imagination – is the sheer breadth of diversity. There are F/F and M/M romances, to be sure; but also trans protagonists and heroes, a fair amount of crossdressing (both as a means of subterfuge and as self-expression), and even one or two asexual characters. Some of these teens know very well who they are and are totally comfortable with it, thank you very much; while others are still in the process of learning and becoming. And there are teens from a variety of time periods, nations, cultures, and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Picking favorites is hard! But Elliott Wake’s “Every Shade of Red” – a retelling of Robin Hood wherein Robin is a trans boy, given name Lady Marian, who is running away from a forced marriage – stands out in particular. The ending is both heartbreaking but also brimming the promise of adventures yet to come; I can only hope that it’s the first part of an ongoing series. I’d settle for the written word, but this is a story that belongs on screen.

I also fell in love with “Molly’s Lips” by Dahlia Adler. Two besties fall in love – or rather, find the courage to profess their love for one another – in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. I’m a huge Nirvana fan, and Annabelle’s revelation by linear notes was pure magic. It also reminded me of how much poorer the world is without Kurt here. Especially now, when we need all the little sparks we can get.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing is as beautiful and enchanting as always; inspired by the life of Leonarda Emilia, “Roja” is the story of two fierce and indomitable star-crossed lovers. (“Known to history as la Carambada, Leonarda wore men’s clothing, but became notorious for revealing her breasts to the powerful men she’d just robbed as she rode off.” How rad is that?)

And “Healing Rosa” had me cursing the stars that we have to wait so long for We Set the Dark on Fire, the debut novel from Tehlor Kay Mejia.

There are so many more wonderful stories, too many to mention. Best just pick up a copy of All Out and see for yourself.

 

Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (El Bajío, México, 1870) – 5/5
The Sweet Trade by Natalie C. Parker (Virginia Colony, 1717) – 4/5
And They Don’t Kiss at the End by Nilah Magruder (Maryland, 1976) – 3.5/5
Burnt Umber by Mackenzi Lee (Amsterdam, 1638) – 5/5
The Dresser & The Chambermaid by Robin Talley (Kensington Palace, September 1726) – 3.5/5
New Year by Malinda Lo (San Francisco—January 21, 1955) – 4/5
Molly’s Lips by Dahlia Adler (Seattle—April 10, 1994) – 5/5
The Coven by Kate Scelsa (Paris, 1924) – 3/5
Every Shade of Red by Elliott Wake (England, Late Fourteenth Century) – 5/5
Willows by Scott Tracey (Southwyck Bay, Massachusetts, 1732) – 3/5
The Girl With the Blue Lantern by Tess Sharpe (Northern California, 1849) – 3.5/5
The Secret Life of a Teenage Boy by Alex Sanchez (Tidewater, Virginia, 1969) – 5/5
Walking After Midnight by Kody Keplinger (Upstate New York, 1952) – 4/5
The End of the World As We Know It by Sara Farizan (Massachusetts, 1999) – 4/5
Three Witches by Tessa Gratton (Kingdom of Castile, 1519) – 3.5/5
The Inferno & The Butterfly by Shaun David Hutchinson (London, 1839) – 5/5
Healing Rosa by Tehlor Kay Mejia (Luna County, New Mexico, 1933) – 5/5

 

(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: Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics edited by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor, and O.K. Fox (2018)

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

#shoutyourabortion, now in graphic novel format!

four out of five stars

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

In the editor’s note, Hazel Newlevant explains the genesis of Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics:

Comics for Choice was sparked by my outrage at the clinic closures and suffocating restrictions on abortion rights in states like Texas. It is not enough for abortion to remain technically legal; it is a moral imperative for abortion care to be accessible to all who need and want it. The right to abortion is the right to bodily autonomy, and to determine one’s own life path. When our 45th president was elected, and the future of abortion rights seemed more uncertain than ever, I couldn’t wait any longer. The very next morning, my co-editors and I set the wheels in motion to create the book you now read.

The result is, sadly, both relevant and timely; in the words of badass old broads everywhere, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.”

The anthology brings together more than sixty contributors – including women (and some trans and nonbinary folks) who have had abortions; women who were born after their mothers chose to terminate a previous pregnancy; reproductive rights advocates; clinic escorts; abortion doulas; and other feminist activists – to share their stories about abortion. Comics for Choice aims to destigmatize abortion, birth control, and family planning (but mostly abortion) by sharing personal stories from those who have undergone the procedure, as well as historical context, scientific information, and (in an especially touching piece by Jennifer Camper and Katie Fricas) a memorial to those murdered by anti-choice terrorists in the United States.

Like many anthologies, collection is somewhat uneven. Unlike most anthologies, the breadth of voices is also the book’s greatest advantage: if nothing else, Comics for Choice underscores the fact that abortion cuts across myriad lines – race, class, politics, sexuality, even gender. One in four women will undergo an abortion at least once in her lifetime; countless others will be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term due to unequal access. Comics for Choice gives people from divergent backgrounds the chance to share their stories, sometimes pairing artists with regular folks to better convey their experiences. Representation matters, and the editors have taken care to make this mantra the backbone of Comics for Choice.

As for my favorites, one piece that stands out – and will probably haunt my dreams throughout the Trump presidency – would have to be “Horror Stories” (as in “Do It Yourself Abortion Horror Stories”) by Jennifer Camper. Simple yet horrifyingly effective, the one-page comic portrays fourteen methods of DIY abortion with stark and chilling brevity. Dr. Cynthia Greenlee and Jaz Malone’s portrait of Dorothy Brown, Tennessee’s fist black woman legislator (“They Called Her Dr. D”), follows “Horror Stories” and provides a nice, fist-pumping counterpoint.

Mick Moran shares her experiences as an abortion doula in “Bearing Witness,” which had me convinced that abortion doulas must make the best, most empathetic friends ever. The last comic, Vreni’s “Nothing Feels Real (an abortion diary)” is also one of the most powerful contributions, offering an intimate look at funding, undergoing, and recovering from a surgical abortion.

Perhaps the most surprising piece, for me, was “Abortion Trials.” Based on transcripts of abortion trials from the post-WWII era, Rickie Solinger and Rachael Morrill explore how women were routinely slut-shamed and demonized – “thoroughly degraded and humiliated” – often for public entertainment, and when they were not necessarily the ones on trial. In many cases, it was their doctor’s own defense attorney dishing out the abuse.

Comics for Choice isn’t always an easy read, but it’s a necessary one – and a much-needed addition to the swell of women’s voices that continues to rise into 2017 and beyond.

(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: Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters (2018)

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Walters is at her best when she’s playing Frankenstein with fairy tale tropes.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence against women and suicide.)

Once upon a time there was a monster. This is how they tell you the story starts. This is a lie.
(“Tooth, Tongue, and Claw “)

Don’t be fooled by the breadcrumbs in the forest. This is not a fairy tale.
(“A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take”)

You won’t catch me in my underwear. I sleep in my fucking coveralls.
(“The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter”)

Between the oft-quoted “Once upon a time there was a monster…” line (reproduced above; I just couldn’t help myself!), and the deliciously dark story titles, I was practically frothing at the mouth to read an early copy of Cry Your Way Home. Alas, this collection of short stories – an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale retellings, and the stray piece of contemporary fiction, all bound by a fierce undercurrent of feminism running throughout – is more of a mixed bag than I’d hoped. There are a few gems here, but also a good many underwhelming and ultimately forgettable stories, too.

The collection opens on a strong note with “Tooth, Tongue, and Claw,” easily my favorite of the bunch. A mix of Beauty and the Beast and The Handmaid’s Tale (or perhaps “The Lottery”), the story ends with a surprising twist that’s as satisfying as it is lurid. A mashup of various fairy tales/spin on the entire genre, “A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take” is equal parts beautiful, chilling, and cautionary. While I think Walters is at her best when writing in this wheelhouse, I also quite enjoyed some of her science fiction; “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter,” “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love,” and “The Floating Girls: A Documentary” are all worth a read or two or three.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: #Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy & Mary Beth Leatherdale (2017)

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

“We aren’t historic figures; we are modern women.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to violence against women, suicidal ideation, genocide, and racism and sexism.)

It’s strange to me how people always want me to be an “authentic Indian.” When I say I’m Haudenosaunee, they want me to look a certain way. Act a certain way. They’re disappointed when what they get is . . . just me. White-faced, red-haired. They spent hundreds of years trying to assimilate my ancestors, trying to create Indians who could blend in like me. But now they don’t want me either. I’m not Indian enough. They can’t make up their minds. They want buckskin and war paint, drumming, songs in languages they can’t understand recorded for them, but with English subtitles of course. They want educated, well-spoken, but not too smart. Christian, well-behaved, never questioning. They want to learn the history of the people, but not the ones who are here now, waving signs in their faces, asking them for clean drinking water, asking them why their women are going missing, asking them why their land is being ruined. They want fantastical stories of the Indians that used to roam this land. They want my culture behind glass in a museum. But they don’t want me. I’m not Indian enough.

(“The Invisible Indians,” Shelby Lisk)

Because history moves like a fevered heat down through the arteries of generations
Because PTSD to the family tree is like an ax Because colonization is the ghosts of buffalos with broken backs
Because today only burning flags could be found at the ghost dance of my people

(“Stereotype This,” Melanie Fey)

I feel like I should begin this review with a word of caution: If you see any complaints about formatting problems ahead of the pub date, disregard them. The Kindle version of this ARC is indeed a hot mess, but this is par for the course when it comes to books with a heavy graphic element. The acsm file, read on Adobe Digital Editions (which I loathe, but happily suffered for this book!), gives a much clearer picture of what the finished, physical copy is meant to look like. And, if Amazon’s listing is any indication, #Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women will only be released in print.

That said, #Notyourprincess is fierce, vibrant, and nicely organized. It feels a lot like an experimental art project, and I mean that in the best way possible. Within these here pages you’ll find an eclectic mix of personal essays, poems, quotes, photographs, line art, watercolors, comics, portraits of activists and athletes, and interviews with Native women. #LittleSalmonWoman (Lianne Charlie) even adopts the format of an Instagram page, while “More Than Meets the Eye” (Kelly Edzerza-Babty and Claire Anderson) profiles ReMatriate, which shares images of modern Native women on social media in order to reclaim their identities and broaden our ideas of what a “real” Native American woman looks like. (The quote in my review’s title comes from Claire Anderson, a founding member of ReMatriate.)

The topics touched upon run the gamut: genocide, colonization, forced assimilation, cultural appropriation, kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, mass incarceration, mental illness, sexuality, addiction, street harassment, homelessness, and intergenerational trauma.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 edited by B. Morris Allen (2017)

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

They’re Good Stories, Brent.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley.)

I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.

(“My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major” by Jarod K. Anderson)

Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.

(“Strix Antiqua” by Hamilton Perez)

When I spotted this anthology of “vegan” science fiction and fantasy stories on NetGalley, I knew I had to have it. Though I love both genres, the animal exploitation that seems ubiquitous in each makes active compartmentalization while reading a must. (Though you could say the same of all literature, fwiw.) Vegan SF/F? Sign me up!

Alas, Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 isn’t quite what I envisioned. Instead of, say, stories featuring vegan protagonists, plots that involve daring animal rescues, or narratives that hinge on animal sentience or human/nonhuman kinship, the stories contained within these pages are “vegan” more for what you don’t see than the things you do. There are no scenes of animal cruelty, exploitation, or speciesism here. Often there aren’t any animals at all!

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! On the contrary, some of the stories are downright magical. To no one’s surprise, my favorite was the sole story that did center a nonhuman in its narrative. In “My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major,” the narrator inherits a dog from his eccentric yet beloved grandmother; a creature who literally shines with love, and one the grieving guardian must ultimately set free.

I also adored Hamilton Perez’s “Strix Antiqua,” in which speciesism (automatonophobia? robophobia? technophobia?) proves to be the evil witch’s downfall. You might look at “Strix Antiqua” as vegan in the larger sense, e.g., in that it promotes compassion and respect for all animals, including those of the human variety. (Or, to expand the circle even further, all sentient beings, including those that are non-organic.) Likewise, “Closed Circuit” has a bit of a social justice bent, as the settlers of an abandoned mining colony fight for their freedom on a hostile planet/in a hostile world.

“Murder on the Adriana” is also worth a mention, if only because it brought to mind one of my favorite shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (That one episode with Mal and Zoey’s war buddy Tracey in particular, which has forever earned a special place in my heart.)

The book ends on almost as strong a note as it begins, with Kelly Sandoval’s “Small Magics” – a twist on the trope of a gifted child leaving home to save the world. A mother’s love means knowing when to hold tight to your magical little munchkin…and when it’s time to send him out into the world to forge his own path.

Overall, this is a satisfying (if short!) collection of SF/F stories that won’t make animal lovers cringe with horror (or even just disapproval). Animals aren’t always introduced into the stories – but when they are, it’s with kindness and respect.

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Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Expanded Edition, edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A Love Letter to Geek Girls, Young and Old

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

You know where God lives and God is in paint and ink and pencil and the page: you fell in love and became that love. Transformed, like in a fairy tale. A girl who became a wolf, focused and hungry for only one thing: story.

You never stopped hunting stories. Little wolf, persistent but timid, prowling shelves and stacks; anywhere there were books, that was the forest you claimed. You found a frontier in your school library, rushing inside every morning with exquisite relief because books were home, books were where you were most alive, books were places you could pretend you were brave. Books were walls against everything that frightened you.

– “Ghost,” Marjorie Liu

The Brontë sisters had such lady boners for the Duke of Wellington that they wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction about the guy.

– “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” J. M. Frey

Any project with Margaret Atwood’s name attached is an instabuy for me, so there was no doubt that I’d preorder a copy of the new and expanded edition of The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (My only question is, where the heck was I when the Kickstarter was open?)

While Atwood’s quartet of four-panel comics is cute and super-relatable, it’s actually not the highlight of the anthology (surprise!). Nope, that honor would have to go to Marjorie Liu’s essay “Ghost,” which is simply breathtaking, threatening to unspool your soul till its innermost bits are laid bare – and then stitch and crimp you back together, stronger and bolder than before. (And all in the space of four and a half pages, at that.) Of course, being a sucker for pop culture criticism, Laura Neubert’s “They Bury You in White” and Megan Kearney’s “Regards to the Golbin King” are close ties for second place.

A mix of short nonfiction and comics (“They Bury You in White” and “Regards to the Golbin King” both fall into this category), the many and varied contributions to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls tackle a wide range of topics, from falling in love with fictional characters to navigating the perils and pitfalls of dating, both on- and offline; exploring and defining one’s sexuality in the pre- and post-digital age; surviving and thriving after a divorce; bonding over shared passions; and the perks of platonic relationships and girly gossip.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, Veronica Chambers, ed. (2017)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A bittersweet love letter to the outgoing FLOTUS.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and misogyny.)

Barack and Michelle Obama served this country for two terms as President and First Lady of the United States of America. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man—with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle. Michelle! That name now carries a whole world of meaning. And a whole world of memory. And a whole world of a magic.

(“Preface,” Ava Duvernay)

Thank you, Michelle, for showing a generation of women, including me and my daughter, what it means to dwell in possibility.

(“Acknowledgements,” Veronica Chambers)

For all of my adult life – the entire time I’ve been paying attention to politics, really – I’ve vastly preferred our president’s wives over their husbands: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and now Michelle Obama. (The same will probably hold true of Melania, but it’s an impossibly low bar, okay.) No matter their political allegiances, the FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) tend to be a least a shade more progressive than their men, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom. Not that they’re allowed to voice these views: American prefers its First Ladies be seen, not heard, functioning as little more than their husbands’ appendages or cheerleaders. “Stepford Wives-in-Chief,” Tiffany Dufu puts it. Remember how viciously then-FLOTUS Hillary was shot down for daring to advance health care reform?

Michelle Obama is in a league of her own, though. Like many Americans, I was captivated with her from Day 1. I loved that she refused to play the role of the bland, devoted wife; a blank canvas onto which Americans/voters could project their versions of ideal femininity. She spoke of Barack like he was a regular guy, rather than an up-and-coming rockstar politician. Yet it was evident that these two crazy kids were deeply in love. She (and her family) was a lightning rod for every bit of racist and sexist excrement the right could throw at her, yet Michelle handled it with grace and finesse. We watched as Lady O. – and her style – evolved from first to second term; she went from high-power lawyer to high-fashion mom, as described by Tanisha C. Ford (“She Slays”). She had fun, was comfortable in her skin, and was perfectly imperfect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.)

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, Lauren Beukes (2016)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women.)

a is for algebra

“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.

“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.

And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”

She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.

(“Alegbra”)

Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.

(“Unaccounted”)

Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.

(“Slipping”)

I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)

Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.

The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.

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Book Review: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Jesmyn Ward (2016)

Friday, August 19th, 2016

You need to read this book.

five out of five stars

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

[W]e are writing an epic wherein black lives carry worth, wherein black boys can walk to the store and buy candy without thinking they will die, wherein black girls can have a bad day and be mouthy without being physically assaulted by a police officer, wherein cops see twelve-year-old black boys playing with fake guns as silly kids and not homicidal maniacs, wherein black women can stop to ask for directions without being shot in the face by paranoid white homeowners. I burn, and I hope.

– Jesmyn Ward, Introduction

A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country.

– Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning”

Anthologies tend to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the eighteen pieces in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race are uniformly excellent. There wasn’t a single poem or essay that I didn’t love. I devoured the whole thing in most of an afternoon, and was left hungering for more.

Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – “A Letter to My Nephew” in particular – Jesmyn Ward compiled a collection of essays on race by and for a new generation. The result is eclectic and surprising and just straight-up breathtaking.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – a more academic bent, perhaps? – but in this case, I think my preconceptions were a positive, because The Fire This Time upended them in the best way possible. Through a mix of poems, personal essays, letters, and creative nonfiction, the contributors explore a wide range of topics, both expected and not: the black immigrant experience; police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement; walking while black; reassessing one’s long held identity in the wake of contemporary DNA testing; the legacy of slavery in New England; depression and loneliness as a consequence of cultural disconnectedness; constructing composite fathers; metafiction in hip hop; and “artistic rituals of labor,” from grandmamas to Outkast.

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Book Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley (2016)

Monday, June 27th, 2016

Tell Them Stories

four out of five stars

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

As a writer, it’s my job to construct new normals for people. It’s my job to show folks what’s possible. It’s my job to rewrite narratives. Because we can change these narratives. We can choose better ones. We can tear it all down, and build it up again. It makes us the most poorly paid but most powerful people in the world. And I take that power seriously.

The only time I’ve ever been praised for my weight repeatedly was when I was dying.

— 3.5 stars —

Award-winning science fiction writer Kameron Hurley has been blogging about feminism and pop culture for more than a decade. The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of 35 of her essays on feminism, writing, and geek culture, with 9 all-new pieces written specifically for this anthology. (See the TOC below for a full list.) The pieces are grouped into four sections: Level Up, which explores the craft (and challenges) of writing; Geek, which interrogates a variety of media, from the specific (Die Hard, Mad Max, True Detective) to the more general (toxic masculinity, Strong Female Protagonists, the gendered reception of unlikable protagonists); Let’s Get Personal, in which Hurley’s life serves as a sort of microcosm for the issues she explores here; and Revolution, which calls on authors and readers alike to create a more equal and just world.

The essays are enjoyable, engaging – and highly entertaining. Hurley has a brash, no-bullshit writing style that’s perfectly suited to the subject matter. While the overall collection doesn’t seem to have a unifying theme (“geek culture” is quite broad), the power of stories to shape our world is a thread that she picks up time and again.

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Book Review: The Unfinished World: And Other Stories, Amber Sparks (2016)

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Unfinished World: Sorrowful to the End

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for rape.)

It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.

Sometimes he wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave and sweep away the worst of it. Sure, the paradoxes would destroy us, but so what? Did a world that let happen the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the Trail of Tears and Stalin and Genghis Khan and Pol Pot deserve to be spared?

Every death is a love story. It’s the goodbye part, but the love is still there, wide as the world.

When I requested a copy of The Unfinished World: And Other Stories on Edelweiss, I thought I was getting the debut effort of io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders. I managed to confuse All the Birds in the Sky and The Unfinished World, probably on account of the covers are vaguely similar and both books come out the same week. But no matter: The Unfinished World was on my wishlist too, and even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – it’s a little more surreal than SF, time travel notwithstanding – it’s an enchanting collection of stories just the same.

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Book Review: The Gods of HP Lovecraft, edited by Aaron J. French (2015)

Friday, January 15th, 2016

A Solid Collection of Stories Rooted in the Lovecraft Mythos

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape and animal abuse.)

Confession time: I’m not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not not a fan, I just know very little about his work. Most of my limited knowledge comes from the recent World Fantasy Awards controversy (which, I must admit, doesn’t exactly make me want to run out and buy copy of The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft), and that one episode of Supernatural (which, as it just so happened, TNT reran this morning. Serendipity!)

I am, however, I huge Seanan McGuire fangirl, and it’s her contribution that sold me on this anthology. (Her short stories in particular are phenomenal, and “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves” is no exception.) I’m glad, too, because The Gods of HP Lovecraft is a pretty solid collection of science fiction stories. As you can see, I rated everything a 4 or 5, which is pretty impressive; usually anthologies are more of a mixed bag for me. The individual summaries are relatively vague and un-spoilery, but please skip them if you’d rather read this book with fresh eyes.

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Mini-Review: Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (2014)

Monday, October 26th, 2015

#YesAllWomen

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence, including rape and domestic violence.)

When I first heard of Men Explain Things to Me, I giddily mistook it for an extended essay on mansplaining. Alas, it’s actually a collection of nine previously published essays, kicked off by the book’s namesake, “Men Explain Things to Me” (which inspired the term “mansplaining,” though Solnit didn’t herself coin it; mainsplaining, of course, eventually led to whitesplaining and Damonsplaining). Any disappointment I might have initially felt was quickly assuaged by the general awesomeness of Solnit’s other pieces.

Nearly all of the essays are loosely organized around women’s rights and feminism; deconstructing and dismantling the patriarchy, if you will. Solnit masterfully examines and connects myriad topics: rape culture; the epidemic of violence against women; the very real threat that “gay marriage” poses to the unequal power dynamics inherent in traditional marriage; how Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s (“alleged”) assault of Nafissatou Diallo could be read as a microcosm of the IMF’s predatory abuse of power; the disappearing of women from history, from genealogy, from public conversations and places; the voluntary policing of women that so many men (and not a few women) eagerly engage in; and the power of language to name, shame, and effect change. Especially timely (sadly, as always) is her discussion of toxic masculinity and mass shootings, in reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings.

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