Book Review: All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil (2019)

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

This DNF hurt like h*ck.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and drug use.)

After the death of her grandmother Loretta, seventeen-year-old Xochi finds herself in San Francisco, alone, on the run, and down to her last few bucks. And then she somewhat serendipitously has a platonic meet-cute with Pallas, a precocious twelve-year-old who also just so happens to be the heir to a rock royalty family. Faster than you can say “content warning,” Xochi is installed in their storybook Victorian mansion as Pal’s governess. In an attempt to cheer Pallas up one evening, the pair accidentally conjure two demons in Pal’s claw-foot bathtub – demons who trace a path of destruction through Xochi’s troubled past.

I really thought I’d love All of Us with Wings. I mean, it’s an #OwnVoices rape revenge story with LGBTQ elements, ferchrissakes! And “Gilman Street,” Ruiz Keil’s contribution to the YA romance anthology Color Outside the Lines, is a thing of punk rock beauty and wonder.

Sadly, Wings lacks the magic and energy of “Gilman Street.” The writing feels choppy and uneven, and the story is veeeerrry slooooow to get started. By the time I DNF’ed at the 59% mark, Xochi’s demon children had only committed one murder, and the only being consciously aware of their presence is Peasblossom the cat. (In theory, I love that Ruiz Keil humanizes the cat by giving him a voice, but here the multiple perspectives really don’t add anything to the story.)

What we do get is a shit ton of Xochi lusting after Pal’s dad Leviticus, who is eleven years her senior (and whose only notable personality trait seems to be that he’s a rock star). Actually, that’s not so much the problem as is Lev’s lusting after Xochi – and then acting on said lust, even though he knows it’s wrong for multiple reasons. There are some gross, rape culture dynamics going on here (adult man/teenage girl; employer/employee; 1%/impoverished high school dropout), which are only exacerbated by the fact that I don’t know whether Ruiz Keil means for us to be rooting for them as a couple.

Like, it’s understandable that Xochi has complicated relationships with older men considering her past experiences, but Lev’s actions are simply inexcusable. In all fairness, it’s possible that the demon spawn will target him later in the story, I just couldn’t bring myself to read that far.

Anyway, it pains me to give this book so few stars, especially since I seem to be in the minority (serious case of fomo over here), but it is what it is.

(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: Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley by Tony Lee & Sam Hart (2019)

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A Portrait of an Ambivalent Freedom Fighter

three out of five stars

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

Born to a fierce chieftan in western Ireland named Eoghan “Black Oak” O’Malley, Grace O’Malley went on to become a legend and folk hero in her own right. The Pirate Queen, as she would later be called, grew up in the 1530s and 40s, at a time when England, under King Henry VIII (and later Queen Elizabeth I), began its Tudor conquest of Ireland. She eschewed traditional women’s pursuits – marriage, motherhood, needlework – in favor of swordplay and sailing. Nevertheless, at sixteen she married Donal O’Flaherty and bore him three children, thus uniting the families politically.

It was only after Donal’s murder at the hands of a rival family – an ambush masterminded by the British – that Grace took up arms. Her success, especially at sea, chipped away at Britain’s power. In retribution – and also several failed attempts to assassinate Grace – British forces murdered a number of people close to her: her father; a shipwrecked sailor she took as a lover; her second husband, “Iron Richard” Burke; and her oldest son, Owen. Rather than cow Grace, this only fueled her quest for revenge. Despite years of battle, piracy, espionage, and hostage-taking, Grace likely lived to the ripe old age of 73, dying of natural causes (the exact year and location of her death is a matter of dispute).

Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley is a portrait of a reluctant freedom fighter: a mother who’s desperate to protect her children; a wife and daughter who wants revenge against her family’s tormentors; an Irish noblewoman who wishes nothing but peace for her country. I find it rather curious that the book’s synopsis describes Grace thusly – “Grace spent her life wishing to join the fight to keep Henry VIII’s armies from invading her homeland of Ireland — only to be told again and again that the battlefield is no place for a woman.” – when, in fact, she spends much of the narrative trying to avoid fighting. Certainly, Grace doesn’t want to be conscripted into women’s work, but neither does she revel in the bloodshed that seems to follow her on both land and sea. Or at least Tony Lee’s Grace doesn’t want this: my knowledge on the topic isn’t broad enough to have an opinion either way.

After reading Pirate Queen, I feel slightly more informed than I was going in, but overall the details are a little more bare-bones than I was hoping for. In particular, I would have like a deeper dive on Grace’s motivations; the story seems to say one thing, while the synopsis says another. The art is serviceable, though not really my style.

(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: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (2019)

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

“The Midwich cuckoos have nothing on us.”

four out of five stars

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

Reaching into her pocket, she produces a handful of coal dust streaked with glints of silver. The coal came from a mine where a disaster claimed the life of over a hundred men; the silver, melted down from the jewelry of a woman whose husband had choked the life from her body before bedding his mistress in her marital bed. It’s a subtle, complex thing, is alchemy.

History is an equation. It can be changed under the right circumstances. It should be terrifying, but it’s really just wonderful, because it means so many of their mistakes have been curated ones, deemed necessary by themselves in the future.

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

Roger Middleton and Dodger Cheswich are two extraordinary human beings…first and foremost, because they aren’t really human beings after all. Not entirely. The identical-on-the-inside, fraternal-on-the-outside twins were created in an underground lab, by a human who also isn’t quite human.

An alchemical construct like them, James Reed was the crowning achievement of his maker, Asphodel Baker, arguably the greatest alchemist of her time, and a wildly successful children’s author to boot. That is, until Reed murdered Baker in his pursuit of the Impossible City, “the alchemical apex which waited at the peak of all human knowledge and potential.” To Reed, Roger and Dodger are just one more brick in the improbable road.

The latest in a long line of experiments (all with cutesy rhyming names: Erin and Darren, Seth and Beth, etc.), Roger and Dodger were made to embody the Doctrine of Ethos. Roger was given the power of language; Dodger, mathematics. Separately, the two are geniuses; together, they have the power to rewrite the fabric of the universe. Which is why, as babies, Roger and Dodger are separated: placed in different adoptive homes on opposite sides of the country. Yet, try as Reed might to keep them apart, the two always find their way back to one another, linked as they are by a psychic connection.

Can Roger and Dodger forgive each other for repeated trespasses, manifest their powers, and defeat Reed’s forces before he discovers the secret of their subjugation – or abandons them in favor of a pair that’s easier to control?

This is their story. This is the story of the world.

Middlegame is … well, it’s wild. I love Seanan McGuire, and have come to expect the unexpected from her, but Middlegame is unlike anything I’ve ever read before – for better and worse. I lean towards science fiction over fantasy, and so this might be the first book I’ve read wherein alchemy is a driving force of the story. (I dug it! The Hand of Glory, whoah. There are truly gruesome bits in here.)

But the stuff about the Doctrine of Ethos proved a little more difficult to wrap my head around. One word that seems to pop up in nearly every review of Middlegame is “ambitious,” and for good reason. Often, and especially in the first quarter or third of the book, I found myself getting stuck up in the philosophical underpinnings of the story and, yuck, who wants that. (I took Philosophy 101 my first semester in college and suffice it to say, it was not as fun as I’d hoped.) Once I learned to just let go and let the action carry me along, I had a much more enjoyable time of it. I guess you can take as little or as much from the narrative as you want.

The chapters jump back and forth in time, which can be a little confusing if you’re not paying attention, but I loved it. Time travel is my jam, and it comes in many forms in Middlegame. Roger and Dodger have a really interesting, complex relationship that evolves and changes over decades, and I am so here for that. (Though I thank the gods that McGuire didn’t have them hook up, like another closely bonded sibling pair of hers who shall remain nameless.) And yay for guinea pigs gone rogue! Roger and Dodger are not the only embodiments who yearn for freedom, and the shifting loyalties and conflicting goals keep everyone on their toes.

Middlegame is a must for Seanan McGuire fans, and for those who like their sci-fi and fantasy with particularly wibbly wobbly time-y wimey stuff. The only rule here is that THERE ARE NO RULES!

(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: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (2019)

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

A raw and unflinching memoir with moments of humor.

four out of five stars

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

In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity–what it means and how to think about it–for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

Gender Queer is a raw, honest, and often funny exploration of sexuality and gender identity, written by non-binary, gender queer cartoonist Maia Kobabe. Assigned female at birth, this memoir recounts Kobabe’s journey to understand and define eirself. Why, for example, is e drawn to gay M/M porn when all of em closest intimate relationships are with women? Which pronouns best fit? Is e doing a disservice to eir students by staying in the closet? And just how can e write realistically smutty fanfic when e’s never been kissed?

One thing I was struck by is just how open-minded Kobabe’s family is – even if they sometimes stumble. (But then so do we all, as e points out. On that note, I’m not even 100% sure I’m using the Spivak pronouns correctly, despite consulting the chart on Wiki. I apologize in advance.) The panel where Kobabe’s cousin’s wife Faith thanks Kobabe for the email about eir’s pronouns, and says how blessed she is to be part of this wonderful family, moved me to tears. This is how it should be. We need more positive coming out stories like this.

That’s not to suggest it was all rainbows and wet puppy noses. Kobabe’s account of going to the gynecologist for a Pap smear is harrowing. I hate it as a cisgender woman with social anxiety issues (but no genital-related dysphoria); I can only imagine how terrifying that trip was/is for Kobabe.

I was also surprised by how much I related to some of Kobabe’s experiences, like not wanting breasts (I too have had the cancer fantasy); hiding my period; and being discomfited by women’s underwear.

Gender Queer is a vital read, just for the section on pronouns alone.

(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: This Land is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations, and Other Self-Made States by Andy Warner & Sofie Louise Dam (2019)

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

I want to go where the vegan lesbians are.

three out of five stars

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

A community founded in upstate New York in 1848 and based on a radical reimagining of society, marriage and child rearing…

…ended up being one of the world’s largest purveyors of cutlery and tableware.

Written by Andy Warner and illustrated by Sofie Louise Dam, This Land is My Land highlights thirty self-made or experimental communities, loosely falling into one of the following categories:
1 – Intentional communities: “Groups of people who chose to radically remake their social structures.”
2 – Micronations: “Brief histories of the tiny, unrecognized nations of the world.”
3 – Failed utopias: “The bigger the experiment, the harder it falls.”
4 – Visionary environments: “Stories of wonderful and bizarre places where individuals make their visions reality.”
5 – Strange dreams: “Proposals, plans, and schemes, never brought to pass.”

Before visions of radical utopias start swimming through your head (they sure did mine), know that the places featured here range from large-scale art projects created by a single individual (Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in India; Ra Paulette’s Caves in New Mexico; Nevada’s Thunder Mountain Monument); to large, sprawling – if unusual – homes, again built for a single person or family (Freedom Cove, off the coast of Vancouver; Arizona Mystery Castle); to honest-to-goodness intentional communities and communes – one of them even traveling (The Van Dykes).

Among my favorites are the communities and nations created by people seeking to escape oppression and persecution. Chief among these is Libertatia, a city-state established in a bay in Madagascar by a French pirate and a Dominican priest in the 1600s. The crew of the Victoire made a habit of attacking slaving ships, freeing the kidnapped human cargo, and then splitting the bounty equally between all. Newly freed slaves were welcome to join the crew if they desired. Libertatia became their permanent, democratic, anti-authoritarian settlement. At least, if you believe the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates; there is no physical evidence of the colony’s existence today. (I want to believe.)

Sadly, many of these larger communities were either established as tax havens (libertarians seem to be especially egregious offenders here) or as a means for the founders (men, always) to rape and traffic women and children. (You’ll never look at Oneida flatware the same way again. And I was rooting for you up until the child rape, Noyes.) I really would have loved to have seen more positive examples, but there you go. People suck more than they don’t.

One cool thing: of those sites still in existence, many are open to tourists. The Arizona Mystery Castle seems like a pretty rad vacation destination (but not in the summer, obvs).

(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: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

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

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(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: Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019)

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

A story about growing up, coming out, and finding the words to speak your truth.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for suicide, child abuse, and homophobia.)

Dear James,

I fell asleep clutching your notebook. We sit in classrooms for years and years. Same faces. But we have no idea what we are all swallowing deep, deep inside us. Why were you writing to me, James? Me? And why did you choose me to bully? Do we hate the people we recognize ourselves in? I mean, parts of ourselves that we can’t exactly be?

“Audre Lorde said something really beautiful about that,” Flor said. “A different book than what you’re reading. I’ll have to give to you. She talked about the words we don’t yet have and the power of what happens when we find them.”

“So how do I find my words?”

“Keep reading. Keep searching. You and your words will find one another,” Flor said.

“Dear Kurt,” Aggie paused. “What does it feel like to be gone but still able to speak? Even in your death, you make music. We rip up old flannels to remember you, but all we really need to do is press play. Sew thread into each square and knit them together as you scream ‘Pennyroyal Tea.’ Watch as shirts turn into a blanket to remind us how to stay warm as you call out ‘Lithium’ and you came as you are. There is no such thing as a separation of deaths. I believe we all head into the same place, floating and filling up the air with our memories. Say hello to my mother, please. Tell James he had more friends than he ever knew. I’ll keep playing your music to keep you down here as you sing along above me.”

Fifteen-year-old Eleanor Fromme is hanging at her* best friend Dara’s house when she hears that a fellow classmate committed suicide. Her immediate reaction is to run home and chop off her beautiful blonde curls.

Things are complicated, and not just because James was her bully (what’s the “right” way to feel when someone you hated and feared dies by suicide?). El’s mom Shirley (as El now calls her) attempted the year before, and wound up institutionalized for a brief period. Though Shirley is doing better now – going to group therapy, making friends, even dating again – Eleanor cannot beat back the fear that she’ll try again.

Somewhat serendipitously, James’s mom Helaine ends up in Eleanor’s suicide support group. This, along with her new look (or rather, the reactions it elicits in others), impending puberty, and a journal assignment from her English teacher Ms. Raimondo, opens up the metaphorical floodgates in Eleanor. As she writes letters to her bully, Eleanor discovers that he was also writing to her – giving her the courage to do what he couldn’t: come out. But even as Eleanor self-identifies as a lesbian, she still feels like that word doesn’t quite fit: “It’s like I’m a meal on a menu with the wrong name. My ingredients make it seem like I’m one dish when really, I swear I’m another.”

Luckily, El is surrounded by a pretty wonderful support system: her parents are loving and open-minded; she has a great mentor in her mom’s best friend Flor, an out lesbian; and a chance meeting (and subsequent friendship) with Reigh, a trans woman, helps expand El’s concept of queerness. Whereas Dara turns out to be a pretty shitty friend, El finds a kindred spirit in Aggie, unabashed feminist and she of the glorious braid. Helaine even takes El under her wing, showering her with the love and acceptance meant for James.

There’s so much to love about Everything Grows. As a child of the ’90s, I dug all the “historical” references. Everything Grows takes place in the 1993-1994 school year, the ending coinciding with the death of Kurt Cobain. Not gonna lie: Aggie’s letter had me in tears. Pretty much all of the music that El and James are into is on my ipod.

I love the abortion conversation, and that Planned Parenthood got a mention.

I love that Aggie is a vegetarian (and El is totally nonjudgmental and accommodating of it), and that there is an ex-boyfriend known as Vegetarian Todd.

I love all the women, from Gret to Flor to Helaine to Reigh to Shirley, and especially how supportive they are of each other, and of El.

I love that Helaine is not a stereotype.

I love that El is an atheist.

I even love El’s reaction to her changing body, since I could see so much of myself in it. (I’m not trans, but I too suffered the indignity of family members hounding me to wear a bra. Period, no want.)

Sometimes the language felt a little off: too formal, too childish, and – on the other extreme – too dirty for a teenage girl. (Gah, to be as bold a at sixteen as T’nea. To be that bold at forty!)

Overall, though, Everything Grows is a sweet and moving read about a young person growing up, coming out, and trying to find the right words to speak their truth. The awesome soundtrack is just a bonus.

* I struggled with what pronouns I should use in this review, ultimately settling on “she” and “her” since it’s how El thinks of herself throughout most of the story.

(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: Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina (2019)

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

“fine. new hell, whatever.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence inflicted on black bodies, including rape and medical experimentation.)

this bruise ain’t no girl
she gone
she never gon be again
she too much a ghost even
for burial

when he left
seem like he stayed
like i kept
some of it
like i ain’t
have no other way

and now Betsey say
i expecting

how you translate
a bludgeonin to
a birth?

you tell me how
i’m suposed to
do that –

a baby.
from the mud pile…
a baby…

one more
thing i don’t know
how to carry.

i say:
what you make a dem stars?
he say:

they just like us. sizzlin dead.

— 4.5 stars —

Like his homeland, the man widely regarded as “the father of modern gynecology” built his wealth and success on the bodies of slaves. Specifically, enslaved black women who suffered debilitating complications from childbirth.

J. Marion Sims is credited with a number of advancements in the field of gynecology: He developed a precursor to the modern speculum, using a spoon and complicated series of mirrors. He built the first women’s hospital in his backyard in Montgomery, Alabama, despite his reported disgust with women’s anatomy. (He wrote in his autobiography, “if there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.”) Most famously, he developed a way of repairing vesicovaginal fistula.

Vesicovaginal fistula is caused during childbirth “when the woman’s bladder, cervix, and vagina become trapped between the fetal skull and the woman’s pelvis, cutting off blood flow and leading to tissue death. The necrotic tissue later sloughs off, leaving a hole. Following this injury, as urine forms, it leaks out of the vaginal opening, leading to a form of incontinence.” Similarly, rectovaginal fistula can cause fecal incontinence; Sims explored treatment for this condition as well.*

And he did it all on the backs of the most vulnerable: enslaved black women.

Over a period of four years, Sims experimented on twelve female slaves who suffered complications from childbirth. He subjected each woman to multiple surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia (though some were given opium post-op). Sometimes he had an audience; on other occasions, the women themselves had to assist in Sims’s procedures. Many were brought to him by their “owners,” seeking to recoup their “investments.” Sims purchased one woman outright so that he could experiment on her. Only three of these women’s names resisted burial under the weight of history: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, all of whom suffered from fistula. Sims violated Anarcha thirteen times before he declared her a success.

In Anarcha Speaks, poet/activist/educator – and mother – Dominique Christina attempts to reconstruct Anarcha’s life, imagining the events that might have landed her on Sims’s doorstep/operating table/torture chamber. Sims doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the book, giving us a chance to get to know Anarcha as a person, and not “just” the ill-fated woman in that horrifying Robert Thom painting. After this, Christina occasionally alternates their perspectives: slave/patient and doctor/”massa.” I’m not sure I loved this convention: I think perhaps the story would have been more powerful coming from Anarcha and Anarcha alone; and besides, history is overflowing with the perspectives of privileged white men – do we really need to hear more? On the other hand, Sims’s POV gives necessary context on how doctors/society regarded black women – and their pain.

Anarcha Speaks is powerful, raw, and visceral. I don’t always love poetry because I don’t usually “get” it, but Christina’s prose cuts to bone. I can’t exactly call Anarcha Speaks an enjoyable read, but it’s a necessary one, and skillfully done. This tiny little powerhouse of a tome would equally be at home on a history syllabus or in a class on medical ethics as in a creative writing course.

* He also experimented on children and babies, in an attempt to treat trismus nascentium; these interventions were met with a hundred percent fatality rate, which he blamed on the mothers (all black). Naturally.

(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 Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and mental health issues.)

“The funny thing is, the other time travelers—I’m thinking of Teddy Avedon in particular, he’s been showing me the ropes—they keep telling me that it’s green to be so excited. They mean I’m being gauche. Teddy says I’ll get used to seeing dead people. But I think he’s wrong. Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is he. I will never take that for granted.”

Two women, who’d already witnessed each other’s deaths, married on the first day of spring. […]

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

It’s 1967 and time travel is about to become a reality – thanks to four brilliant young women.

The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace—who never gave the same account of her history twice—was an expert in the behavior of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialized in nuclear fission.

Among other things, their invention will make it more difficult for society to deny them their accomplishments:

And because time travellers appear again and again as the years go by—long past their natural lifespan—it would be harder to write these women out of history. They would be visible, for all to see.

Yet, shortly after traveling forward an hour into the future (time travel being possible only between points in which the infrastructure exists which, for the purpose of this story, is between 1967 and 2267 … mysterious!), Barbara – Bee for short – suffers a breakdown on live TV and is promptly institutionalized. It’s later theorized that the disruptions in daylight triggered a bipolar episode in Bee, who was already predisposed. Nevertheless, Bee is ostracized from the burgeoning Time Travel Enclave, largely at funder Margaret’s behest.

Fast forward fifty-plus years. Bee marries, has a child, is widowed, has a grandchild. She shies away from the spotlight and largely abandons her scientific pursuits. She lives a cozy, contented life in a cottage by the sea, kept company by her garden, her doggos, and her granddaughter Ruby. She is, in a way, written out of history (despicably, by another woman).

That is, until the day she finds an origami rabbit on her front step. Inside is in inquest notice, dated five months in the future, into the death of an unidentified woman in her 80s. Afraid that Bee will soon be murdered – multiple gunshot wounds, her body discovered in the locked basement boiler room of a toy museum by a volunteer – Ruby launches a covert investigation into the Conclave’s other three founders. Meanwhile, Bee tries to get back into the Conclave’s good graces.

The Psychology of Time Travel jumps back and forth in time – from the invention of time travel in 1967; to last half of 2018, in the months leading up to the murder; to the crime’s fallout, in 2019 – and is told through multiple perspectives: Bee, Margaret, Grace, Lucille, and Ruby, naturally; Odette, the young graduate student who makes the gruesome discovery; Ginger, Ruby’s sometimes-lover; Angharad, an astronaut who joins the Conclave after Bee’s ousting; and Siobhan, a psychologist from the 22nd century. Every. Single. Narrator. is a woman, which is such a refreshing and surprising delight, I can’t even.

Sometimes stories told in this way can prove difficult to follow but, once I got used to the rhythm, I became lost in the tale. It’s a little bit mystery, a lot of geeky good science fiction, and – perhaps above all else – a surprisingly philosophical exploration of how time travel might affect us: the travelers specifically, and society more generally. Mascarenhas’s vision might surprise you.

This is an exceptionally difficult book for me to review, but probably not for the reasons you might think. I read it while one of my beloved puppers – fifteen years young! – was dying…though I did not realize it at the time. She’d been struggling with dementia for about ten months, which was difficult to watch; but I thought we had at least a few more months together. Sadly, O-Ren was euthanized at home five days after I finished The Psychology of Time Travel: she was refusing to eat or drink, and her nighttime pacing became more frantic, even as her energy waned and she could no longer do laps around the house without falling, repeatedly. Most likely she also had a brain tumor, like her friend Mags, who passed away just four months before – on Thanksgiving, no less. One of my final memories of Rennie will be pacing around the house with her while reading The Psychology of Time Travel on my Kindle. Needless to say, this review was written in tears.

Point being, it’s been a rough few years for me. In just under six years, I lost six dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. I had to sell my house and move back home. My last remaining doggo is thirteen-and-a-half and I’m waiting on a neurology consult to see if Finnick might have a brain tumor as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he leaves me, too. Some days these dogs are the only thing that keeps me going. In this context, I found The Psychology of Time Travel’s meditations on death especially appealing.

This book is called The PSYCHOLOGY of Time Travel for a reason: turns out that time travel can really fuck a person up.

When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

This idea is both amazing and terrifying. To think that your loved one will forever exist during a certain period in time, even if they do not exist at this particular moment, and that you can visit them at the drop of a hat, is…wonderful. Magnificent. Liberating. I would give anything to be able to do that. To bump crooked noses with Peedee, or smell Ralphie’s musk, or rub Kaylee’s piggy belly. To talk to Shane or go on a hike with Mags. To once again toss a tennis ball around with little puppy Rennie.

Yet, as we soon learn, this mutability of death is a double-edged sword. Time travelers become cruel. Hardened. Some of this is in the management, sure, but even the “good” ones struggle with doing what’s right – why not, when you can put that weight on your silver self’s shoulders?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a thoughtful contemplation on love, loss, and – yes – destiny. Another pitfall of already knowing the future? Subjugating your will in order to choose the path that you think your life is “supposed” to take: seeing the future makes it so. But who’s to say the future cannot be changed?

So, yes, time travel is a magical experience – but took much knowledge can become a prison of its own.

The time travel also lends itself well to all sorts of neat little details, from the slang (“For instance—intercourse with one’s future self was called forecasting. Intercourse with one’s past self was a legacy fuck.”) to the scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character (see also: slang). You never know just when or how some characters’ lives will intersect, and the guessing makes for a really enjoyable experience.

(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: 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: Vagrant Queen, Volume 1 by Magdalene Visaggio & Jason Smith (2019)

Friday, April 5th, 2019

A Fun Enough Shoot ‘Em Up Space Opera

three out of five stars

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

Elida Al-feyr’s ancestors were … not very nice people. At the edge of a galaxy (not ours), they developed a mind-control device called the Bezoar of Kings. With it, they brainwashed the people of Arriopa into believing that they were gods, accepting their will without question. By the time Elida was crowned Queen of the Divine Monarchy – at the tender age of ten – the Bel-iors had not relied upon the amulet’s power for generations. Yet this doesn’t quell a popular, violent uprising, in which the monarchy is overthrown and replaced by a republic. Elida and her mother escape certain death, but barely – and the last two remaining members of the royal family are separated within the year.

Fast-forward fifteen years. Elida is in hiding, making a living by scavenging wrecks and reselling her finds. A not-so-chance encounter with an old frenemy named Isaac sends her in search of her mother, said to be imprisoned in the Monastery of Wix. But is Isaac double-crossing her, or triple-crossing someone else? Is the long-lost Bezoar of Kings merely myth, or is it out there, somewhere, just waiting to be found? And if it is, what responsibility does Elida bear for its misuse?

Vagrant Queen is a fun, shoot ’em up space opera. There’s not a whole lot that’s noteworthy or especially memorable about the plot, but it’s a fun enough ride while it lasts. Some elements work better than others; Elida is a badass anti-hero, but Isaac’s bad boy schtick feels played out. That said, his facial hair is a thing of wonder. Ditto: Elida’s ‘do, which almost feels like a throwback to Aeon Flux. Ten-year-old Elida is a compelling character, and I’d love to see more of her in future issues. (And her fro? Even more glorious than her future self’s locks.) For those who like gory, over-the-top violence, Vagrant Queen has it in spades; to wit:

While I love the diversity in this story, it feels a little weird to see a Black family enslave a bunch of white people. Like, is this progress? Just dessert? Post-racial, race-blind storytelling? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it? Idk what to think.

(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!)