Book Review: The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

“In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to fight. That’s not the world I live in.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review though Netgalley. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, and suicide.)

“When I look at what the editors have written about us, I have to wonder how they see us. Do you know what I mean?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Like, are we even human?”

“I would cut off the penis of any man who talk about me like this,” said my mother, as she gazed down at a score sheet. “You know what I would like to see? A bad-blowjob contest. That would teach them.”

Gemma and Mel, who had seemed so lost, suddenly looked up at Mom like she was their new queen.

I remember the first time I saw them. They were walking down the hall together. Bald, proud, angry. The boys didn’t laugh when they saw them. They’d never been quieter. You could feel their fear. The girls didn’t look like girls anymore. They looked like warriors.

Come to think of it, Witt herself was like an inkblot test. Everyone saw something different.

Forced to leave her previous job at “plummy” Warren Prep after a male student-turned-stalker secretly videotaped her engaged in a totally adult, totally consensual sex act, Alex Witt finds herself teaching English lit (well, creative writing) at second-tier Stonebridge Academy (though she draws the line at fencing). Given all the slut shaming and unearned scrutiny that she’s already weathered, it’s no surprise that Alex keeps to herself, playing house in an abandoned cottage in the forest and only doing the bare minimum, course-wise. However, all this changes when an anonymous, introductory writing assignment – something of a tradition in her classes – elicits some strange responses.

Repeated references to the Darkroom (and a shared distaste for BJs) compel Witt to dig deeper – as do the cryptic notes left in her cabin; the rumors half-whispered by fellow faculty and staff; and a seemingly nonconsenual sex act Witt witnesses in the bathhouse. As Witt and the teenage girls/warriors she inspires turn over the rock that is Stonebridge Academy, exposing the rape culture that lurks underneath, the so-called “gender war” escalates, ultimately leaving two dead in its wake.

So here’s the deal. Is the plot of The Swallows a little outlandish? Maybe. Not in substance, but perhaps scope. The Ten, the Darkroom, the Dulcinea award? Totally believable. The victim blaming, rape apologism, and institutional cover-up of sexual assault? Abso-fucking-tootly. Granted, the lack of adult supervision is a bit shocking at times, and the extent to which the conflict escalates here can generously be described as unusual. But is it unheard of? Spare a thought (and perhaps a triumphant fist pump) for the Greek woman who doused a British man’s genitals in liquor and then set them on fire after he sexually assaulted her in a bar. Suddenly jalapeño blowjobs and Molotov cocktails don’t seem so ridiculous.

If anything, the heights (or depths, depending on your POV) the swallows go to enact their revenge is a cautionary tale: this is what happens when adults, when those in charge, when our authorities and institutions and culture fail to take misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape seriously. When the marginalized are forced to find their own justice, outside of the bounds of the law and cultural norms. When those who are taught to silence their voices, to tamp down their righteous anger, finally explode like so many powder kegs. Things get really fucking ugly. In this way, The Swallows is wildly successful.

It feels really reductive to call this a tale about “gender wars,” though. This is a fight against rape culture, full stop. Some of the girls lean in to the misogyny, while some of the guys work to subvert it. You do what you’ve got to: to survive, or to sleep at night.

Also, The Swallows is a damn engaging story. Lutz’s writing is feminist and empowering but also makes for a great, twisty, edge-of-your-seat thriller. The characters – even the sleazy ones; see, e.g., Finn Ford and Leonard Witt – are interesting and multidimensional. Alex is pretty rad but her mother Nastya is in a whole ‘nother stratosphere of badassery. The scenes where Witt creates – and then Nastya revises – the “blowchart” are exquisite.

I’m even a little tempted to get my own axe tattoo.

Of all the characters in The Swallows, Nastya is most deserving of her own spinoff story.

I also loved the multiple POVs: Lutz tells the story from the alternating perspectives of Alex Witt (the instigator), Gemma Russo (the resistance fighter), Norman Crowley (the defector), and Mr. Ford (the editors, all grown up), sometimes revisiting a specific event from different perspectives. This technique adds depth and nuance to the narrative…but mostly it’s just cool AF, such as when the girls shave their heads. The differently-gendered reactions to the unveiling straight up gave me goosebumps.

Even though The Swallows requires some suspension of disbelief, the need is not terribly great, and that’s what should scare you most. As a reader, as a woman, as a human being.

(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: Under The Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle & Isaac Goodhart (2019)

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Appreciate this origin story for Catwoman, absolutely adore the artwork.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child and animal abuse, suicide, self-harm, misogyny, and homophobia.)

Fifteen-year-old Selina Kyle isn’t entirely sure when her life went so terribly off track. Was it the day her father abandoned the family? Or perhaps the first time her mom brought home a scuzzy rando from the bar she waits at? Probably the derail can be traced back to the day Dernell set foot in their house…or the day he didn’t leave, like so many before him.

But then, if Dernell hadn’t come into her life, Selina never would have become Catwoman. (Errr, Catgirl.)

When her mom’s abusive misogynist boyfriend Dernell unleashes his rage on Cinder, Selina’s newly adopted kitty (a stray, like her), Selina realizes that one of them has to go: and, sadly, her mom’s already chosen Dernell. Selina drops out of Gotham High and lives on the streets, stealing what she needs and trying to help others when she can.

Her thieving skills are taken to new (literal) heights when she meets Ojo, a street kid with a penchant for parkour and complicated heists, and falls in with him and his adopted family. As they plot to steal a rare book from a high-tech mansion, a monster called the Growler prowls the streets of Gotham, and the youngest member of their group – a mute girl they call Briar Rose – searches for her long-lost brother.

Catwoman is one of my favorite anti-heroes, and Under The Moon: A Catwoman Tale does her justice. Selina/Catgirl is a likable – if prickly – character, whose primary flaw seems to be that she cares too damn much, especially about the marginalized and oppressed. I appreciate that Myracle acknowledges the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, and love that Cinder’s death is the catalyst behind Selina’s transformation into Catgirl…even as I dreaded those inevitable panels. (My heart swells to see women sticking up for animals, yo.)

The art is gorgeous and moody, mostly rendered in shades of blue and purple, which vibes perfectly with the tone and plot of the book.

For some reason, I thought this was a self-contained story. Yet the Growler storyline leaves us dangling, and Rosie’s future remains uncertain (hello, sketchy cult-like organization). I hope this is an ongoing series because I need to know what happens next.

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

Book Review: 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: 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: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

If you liked Dexter

five out of five stars

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

“Femi makes three, you know. Three, and they label you a serial killer.”

My phone lights up and I glance at it. Ayoola. It is the third time she has called, but I am not in the mood to talk to her. Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely, or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.

The first time her sister Ayoola killed a man, Korede was certain that it was in self-defense. The third time around, Korede has her doubts. But, when summoned to the scene of the crime, Korede dutifully helps Ayoola scour the blood from the carpet and dispose of the body – because that’s what big sisters do, right? Take care of their younger siblings…even if they just so happen to be knife-wielding sociopaths.

But when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade Otumu, a kind and handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works as a nurse, Korede is forced to choose sides. Will she save the object of her unrequited love, or stick by Ayoola’s side? Things get even crazier when “the patient in room 313” – a comatose man to whom Korede thought it would be safe to spill her guts – unexpectedly wakes up. What does he remember of her bizarre confessions, if anything? And just what is the story behind Ayoola’s weapon of choice?

At first glance, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a gender- and race-bent version of Dexter, set in Lagos, Nigera, and told from sister Deb’s POV. AND I AM SO HERE FOR IT. My Sister has a similar dark and twisted sense of humor that’s simply delightful. Like, Korede ought to do stand-up on her nights off.

Yet while the murdery stuff does propel the plot forward, at its core My Sister is a story about family (but then, so too is Dexter). This is a story about how surviving trauma and coming up and out of a horrific situation can bond people together for life. Doubly so if they already share the bond of sisterhood. Heaven help the dudebro who tries to get between them.

If you liked Dexter (and especially if you loathed the series finale!), or even if you’re just looking for something a little unconventional and weird, definitely give My Sister, the Serial Killer a try. It’s got short, punchy chapters (I was not surprised to read that Braithwaite was shortlisted as a top-ten spoken-word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam; each chapter feels a bit like a self-contained poem or stream-of-consciousness) and a wickedly clever vibe. This might just go down as one of my favorites of 2018.

(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: Quiver by Julia Watts (2018)

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

You say helpmeet, I say handmaid.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, and domestic violence.)

Mr. Hazlett’s getting worked up, too. A vein in his forehead bulges disturbingly. “In a Christian home, the man is like God, and his wife is the holy church.”

Dad laughs out loud. Maybe a little too loud. “So you get to be a deity, and she just gets to be a building?”

I don’t know what shocks me more—my grandmother cursing or hearing her say I have the right to choose what to do with my life.

— 4.5 stars —

Liberty Hazlett is the oldest of six children. Well, seven counting the baby on the way. Nine with the two angel babies that died in utero. Each child is named after a Christian virtue: Justice, Patience, Faith, Valor, Charity. They live in rural Tennessee, where father James has his own small business (Hazlett and Sons Pest Control), and mother Becky homeschools them. The kids (the girls in particular) have little contact with the outside world, and their everyday lives are strictly regulated. (For real: they’re allowed ten minutes for a shower, as “it’s not good to stay in the bathroom too long because it leads to temptation”).

Libby and her family are part of the Quiverfull movement: a Christian patriarchy that doesn’t practice any form of birth control, including so-called “natural family planning.” (Think: the Duggars.) Rather, they “trust the Lord” to give them as many children as he desires/thinks they can handle – each of which is to become an arrow in the Lord’s quiver, a Christian soldier in His army, hence the sect’s (read: cult’s) name.

At sixteen years old, Libby is barreling towards marriageable age. This means wedding a virtuous Christian man of her father’s choosing; accepting her husband as the head of the household; and obeying him in all matters, from sex to finances to child rearing…even what opinions she should adopt on any given topic under the Heavens. It also means churning out children like a baby factory, until her body wears out. Only, pray as she might, Libby doesn’t want this life for herself. She knows it’s sinful, but she has two eyes and a fully functioning brain, and she can see the toll it’s taking on her mother.

Zo Forrester and her family – younger brother Owen and parents Jen and Todd – just moved into “the old Dobbins place” next door. Life in Knoxville was wearing them all down, so they traded it in for a simpler existence in the country. Todd traded in his nursing job for one at the department of health, and Jen homeschools the kids and does some weaving on the side.

The Hazletts might define Zo as an uppity young heathen woman, but Zo’s gender identity is more complicated than all that: she’s gender fluid.

Being a lesbian was really important to Hadley, and she wanted me to say I was one, too. But if I said I was a lesbian, I’d be saying I was a 100 percent girl who only liked other 100 percent girls, and I couldn’t say that. Sometimes I feel like a boy in lipstick. Sometimes I feel like a girl with a bulge in her jeans. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter. I’m fine with all of this, but Hadley wasn’t.

In contrast to the “tragic queer” narratives that dominate fiction (yes, LGBTQ folks face higher levels of violence across the board, and it’s important to explore this – but we need uplifting, happy stories, too!), the Forresters are incredibly accepting of both their kids. They’re also super-progressive and open-minded, basically the exact opposite of Lord James, so much so that I wish they could retroactively and imaginarily adopt me.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

“I felt it here,” I say.

five 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 sexual harassment and assault, misogyny, child abuse, and homophobia.)

And I knew then what I’d known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was the problem.
And I didn’t want any of those boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all.

(“The Last Fifteen-Year-Old”)

Ms. Galiano asks about the themes and presentation style
but instead of raising my hand I press it against my heart
and will the chills on my arms to smooth out.

It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think.

But it felt more like a gift.

(“Spoken Word”)

Because so many of the poems tonight
felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
if I did that for someone else?

(“Invitation”)

Some people find novels written in verse gimmicky, but I adore them. I love poetry, but don’t always “get” it, which can be frustrating. (Or, to quote the Poet X: “I don’t always understand every line / but love the pictures being painted behind my eyelids.”) But the poems in verse novels are usually more straight forward and easier to grasp. Plus there’s something about the departure from more traditional narrative structures that just pulls me in. A novel written in verse is just what I need, every once in awhile. And The Poet X might be my favorite to date.

To say that fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in a strict Catholic household is an understatement. She and her twin, Xavier (but whom X mostly refers to as “Twin” in a way that’s super-endearing) were “miracle babies,” of a sort, born when their Dominican parents were already “old” and had given up on a family. Mami and Papi’s was an arranged marriage; Altagracia would have preferred to marry God instead of the philanderer she ended up with. But she looks at Xavier and Xiomara as her reward for the misery she’s endured.

Consequently, Mami projects all her dreams of extreme religiosity and life in the nunnery onto her children – her daughter especially. Xiomara’s life is strictly regulated, from who she can associate with (talking to guys is not allowed; forget about dating!) to what she can do with her time outside of school (homework, chores, and church good; social life bad). Punishment includes hours spent kneeling on grains of rice in front of her mother’s altar to the Virgin Mary – or a slap across the face. (There’s actually worse, but giving it away would involve spoiling the plot.)

As tall and formidable as Xavier is small and scrawny, Xiomara has always settled conflicts with her fists, much to her mother’s disapproval. As she grows older, Xiomara’s discontent and disobedience only grow and swell. She challenges Father Sean as he espouses the Church’s more misogynist teachings. She falls far her lab partner, Aman, over a pair of shared earbuds at the smoke park. She commits her increasingly “treacherous” thoughts to paper. And then, when Xiomara joins the poetry club at school and eventually enters a slam contest, she commits the gravest sin of all (in Mami’s estimation, that is): she airs her family’s dirty laundry, in public.

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Book Review: Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges (2017)

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

oh h*ck.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review. Trigger warning for allusions to rape, child abuse, domestic violence, animal abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.)

I first discovered Nicole Georges’s artwork nestled within the pages of Bitch Magazine. Instantaneously smitten, my adoration only grew when I learned that Georges was a vegan who referred to her furry sidekick Beija as her “canine life partner.” Her 2010 Invincible Summer Queer Animal Odyssey calendar still rests in the plastic protective covering it arrived in. (Don’t worry, I take it out every once in awhile for much-deserved admiration.) I enjoyed her debut graphic novel, Invincible Summer: An Anthology, well enough, though haven’t quite gotten around to reading Calling Dr. Laura. Even so, I can say with 99.9% certainty that Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home is her best work yet.

2017-07-14 - For My Dog Mags (Fetch) - 0011 [flickr]

My Mags, more noodle than dog.
——————————

At the tender age of sixteen, Georges adopted a dog as a gift for her then-boyfriend and first love, Tom. The ensuing back-and-forth demonstrates why you should never give a dog as a gift: despite clearing it ahead of time with Tom’s mother, Tom’s stepfather did not sign off on the deal. Nicole’s mom reluctantly allowed her to keep the dog, but Beija’s many behavioral problems quickly wore her patience thin.

Beija harbored an intense dislike/fear of men, children, and veterinarians; did not enjoy being picked up or touched on her sides; did not suffer invasions of space lightly; and frequently antagonized/was victimized by other dogs. She was temperamental and required patience, compassion, and understanding – much like her new human.

And so, in a situation so weird and improbable that it seems like the plot of a bad Fox sitcom, you have both sets of parents conspiring to push their teenagers out of the nest and into a seedy apartment, just so they could have a Beija-free home: “Starting now, this gift would change the course of both our lives. […] All of this in order to keep the dog. As if we’d had a teen pregnancy.”

While Nicole’s relationship with Tom would soon implode, her partnership with Bejia proved to be for keeps. Through unhealthy relationships, annoying roommates, professional upheavals, and the trials and tribulations of growing up and discovering oneself, there was one constant in Nicole life. And if she just so happened to have four legs, a soft tummy, and spoke in a series of barks, whimpers, and tail wags, so what? Family is what you make of it.

2017-07-14 - O-Ren Hearts Fetch - 0011 [flickr]

Fetch is Rennie-approved.
——————————

Most of the blurbs I’ve read so far focus on the coming-of-age aspect of Fetch (e.g., it’s not “just” a book about a dog). And while it is indeed that – after all, at the time of her death, Beija had lived with Nicole for almost exactly half of Nicole’s life – to me Fetch is, above all else, a love letter to and everlasting celebration of a best friend. A soul mate. A patronus, to quote Georges. (A daemon, in my vocab.) The dogs, they will always come first. PRIORITIES.

There’s this one Mutts comic I love: It’s a lovely day, and Ozzie is walking Earl on a long leash. A little heart bobs in a thought bubble above the human’s head. To the right is a quote by one W.R. Purche: “Everyone thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong.”

To borrow a phrase from an online friend (Marji Beach, who works at another awesome animal sanctuary called Animal Place), it’s clear that Nicole considers Beija the best worst dog ever. Their love for one another shines through every panel and page, making the inevitable goodbye that much more heartbreaking. It took me a full week to read the book, just because I couldn’t bear to face the last forty pages.

I think it’s safe to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to Fetch, and animal lovers will take something a little extra special away from their experience. When I say “animal lovers,” I mean both in the conventional sense – i.e., those who care for culturally appropriate animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits – as well as those of use who extend that circle of compassion to all nonhumans. There are precious few comic books that I could call overtly vegan – only two come to mind, namely Matt Miner’s Liberator and The Animal Man by Grant Morrison – and I’m happy to add Fetch to the list. While Georges only drops the v*-word (vegetarian or vegan) a handful of times, she does introduce readers to animal rights issues in a gentle, subtle way. If you’re not on the lookout (and I always am!), you might just miss it.

Though all the better to sneak into your subconscious, worming and niggling and prodding you to think about the face on your plate or the skin on your back … to see them as someones rather than somethings, more alike than different from the dog snuggled up next to you or fast asleep at your feet.

2017-07-14 - O-Ren Hearts Fetch - 0009 [flickr]

Full disclosure: In between bites of spider trappings, Rennie assisted me in writing this review.
——————————

I especially loved Bejia’s manifesto, “I am not a stuffed animal,” which surreptitiously introduces readers to the idea of intersectionality: “It’s kind of like feminism, but for dogs.” That line (along with countless others) literally had me squealing for joy. Little Beija-Boo – is she a shar pei-doxy mix? corgi and beagle? who knows! – is adorable and tubby, even as she’s telling you to back the fuck off.

I could go on and on – about the many weird parallels between Georges’s life and mine; about how I see pieces of Bejia in my own dogs; about the many ways, both large and small, that my loved ones and I have adapted our everyday routines and very existences to better accommodate our four-legged family members – but suffice it to say that Fetch is a must-read for anyone who’s ever loved (and lost) a dog (though you may want to wait until the loss isn’t quite so fresh – the ending is freaking brutal).

Ditto: anyone who just likes good storytelling or quirky artwork. I know I’ve focused on the nonhumans for most of my review – hey, that’s how I do – but even those rare scenes sans doggos are beautifully rendered and engaging.

In summary: Fetch is easily my favorite book of 2017 thus far, graphic novel or no.

Aaaaand just in case the previous 1,000 words didn’t convince you, here are a few of my favorite panels to help seal the deal.

(That last one? So charming that it displaced foster doggy as the background on my desktop. Temporarily, but still.)

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Book Review: The Beast Is an Animal, Peternelle van Arsdale (2017)

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Dark and beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, miscarriage, and misogyny.)

It would have been better not to have any babies at all than to give birth to two girls. Some even said it was an act of spite on the mother’s part. Only a truly disobedient woman would do such a thing.

She couldn’t get away from the monster. She was the monster.

— 3.5 stars —

Once upon a time, in a village near the forest in the land of Byd, two babies were born. They came into the world a mere two minutes apart, after their mother had labored for days. They were girls in a world that considered female children useless and unlucky; identical twins in a land ruled by superstition and mistrust. Mirror twins, at that: each a reflection of her sister, her other half.

Mindful of their neighbors’ intolerance, the woman and her husband kept the children at home, hidden from prying eyes. At least as long as they were able. This grew increasingly necessary, as the village was wracked by drought and famine, year after year. But one fateful day a visitor selling eggs caught sight of three-year-old Angelica and Benedicta; and by nightfall, an angry mob had gathered outside the family’s door. Determined to be a witch and the offspring of her coupling with the Beast, respectively, the mother and her twins were banished to the forest upon threat of death.

The girls grew wild and feral while their mother withered and faded away. Eventually they became orphans, alone save for each other – and the bitterness eating away at their hearts. The resulting hole could only be filled with the fear and hatred of others; of people like the ones who created them.

Once upon another time, also in the village of Gwenith, there lived a precocious seven-year-old girl whose brain wandered at night. One fateful evening her feet and legs followed. Though Alys’s parents cautioned her to never go out at night, lest she encounter the much-feared soul eaters – or, worse still, their master, The Beast – she disobeyed. By morning, every adult in Gwenith would be dead. Killed by the soul eaters, who Alys encountered in the pastures during her midnight stroll. She failed to sound the alarm. She was as bad as the soul eaters. She killed them all.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel (2017)

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and violence against women, including rape, as well as suicide. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to keep it as vague as possible.)

“Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”

My feelings for Allegra were never complicated. It didn’t matter if she acted crazy or made me angry or smothered me with devotion. In my whole life, she was the only person I simply loved. And I left her anyway.

THEN

Camilla Roanoke’s suicide doesn’t come as a surprise to her fifteen-year-old daughter Lane. For as long as she can remember, her mother has struggled with depression – not to mention alcoholism, mood swings, and blinding bouts of rage. Some days the tears come so fast and thick that they threaten to drown them both. So when she’s found dead in their NYC bathroom, bathrobe belt wrapped around her neck, Lane is more or less numb. Yet the cryptic note Camilla left behind – I tried to wait. I’m sorry. – puzzles Lane. The news that she has family – her mother’s parents, Yates and Lillian Roanoke – who aren’t merely willing to take Lane, but actually want her? Well, that’s the biggest shock of all.

Camilla rarely spoke of her life on the family estate, Roanoke, situated among the prairies and wheat fields of Osage Flats, Kansas. And there’s a damn good reason for it – one that Lane will discover during summer she turns sixteen. One hundred days of being a “Roanoke Girl” was all she could take before she fled Kansas – hopefully for good.

NOW

Eleven years later, a late-night phone call from her grandfather summons Lane back to Roanoke. Back home. Her cousin Allegra is missing, and Lane is determined to find out what happened. It’s the least she can do, for leaving Allegra behind all those years ago.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones (2017)

Monday, February 6th, 2017

“Such sensuous enjoyment.”

four out of five stars

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

I surveyed my kingdom. Chaos. Cruelty. Abandon. I had always been holding back. Always been restrained. I wanted to be bigger, brighter, better; I wanted to be capricious, malicious, sly. Until now, I had not known the intoxicating sweetness of attention. In the world above, it had always been Käthe or Josef who captivated people’s eyes and hearts—Käthe with her beauty, Josef with his talent. I was forgotten, overlooked, ignored—the plain, drab, practical, talentless sister. But here in the Underground, I was the sun around which their world spun, the axis around which their maelstrom twirled. Liesl the girl had been dull, drab, and obedient; Elisabeth the woman was a queen.

“I may be just a maiden, mein Herr,” I whispered. “But I am a brave maiden.”

When Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is claimed by the Goblin King and kidnapped to the Underground, it’s up to Liesl to rescue her. After all, it’s Liesl and her mother who keep the family together and the inn running. Plain, drab, boring Liesl, who lacks Käthe’s voluptuous beauty, or her brother Josef’s virtuosity with the violin. Liesl, who composes her wild and untamed music only under the cloak of night; the music Josef polishes and performs to accolades, but for which Liesl seeks neither praise nor recognition. Like legions of unremarkable girls before her, Liesl labors in the background, her accomplishments usurped or denigrated by the men around her, depending on the circumstances.

Yet the Goblin King – Der Erlkönig, Lord of Mischief – sees Liesl for who she truly is: a unique talent, full of beauty and grace. A soul brimming with passion and wonder – and, yes, even anger and lust. A worthy opponent. The girl with whom he once sang and danced in Goblin Grove, all those years ago. The girl who forgot him – and her promise to him – once she traded in their silly childhood games for a mop and bucket and likely spinsterhood.

Liesl descends into the Underground on a sacrifice of sheet music, only to find that her mission to rescue Käthe is just the opening round of her game with Der Erlkönig. Once a mortal man, the Goblin King sacrificed his soul to bring peace to the world above. Now he is forever confined to the Underground, where he rules over the goblins and fae who once wreaked havoc on earth. But in order to turn the seasons, he requires a spark. Passion. A wife. Yet Der Erlkönig’s brave maidens do not survive long in the Underground – and, should Liesl succeed in freeing Käthe, he will need a replacement if spring is to come.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The You I’ve Never Known, Ellen Hopkins (2017)

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

A complex, nuanced, and heart-rending coming-of-age story.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, rape, and racist/sexist/homophobic language.)

Home
Four letters,
one silent. A single syllable
pregnant with meaning.

I’m getting married. That should have an exclamation mark, shouldn’t it? I guess a small part of me is excited to leave my current existence behind in favor of something brand-new. But the closer I get to the appointed time, the more I think I might’ve made an awful mistake.

My childhood is a jigsaw puzzle,
with chewed and misplaced
pieces. I’ve always known that.
What I didn’t realize
is that even if every correct piece
was fitted perfectly into place,
the resulting picture would’ve been
interpretive art.

When she was just a toddler, Ariel’s father Mark kidnapped her. Of course, she doesn’t know this – yet. Raised on a steady diet of her father’s lies, Ariel thinks her mother Jenny ran off and abandoned the family to be with another woman. The duo has spent the last decade and half moving from town to town, state to state, mooching off her father’s latest conquests when possible, shoplifting and sleeping in the car when not.

After years of bouncing around, Ariel and Mark have finally settled in Sonora, California – which is to say, they’ve managed to stay in one place for a whopping fifteen months. Ariel was able to attend a whole year of high school uninterrupted, joined the basketball team, and even made two friends: teammates and fellow “freaks” Monica and Syrah. Mark’s in a somewhat stable relationship with a woman named Zelda, and things are looking … good. That is, if you don’t look too hard.

Mark is … a piece of work. Actually, that’s an understatement: the man’s a full-on sociopath. Kidnapping isn’t the worst of his offenses. He’s emotionally and physically abusive, treats his daughter like a possession, and demands total obedience at all costs. He has a laundry list of rules that Ariel must follow; some, like leaving her shoes at the front door and not bringing any stray animals home, go to his rigid nature, while others only make sense when Ariel discovers the truth about herself. Unlike other parents, Mark isn’t keen on the idea of letting his seventeen-year-old daughter get a driver’s license (never mind a car!) or a part-time job, even though both would make his life infinitely easier. Nor is he thrilled when she saves the life of local VIP girl Hillary Grantham, thus attracting the attention of the media.

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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.

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

If you can embrace the weird, this is one lovely and amazing story.

five out of five stars

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

Pavla revels in her name because she knows that if nothing is little, then it must be something indeed.

“You’re the one who said all time exists,” Danilo says. “The past exists. The future exists.”

It’s true. She did say this. And she does somehow believe that what has happened to her and what will happen to her exist simultaneously, that the story is already written but not yet told. She must be like someone in one of her mother’s stories who has existed for centuries of telling and will exist even after her mother is gone. How else to explain her life? As something random?

“I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to come,” he hears himself say.

Pavla Janáček is born at the turn of the century in a rural village located in a small, unnamed (but likely Slavic) country. She arrives in the twilight of her parents’ lives: after much trying and four miscarriages, mother Agáta finally enlisted the help a “gypsy.” She believes that Pavla’s “condition” is a punishment from God for her blasphemy. Pavla is born a dwarf, with a head that’s too large for her torso and arms and legs that are disproportionately short.

The chilly reception Pavla initially receives from Agáta gradually warms and deepens, as mother and daughter are forced into close proximity by the harsh winter weather. With spring comes love; Pavla is the child Agáta and Václav have always wanted. She ages, but grows precious little; she continues to sleep in her crib for the next fourteen years. She’s a precocious child and a fast learner; she teaches herself to count using the slats on her crib and, when she turns seven, Václav takes her on as his assistant at his plumbing business. She starts school a year later, where her cunning eventually wins over her classmates.

And then Pavla hits puberty and her parents get the foolish notion to “fix” her: for what will happen to their lovely daughter (and Pavla is indeed a beauty, ‘from the neck up’) when they’re gone? They begin dragging her from doctor to doctor, hoping for a miracle cure, until they wind up in the office of the biggest charlatan of them all: Dr. Ignác Smetanka, whose outlandish and cruel “treatments” leaved Pavla scarred, traumatized – and bearing the countenance of a wolf, seemingly overnight. But the transformation from dwarf to (average-sized) wolf-girl won’t be the only metamorphosis Pavla experiences before her story’s ended.

Pavla’s strange journey intersects at multiple points and in unexpected ways with that of Dr. Smetanka’s young assistant Danilo – the clever boy who built the rack that once again made Pavla an object of shame and terror.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Conjoined, Jen Sookfong Lee (2016)

Friday, September 16th, 2016

“I come from a family of psychopaths.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and child abuse. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to be as vague as possible.)

She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. […]

Ginny picked up the receiver. She might as well call. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that someone would understand.

It was easy to say My childhood was normal. It was the sort of thing people say when they want to deflect attention, or when it was the most polite way to explain that you grew up with privilege, that your past wasn’t dotted with evictions and coupons and beatings from a father who could never keep a job. It was what Jessica always said, even though she knew this statement couldn’t possibly be true for anyone.

Here are three things you should know about The Conjoined:

1. The book’s Little Red Riding Hood /The Handmaid’s Tale– inspired cover bears little relation to the story.

2. There are no conjoined twins in this book.

3. It’s still a pretty good read anyway, unsatisfying ending excluded.

About a month after losing her mother Donna to cancer, twenty-eight-year-old Jessica Campbell is helping her father Gerry sort through the detritus of their decades-long marriage when they make a truly horrifying discovery. Amid Ziplock bags stuffed with frostbitten bison meat, Gerry finds the bodies of two (very human) girls stashed in his wife’s basement freezers. (I own two chest freezers, and the roomier models are most definitely large enough to accommodate the body of a teenage girl. Don’t worry; you’ll only find homegrown apples and cases of Daiya cheese in my freezers.) The police are summoned straightaway, reopening an investigation into an eighteen-year-old mystery: whatever happened to Jamie and Casey Cheng?

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Book Review: The Cresswell Plot, Eliza Wass (2016)

Monday, June 6th, 2016

What did I just read?

two out of five stars

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

‘You will hide your true self. You will bury what you fear, in a locked chest in the cave of your heart, where you will keep the bones of the person you could have been.’

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he said, chest contracting as he caught his breath. “How beautiful the world becomes when you think you might have to leave it?”

So here’s the thing: I had high hopes for The Cresswell Plot. I love a deranged cult story as much as the next looky loo; and between its suggestive title, eloquent synopsis, and oh-so-creepy cover art, The Cresswell Plot looked quite promising. And while Father’s “religion” is indeed the stuff of nightmares, the rest of the story fell short of my expectations.

My biggest issue was with the characters. With the exception of Father – who is reliably cruel and demented – I had trouble pinning the characters down. Cas, Caspar, Morty – they’re all over the place. Their beliefs, allegiances, reasoning, thought processes – I never felt like I got a good handle on them at all. One minute they’d be rebelling, testing the rules by joining the school play, dressing in “normal” clothing, or lusting after classmates; the next, they’re snitching on their siblings and setting fire to their potential allies’ houses. Each move was a complete surprise to me, and not in a good way; there just didn’t seem to be any consistency to their behavior.

To be fair, this could be the whole point: e.g., this is what growing up in such a dysfunctional home does to a person. But if this is the case, it could have been handled with more nuance and clarity.

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Book Review: The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Superb idea, so-so execution…

three out of five stars

(Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. Years ago my mother tried to lock us all up, pad the hard edges of things with foam and gauze, cover us in layers of sweaters and gloves, ban sharp objects and open flames. We camped out together in the living room for eight days, until the carefully ordered takeout food—delivered on the doorstep and furtively retrieved by my mother, who hadn’t thought how she would cook meals without the help of our gas oven—gave us all food poisoning and we spent the next twenty-four hours in the hospital. Now every autumn we stock up on bandages and painkillers; we buckle up, we batten down. We never leave the house without at least three protective layers. We’re afraid of the accident season. We’re afraid of how easily accidents turn into tragedies. We have had too many of those already.

So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season,
To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,
To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,
One more drink for the watery road.

— 3.5 stars —

I can’t remember the last time I had such mixed feelings about a novel.

On the one hand, the story’s premise – every October the Morris-Fagan family is beset by a series of seemingly random accidents, from cuts and bruises to more serious calamities, like car accidents and drownings – is fabulous. The invention of a so-called “accident season” is creative and compelling and provides so many potential avenues of exploration. Are the accidents merely coincidence? Bad luck given meaning by a family who sees what it wants to see? (We humans have a way of forming patterns out of randomness.) A self-fulfilling prophecy? (The worst.) Or perhaps the accidents are the work of a sinister force, either supernatural or more worldly? (Not all monsters are nonhuman, you know.)

The plot gets even weirder than the synopsis hints at with the introduction of Elsie, a plain Jane, mousey girl who mysteriously appears in all of Cara’s photographs – even those taken on a family vacation on the Mediterranean. As the accident season of her junior year draws to a close, the narrator Cara; her older sister Alice; their ex-step-brother Sam; and Cara’s best friend Bea scramble to find Elsie, who’s suddenly gone missing from school and whose presence/absence seems somehow connected to the family’s ill fortunes.

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Book Review: The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner (2016)

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

You have to read this book, okay?

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for offensive language, child abuse, and domestic violence.)

“I ain’t never seen anything like the way grief rotted that man from the inside out. Chewed him up. That’s when folks started calling him the Serpent King. They wasn’t trying to be ugly or funny. They was just trying to make some sense of it, I guess. Folks do that when they scared. Folks is afraid of grief. Think it’s catching, like a disease.”

He looked up, straight into Lydia’s eyes. Her eyes were filled with … what? A new something he had never seen before in her. He couldn’t name it, but it made him strong. It swept the black-red from the margins of his eyes and turned the contemptuous crowd beneath him into a faceless blob. It made his heart beat a different rhythm.

He shone bright, as if burned clean by fire.

I started The Serpent King at 4PM on a Thursday afternoon. That night, I stayed up until nearly 2AM to finish it. I didn’t mean to – it just kind of happened, against my better judgment. (I was a bit of a wreck the next day, in every way possible.) Afterwards I lay awake for several hours, my nightly dose of melatonin doing little to calm my racing thoughts. Once I finally drifted off, it worked its way into my dreams. My two living girls (Rennie and Mags; they’re rat terriers, yo!) were there, and it was beautiful. And upon waking, Travis and Lydia and Dill were the first thing thing to break through the haze. Their story brought tears to my eyes. Again. This is one amazing book, y’all.

The story centers on three best friends who are about to start their senior year of high school. Forrestville High, located in Forrestville, Tennessee, so named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK. To say that they’re the high school misfits doesn’t quite do it justice. Or at least, not in Dill’s case.

Dillard Wayne Early Jr. is the son of Pastor Early of the Church of Christ’s Disciples with Signs of Belief. His father’s church is known for incorporating snake handling and the drinking of strychnine and other poisons into its services. (The speaking of tongues? That’s a little more mundane ’round these parts.) Several years ago, Dill Sr. was tried and convicted of possession of child pornography – pornography that his lawyers unsuccessfully argued belonged to twelve-year-old Dill. While the jurors believed Dill’s testimony that he had nothing to do with it, the stink never quite washed off. Whether people (including his own mother) believe that Dill’s a pervert or just the son of one, he’s a social pariah either way.

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Audiobook Review: Devoted, Jennifer Mathieu (2015)

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Feminism: The radical notion that women are people too.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for misogyny and child abuse.)

Some of my friends tell me my life before I met them sounds like I made it up. Like it’s something from a bad fairy tale where a princess is held kidnapped in a tower until she’s rescued. Like Rapunzel.

Only, no knight in shining armor saved me. I saved myself.

From birth I was part of an extreme religious community—some might call it a cult … when I’m having a bad day, I call it a cult—where women were marginalized, shamed, humiliated, and not given one ounce of autonomy. And why? Because the Lord dictates this is how it should be.

I never went to regular school until I was old enough to go to vet tech school as a legal adult. I didn’t cut my hair or wear pants until I was 18 and I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 19 and for a long time I didn’t even think it was possible to exist outside of this weird, tightly-controlled world with my dad in charge of everything I did. When I say my dad was in charge of everything, I don’t mean everything like where I went and who I hung out with, although he was in charge of that for sure. I mean he was in charge of what I wore, what I read, what I said, and even what I thought.

I hate my dad for so much, but do you know what I hate him for the most? I can’t even pray to God anymore without hearing my father’s voice in my head.

– Lauren Sullivan, The Great Escape

Though it’s technically true to say that Rachel Walker lives in Calvary, Texas, in reality her world is so much smaller than this already-small town. A member of a fundamentalist Christian community, Rachel spends most of her time at home, or attending services at Calvary Christian Church. Like her nine siblings, Rachel is home schooled, and can only leave the house in the company of a chaperon – to keep her honest and help her avoid the temptations of the sinful, secular world. The family is too poor to afford modern conveniences like cell phones or television sets, but they’d shun them even if money wasn’t an issue: anything that provides a window into the Godless world outside is strictly forbidden. The Walkers do own an ancient computer, but Rachel’s only allowed online to manage her family’s finances. Even then, it’s usually only when Dad’s in the room to supervise.

Whereas her older brothers work in their father’s small landscaping business, Rachel and her sisters are confined to the domestic sphere, cooking, cleaning, caring for their younger siblings, and assuming responsibility for their Bible-based education. Though she’d normally be a junior or senior in high school, Rachel’s own education ended years ago, when her knowledge surpassed that of her mother. Now she spends the school day teaching her brothers and sisters, and learning what she can from the family’s outdated set of encyclopedias – some of the only non-religious books to grace the bookshelves.

Not that it matters, anyway: like all girls and young women, Rachel is training for one thing and one thing only: to be a sweet and responsible helpmeet for her future husband.

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