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.
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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 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.

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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: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

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Book Review: To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party, Skila Brown (2016)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

“The men think they’re following a trail … But I know.”

four out of five stars

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

There’s only a little gap between rain and snow,
an open window of sunshine to go,
it all must be timed just right
or it will go all wrong,
like a cup of tea that slips
from too hot to too cold
without leaving enough time
in between to drink it.

Imagine.
He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

When you picture the Donner Party, of course cannibalism is the first thing to come to mind. OF COURSE. After all, it’s THE reason this ill-fated expedition made it into the history books: the gruesome lengths that many of the surviving members had to go to to stay alive. And yet murder and cannibalism isn’t where their stories begin, or end. There’s also romance, adventure, and optimism. A can-do spirit and the pursuit of the American Dream. Even if this dream is built on the backs of those who lived here before us.

(Several times, the caravan’s livestock is freed/stolen by “Indians” – who I couldn’t help but root for – and Brown briefly mentions the indigenous populations in the Author’s Note. When the killing starts, it’s the group’s Native American guides who are the first to go.)

In To Stay Alive, Skila Brown reconstructs these events through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves, who was nineteen when she and her family set out from their home in Lacon, Illinois to make a new life California. The already-arduous journey turned deadly when the Donner-Reed Party, as it came to be known, found themselves snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47, just a hundred-odd miles shy of their destination. While the majority of the party made camp next to Truckee Lake in anticipation of the spring thaw, supplies quickly dwindled, and so a small group set out on foot to find help. When they ran out food, they were forced to eat the dead to survive – first those felled by starvation and hypothermia, and then those murdered for food. (I’m not sure how closely To Stay Alive reflects reality, but the whole murdering-people-for-food thing seems a little more controversial IRL.)

To Stay Alive is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it’s a novel written in verse and 2) its intended audience, which is middle grade readers.

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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: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Jessica Luther (2016)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

A Fan’s Take on the Intersection of Rape Culture, Racism, and Capitalism in College Football

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence against women, obviously.)

So I am not what you’d call a sports fan. Occasionally I enjoy playing baseball, basketball, or tennis for funsies or fitness, but that’s about the extent of it. I ran out of fucks to give as a spectator when my youngest brother aged out of Little League.

Jessica Luther, on the other hand, “was born with garnet and gold blood.” Her parents graduated from Florida State University; she spent her autumns rooting for the Seminoles religiously; and, when it came time to go off to college, she only applied to one school. Once at FSU, she had her ass planted firmly in the bleachers for every home game, rain or shine, humidity and frost be damned:

I learned early on how to be a fan. There are rules and rituals the fans of a sports team follow and do, a kind of collective performance before and during games that show the love for our school and team. The playbook for fans consists of memorizing chants, wearing the right colors, painting our faces, and always singing along whenever you hear the school’s fight song. The most important play, though, is the one where you give your team your love and devotion, and you trust in the players and coaches even when they play badly and even if you have to ignore what they do when they are off the field and out of uniform. This, the fan playbook prescribes, is what good fans do. I used to be a really good FSU fan.

That is, until the 2012 rape allegations against Jameis Winston forced her to confront some of the more problematic aspects of the sport she so loves.

Let me stop right here and say that it’s not that you have to be a fan of something in order to earn the right to critique its more problematic aspects; far from it. But the particularities of fan identity vis–à–vis sports – Luther cites studies which show that many fans’ self-esteem is linked to their team’s performance – certainly encourage suspicion and hostility towards outsiders, as do structural barriers against women in sports, not to mention larger cultural narratives surrounding rape and violence against women. To the football fans in the audience, Luther wants you to know that she’s one of you, and her interrogation of that which you hold most dear comes from a place of love: both for victims/survivors, and for the sport itself. The wake up call is coming from inside the house, okay.

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Book Review: The Girl Before, Rena Olsen (2016)

Monday, August 8th, 2016

A harrowing (if atypical) tale of human trafficking.

four out of five stars

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

If what I’ve been told is true, if I was taken from a loving family, what does that mean for the girls I raised? Were these girls all taken as well? Glen had to know. There’s no way that I’ve been able to work it out in my mind that he didn’t. I want to talk to him, to ask him why, but part of me is terrified of the answer. Terrified to know the truth, because if he knew, if he orchestrated all of it, then what does that make me? What did he make me?

Alt title: “The Deprogramming of Diana McKinley.”

The Girl Before begins with a bang and a whimper as federal agents raid the headquarters of a human trafficking ring in the Rocky Mountains. Among the girls and women rescued is Clara Lawson (real name Diana McKinley), who was abducted from a park near her home when she was just six years old.

Like all of the other children kidnapped by Papa G and Mama Mae, Clara was told that her parents no longer wanted her; had given or sold her to the Lawsons to raise; and would eventually be placed with a family who loved and needed her more than hers. The brainwashing begins immediately, and is reinforced with strict discipline, an emphasis on total obedience, and copious physical abuse. Strict gender segregation is maintained at all ages (after all, can’t have the boys “sullying” the merchandise), with boys trained to be bodyguards, manual laborers, or Papa G’s own personal militia, and girls groomed as “companions.” A high-end brothel, Mama teaches her girls etiquette, reading, writing, proper speech, and foreign languages in order to appeal to wealthy buyers. Some clients even choose “their” girl in advance, with special instructions as to their education.

Clara is one such girl, having been promised to Mr. Q – a man easily thirty years her senior – at the age of twelve. The only thing standing between her and a life as a sex slave is Glen Lawson, Jr. – Papa G and Mama Mae’s only son and the heir to their operation. He and Clara fall in love and, with a little perseverance, a whole lot of nerve, and a bit of Machiavellian maneuvering, manage to stay together, despite the odds. But theirs is a bargain with the devil: Papa G agrees to let Glen buy Clara, but only if they stay and take over the business when he retires. And so Clara becomes both victim and victimizer, as she trains girls the way Mama trained her (albeit with a much gentler, more compassionate hand).

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Book Review: With Malice, Eileen Cook (2016)

Friday, June 10th, 2016

With Malice will keep you guessing – even after the end!

four out of five stars

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

“Right now your brain knows there is missing information, and it’s desperately trying to fill in those blanks.” She opened a desk drawer and fished out a paper. “Ever see something like this?”

I looked down. At first the words looked like gibberish, and then they clicked into place.

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

I passed the sheet back to her. “I’ve seen something like it online.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Dr. Weeks knocked on top of the model of the brain she kept on her credenza. “The darn things still fascinate me as much as they did when I started in this field. How they can fill in what’s missing — find patterns and create meaning where there was nothing. One of the most primal survival instincts the brain has is finding pattern and assigning meaning. When there is a breakdown, it will scramble to find those patterns again as quickly as possible.”

“I didn’t do this,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t,” Mom said. She patted my hand. “The police aren’t going to be able to prove a thing.”

That’s when I knew beyond any doubt she believed I’d done it.

Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital bed with a broken leg, several broken ribs, an assortment of cuts and bruises – and no idea how she got there. Through bits and pieces – angry blog posts and reluctant drips of info from the ‘rents – she comes to learn that she was on a class trip to Italy when the car she was driving barreled through a stone wall and off a cliff. Jill survived, but the passenger – her best friend of eight years, Simone McIvory – did not.

After the was-it-or-wasn’t-it-an-accident, Jill’s hoighty-toighty father whisked her out of the country on a private flight, ostensibly so she could receive top-notch medical care in the states. Then he hired her a lawyer and (wait for it!) a PR team. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that Keith used his wealth to shield his daughter – and, by extension, his family – from the fallout of an investigation and possible murder charge.

While Jill is convinced that there’s no way she’d ever murder Simone, she has no memory of the event – or even the six or so weeks leading up to it. And her brain isn’t exactly cooperating; in addition to retrograde amnesia, Jill’s also dealing with aphasia, which makes it all the more difficult to defend herself. Yet as new facts and evidence come to light – in the form of police interviews, witness statements, cell phone videos, news articles, and Facebook and blog posts – Jill begins to doubt herself: what really happened that fateful day in Montepulciano?

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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: Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones (2016)

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

This book gave me a serious case of Sad Eyes.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including animal abuse.)

This is how it is with werewolves. Even when they lie, it’s the truth. And now I knew the truth about myself. I was a murder weapon. I was revenge. I was a burden my aunt and uncle had been carrying around for ten years already, out of obligation to my mom. I was maybe a wolf, maybe not.

“Being a werewolf isn’t just teeth and claws,” she said, her lips brushing my ear she was so close, so quiet, “it’s inside. It’s how you look at the world. It’s how the world looks back at you.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” the villager’s uncle says back to the villager’s aunt, his smile as wide as the villager’s ever seen. “One of them’s got a pitchfork.”

Arkansas. Texas. Florida. New Mexico. Georgia. Alabama. Mississippi. South Carolina.: “Riding the yo-yo,” Darren called it. The unnamed narrator of Mongrels has spent much of his young life traversing the southern U.S., hopping from state to state, running as far as the family’s current junker would take them. Trying to stay ahead of the snow – and the law. Living on the outskirts of town, in rundown rentals and dilapidated trailers, taking low-wage (yet honest) work where they could find it, but always falling back on theft to round out their diets. Strawberry wine coolers. Cases of steak. Wild deers and the occasional calf.

The boy – sometimes a villager, other times a reporter, always a wolf-in-waiting – never knew his parents. As a topic of conversation, dad is off-limits; and his mother, Jessica, died in childbirth. Just like her mother before her. It’s more than a family curse: it’s a species curse. Human women cannot safely give birth to werewolves. Unlike her littermates, Libby and Darren, Jessica didn’t inherit her father’s wolf blood.

In the wake of his mother’s death, the boy was raised by wolves – Grandpa, Aunt Libby, Uncle Darren – but still isn’t sure whether he is one. Werewolves don’t turn until adolescence, you see.

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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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Book Review: Burn Baby Burn, Meg Medina (2016)

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Burn that mother down.

four out of five stars

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

The bruise on my neck is compact and the color of liver. It’s right at my voice box, too, so when I stand at the mirror, it looks like a bullet hole to the throat.

Mima pretends she doesn’t see it.

We’re in a secret club together. All those times I never asked about her wrists, about the fleshy part of her thigh, even the faint circle of teeth at her cheeks all those years ago after one of Hector’s tantrums. More recently, the days she uses my CoverGirl without my permission.

All too often, anti-rape campaigns focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Under the guise of “helpful advice,” women are told what we can do to avoid being raped: Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Don’t take your eyes off the drink you bought yourself. Don’t get drunk in public. Don’t drink in public, period. Don’t walk home alone. Don’t walk the streets at night, period. Sometimes the advice is downright contradictory: Wear pants, since they make rape slightly more difficult. But don’t wear skinny jeans because, in the event that you are raped, no one will believe you. (Skinny jeans are so difficult to peel off that your rapist must have had your cooperation and thus your consent.)

At best, these “tips” are given with good intentions and provide a false sense of control over a chaotic world. At worst, they’re a crass attempt to police the behavior of women – for our own protection, of course. *

Perhaps most alarmingly, these types of rape prevention campaigns contribute to the stereotype of the rapist as a menacing stranger, lurking in the bushes or an alleyway, just waiting for the perfect victim to come along; an animal prowling the urban jungle. Someone evil and unknowable. An anomaly.

In reality, 82% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. They are our partners, our dates, our friends, our coworkers, and our classmates. How does walking home in a group help to prevent rape when the rapist is waiting for us at home?

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Book Review: Shallow Graves, Kali Wallace (2016)

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Horror With a Heart

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including rape culture.)

Mom and Dad would be so disappointed. They had always told us there was no such thing as ghosts.

There’s something Karen Garrow once said about the fate of the universe. It was on one of her television shows, an episode I watched a dozen times on the basement TV. All of us, she said, all of us and all of everything that had ever existed and ever would exist, it was all made up of matter that formed in the very first moments of the universe, and it would all last until the very end. The atoms would decay, the particles would break apart, everything would disintegrate and shatter until it was unrecognizable – too degraded – but that would take so many billions and billions of years we didn’t even have words for time scales that large. Everything had come from the same hot explosion and everything would end in the same empty darkness. It had nothing to do with what we believed or what we wanted or how desperately we needed to reassure ourselves that the brief moment in which we lived meant anything at all. None of it would matter in the end.

And Karen smiled her playful smile, and she said, “But it isn’t the end yet. It matters now, everything we have, for as long as we can hold onto it.”

I was so fucking tired of men deciding whether or not I got to go on existing for another day.

One minute, seventeen-year-old Breezy Lin is at a high school party; the next, she wakes up in a shallow grave, in a vacant house just a few blocks from her house, a creepy man haunted by a creepier shadow eagerly digging her free. She reaches for him, pulls…and something in him snaps. The coroner’s report will list the cause of death as a heart attack, but Breezy killed him. Just like he killed that family of four, gathered around a dinner table, so many years ago.

A year has passed since her death, and during this time Breezy has morphed into something unnatural. Raised by magic – and the deaths of thousands of birds, every single one within a two-mile radius of her grave – Breezy is a revenant. An animated corpse, resurrected from death to hunt the living. Breezy can spot killers, who wear their guilt like a cloak; their sin calls to hear, awakens her hunger, and after she eats, she will carry their ghoulish memories with her, always. Unable to go home, Breezy starts hitchhiking across the country, seeking vengeance for other murdered souls.

But not for her. Never for her, because Breezy has no memories of her death. Her murder remains a mystery.

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Book Review: The Merman, Carl-Johan Vallgren (2015)

Monday, December 7th, 2015

“Fairy tales with tragic endings.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including bullying, sexual violence, and animal abuse, as well as offensive language.)

There is no beginning, and no ending. I know that now. For others, perhaps, there are stories that lead somewhere, but not for me. It’s like they go round in circles, and sometimes not even that: they just stand still in one place. And I wonder: what are you supposed to do with a story that repeats itself?

“There’s not much that’s been written about mermaids, you see. Mainly fairy tales with tragic endings.”

Petronella’s life is a lot like a fairy tale. Not the ending, when the lowly peasant girl has found her prince, the heroine has slayed the dragon, and everyone is free to live happily ever after for the rest of their days. Rather, Nella is the beginning; the nightmare that comes before the daydream. The raw truth that lurks under the Disneyfied facade, fangs and claws bared.

Nella’s is a family of three, occasionally four. She and her younger brother Robert live with their mother Marika in a maisonette (apartment) on Liljevägen in Falkenberg, Sweden; her housing is largely regarded as “a sort of slum where social service cases live.” An unemployed alcoholic, Marika is a neglectful mother at best. Her mom is more likely to spend the family’s public assistance funds on booze than food, forcing Nella into shoplifting to make up the difference. Sometimes the free lunch at school is the only meal Nella and Robert will see in a day; oftentimes it’s the one and only reason they bother to show up at all. That, and to get out of the house: no matter how much Nella tidies up, it’s not long before hurricane Marika sweeps through, leaving mess of dishes and vomit in her wake.

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Mini-Review: Another Little Piece, Kate Karyus Quinn (2013)

Monday, November 16th, 2015

 

On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.

A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.

Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese’s fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

four out of five stars

The synopsis for Another Little Piece sounds a lot like a typical woman in peril story, featuring a misogynistic kidnapper/rapist/murderer, or perhaps a sinister cult. And when we first meet Annaliese, wandering through a field, dazed, disoriented, and with no memory of the past year (or the sixteen before it), clad in a garbage bag, it sure looks as though the plot will bend this way. But things get really weird, really fast, as Quinn injects an unexpected supernatural element into Annaliese’s story. The result is an odd, sometimes disjointed, very creepy tale that kept me glued to my Kindle.

Quinn’s prose is both lovely and eerie, and she does a masterful job of depicting and then deconstructing adolescence and the high school experience: slut shaming, unrequited love, alienation and ostracization, you name it. Quinn avoids stereotypes; all of her characters are filled with depth and nuance. I especially love Annaliese – the original as well as the reboot – or rather, how Quinn twists and transforms our perception of her as the story unfolds. (The real Annaliese? Kind of a tool.)

Annaliese and Dex are adorable; Franky is creepy as fuck; and I loved the “spitball poems” used to introduce each chapter. There’s also a great sub-plot with Annaliese’s best friend, Gwen.

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

Monday, October 26th, 2015

#YesAllWomen

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

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 child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

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