Book Review: Full Throttle: Stories by Joe Hill (2019)

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

A bit of a mixed bag, but there are a few unforgettable stories in here.

four out of five stars

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

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

(“Wolverton Station”)

“I can think of worse ways to go than with a good book in my hand. Especially if it was one I had no right to ever read, because it wasn’t going to be published until after I was dead.”

(“Late Returns”)

“If there’s one thing prettier than a sunset,” Iris says, “it’s seeing little shits cry.”

(“All I Care About Is You”)

I am consistently bewitched by Joe Hill’s writing, though I have a strong preference for his long-form fiction: The Fireman is lit, NOS4A2 and its companion graphic novel, The Wraith, are the stuff of deliciously horrifying nightmares, and Horns is probably one of my all-time favorite books. (I say “probably” because there’s some stiff competition out there, and my top ten list is dominated by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Philip Pullman. But top twenty-five, maybe? The Treehouse of the Mind still gives me chills.)

His short stories are a little more hit or miss for me – although, even at his “worst,” Hill’s writing is still entertaining enough. Full Throttle is no exception: of the thirteen stories here (some originally released as Kindle Singles, others all-new), a handful are kind of meh, one or two contain some major disappointments, and a few are so impossibly shiny that I’d recommend the book on their merits alone (“Late Returns,” I’m looking at you). Even the intro, which I’m just as likely to skip, is sweet and sentimental and brimming with insight, and you will find yourself devouring the notes and salivating for more.

“Throttle” with Stephen King – 3/5

After a drug deal gone horribly wrong, a motorcycle gang is cornered and run down on Route 6 by a mysterious tanker truck, adding a little extra truth to their motto (“THE TRIBE – LIVE ON THE ROAD, DIE ON THE ROAD”). Perhaps fittingly for this King-Hill collab, father-son drama ensues. This story has a pretty strong King vibe to it, and is enjoyable enough, though not necessarily memorable.

“Dark Carousel” – 4/5

It’s August 1994, and a group of semi-delinquent teens are having one last hurrah at the Cape Maggie Pier in Maine. This being a Joe Hill tale, everything goes sideways when they disrespect an enchanted (cursed?) carousel, the denizens of which come alive at night. Pro tip: keep an eye out for the Charlie Manx/Christmasland reference, which makes this story a little more delightfully macabre and adds to the world building like whoah.

“Wolverton Station” – 3.5/5

I read this story when it was first published as a Kindle Single and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. An evil, bloodsucking corporate type is unperturbed when a wolf steps onto his train; after all, protestors have hounded (hardy har har!) him throughout his London tour to promote the first Jimi Coffee store in the UK. But the massacre in the next car over rather gives him pause (paws!). A fun story, but yet again I found myself craving a bloodier, more definitive ending.

“By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” – 3.5/5

This Nessie-inspired story (with shades of a middle-grade version of “The Body”) also started out as a Kindle Single. I didn’t really love it two years ago, and I don’t think my feelings have changed much since then. A young girl named Gail and her friend Joel discover the body of a dead pliosaur washed up on the shore of Lake Champlain. Given that she’s got a wild imagination, it’s never quite clear if Gail is a trustworthy narrator, which makes for a rather unsatisfying story. I found myself wanting to read more about the malfunctioning but well-meaning robot child Gail from the story’s earliest pages, tbh. But, still: DINOSAURS!

“Faun” – 3/5

This story about one percenters who pay to hunt fantastical creatures in another dimension – accessible via an unassuming little door, located in the attic of a musty farmhouse in Rumford, Maine, but four times a year – showed a ton of animal-friendly promise. Big game hunting, am I right? And while it is indeed fun to watch fauns, whurls, whizzles, orcs, and ogres hunt the hunters (though more gore would have been both nice and well-deserved), the ending is deeply unsatisfying. Fallows’s “breath of kings” quest plays into self-serving, speciesist tropes about how nonhuman animals willingly “sacrifice” themselves for us, whether to be food or trophies or research subjects. Hard pass, bro.

“Late Returns” – 5/5 f’in amazing

If you pick up Full Throttle for just one story, let “Late Returns” be it. Adrift after the loss of his parents and his job as a long-haul trucker in one (very long!) day, John Davies falls into a part-time job driving the local library’s Bookmobile while returning a copy of his late mother’s last loan, Another Marvelous Thing. During his travels, ye ole Bookmobile sometimes slips into other times, giving ghosts the gift of one last good read before their souls pass on to wherever it is that they go. “Late Returns” is a love letter to book nerds, a salve for the grieving heart. Bittersweet, magical, and filled with compassion, it’s a story that’s woven itself into my own cobbled-together atheist approximation of a religion: something warm and comforting to hold onto.

I mean, damned if the bit about Harry Potter doesn’t make you bawl your eyes out.

“All I Care About Is You” – 5/5

Set some time in the 22nd century (maybe), a down-on-her-luck Iris Ballard celebrates her sixteenth birthday on top of the Spoke – not with her friends, but with a Clockwork boy named Chip who she’s rented for the hour. This story is lovely…until it isn’t. I loved the world building – the stuff about Murdergame is fascinating, and the reflections on being a professional victim, astute – but I don’t know how to feel about the twist. It seems appropriate, but bleak AF.

“Thumbprint” – 3.5/5

Another Kindle Single, this one about Abu Ghraib. Mallory Grennan has been home for eight months, staying in her childhood home, hers now that her father has passed. She lives a pretty unassuming life, tending bar and working out. She’s left the war behind…or she had, until the thumbprints start showing up: in her mailbox, under her door, on the windshield of her car. Someone is stalking her, and she’s ready to confess. A not-so-subtle commentary on the inefficacy and inhumanity of torture.

“The Devil on the Staircase” – 3/5

The son of an Italian bricklayer discovers the stairs to hell. Spoiler alert: the devil is him. This is perhaps the most experimental story in the book, and I didn’t really take to the formatting.

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” – 4/5

Held captive by her family on the road trip from (literal) hell, a teenager tweets her own demise, at the hands of demented zombie carnival owners. “Twittering” is fun and snarky and crafty and I’d love to see Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone take on it.

“Mums” – 3/5

Jack is thirteen when his mother dies, supposedly in a tragic, alcohol-fueled accident. “Supposedly” because Mrs. McCourt was married to a gun-crazy, conspiracy-theorist Separatist from whom she’d tried to flee just months before. Though Mom was a large part of Jack’s world – whittled down to Mom, Dad, cousin Connor, and his wife Beth, all of which take turns homeschooling him – he swallows his father’s lies and forgets her easily enough. That is, until he buys a package of seeds from a wizened old street vendor, and the resulting Mums resurrect his mother, in a manner of speaking.

This would be a pretty cool revenge story if not for Jack’s paranoia. Also, can we put the brakes on the violent schizophrenic stereotype? It’s tired, played out, and only further marginalizes people with mental health issues.

“In the Tall Grass” with Stephen King – 3/5

There’s something monstrous and alien in the Kansas grass! And…that’s kind of it. The film adaptation is in production, so that should be interesting.

“You Are Released” – 5/5

This story answers the question, what would it feel like to be cruising at 37,000 feet when World War III breaks out?

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

Book Review: Life of the Party: Poems by Olivia Gatwood (2019)

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Law & Order: SVU meets the Button Poetry YouTube channel

four out of five stars

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

If you have a son, how will you love him?
She is pacing the living room,
while the Thanksgiving Day Parade
plays behind her, a montage of inflated
cartoon bodies, floating slow
down 6th Avenue, smiles
painted onto their faces.

I consider not responding.
I consider explaining that I can love him and not trust him. I consider saying that I won’t
love him at all. Just to scare her. Instead, I say,

If I am ever murdered, like,
body found in a ditch, mouth
stuffed with dirt, stocking
around my neck, identified
by my toenails, please don’t go
looking for a guilty woman.

(“My Grandmother Asks Why I Don’t Trust Men”)

16. Laughter is not about humor,
it is about acknowledging a shared joy.
Laughter is about bonding.

EXAMPLE: WHEN I HEAR MEN LAUGHING,
I DO NOT ENTER THE ROOM.
I CRAWL HOME IN THE DARK.

(“Mans/Laughter”)

Aileen, I wish I could’ve taken you there.
It’s too late now. I wish you hadn’t hurt all those people.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know you hate it when I say that,
what I meant was that I wish all those people hadn’t hurt you.

(“Aileen Wuornos Isn’t My Hero”)

In the Author’s Note, Gatwood writes at length about her obsession with true crime shows, and the resulting – if paradoxical – feelings of fear and control they instilled in her:

I want to believe that the motivation behind most true crime is to bring to light the epidemic of women’s murder worldwide, to use nonfiction storytelling as a method of illuminating a clear pattern. But I don’t believe that. If that were true, it wouldn’t focus on crimes committed by random strangers, and instead would reveal the much more common perpetrators: men whom these women knew and often loved. If true crime were truly mission-oriented, it would focus on the cases that are not explicitly perverse and shocking, the ones that are familiar, fast, and happen at home. If true crime sought to confront the reality of violence against women, it would not rely so heavily on fear-mongering narratives of cisgender white girls falling victim to men of color.

Life of the Party: Poems is a reaction to these shows, and the culture that spawned them. The same culture that taught her to fear men, and her own body. These poems are about crimes true and fictionalized; about violence against women, in all its forms: physical, sexual, psychological; violences so conspicuous that they are impossible to ignore, as well as the “smaller” insults called microaggressions. Gatwood identifies and names these things, embodies them in her verse, gives them life in her words – all so that she may eviscerate them with the same.

Gatwood’s poems are at at once stirring and despondent; beautiful and cutting (not that the two are mutually exclusive!); fierce and feminist AF. Life of the Party is both a memoir and a cultural history; some of the loveliest and most heartbreaking poems are those which incorporate actual headlines from real-life cases: “Murder of a Little Beauty” (JonBenet Ramsey), “Body Count: 13” (the West Mesa murders). Aileen Wuornos is present in so many of these verses, even when she is just passing through, like a visitor in the night.

There are odes to the women of Long Island (“when I show them the knife I carry in my purse, tell me it’s not big enough”), bitchface (“resting bitch face, they call you but there is nothing restful about you, no”), unpaid electricity bills, and a lover’s left hand. Woven throughout the named poems is an untitled, serialized piece about Gatwood’s babysitter, the cool older girl who, by book’s end, either overdosed – or was killed by her abuser, depending on your POV.

Yet, as bleak and depressing as many of these poems are/can be, Life of the Party ends on hopeful notes: “All of the Missing Girls are Hanging Out Without Us,” having a grand old time (surprise!) and, “In the Future, I Love the Nighttime,” thanks to the virus that did away with all the violent-minded men in the world. (Turns out the apocalypse is just peachy!)

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

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Feels like déjà vu.

three out of five stars

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

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

– forever wandering lost & wandless.

you are sad now.
you are not sad forever.

this is me
pressing
my finger
to the sand,

delicately
drawing
your name
there,

& then
stepping back
so i can
watch

you
as you’re
finally
carried away.

– goodbye.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: 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.

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Book Review: Wild Embers by Nikita Gill (2017)

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

“She is alone. | And oh | how brilliantly she shines.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and interpersonal violence.)

We are the blood
of the witches
you thought were dead.

We carry witchcraft in our bones
whilst the magic still sings
inside our heads.

When the witch hunters
imprisoned our ancestors
when they tried to burn the magic away.

Someone should have
warned them
that magic cannot be tamed.

Because you cannot burn away
what has always
been aflame.

(“Witch”)

It is the law of the universe
that even ghosts understand
as long as they matter to someone
they still exist and in your heart
they stand.

(“Ghost Story”)

I really wanted to love this collection of poetry more than I did – although this isn’t to suggest that I didn’t enjoy it. Nikita Gill’s poetry is powerful, passionate, and fiercely feminist. With Wild Embers, she fans the flames of rebellion – against a culture so steeped in misogyny and sexism that it’s taken as the norm, the default, the air we breathe – and at a time when we need it, desperately. Whether reimaging sexist fairy tales and myths or challenging abusers – including her own – Gill’s words cut deep, to the bone. They’re also accessible and satisfying, in a way that poetry isn’t always.

Yet she often employs similar imagery and themes, such that the poems start to feel a little repetitive by the final quarter of the book. Less might be more here. Also, I wish she’d taken the idea of giving each part its own unique theme and run with it a little harder. The first section is so clearly about humanity’s relationship to the cosmos, the starstuff that coalesces in our atoms and spirits … and yet, with the exception of parts III and VI (fairy tales and mythology, respectively), she mostly abandons themes (or at least more apparent ones) after so skillfully priming her audience for them.

Overall, though, it’s a valuable collection of poetry, raw and full of hope and resistance.

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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 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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