Book Review: Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan (2019)

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

“What would Kathleen Hanna do?”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for depictions of misogyny, racism, and homophobia.)

I knew what the Riot Grrrl ideals were: Support girls around you. Don’t be jealous of other girls. Avoid competition with them. Being loud and crying in public were valid ways of being a girl. Being a girl didn’t mean being weak or bad. Claiming your sexuality, no matter what that meant to you, was a good thing. And the revolution was open to anyone.

You can tell a lot about a person from how they act during group projects.

The year is 1992, and Athena and Helen Graves are about to start their sophomore and freshman years at St. Ann’s Regional Diocesan Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s not that they come from a particularly religious home; their mom is an ultra-liberal Classics professor in Eugene, Oregon (soon to be NYC), and while their dad did attend a Jesuit school, he cares more about the social justice side of Roman Catholicisms than, say, slut shaming and lower taxes. But St. Ann’s – aka “the School that Suburban White Flight Built” – is arguably “better” than the local high school, so there you go.

Whereas Helen, with her wholesome good looks and active membership in the school’s pro-life club, fits right in at St. Ann’s, Athena and her bestie Melissa are more like unicorns: purple-haired, sparkly-maned, Riot Grrrl unicorns. Melissa sticks right the heck out, and it’s not just because she’s one of a handful of students of color (half-Cajun, half-Vietnamese, a rumor once circulated that “she was the daughter of a Vietnamese prostitute and an American G.I. who was then sold to her current parents for fifty dollars”). She’s an unapologetic feminist who’s vocal about her political beliefs…and to call them “unpopular” at St. Ann’s is the understatement of the year. Over the summer, when Operation Rescue descended upon Baton Rouge as part of its “Summer of Purpose” (fictional as far as I can tell, but firmly rooted in actual historical events), Melissa volunteered as a clinic escort. Athena is a little more low-key about her politics, but she tries to live by Riot Grrrl ideals.

A few weeks into the school year, Helen becomes the latest victim of St. Ann’s rumor mill. Supposedly she slept with an unabashedly racist MAGA prototype over the summer, became pregnant, and (*gasp*) had an abortion – with the help of Athena and Melissa, of course. Athena’s pretty sure she can trace this lie back to its source: Leah Sullivan, captain of the cheerleading squad, and girlfriend of her other BFF (well maybe scratch that second “F”), QB Sean Mitchell. Like all of Leah’s best lies, this one both plays to people’s preexisting prejudices, and contains a kernel of truth. It’s also designed to take all three of them down, especially considering the school’s strict pro-life policy. Never mind that Athena and Helen were both visiting their mom in Eugene all summer.

Even though she abhors Helen’s holier than though, extra-judgey politics, Athena wants to protect her sister. How can they – and the unexpected allies they eventually find at St. Ann’s – do this without leaning into the stigma surrounding abortion? Without sinking to Leah’s level? Without getting expelled from school?

Rebel Girls has a lot going on, and I loved like 97% of it. The ’90s setting – which makes this historical fiction, I guess, but having graduated in ’96, that term feels like a punch to the left boob – is rad and evokes all sorts of bittersweet nostalgic feels. (Even as I took umbrage to Athena’s dismissal of Prince as too middle grade, or Nirvana as too popular. Great things are great no matter how many people recognize their greatness!) Listening to Athena bemoan her lack of access to Bikini Kill cassettes, on the other hand, felt so adorably quaint and reaffirmed my appreciate for the internet, Facebook be damned. At times it felt like Keenan went a little heavy on the “What would Kathleen Hanna do?” notes, but those feels were few and far between.

Athena’s emphasis on taking the high road proved a little harder to swallow. It reminded me of Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” moment at the DNC…which was hecka inspiring, but has never really worked out for the left. I’m not saying you resort to slut shaming and misogyny to fight slut shaming and misogyny, but maybe rethink your blanket aversion to rolling around in dirt, especially if said dirt isn’t mired in any isms.

All the characters are well fleshed out – even villain Leah, whose possible motivations Keenan explores in detail. The relationship between Athena and Helen is complex and fraught, and it’s interesting to watch how it changes and evolves thanks to their involvement in the “Gang of Five.” Even though they attend a Catholic school, the teachers and staff are not caricatures, uniform in opinion; there’s a lot of nuance there as well. I especially loved Sister Catharine (no surprise there!). I also appreciated how Keenan couched this personal drama in historical political events; the girls’ protests become a flashpoint for a larger debate about abortion restrictions in Louisiana.

The subplots are all engaging too; in addition to abortion and sexism, Keenan addresses racism and homophobia as well.

Rebel Girls is a solid addition to the growing body of abortion fiction, not to mention nostalgic ’90s narratives.

(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: After the Flood by Kassandra Montag (2019)

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

A promising premise that does not deliver.

two out of five stars

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

This is how the water takes us.

DNF at 76%.

Thirty-something Myra lives in a future that could one day very well be our own. Flooding fueled by climate change gradually claimed the coasts before she was born; and, when she just a young woman, the Hundred Year flood reached her doorstep – the plains of Nebraska – sweeping her mother away in a tidal wave. The family – her migrant husband, Jacob; daughter Row; and Grandfather – retreated to the second floor of the house, as Grandfather raced against time to build them a boat on which to navigate this terrifying new world. But before he could finish, Jacob fled with a neighbor, taking Row with him…and leaving a pregnant Myra behind.

It’s been seven years since Row was kidnapped. Without Grandfather and his boat, Bird, Myra would not have survived. Grandfather is gone, though, having passed mercifully in his sleep; and if she and her younger daughter are to survive, Myra has reached the dispiriting conclusion that she must abandon her search for Row. However, a chance encounter with a raider suggests that Row may not only be alive, but in imminent danger: held captive on a colony in Greenland and at risk of being sent to a breeding ship (it’s exactly what it sounds like).

Bird is too small to make such as a treacherous passing – but the Sedna, which comes to their aid, is just perfect. Can Myra convince its inhabitants to make the journey? Should she? Is it okay to sacrifice their lives for that of their daughter? To sacrifice Pearl for Row?

If this sounds like Mad Max: Fury Road, but with too much water instead of not enough, then you understand my initial excitement. I devoured the first 25% or so of the book; the early world building is promising:

We still called oceans by their former names, but it was really one giant ocean now, littered with pieces of land like crumbs fallen from the sky.

The remnants of humanity either live in crowded slums wedged into the sides of what used to be mountain ranges, but are now more like islands; the rest risk weather, starvation, dehydration, and pirate-raiders (the descendants of private military outfits, natch) at sea. Human trafficking is prevalent, as is colonizing, now with the biological warfare!

Sadly, After the Flood breaks down like this: 40% pointless whining about ethical dilemmas (Myra’s gonna Myra, am I right?), 30% boat talk, 10% cringy sex scenes, and maybe, generously, 20% intriguing world building and poetic prose about the natural world.

The characters are either unlikable or not fully fleshed out (or both) – and when I say “unlikable,” I don’t mean in that love to hate ’em, Gone Girl kind of way. Unlikable characters can be super-entertaining, but this is not the case here. Myra is unrelentingly irritating; her internal conflicts are dull and repetitive, and the umbrage she takes at discovering that other people also have their own, sometimes hidden agendas would be laughable if it wasn’t so annoyingly self-absorbed and hypocritical. (Pot, meet kettle.) She flies into a rage with Daniel even though her deceptions are arguably worse; he’s just floating along in the wake of destruction she’s creating in her quest to rescue Row.

Daniel is wholly uninteresting, and Pearl is more of a brat than is reasonable in this world; idk how she could act like that and survive for so long. And for all her whining about how Myrna doesn’t listen to her…didn’t they just spend the better part of a decade trapped on a small boat together, with only each other (and, for a brief period, one other person) for company?

Abran, the captive of the Sedna, is not believable as a leader at all. He’s a bossy, short-tempered alcoholic without the stones to make the hard decisions. I can’t see anyone following him from one Grateful Dead concert to the next, let alone across the vast, empty ocean. Montag forces him into a love triangle with Daniel and Myrna and the whole thing is just yawn.

It hurts to see what could have been an engaging and prescient story go down like this, but it is what it is. Honestly, I’m puzzled at all the glowing early reviews. Were we reading the same book?

(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: Stay by Lewis Trondheim & Hubert Chevillard (2019)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

A story about grief and loss that’s curiously devoid of emotion.

two out of five stars

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

Fabienne and her fiancé Roland are on the first day of a week-long vacation abroad when he’s killed in a freak accident – decapitated (and rather cleanly, mind you) by an errant metal sign on a windy day. (I know.) In a haze of denial and trauma, Fabienne decides to continue on with the meticulously planned itinerary Roland made for them, rather than accompany his body back home. She blows off his brother Alan and misses the funeral. She goes to the beach, dines alone, and gazes apathetically at happy couples and celebrating families.

At some point this clearly not quite right tourist catches the eye of a local shop owner, the eccentric but mostly kind-hearted Paco. (I say mostly because he tosses a jar of his own pee on a loud-mouthed but obviously neglected dog, so there’s that.) He tries to cheer her up with homemade meals and picnics, but is almost painfully slow on the uptake: even though he collects scrapbooks of unusual deaths, it isn’t until he spots a text on her cell phone that he puts two and two together.

Fabienne blows Paco off, and then they make up. Eventually Fabienne seems to achieve some sort of inner peace or resolution; she finishes the vacation and heads home.

And…that’s it.

As a new-ish widow myself, my interest in this comic book is self evident. It also seemed like a delightfully weird story. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel any sort of emotional connection to Fabienne. The story is flat, detached, dispassionate. There are no feels to be felt. Everything – or rather nothing – happens, and that’s that.

(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: Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas (2019)

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Like World War Z, but with aliens!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence and mental health issues, including suicide.)

In 1977, the whole world turned towards the stars. We wanted to believe there was intelligent life somewhere out there. And we hoped that if we could reach them, maybe they’d reach back. Voyager 1, this satellite dish with bristling antenna, was a message in a bottle. Our way of letting the galaxy know we existed. That we were out here if anyone wanted to find us.

Over the next forty years, the probe flew past Jupiter and Saturn before it drifted into the void, swallowed up by a silent universe. Or so we thought . . .

Truth is, our message didn’t go unheard.

The universe reached back and changed everything. Not with war or an invasion but with a whisper. Almost overnight, all that we knew transformed.

And I saw it happen.

I am not an incubator, but my head has become an executable.

On October 17, 2023, a rouge astronomer named Dahlia Mitchell unwittingly picks up a signal originating from farthest reaches of space. Rather than the sound of a dying star or an errant transmission from the breakroom microwave, Dahlia and her colleagues quickly realize that this signal is intentional, complex, and was most likely purposefully directed at earth by the members of an intelligent species. The signal is dubbed the “Pulse Code,” owing to its similarity to a computer code as opposed to, say, an attempt at communication or contact.

Before the president and her cabinet can formulate an action plan, the Pulse begins working its nerdy magic. Once received, the Pulse got right down to business, altering the brains of roughly 30% of the earth’s population. Initially, those affected experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. They saw, heard, felt, and tasted things others couldn’t, from electromagnetic radiation and ultraviolet colors, to the ultrasonic songs of mice and insects, and gravitational waves. One woman was able to taste things with her fingers, like a fly. Many claimed to be able to see ghosts.

Before long the Elevated, as they would be known, manifested enhanced cognitive abilities; they could “calculate new forms of mathematics, develop innovative computer algorithms, uncover unseen biological processes, and create unimaginable works of art.”

In the end, they simply vanished – pulled, perhaps, into that other dimension they saw, overlaid on top of our own. Yet many – as much as 15% of the infected, by some accounts – succumbed to the changes prior to the Finality, their bodies too weak to withstand the demands placed on them.

In a scant five years, the global population dropped from 7.7 billion to 2.5 billion. In addition to the 3 billion people killed or disappeared by the Ascendant – aka our alien overlords – billions more were murdered in the resulting violence and chaos.

Now it’s five years on, and a reporter named Keith Thomas is trying to make sense of the Pulse Code. Disclosure: How One Woman’s Discovery Led to the Greatest Event in Human History is the result. Thomas weaves together original interviews with historical documents, police transcripts, diary entries, and illicit files in order to deconstruct the Pulse and its aftermath.

So this is a really fun read, and comparisons to World War Z are spot on. I enjoy the change of pace that faux nonfiction books constructed of various files offer, and Dahlia Black is no exception. It’s kind of like World War Z in this way, but with aliens! Or like Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files trilogy, but with a whimper instead of a bang. (The latter has giant weaponized alien robots, so there’s that.)

I had a lot of, um, fun following Thomas on this ride, as he imagines what a world suddenly devoid of more than half its population might look like. (“Fun” in scare quotes because many of the events outlined here are downright horrifying, particularly because they have happened in the past and will no doubt replicate themselves in the future.) Just take the reference to deepfakes – which I just learned about on an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee a few short months ago – used four years from now to foment mob violence against the Elevated.

There’s also a great conspiracy theory subplot that adds another layer of intrigue and general gruesomeness to the story. (Yes, I’m talking about the girl with two spinal columns.)

Dahlia Black is a great summer read that would also make a great summer blockbuster. Just don’t do it like Brad Pitt’s World War Z, okay. That shit was disappointing.

P.S. I also await the comic book adaptation.

(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 Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Like, are we even human?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019)

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Feminist horror, yes please and thank you, may I have some more?

four out of five stars

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

The Tox didn’t just happen to us. It happened to everything. […]

The way it happened is that the woods got it first. That’s what I think, anyway. Even before the wilderness reached inside us, it was seeping into the earth. The trees were growing taller, new saplings springing up faster than they had any right to. And it was fine; it was nothing worth noticing, until I looked out the window and couldn’t see the Raxter I knew anymore. That morning two girls tore each other’s hair out over breakfast with an animal viciousness, and by afternoon the Tox had hit us.

“We’ve been studying them,” Paretta says, crouching down in front of me. “The irises, and the blue crabs too. All of this is something we’re calling the Raxter Phenomenon.”

A phenomenon. Not a sickness, not a disease. It burns through my heart—that’s the word I’ve been looking for—but there’s something about the way she says it. The name too familiar, too easy on her tongue.

“Did they teach you about Raxter Blues at school?” she asks. “About what makes them special?”

I nod.

You mean the lungs

“And the gills,” Paretta says. “It’s pretty amazing, right? So it can survive anywhere. And I think it’s pretty amazing, too, that you girls are part of it now.”

Part of it. The way our bodies alter and bend. The way our fingers darken just before we die, pure black spreading up to our knuckles.

I think I have been a problem all my life. Here I am where problems go. First Raxter and now here, and I have always been heading here, haven’t I, haven’t I. Too bright and too bored and something missing, or perhaps something too much there.

The several hundred tweens and teens who attend the Raxter School for Girls run the gamut. Some, like Hetty Chapin, were admitted on scholarship when her father, a Navy man, was stationed at nearby Camp Nash. Others are warehoused there by parents who didn’t know how to deal with them; this would describe Hetty’s bestie Byatt. And then there’s Reese, the third point in this particular triumvirate (just one of many cliques at Raxter), who grew up on the island and whose father, Mr. Harker, works as a groundskeeper and general caretaker at Raxter.

Aside from the occasional tour group, he’s also the only cis man to walk Raxter Island on the regular. (That we know of! Dun dun duuuun!)

Raxter was already home to several biological anomolies – the Raxter irises, which bloom all year long; and the Blues, crabs that sport both gills and lungs for all-terrain survival – so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Tox hit, altering the landscape of Raxter in ways both horrifying and wondrous. The flora took over, transforming Raxter into a forested backdrop from so many Grimm fairy tales. The nonhuman inhabitants grew to monstrous sizes. Predators became vicious and unpredictable, and even herbivores like deers sprouted canines better suited to ripping flesh from bones than leaves from trees.

And the girls.

The girls were either reclaimed or transformed by the wild, depending on your point of view; made a part of Raxter’s savage, shifting ecosystem, or else metamorphosed into something new. Something better. By which I mean something better suited to its environment; something with more favorable odds of survival. Their old environment or new one, you ask? Both. Neither. All of the above.

When the Tox hit, it changed everyone, though not in the same ways. One of Hetty’s eyes fused shut. Byatt grew a second spine and, eventually, her voice became a weapon capable of inflicting great violence. Reese’s skin turned silver and scaly, one of her hands grew lizard claws, and her hair took on an ethereal aura. Some girls grew teeth inside of them and coughed them up at night; one started to feel a second heartbeat in her chest. Blisters, boils, bruises, sores, scars. Webbed fingers and gills. No one bothers to hide their anomalies anymore; what’s the point?

Most of the adults dropped dead, save for Ms. Welch and the Headmistress. Mr. Harker started acting erratic and then disappeared into the woods. Some of the girls succumbed as well; the rest live in constant dread of the next flare-up.

Raxter Island is under quarantine; the school, already surrounded by an imposing iron fence, has become a prison/sick ward. Already isolated, internet service to Raxter was cut off pretty quickly. The regular supply drops help, but it seems that there’s never enough food to go around. Camp Nash, along with the Navy and CDC, implores the girls to stay alive and wait for help to come.

But it’s been a year and a half. How long can they hold on?

Spoiler alert: not much longer. When Byatt falls ill – by which I mean extremely ill, sicker than the others and in such bad shape that she cannot get around on her own – and is sent up to the super-secretive infirmary wing of the school, it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring everything to a head. Everyone at Raxter misses someone, or something. The question becomes, to what depths are they willing to sink to get it?

Wilder Girls is such a great story – true, edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle reading. The characters are complex and compelling; the dynamics between Hetty-Byatt and Hetty-Reese and Hetty-Byatt-Reese are fascinating, and there’s a really lovely f/f romance in here to boot. The atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and the adults make for great villains (or antiheroes, again depending on your POV). The writing is a thing of beauty, and the subversive feminist elements really make the story shimmer and sparkle (and assail you with painful insights). This is a memorable piece of feminist horror with a dystopian twist, and I can’t wait to see what Power does next.

Honestly, the only downside (and reason for the four-star rating) is the ending, which leaves things a little open-ended for me. Then again, wrapping things up with a shiny red bow would have felt cheap and dishonest, so there’s that.

I won’t say more for fear of spoiling things (it’s really best to go in cold I think), but the hype is real. Badass ladies (and male allies), you want to read this book.

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

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

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

This DNF hurt like h*ck.

two out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (2019)

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

“The Midwich cuckoos have nothing on us.”

four out of five stars

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

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

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

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 10th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

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

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019)

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

Dear James,

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

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

“So how do I find my words?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love that Helaine is not a stereotype.

I love that El is an atheist.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

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

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

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

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters (2019)

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Not one of Winters’s best.

two out of five stars

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

I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread. My poet in the black frock coat kneels in prayer beneath the windows in the ceiling that bathe his head in a weak winter light, bronzing his brown curls and the back of his neck. He bends his face toward the floorboards, toward the crypt down below him, and I will the spirits of the dead beneath him to whisper a song.

“I’m the best part of you, Edgar Poe.”

— 2.5 stars. DNF at 58%. —

DNFs are never fun, but this one really hurt. Poe was perhaps my first literary crush, and I’ve enjoyed several of Cat Winters’s previous books, so The Raven’s Tale seemed like a slam dunk for me. But when, reclining on the floor of my library, reading about Poe’s angsty teen years, I found my attention wandering to books I’d already devoured sitting right there next to me head, begging for another go, I knew it just wasn’t meant to be. My heart had already moved on, even if my brain was too stubborn to accept it. (That came the next day, when my copy of Sawkill Girls arrived at the public library.)

Whereas most books about Edgar Allan Poe concentrate on his teen years, Winters goes back a little further. Here, Poe is seventeen years old, on the verge of escaping to the University of Virginia, a three day’s drive from his philandering, abusive, and cruel foster father, John Allan. Allan has been pressuring Edgar to forgo his artistic pursuits in favor of something more profitable – and is not above using his wealth as leverage. The son of traveling performers, Edgar longs to fit in with his “high-born” peers. In love with – and secretly engaged to – a young woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, Poe is torn between his muse and his need to belong.

In this case, Poe’s “muse” is a living, breathing creature given corporeal form by Winters. She appears to him as a teenage girl: a girl with hair the color of a raven’s feathers, a girl who drips shadows and leaves footprints of coal, whose eyes burn like embers and who inspires in Poe his most deliciously macabre and grotesque thoughts. But can Edgar learn to nurture that which he fears?

The plot sounds amazing, but in execution it just feels tedious. The first half of the book mostly consists of Eleanor – as Poe christens his muse – chasing Edgar around Virginia like a spurned lover: “Edgar you can’t escape me, this is who you are, why won’t you commit yourself to me!!!!” Meanwhile Edgar just wants to pass for one of the good ole boys. Yawn.

There are some pretty great things here, like Eleanor’s necklace made of molars; Rosalie Poe’s admission that she has a muse (want to know more please); and the similar ‘secret life’ of the Allan family’s slave, Judith (need to know more please). Sadly, though, it just wasn’t enough to keep me going. *emo face*

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

Book Review: The Stillwater Girls by Minka Kent (2019)

Friday, April 12th, 2019

An enjoyable read, despite the implausible ending.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues.)

The ramshackle, one-room cabin nestled deep within Stillwater Forest is the only home nineteen-year-old Wren knows. Here she lives with Mama, and her younger sisters Sage and Evie. Her father and older sister Imogen are buried under the willow tree out back, having both died when Wren was just a baby.

Wren knows little of the “real” world – the one Mama has fought hard to protect her from. She’s never seen a television set, listened to recorded music, or experienced the joys of indoor plumbing. She can read and write, though her library is closely scrutinized by Mama. But she is is content enough. And why not? The world beyond their modest homestead may as well be gone, wiped off the map, for Mama’s apocalyptic descriptions of it.

So when young Evie falls sick and Mama flees with her into the forest in search of help, Wren knows it’s serious. When they fail to return – after fifteen days, twenty-eight, sixty-three – and with their supplies dwindling and winter barreling down on them, Wren is terrified to consider the possibilities. Yet it’s only when a stranger breaks into their cabin, seemingly in search of Mama, that Wren can will herself to act.

Meanwhile, thirty-something Nicolette exists in what may as well be another ‘verse. A wealthy heiress married to a celebrated photographer, on the surface Nic has it all. It’s only her closest friends who know the truth: Nic struggles with seasonal depression (although, unlike the rest of us plebes, she’s able to drop everything and spend three months in Florida every year. Oh, to have cash monies!), which was exacerbated by an emergency hysterectomy in her late 20s. Unable to bear children, she convinced her husband Brant to apply as a foster home. But when she finds a picture of an unfamiliar young girl in Brant’s sock drawer – sporting his same sea-green eyes and deep dimples – and discovers that he’s been siphoning money from her trust fund, Nic worries that even a child could not save their crumbling marriage.

The lives of these two women collide, altering each in unthinkable ways.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Stillwater Girls: it’s fast-paced, entertaining, and compulsively readable. Until Wren and Nic actually meet, I found it difficult to guess how their different narratives would intersect.

The main criticism I’ve seen from other reviewers is that the ending is eye-rollingly ridiculous…and it is. But I kind of don’t care? Like, this is such a breathless, easy read, and it came at a time when I was in desperate need of help out of reading slump (thanks, The Cassandra!), so I think this cushioned some of the disappointment over such an implausible twist.

Honestly, just don’t get your expectations up, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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

Book Review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields (2019)

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Hugely disappointing.

two out of five stars

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

This—the butchery, the dripping floor—was what kingdoms of men did to one another. We were no more than instruments of hatred.

DNF at 65%.

Mildred Groves has always been haunted by visions. Actually, “haunted” is the wrong word: as terrible and disturbing as her visions are, Mildred welcomes them, like an old friend or security blanket. They make her powerful. Different. Unique. Yet they also make her an outcast, a lightening rod, a target for bullies. Turns out that people don’t very much like hearing about the calamity that’s about to befall them.

Things come to a head not long after the death of her beloved father. At their riverside memorial Mildred pushes her mother into the water. After this she’s put on house arrest, of a sort: sentenced to take care of Mother, in all her failing health. An unemployed, friendless spinster at twenty-something. In Mildred’s quest to be the perfect daughter, her visions flee soon afterward. So when she has a prophecy that she will be employed at the newly built Hanford Research Center in Washington, helping to defeat Hitler, she eagerly plans her escape.

With her strong secretarial skills and unusual mind, Millie is quickly hired as physicist Dr. Phillip Hall’s secretary, where she’s privy to sensitive information about “the product” they’re developing at Hanford. Her escalating visions, accompanied by bouts of sleepwalking, tell her things, too: glimpses of bodies with the skin melted off, eyeballs oozing into nothing, a river choked with corpses. Yet when she questions the ethics of what they’re doing at Hanford – continuing to develop a nuclear weapon even after the surrender of the German forces – she’s dismissed as misguided, hysterical, or crazy. Or, worst of all: threatened with dismissal on mental health grounds, sending her straight back to Mother’s depressing and oppressive home in Omak.

Part historical fiction, part reimagining of the Greek myth of Cassandra, I thoroughly expected to love The Cassandra. Unfortunately, it’s just…not good.

As other reviewers have noted, the characters are all one-dimensional – especially the abusive Mother and sister Martha. They’re such caricatures that I wondered for awhile if Mildred might be an unreliable narrator, but I really didn’t get any confirmation of this in my reading. Like, Mother deserved to take a tumble into the Okanogan River, and then some. And yet there’s no indication that anyone sees Mother and Martha’s treatment of Mildred as wrong. Which in itself seems wrong. It’s all just really weird and frustrating.

Ditto the rampant sexism, which is certainly appropriate for the era – but, in order to make it somewhat bearable, we need a character who questions, challenges, stands up against it. A contrast or aspiration. Mildred seems the obvious choice, and yet. Nada.

I struggled with DNF’ing this book more than most; even though I hated every minute of it, I found the plot interesting enough to want to know how the story ends. The final nail in the coffin came as I was perusing Goodreads reviews, and saw that Millie is brutally raped at the 70% point. I was 65% in, and that was it for me. I don’t appreciate rape scenes to begin with, and I certainly wasn’t willing to sit through one for this story.

I usually love the unpopular books – especially feminist scifi written by women – but sadly I’m with the haters here. Hard pass.

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

Book Review: Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner (2019)

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

“We may not have forever together, but we have right now.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues.)

I don’t know who watches Midnite Matinee or why. I mean, I have some idea from letters we get. Here’s my guess: it’s lonely people. People who don’t have a lot going on in their lives, because they have time to sit at home on a Saturday night (that’s when we air in most markets, including our home market) and flip through channels. People who aren’t rich, because if they were, they’d have more entertainment options. People who aren’t hip, because if they were, they’d seek out higher quality entertainment options. People who don’t truly love to be frightened, because if they did, they’d find actual scary movies. People who prefer their awful movies straight, with no commentary, because otherwise they’d watch old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. People who still write letters. It’s a very niche crowd. Most of all, I think it’s people who love to be reminded that sometimes you do your best and you come up short, but there’s still a place in the world for people like that. People like them.

Delia

You don’t always know at the time when you’re experiencing one of those random memories you’ll carry all your life. When nothing momentous happened other than driving a little too fast in the direction of Florida, at dusk, with your best friend by your side and, at your back, a guy who’s really good at kissing you. Still, you remember it until the day you die. But this time I know.

Josie

Delia Wilkes and Josie Howard are best friends, soon-to-be-graduates, and local Jackson, Tennessee celebrities (okay, so I use that term loosely). Delilah Darkwood and Rayne Ravenscroft – as they are otherwise known – host Midnite Matinee, a campy public access show that screens terrible B-rated horror films culled from the depths of obscurity (and the ’80s, or so one would assume), performing cheesy skits before, after, and during. Though it’s what brought them together, the show means very different things to each young woman: for Josie, it’s a doorway into a career in tv; for Delia, it’s a way of reaching out to her absentee father, who abandoned Delia more than a decade before, leaving her family in ruin. The tapes she diligently combs through every week? Belonged to her dad, the man formerly known as Dylan Wilkes.

With the end of high school barreling down on them, Delia and Josie have plenty of tough decisions to make – not the least of which involves the future of Midnite Matinee. Josie’s parents are leaning on her hard to enroll in Knoxville, so she can take that Food Network internship her mom lined up for her. But moving away from Jackson will mean leaving Delilah Darkwood and Rayne Ravenscroft – and Delia herself – behind. And then there’s Lawson, the handsome MMA fighter who’s slowly but surely worming his way into Josie’s heart.

The girls hatch a plan to ‘take Midnite Matinee to the next level,’ involving a road trip to Orlando, a horror con, and an eccentric Hollyweird type name Jack Devine. Spoiler alert: things go sideways, as they tend to do.

So Jeff Zentner based Delia and Josie (or, perhaps more accurately, Delilah and Rayne) on two very real people: Marlena Midnite and Robyn Graves, the hosts of Midnite Mausoleum. He also volunteers at Tennessee Teens Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, working with aspiring musicians. These facts are relevant because Zentner does a pretty rad job portraying female friendships (and cheesy late night horror shows), probably based in no small part on his own real life experiences.

I really love Delia and Josie together; their banter is fun and authentic, and Bufie makes a pawsome sidekick. (The twins I could do without, though the commentary on Basset hounds and beagles and what constitutes a valid opinion is entertaining and relevant as heck.) There are a lot of really great one-liners in here; to wit: “The leather cuff is the fedora of the wrist.”

Typically Zentner writes pathos with a little bit of humor sprinkled in; Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is the inverse. While I think he’s at his strongest in the former (and the heavy scenes are indeed my favorite bits here), the latter is still entertaining too.

Josie and Delia’s looming graduation really took me back to my own senior year in high school (and then college), and not always in a comfortable way. I empathize with both girls, in different ways: I both identified with Delia’s “sad sack” outlook on life (depression knows depression) and felt the push-pull conflict tearing Josie to pieces in my very marrow. (Like I said, PATHOS is Zentner’s JAM.) The bit about Buford in the last few pieces simply destroyed me. (Shadow, I miss you so much, my sweet babygirl.)

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to binge watch. I need some laughs, okay.

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

Book Review: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (2018)

Friday, January 25th, 2019

“It’s like death and toffee.”

five out of five stars

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

“Russia is starting to mine the solar system, and Americans are going to be getting their unicorn horns polished and designing children with claws and rainbow auras.”

He is passing from his own world into another, where humans and gravity hold sway. Up there, he isn’t Snake. He is only Chimera624, property of the Blessed Cures Consortium. If I were to examine the Consortium’s books, would I find myself listed as property too?

When you’d read Dickens, and Dickinson, and you’d read selections of Greek mythology and stories by a woman called Brontë and even a few by a man called Vonnegut—or at least, when you’d read the parts of those books that made it through the Proto Authority’s redaction process—you sometimes thought about a different sort of life.

This was, in a way, the beginning of a fairy tale.

This book began as a thought that one might variously describe as cynical or realistic (personally, my vote is on “all of the above”). While researching medical and technological advances on the horizon, Dayton’s initial reaction was the obvious: amazaballs! (Yes, it is 2019 and I am still using that word. Sue me.) This was rapidly supplanted by the more pessimistic: “We will definitely find some way of messing this up in spectacular fashion.” The six stories in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful exist in the liminal space between the two, as helpfully illustrated by this chart in the Author’s Note:

(Not gonna lie, I loled.)

The stories take place in the vague and unspecified future: both not-so-distant, and many generations down the line (in the twilight of humanity, you might even say). While the tech is indeed amazing – from drive-ins that combine on-screen images with pictures on each car’s windshield to create a 3D experience, to the eradication of inherited diseases and body mods ranging from moving tattoos to wings and horns and gills and flippers – it kind of takes a backseat to how society chooses to interpret, respond to, and utilize these gifts. Unsurprisingly, theological and geopolitical rifts form. While many people welcome life-saving medical advances (cross-species organ harvesting; the merging of organic and robotic parts; gene manipulation to eliminate disease), the more frivolous cosmetic procedures (see: wings and horns and gills and flippers) prove controversial. Sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear-cut.

In Part 1: Matched Pair (“A few years from now…”), we meet Evan Weary on the eve of his sister Julia’s death, and his resurrection (of sorts). The semi-identical twins were born with the same genetic disease, which caused stunted growth and gradual organ failure in their too-short lives. Julia lies in a coma, while Evan prepares to accept (or “cannibalize,” depending on your POV) a myriad of her organs so that he might have a chance.

Part 2: St. Ludmilla (“A few more years from now…”) introduces us to Milla (so named for the titular saint), whose broken body was pieced together with a “meshline” after a devastating car accident. Because bigotry against “anyone who’d been severely damaged and then put back together” is on the rise, Milla downplays the fallout. But when Gabriel, the guy she’d been crushing on for years, discovers her secret, the consequences are … let’s just say deliciously felicitous. (Is it terrible that I wanted her to push him?)

In Part 3: The Reverend Mr. Tad Tadd’s Love Story (“Let’s leap ahead a little more…”), we learn a little more about Tad Tadd (never trust a guy with two first names!). Along with the tech, Tadd is the one character who remains a constant thread in all six stories. Tadd is an evangelical preacher who’s a hybrid of Jim Jones and Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church fame). As a young man, he railed against altering our bodies in any way that would make them less “human” – even upon penalty of death. But when his wife and young son are killed at one of his protests (and, let’s face it, it’s hard not to root for the Ethiopian “mob”), Tad does a 180…but in a way that still manages to be self-serving and does absolutely nothing to help his “loved” ones. Fast-forward decades, maybe even a century, and the man has several pairs of multi-colored (think: tentacles) and extra eyes on the sides of his head. Jump ahead even more, and the man is God. But even gods can fall. And I’d getting ahead of myself.

Part 4: Eight Waded (“A lot of time has passed…”) mostly takes place underwater, where our anti-hero Alexios lives. Created to his parents’ specs by Genetic Radiance and deemed a failure, young Alexios was given “employment” as a chimera wrangler at the lab’s sister facility, The Blessed Cures Consortium. Here he defends the company’s property – with the help of a dolphin pod, no less – and lures unsuspecting manatees to their repeated torture:

Chimera. It means a living thing that contains tissue from two or more distinct organisms. Humans have used pigs and sheep and even rats to grow human organs cheaply and safely. But manatees are so much larger, and their lumbering ways and gentle attitudes so ideal to peacefully cultivating alien tissue, that my employer, the Blessed Cures Consortium, chose them as far more perfect chimeras than lowly pigs. Also, they can hide manatees underwater and leave their competitors guessing.

Chimera.
Or, switched around:
Ah, crime.

A perfect job for an eleven-year-old with a big brain and no empathy. (Though, let’s face it, the kid’s as much as slave as the sea creatures.) I especially love that Dayton chose manatees to be the “living organ tanks”; unlike pigs and sheeps, manatees – with their chubby bodies and docile demeanor – are universally beloved. They are cute and cuddly and worthy of consideration and compassion; certain to arouse outrage when mistreated. Yet they’re no different from pigs in the ways that matter: both are sentient, capable of feeling pain (and joy and love and grief, etc.) and suffering.

Anyway, the whole chapter reads like something out of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. So yes, I loved it.

Part 5: California (“We are definitely in the future now…”) takes us to Russia, where teenagers Jake and Kostya are on the run, having just escaped from a slave camp on an asteroid where they were being forced to mine platinum. Russia and America now (or will soon) sit on opposite sides of the “Genetic Curtain”: whereas Russia and its colonies prohibit the joining of human and nonhuman, America has yoyoed to the other extreme, allowing pretty much any and every mod devised by science, medically necessary or merely cosmetic. Yet Russia makes some exceptions, most notably for its prisoners and those deemed “deviant.”

And so it is that a cryogenically frozen California boy from a world long dead, and a Russian boy who just so happens to like kissing other boys, find their half-robot selves on a train barreling toward Siberia. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Part 6: Curiosities (“They have left us far behind…”) brings it all home on a reservation for “proto” humans located just outside of Denver. Teens Luck and Starlock are star-crossed lovers: with their contrasting white and black skins, there’s no chance these crazy kids are going to be Paired by the humans in charge. Not when genetic purity is the goal (ironic, coming from the people sporting antennae and wings!). But when the sentries fall – literally, their wings fall off and they wither to nothing – the Protos venture out beyond the confines of their electrified fence to see if there’s anything left in the big wide world. You know what they say about the meek inheriting the earth.

While I liked each story well enough, my enjoyment grew with each new chapter. It was really fascinating to watch Dayton’s world expand and grow, and to see how the pieces fit together. Whereas I’d give Part 1 a 3/5 – it’s rather short, and thus short on details – after that it was smooth sailing. Each chapter is a little longer than the one before it, so that they range from short stories (Part 1) to novellas (Part 5 and 6 each occupy about 25% of the book). The larger the ‘verse, the more captivated I became. I couldn’t stop reading, and yet I never wanted it to end.

(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 Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Friday, January 18th, 2019

A weirdly enchanting dystopia.

four out of five stars

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

They sleep like children, mouths open, cheeks flushed. Breathing as rhythmic as swells on a sea. No longer allowed in the rooms, their mothers and fathers watch them through double-paned glass. Isolation—that’s what the doctors call it: the separation of the sick from the well. But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?

[H]ow much quieter that ending would be, a whole world drowned in sleep, than all the other ways we have to fall.

The remote California college town of Santa Lora (population 12,106) is beset by two calamities one autumn in the not-so-distant future: an unrelenting drought, and a “sleeping sickness.” Sufferers collapse into a deep sleep, from which nothing can wake them. If not cared for with feeding tubes, heart monitors, physical therapy, and the like, the sleepers (as they are colloquially known) are apt to succumb to the disease. However, as the outbreak spreads from the college to the rest of the town, finding volunteers to tend to the sleepers becomes increasingly difficult. Especially as many of the carers drift into sleep as well.

We experience the initial days and long weeks of the epidemic through the eyes of various Santa Lorians: Sara and Libby Peterson, ages twelve and eleven, daughters of a survivalist dad who works as a janitor at the college, and a mother long dead of asthma-related complications. Ben and Annie, new parents and recent Brooklyn transplants who are employed as part-time visiting professors at the college. Nathaniel and Henry, senior professors who have been together since Nathaniel came out in middle age. Mei Liu, a Chinese-American freshman from San Diego who was hoping to turn over a new leaf at college – and “Weird” Matthew Baker, a fellow quarantinee from her floor. And Catharine, a psychiatrist flown in from LA to assess the situation in its earliest days.

The Dreamers isn’t so much a story about a viral outbreak, or the potential end of the world, as it is an exploration of human consciousness and the elusive nature of time. Walker has created a dystopia that’s surprisingly beautiful and enchanting; her prose is, in a word, mesmerizing. Likewise, The Dreamers is one of the more thoughtful and philosophical (would-be) apocalypse stories in recent memory.

Walker plays with time and reality in ways that are both frustrating (don’t believe everything you read!) and delightful. While they sleep the sleep of the dead, Walker’s sleepers dream: of other possible worlds (or all possible worlds), of the future, of days come and gone and yet to be. Scientists monitoring the patients’ brain activity are shocked by what they find: “there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep.” Some sleepers dream entire lifetimes into being. When, eventually, some of them begin to wake up, it is a little death of sorts. Who is to say which life is real, and which is the dream?

So yeah, The Dreamers is a bit of a mindfuck, in the best possible way.

Oh, and bonus points for the trolley problem reference. I don’t know if the author is one, but fans of The Good Place are likely to dig this story, I think (Matthew and Mei in particular).

(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: To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham & Harper Lee (2018)

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

A faithful adaptation, for better or worse.

three out of four stars

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

My feelings on this are conflicted and messy:

– How do you judge an adaptation of an existing work: on its own merits, or in its faithfulness to the source material? On the latter point, Fred Fordham’s adaptation is a definite success. His graphic novel adaptation is loyal to both the plot and tone of Harper Lee’s classic, and even plays on the nostalgia of the 1962 movie. Comic book Atticus is a dead ringer for Gregory Peck, and the Finch kids resemble their respective actors as well.

– My first experience with To Kill a Mockingbird was as a tween, well before I had to tools and knowledge to identify its more problematic aspects, chiefly the novel’s inherent racism. Revisiting the story as an adult, in a different format, was…jarring. Some of the racism is plainly evident, e.g., is it ever okay for a white writer to use the n-word, even if historically accurate? And isn’t it kind of gross for a story about Jim Crow racism and the lynching of a black man to center white voices? But there are so many layers to unpack, including liberal hero Atticus Finch’s racism. (If he existed today, Atticus might be one of people pleading for “civility” from both sides. Yuck.) I found myself cringing as much as tearing up.

And that’s kind of the crux of the matter, right? No doubt To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel will evoke all sorts of nostalgia (coupled with an irrational desire to protect and defend a cherished piece of one’s childhood), especially in white Americans; but don’t let that prevent you from engaging with the book critically.

fwiw, I’d love to see a reimagining of Harper Lee’s story told from Calpurnia or Helen Robinson’s perspective.

(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: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018)

Friday, December 28th, 2018

The end comes not with a bang, but with a whimper.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.)

— 2.5 stars —

“You know, when young people come over, sometimes some of them talk about the end of the world,” Aileen said, breaking the silence and snapping Evan out of his woolgathering. He looked up from the plaid pattern on the vinyl tablecloth to the old woman’s face.

“They say that this is the end of the world. The power’s out and we’ve run out of gas and no one’s come up from down south. They say the food is running out and that we’re in danger. There’s a word they say too — ah . . . pock . . . ah . . .”

“Apocalypse?”

“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world.”

Moon of the Crusted Snow starts out with a promising premise: how would the apocalypse play out on a remote Anishinaabe reservation in Canada, where food scarcity is common, connection to the grid is new and sometimes unreliable, and communication with the rest of the world is reliant on technology? Where the winter is long and punishing, especially without modern conveniences like electric heat and grocery stores? Throw in a migratory stream of white refugees looking to escape a failed society on land to which they’d previously banished this continent’s original habitants, and I’m in.

The result is actually kind of dull. The end of the world comes slowly, indeed. Told from the perspective of Evan Whitesky, a youngish father and employee of public works, the story unravels gradually, as the rez first loses satellite service (read: internet and tv), followed by cell service, satellite phones, and finally the power. Two of the nation’s young men, attending college in Gibson, return with eerie tales of a city abandoned. Then a stranger named Justin Scott, a sketchy paramilitary type, follows, effectively dividing the reservation into two camps.

This should be where the tension heightens – but really, most of the societal breakdown we see is of the bureaucratic variety. When people inevitably start freezing to death in the streets – and, later, their homes – I started to think that Scott’s ulterior motives would be unveiled…but no. The final reveal is, well, weird. Scott and his adherents are stealing bodies from the makeshift morgue and feasting on the dead. It’s almost presented in a way that…suggests the Anishinaabe are the only cultures in which cannibalism is taboo? Like Scott tricked his hapless followers into violating this sacred Anishinaabe code or something? But, like, white people aren’t rushing to eat human flesh either. That’s why movies like Alive hold such a curious fascination. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, and the cannibalism is just code for laziness, or taking the easy way out, in which case, sure. White privilege at its basest.

Either way, I almost DNF’ed it multiple times. But because I hate giving bad reviews, let me end on a positive note: Rice’s narrative provides a much-needed insight into reservation life.

(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 Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (2018)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

This is the alt history Confederacy story you’re looking for.

four out of five stars

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

The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.

The year is 1884, and the Union is still divided. In this alternate steampunk version of American history, the Union and Confederacy called a truce after eight years of war, in the Armistice of Third Antietam. Any states not already a part of the Union were abandoned, its enslaved citizens left to perish in bondage. As if the reality of slavery wasn’t (isn’t) horrific enough, Clark throws in an especially chilling detail, reminiscent of the Sunken Place: slave owners dose their human chattel with a drug called drapeto vapor, which zombifies them into compliance.

I’ve seen the tintype photographs from inside the Confederacy. Shadowy pictures of fields and factories filled with laboring dark bodies, their faces almost all covered up in big black gas masks, breathing in that drapeto vapor. It make it so the slaves don’t want to fight no more, don’t want to do much of nothing. Just work. Thinking about their faces, so blank and empty, makes me go cold inside.

Against this backdrop we meet a plucky AF heroine, thirteen-year-old Creeper (given name Jacqueline). Orphaned three years prior when her mother died of yellow fever, Creeper lives in the nooks and crannies of Les Grand Murs, the Great Wall that surrounds free New Orleans, protecting it from the superstorms that plague the coast – ever since the Haitians let loose a supernatural weapon called The Black God’s Drums in order to drive Napoleon and the French from their country.

While hiding in her alcove, scoping out some potential marks, Creeper overhears a plot to deliver a Haitian scientist to the Confederacy. Supposedly this Dr. Duval has found a way to recreate The Black God’s Drums, thus unleashing the power of the Gods here on earth once again. With such a powerful weapon in their hands, the Confederacy could actually win the war. Now it’s up to a tween pickpocket, an airship captain named Ann-Marie St. Augustine (previously her mother’s paramour), a pair of renegade nuns, and a feral child descended from plantation owners to foil the plot and save the day.

And oh, let’s not forget the two sister-wife goddesses (or pieces of goddesses, rather) that have attached themselves to Creeper and Ann-Marie.

The Black God’s Drums is amazing, and my only complaint is that we don’t get to spend more time in the spectacularly captivating world Clark has created here. While Creeper shines (I’m a sucker for girls disguised as boys), every single character is multi-dimensional and engaging. I really love the interplay between Creeper and Ann-Marie – and their goddesses, Oya and Oshun. The relationship between Ann-Marie and Rose adds another layer to an already complex situation. And Sisters Agnès and Eunice are all kinds of awesome.

Clark paints a colorful and vibrant picture of 1884 New Orleans, from the mixed-race and gay-friendly bordello Shá Rouj to the crumbling plantations claimed by the swamps. The alternate history is fascinating, though it’s frustrating that we don’t learn more about the circumstances leading up to (and fallout of) the treaty; I really, really hope that The Black God’s Drums won’t be the only glimpse we get into this ‘verse. The titular Black God’s Drums, particularly how Clark weaves it into Haitian history, is just the icing on the cake.

I need more. Maybe a twenty-something Jacqueline, now a college graduate and bonafide member of the Midnight Robber, helping Ann-Marie and the rest of the crew to take down the Confederacy for good? Bonus points if guerilla fighter Harriet Tubman makes a cameo. Not to typecast her, but Aisha Hinds has to play Tubman in the film version. (She’s just too perfect, once you see the monologue episode of Underground you won’t ever be able to picture anyone else as Minty.)

And yes, this needs to be a movie like yesterday. Get on this, Hollywood.

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