Book Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden (2019)

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Daidi’s bells! What a weird, wickedly funny, and ultimately empathetic ride.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for slavery, mass murder, rape, and animal abuse. This review contains some general spoilers about the world building – so please skip it if you want to read the book with fresh eyes.)

“She?” I ask, eyes wide. Never in all my dizzy dreams had I thought that our beast was something other than a thing, an animate object, a sustainer of life. The idea intrigues me. Scares me some, too.

We are careful, taking only what the other offers, knowing that a connection like this is deeper than either of us can fully comprehend. He reads poetry to my spleen. I tell fairy tales to his bile ducts. The inside of his navel is a vast, unexplored desert. He lounges upon the cushion of my lips. His desires rise, and I pretend not to notice, diving right into the pool of tears caught in the corner of his eye. I don’t make a single splash. And while I swim laps, he hikes across the boundless expanse of my molars, and then I’m climbing up his chest hairs.

We’re curious, playful. Adventuresome. The landscapes of our bodies like the foreign world we orbit. Is this how the beasts communicate with one another? A life without secrets? Becoming intimately familiar with everyone you touch?

“All throughout our history, we sing of two kinds of women … those born into power and those who disrupt power. I intend on being the latter.”

Excavation, extinction, exodus: these are the phases that define humanity’s existence hundreds (thousands?) of years in the future.

Forced to flee a dying earth, humans took to the skies, eking out a rugged existence; searching, in vain, for a habitable planet. Instead, they found the Zenzee: enormous, tentacled animals whose rough hides and bodily secretions allow them to soar through space, as if it was water. Social creatures through and through, they travel in great herds, communicating through touch and flashing lights. Humans being, well, human, we did what we do best: attacked, dominated, conquered, oppressed. Captured, consumed, culled. In short, we made the Zenzee our ships; our homes.

When a new beast is taken, a contingent of workers is sent ahead to make its barely-living zombie carcass habitable (excavation). Its hide is harvested for leather; its flora reshaped into fields; its parasites, harvested for food. Bones are reshaped to provide infrastructure. Every part of the beast is twisted, bent and broken to serve out needs. And what of humanity? We reshape ourselves into parasites.

And we are greedy ones, at that: beasts with a natural lifespan of thousands of years, we deplete within a decade (extinction). Then we simply repeat the cycle again, killing and abandoning one animal after the next (exodus).

So it has been for roughly six hundred and fifty years. But the newest ruler – a young woman named Seske (or Matriling Kaleig; Seske Ashad Nedeema Orshidi Midikoen Ugodon Niosoke Kaleigh if you’re feeling especially stuffy) – is poised to change things. She’s not the only renegade on the ship, though: also working to effect change is Adalla, Seske’s childhood bestie (and soul mate), a lowly beastworker who Seske was forced to shun once she reached marriageable age; Sekse’s betrothed, a man named Doka; and Wheytt, one of the few male Accountacy Guards.

I almost passed on Escaping Exodus. As an ethical vegan (read: vegan for animal rights reasons), the thought of plunging into a make believe world where animals are routinely and brutally oppressed in such a way … let’s just say, it’s not my idea of relaxing escapism. But I also love interrogating pop culture from an animal rights perspective, so there you go. And, y’all, I am so glad I made the leap. Escaping Exodus is a wildly inventive, wickedly funny, twisty turny science fiction story that, at its core, has a giant bleeding heart (both literally and metaphorically). This book is brimming with compassion and examples of humanity at its best.

Escaping Exodus is told from the alternating perspectives of Seske and Adalla, as each girl hovers on the precipice of adulthood. For Seske, this means taking a wife or husband – the first of eight. You see, in order to keep the ship’s population in check, family units are strictly regulated:

“Matris Tendasha made the Rule of Tens that helped to counteract the population explosion after the Great Mending. Ten fingers.” Pai opens his hands and wriggles his long, slender fingers, patinaed with the deepest shade of orange. “Ten persons in the family unit. Three men, six women, and a child shared between them all. Ten for Tendasha.”

Seske’s is a matriarchal monarchy, and she’s next in line to rule after Matris, one of her six mothers, passes away. As such, her choice of mate is especially important (read: political, calculating, stifling). Yet Seske’s position – her very existence – is but a fluke of nature. Seske was the second child conceived in her family unit, but arrived four months early, thus beating Sisterkin by a hair. By all rights, Seske’s younger sister (“sister” being a slur in this culture), deemed so unimportant that she’s not even granted a name, should be the next ruler. Paradoxically, and by a mere technicality, she should have been killed upon birth, and fed back to the ship. But Matris’s weakness may prove to be Seske’s downfall, as Sisterkin plots against her in the background (I said this was a twisty turner thriller, did I not?).

Meanwhile, a natural talent for sensing the rhythms of the beast’s heart scores Adalla a coveted promotion to caring for the creature’s heart. But life comes at you fast, as Adalla wryly observes, and her grief at losing Seske quickly spirals out of control, eventually landing her in the slums of the boneworkers. Vapors aren’t the only thing whispering through the working class; before she can say “Daidi’s bells!,” Adalla is fomenting her own kind of revolution.

What’s interesting is how each woman arrives at the realization that their society is corrupt, built on the broken backs and brutalized bodies of others, rotting from within. Early in the story, when she’s off getting into mischief as plucky heroines are wont to do, Seske accidentally stumbles upon the womb of “their beast” – and it is not empty. The beast that Matris has chosen for them is pregnant, and the fetus is draining precious resources, further taxing the Zenzee’s already injured body … and hastening another exodus. The workers are trying in vain to kill the fetus. And this is when the young Zenzee reaches out to Seske for help.

Through her interactions with the fetus – and, later, an adult Zenzee – Seske comes to accept that which she already knows, if only subconsciously: the Zenzee are sentient animals. They are capable of feeling pain and suffering; of experiencing joy and happiness. They form bonds and love their children, their mates, their friends. And they are forced to sit back and watch as we capture and colonize their loved ones. Because of the intimate way in which they communicate, they feel their loved ones’ pain as acutely as if it was their own. Their lives predate human existence; yet, as we continue to deplete their herd, they likely will not survive humanity. What gives us the right to put our survival above their own?

Adalla, for her part, comes to epiphany along two parallel roads. Caring for her heart, cutting away murmurs, learning to anticipate an arrhythmic beat: Adalla forms an intimate connection with the beast, which eventually results in her humanizing their would-be vessel. The beast transitions from an “it” to a “her”; a something to a someone. From there, it’s just a short hop to accepting that the animal has her own thoughts, feelings, and desires – not the least of which is the will to live.

The second road reveals yet another crack in the foundation of Adalla’s society. The grisette – colloquially known as a “bucket waif,” for the mindless, repetitive job she performs – assigned to Adalla looks achingly familiar. After some digging, Adalla discovers an especially nasty open secret: in order to excavate a beast as quickly as possible, slave laborers are grown in vats – and then destroyed when their services are no longer needed. (Dissolved into fertilizer for the ship, in an especially grisly scene.) Skilled beastworkers and their husbands are paid a handsome sum to “donate” their eggs and sperm. In a society where siblings are unheard of, Adalla’s “brood sister” is destined to become plant food.

So while the world Drayden imagines here is rife with suffering and oppression, there is hope: in Seske, in Adalla, and in the world they want to rebuild on the ashes of the old one. But complications about, as they always do, and Escaping Exodus has some pretty jarring twists late in the game. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the ending; we certainly didn’t land where I expected. But it’s an ending that’s replete with hope, trust, and empathy, and that’s good enough for me.

I also thought it a bold choice to make Seske’s society a matriarchy. It’s not unusual to think (hope?) that a society ruled by women would be a kinder, more peaceful and equitable one. Yet interrogate this idea further and you’ll see that it rests on some gender essentialist bullshit. As a whole, women are not naturally more compassionate or nurturing than men; rather, these are the traits that society fosters in women. Women can be just as brutal, selfish, and hateful as men. Why wouldn’t Seske’s culture be marked by stark class differences, poverty, inequality, slavery, sexism, and other forms of oppression, when women are in charge … yet still place a premium on stereotypically masculine traits?

Even more interesting, imho, is how Seske’s ship came to adopt a matriarchy. As we discover at the end of the book, hers is but one of seven surviving ships from Earth, each having evolved along separate lines, developing its own unique culture, rule of governance, etc. How did women seize control of her ship? And why are the citizens predominantly (or exclusively) Black? How did b influence a, if at all? I am dying for a prequel!

Social justice and animal friendly plot lines aside, Escaping Exodus is a just a damn good book. The world building is simply breathtaking; crafting a sky-faring creature into a ship is hella inspired (if heartbreaking), and the descriptions of the ship’s interior are fascinating. Seske’s encounters with the Zenzee – arguably more humane than us – are marvelous. These are some of the most beautiful and bizarre passages I’ve ever encountered. Really mind-bending stuff. Think: Octavia E. Butler.

And Drayden’s sense of humor? Truly gross-out wicked. I mean, talk about your body horror! Between Seske tricking her new groom Doka into deflowering a gel puppet, and Seske expelling a Zenzee fetus from her vag, there are plenty of WTF moments that will either make you hysterical-laugh, or else chuck the book across the room in disgust. It’s not for everyone, 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: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (2019)

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

An important story, but not without its failings.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobic violence, including gay conversion therapy and sexual harassment/assault, and suicide.)

Like Orpheus, I’m going to hell and I’m looking to save the girl I love. Because Orpheus? She’s a girl. A girl who likes girls.

For as long as Raya can remember, it’s just been her and her grandmother. Gram’s husband died in a car accident when she was twenty-seven, leaving her to raise their two-year-old daughter Calli on her own. Calli got pregnant her senior year of high school and ran off to become an actress three years later; Raya hasn’t heard from her since. Raya’s only glimpse of her mom is on tv, where she plays the goddess Aphrodite on daytime soaps. She and Gram are alone together, lonely planets hurtling down parallel orbits of abandonment, each defined by the same absence, the same loss.

Making matters worse is the fact that Raya has to hide her true self: from Grammy, from her friends and classmates, from church, from the small town she begrudgingly calls home. It’s 2004 in Pieria, Texas, and Raya is gay: a girl who likes girls. And this is a time and place where teenagers like her often disappear without a trace.

When Raya and her best (and only) friend Sarah are outed by a (violently homophobic and misogynist) classmate, they’re sent to a gay conversion camp called Friendly Saviors, where things quickly go from bad to worse. At best, the prisoners undergo grueling physical labor, humiliating talk “therapy,” and milder forms of physical torture; at worse, they are drugged and electrocuted into compliance.

Orpheus Girl is not for the faint of heart, and comes with some strong trigger warnings. This is a tragic queer story tempered by a tentatively hopeful ending. Our heroes manage to persevere, though they do not emerge from hell unscathed.

As much as I want to see more shiny happy stories starring queer characters, I suppose you could argue that there’s still a need for the sad and horrifying narratives, to shine a light on the many atrocities happening in there here and now. (And yes, while there has been a state-by-state legislative push again gay conversion therapy, as of this writing gay conversion therapy on minors has been banned in just 18 states, as well as DC and Puerto Rico. According to studies by the UCLA Williams Institute, more than 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to gay conversion therapy, with an estimated 80,000 kids at risk in the future.)

I’m always on the lookout for good books, of any genre, with LGBTQ protagonists, and Orpheus Girl caught my eye both because of the author’s young age, as well as her background in poetry. While the narrative is compelling, Orpheus Girl feels like a debut novel, and not in a good way. There were so many little details that distracted from my enjoyment of the book. To name just one example: Raya is able to lift Hyde’s truck keys on the first try, even though she has zero background in pickpocketing or general thievery. Nor does she possess nerves of steel: when she later manages to steal said truck, she immediately flips it 180 degrees, while still within earshot of the camp. So, yeah, I’m not buying it.

Additionally, the characters lack depth and nuance: aside from their fashion sense, Raya are Sarah aren’t really distinguishable from one another, and Raya’s primary personality trait seems to be “orphan.”

But the thing that bugged me the most is how compressed the timeline is: just three days after she’s sent to prison (I can’t in good conscience call it a camp, let’s be real), Raya’s worried that Grammy has already married her new suitor and moved on. When I say “new,” I mean as in they literally just started dating weeks before Raya was outed. And then we find out, a month later at most, that she totally did! I don’t know about you, but it takes me three months to hang a new poster. WHO MOVES THAT FAST.

Orpheus Girl is an important story, for sure, but if you’re looking for a book that confronts the horrors of gay conversion therapy, you can probably do better. Just off the top of my head, I’d recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

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

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

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

(“Wolverton Station”)

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

(“Late Returns”)

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

(“All I Care About Is You”)

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

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

“Throttle” with Stephen King – 3/5

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

“Dark Carousel” – 4/5

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

“Wolverton Station” – 3.5/5

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

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

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

“Faun” – 3/5

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

“Late Returns” – 5/5 f’in amazing

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

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

“All I Care About Is You” – 5/5

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

“Thumbprint” – 3.5/5

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

“The Devil on the Staircase” – 3/5

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

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

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

“Mums” – 3/5

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

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

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

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

“You Are Released” – 5/5

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

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

Book Review: The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (2019)

Friday, October 4th, 2019

Rare is the book that actually merits a comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, violence – including rape – and suicide.)

“In the county, everything they take away from us is a tiny death. But not here . . .” She spreads her arms out, taking in a deep breath. “The grace year is ours. This is the one place we can be free. There’s no more tempering our feelings, no more swallowing our pride. Here we can be whatever we want. And if we let it all out,” she says, her eyes welling up, her features softening, “we won’t have to feel those things anymore. We won’t have to feel at all.”

“In the county, there’s nothing more dangerous than a woman who speaks her mind. That’s what happened to Eve, you know, why we were cast out from heaven. We’re dangerous creatures. Full of devil charms. If given the opportunity, we will use our magic to lure men to sin, to evil, to destruction.” My eyes are getting heavy, too heavy to roll in a dramatic fashion. “That’s why they send us here.”

“To rid yourself of your magic,” he says.

“No,” I whisper as I drift off to sleep. “To break us.”

I’ve started and stopped, cut and pasted this review so many times over the last few weeks that I’ve lost count. The truth is that The Grace Year left me speechless and, as with all of my favorite books, I’m afraid that nothing I might write will do it justice. This is the kind of book that merits a twenty-page thesis, not a 500-word review. (Though, let’s be honest, precious few of my reviews clock in at less than 1,000 words.)

You can gather the basics from the synopsis. Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Tierney James, lives in a culture that hates and fears women. It’s believed that young women possess a powerful, dark magic; paradoxically, they’re also considered men’s inferiors. For the good of society, young women are banished from Garner County for the entirety of their sixteenth year.

The goal during the “Grace Year” is twofold: to purge the magic from their bodies so that they can return home pure and ready to be married – and to return home, period. Their wild and wicked magic; the harsh wilderness; and the poachers who aim to kill them and sell their bewitched body parts on the black market: all stand between the girls and survival.

The Grace Year follows Tierney and her cohorts as they claw, fight, manipulate, and straight up slay their way through 365 days of exile. Along the way, Tierney calls on her specialized knowledge – her dad is a doctor who always wanted a son, and thus “spoiled” his middle daughter by teaching her useful life skills – to try and change the system from the inside. She dreams of a young woman who carries within her the spark of revolution. She can only hope that her visions are more prophecy, less the random firing of neurons.

The story is told in four main parts, each corresponding to one season in Tierney’s Grace Year: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. There aren’t chapters to divvy things up further (at least there wasn’t in the ARC), which makes each section feel L-O-N-G (in a good way!). Whereas some reviewers complained about this format, I loved it: it gives the readers a sense of the slow passage of time as the Grace Year girls experience it, the weight of days differentiated from one another only by violence and death.

Usually I scoff when books are blurbed as “The Handmaid’s Tale meets XYZ,” but I think the comparison is more than warranted here: The Grace Year is The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, with a dash of The Hunger Games meets Bridezillas for extra-crunchy complexity. There’s so much to unpack and dissect here.

In The Grace Year, Kim Liggett has created a semi-fictional world that could exist at (nearly) any time or place in history. The lack of modern technology – there are references to lithographs and gas lamps, and a distinct absence of electronics – hints at the past. Perhaps Garner County is an isolated community in 1800s America? Yet, without a detailed backstory of how Tierney’s community came to be, she and her ilk could just as easily live in some future dystopia, a society rebuilt from the ashes of a pandemic or world war. Or they could inhabit another ‘verse altogether. I love that the setting is open to interpretation, because it prevents us from dismissing Garner County as something from our past: a result of primitive and outdated beliefs that we have since moved beyond.

News flash: misogyny and homophobia (and racism, classism, ableism, etc.) are still alive and well. Just read the damn news, mkay.

Again just from the synopsis, it’s glaringly obvious that Tierney’s is a strictly religious and patriarchal society marked by rigid gender roles…but this summary hardly does it justice. Think: the fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Or Women Talking, inspired by the very real mass rapes that took place in Manitoba County, a Bolivian Mennonite settlement.

In Garner County, women face myriad restrictions, including but not limited to the following:

– Women are branded with their father’s sigil at birth. They are quite literally owned by their fathers, until the time they are bartered and traded to would-be husbands. Needless to say, they have no say in who they marry.

– Young women who go unclaimed have three options open to them: they can become maids, field laborers, or prostitutes in the outskirts.

– Married women are required to perform their “wifely duties”: “Legs spread, arms flat, eyes to God.” In other words, wives are raped on the regular.

– Though it’s not stated outright, it’s safe to assume that birth control and contraception are outlawed, at least for married women. (Married) women are not allowed to determine how many children they bear, if any.

– It’s considered blasphemous to pray for a baby girl (because we’re worthless, see?).

– Women are only schooled until the age of ten.

– “All the women in Garner County have to wear their hair the same way, pulled back from the face, plaited down the back. In doing so, the men believe, the women won’t be able to hide anything from them—a snide expression, a wandering eye, or a flash of magic. White ribbons for the young girls, red for the grace year girls, and black for the wives. Innocence. Blood. Death.”

– “We’re forbidden from cutting our own hair, but if a husband sees fit, he can punish his wife by cutting off her braid.”

– “We’re not allowed to pray in silence, for fear that we’ll use it to hide our magic.”

– “The women of the county aren’t allowed to hum—the men think it’s a way we can hide magic spells.”

– Adult women cannot wear hoods or other protection against the elements: “After their grace year, their faces needed to be free and clear to make sure they weren’t hiding their magic. The wives scarcely went outdoors during those months.”

– “In the county, bathing with flowers is a sin, a perversion, punishable by whip.”

– “The women aren’t allowed to own pets in the county. We are the pets.”

– “The women aren’t allowed to congregate outside of sanctioned holidays.”

– If a girl does not return from the Grace year – either alive or in bottles – her female family members will be punished by banishment.

Some of these rules are universal to what you’d expect to see in a religious patriarchy: anything to keep women voiceless, segregated, and compliant. In a word, powerless. Others feel like loving throwbacks to The Handmaid’s Tale: for example, the scene where Tierney defiantly bathes with a flower brings to mind Offred, secreting away a pat of butter to moisturize her dry and purely functional (to Gilead) body.

One detail that jumps out at me is how the girls and women are pitted against each other, so that they exist in a perpetual state of competition rather than cooperation. Similar to what you’d see in FLDS communities, there’s a sizable gender imbalance in Garner County; created not by casting young men out, as is the polygamous Mormon way, but by drafting lower-class men as Guards, denying them wives, and then castrating them to prevent unauthorized pregnancies. (This is one obvious deviation from The Handmaid’s Tale, where lower-class men like Nick are at least allowed the hope that they may one day merit a Wife.)

Thus, there are more eligible wives than husbands – and as the position of wife is the “best” a young woman of Garner County can hope for (the gilded cage), women are pitted against each other. As if this isn’t offensive enough, the veil ceremony takes place immediately before the potential brides leave for their Grace Year. Picture it: you’re a scared sixteen-year-old girl who was just sentenced to a life of hard field labor; the only thing standing between an early, sun-baked death and a relatively cushy life as a wife and mother is a scrap of fabric. You’re alone and unsupervised, for the first time in your life; your body coursing with magic. What now?

Garner County has effectively incentivized murder – hence The Hunger Games meets Bridezillas. Not that state-sanctioned murder should come as a surprise: the death penalty is alive and well. See also: the poachers. In truth, not all of the Grace Year girls are meant to return home: not when they are sent into the wilderness with inadequate housing and provisions, and certainly not when they state sanctions poaching. Women are nothing if not expendable.

Magic is also a common theme but, as Tierney so astutely observes, men only seem to discover evidence of magic when it is convenient for them: “Like when Mrs. Pinter’s husband died, Mr. Coffey suddenly accused his wife of twenty-five years of secretly harboring her magic and levitating in her sleep. Mrs. Coffey was as meek and mild as they come—hardly the levitating sort—but she was cast out. No questions asked. And surprise, surprise, Mr. Coffey married Mrs. Pinter the following day.”

Women are so thoroughly indoctrinated that they question themselves whenever they have an impertinent thought or experience a flash of anger: “And I wonder if this is the magic taking over. Is this how it starts—the slip of the tongue? A loss of respect? Is this how I become a monster the men whisper of? I turn and run up the stairs before I do something I regret.”

Spoiler alert: magic isn’t real. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that magic, as it’s defined in Garner County, is not mysterious or supernatural in nature. Rather, magic is code for women’s anger. Magic is when a women speaks her mind and demands equal treatment. Magic is women working together to overthrow the patriarchy and create a new, more equitable society in which they are valued and respected. Magic is a tiny red flower. Magic is revolution.

(Here, I’m reminded of another book: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly:

“Ask yourself, why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all of our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult. By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’ we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.”)

It’s no wonder the men fear it.

Of course, not everyone is hip to the true nature of women’s magic, and it’s enthralling to see how this plays out in the little community formed by the Grace Year girls. I love how Liggett devises a very reasonable, if not mundane, explanation for the manifestation of the girls’ magical powers. And the power dynamics that arise out of this are pretty shrewd and insightful, with plenty of real-world consequences. This is how cult leaders are made. Or 45th presidents.

There’s so much more I want to rave about: The way that Liggett uses Hans to eviscerate the Nice Guy ™ trope. The kinship between women and animals, and the vegan feminist ethic that might arise from recognizing and honoring our similarities. The sheer, raw power (might I say “magic”?) of sisterhood. The seed of revolution that blossoms here.

The Grace Year may not take place in 2019 America, yet its lessons are painfully relevant today.

My only complaint – and it is not a minor one – is the complete absence of race from the narrative. Only a few of the girls are described in great physical detail; those that are all appear to be white. Do no women of color live in Garner County? If not, why not? Perhaps darker skinned women do exist, but simply are not valued as Wives in this white nationalist patriarchy. If this is the case, we’d expect to find them laboring in the fields, serving the white nuclear families, and bearing the brunt of toxic masculinity as sex workers in the outskirts. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, this is an egregiously weak spot in an otherwise powerful and engaging 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: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (2019)

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

A Sapphic coming out story, told in verse.

three out of five stars

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

Oh, honey.
If you think being normal is a win,
then I have done my job wrong.

Do you think you are?
Gay, I mean?
Lesbionic?

It’s the first day of seventh grade, and Tam and Kate are registering for classes when they spot each other across the gym. On the surface, the girls – soon to be known to each other as Redwood and Ponytail – couldn’t be more different. Tam is happy goofing around with her best friend Levi (as short as she is tall), scoring points on the volleyball team, and hanging out with her super-supportive mom and elderly lesbian neighbors, Frankie and Roxy. And with her aspirations to be the captain of the cheer squad – not to mention the all-around smartest, most respected girl at school – Kate is all but guaranteed to follow in her high-strung, perfectionist mom’s footsteps.

Yet they form a fast and unlikely friendship that soon blossoms into something more. Will everyone be as cool with it as Tam’s hippie mom? Can Kate find a way to break free of her mom’s overbearing shadow? Will her cheerleader friends still love Kate if she’s “lesbionic” – and more comfortable dancing around as the school’s mascot than leading them in a routine? And just what is going on with Tam’s bestie Levi and Kate’s sister Jill?

I love a good novel in verse, and am always in the mood for a F/F love story, so it was inevitable that I take Redwood and Ponytail for a spin. Overall I enjoyed it, though some of the poems were a little too simplistic and rhyme-y for my taste. I’m well above the book’s target audience of ten and up, though, so grain of salt.

Perhaps more germane: there’s a scene where character z outs character y without any sort of real blowback or consequence, which is problematic as heck. PEOPLE, DO NOT DO THIS, EVEN IF YOU’RE HURT OR YOUR INTENTIONS ARE GOOD. Seriously, not a great example to set for the 10+ crowd.

On the plus side, Holt introduced me to the term “lesbionic,” so there’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: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke & Laura Silverman (2019)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

I don’t love every story – but the ones I love, I love HARD.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues, including eating disorders and social anxiety; bullying; and discussions of homophobia.)

I’ll probably never know what a space station careening through the atmosphere looks like, because I wasn’t looking up anymore. I was looking at him and smiling, and he was smiling back at me, and his braces were gleaming like starlight, and he whispered, “Shehecheyanu,” and I leaned forward, and I pressed my lips against his stars.

(“Indoor Kids” by Alex London)

I wish I’d had the experience, the wisdom then to tell him: To me, Jewish is knowing that you can’t be asked to have pride in one part of your identity and then be told to have shame about another part. Whoever asks you to do that is wrong. To be proud as a Jew is to be proud of everything you are.

(“The Hold” by David Levithan)

My chewing sounds like applause.

(“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz)

As you can certainly gleam (yes, I meant to say “gleam, with an m,” in deference to both this anthology’s overall shininess as well as the opening story; don’t @ me; and yes, that last was a hat tip to editor Katherine Locke’s highly enjoyable contribution, “Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero”; you can @ me on that one as you wish, because I have FEELINGS) from the title, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories is a collection of short stories written by Jewish authors, primarily for a Jewish, YA audience. Most are of the contemporary/realistic fiction persuasion, but there’s a little bit of fantasy and memoir sprinkled throughout.

I LOVE that this book exists – especially in this time and place in history – and it pains me equally to say that I didn’t fall in love with every single story. Them’s usually the breaks with anthologies, though. That said, I would recommend It’s a Whole Spiel on the basis of David Levithan’s essay alone. (In my notes I just wrote “wow”.)

I’ll admit, I wasn’t into “The Hold” at first. Whereas the rest of the pieces take the form of a more traditional short fiction story, “The Hold” is more of a nonfiction story without a clear structure, at least at the outset. But as the narrative begins to take shape, and Levithan recounts coming out as a young Jewish boy, in like with another boy from his temple who would later run away, vanishing without a goodbye, you know you’re being gifted with something special.

Our time together became a good dream, possibly the best dream. I never forgot it, but I remembered it less and less, as other dreams joined in. I’ve written about him hundreds of times, and I haven’t written about him at all until now.

This is the first thing I’ve read by David Levithan, but it won’t be my last.

“Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke is also a real treat, especially for self-professed nerds who prefer virtual spaces to “real” ones. (“I’m not tagging you, but you know who you are.”) Awkward in person, but a master with the written word, Gabe spends much of his free time writing fan fic for the website Milk & Honey, “a whole site dedicated to reimagining every canon character as Jewish” (and trying to figure out how to parlay his hobby into a winning college application). Little does he know that Yael, the owner of the site on whom he’s been crushing hard, is someone he knows in meat space – and that a shared love of the X-Men reimagined as the Maccabees might just give him/them a second chance.

Also amazing is “Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz. Like many of the stories in these here pages, “Neilah” centers around the theme of not being “Jewish enough,” of suffering from imposter syndrome, and ties this disconnect to the MC’s eating disorder. When she was dating her ex, a “good” Gentile boy who showered her not with love, but backhanded compliments or outright criticism, she shrank up and tried to fold into herself, to disappear. To be less: less loud, less big, less Jewish. But a new relationship with a devout Jewish girl named Mira is about to change all that. It’s an inspired analogy with an inspiring ending.

I really enjoyed editor Laura Silverman’s story, “Be Brave and All,” in which protagonist Naomi, dragged to the national JZY convention by her best friend Rachel, conquers her anxiety to stand up for something she believes in (gun control, which nicely ties this story to current events).

Many of the MCs in these stories are embarking on journeys in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical, whether meeting their new boyfriend’s family for the first time (during an earthquake! argh!), traveling to Israel on a Birthright trip, or attending a Jewish summer camp or convention. These tales are at their most satisfying when the protagonist experiences growth – but, weirdly, this is not always the case. (“El Al 328” by Dana Schwartz is just straight-up demoralizing. The ending felt like my life and was sad and uncomfortable AF.)

“Indoor Kids” by Alex London also deserves a shout-out, both for its nerdy space program backdrop, and its adorable M/M romance. And that writing! It takes a special talent to make braces seem so magical.

“Indoor Kids” by Alex London – 4/5
“Two Truths and an Oy” by Dahlia Adler – 3/5
“The Hold” by David Levithan – 5/5 wow
“Aftershocks” by Rachel Lynn Solomon – 3/5
“Good Shabbos” by Goldy Moldavsky – 2/5 did not care for the abundance of footnotes
“Jewbacca” by Lance Rubin – 3/5
“El Al 328” by Dana Schwartz – 1/5 ugh?
“Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke – 5/5 amazing
“He Who Revives the Dead” by Elie Lichtschein – 3/5
“Be Brave and All” by Laura Silverman – 5/5
“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz – 5/5
“Find the River” by Matthue Roth – 2/5
“Ajshara” By Adi Alsaid – 2.5/5
“Twelve Frames” by Nova Ren Suma – 3/5

(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: Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy edited by Mindy McGinnis, Demitria Lunetta, and Kate Karyus Quinn (2019)

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

four out of five stars

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

I found out that there was much knowledge that Chira had kept from me. The women of the village knew that a man was necessary for procreation; they just did not see his value for anything else.

(“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta)

Most women didn’t smile. Those that would usually kept walking, a little faster than before. But this one stood directly in front of them, a tremendous grin on her face as though nothing pleased her more. The men felt triumphant.

Except several moments passed and she was still standing there, smiling wider and wider. One of the men coughed. The other smiled back, weakly.

“You need something else, hon?”

She said nothing. Her smile kept growing. Grotesque now, her lips stretched as far as they could go, teeth shining in the morning sun.

(“Smile” by Emilee Martell)

It may look like we are scared. Like we are running. But we are not. I am not. Not anymore.

(“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn)

The second I saw Mindy McGinnis’s name on this book, I hit “request” without knowing anything else about it. As it turns out, I got extra lucky, because feminist horror stories? Are my peanut butter, jam, and jelly. Incidentally, Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy (that title! gives me goosebumps!) started its life as a Kickstarter campaign – the funding of which made the world just a wee bit richer.

This anthology is every bit as awesome as it sounds. Inspired by, uh, let’s just say “events” (current, past, and future), the women who populate these stories have had enough: of the cat-calling, non-consensual sharing of nude pics, and bullying. Of sexual harassment and assault. Of being gaslighted, dismissed, silenced, and ignored. Of being told to smile, or not; to laugh, or not. Of being mistreated because of their gender in a supposedly equal world. And they’re fixing for revenge. Let’s do some vicarious living, shall we? Bonus points if some of this badassery spills out into the “real” world.

So, listen. Did I love some stories more than others? Sure, but that’s an anthology for you. There was really only one story I didn’t much care for; the rest are entertaining at worst, downright life changing at best. If you do nothing else, read it for editor Kate Karyus Quinn’s “The Change,” which needs to be a summer blockbuster like yesterday.

“Vagina Dentata” by Mindy McGinnis – ?/5

A woman walks into a plastic surgeon’s office (one of maaaany) and requests dental implants in her vag. It’s an exciting concept, but at barely a page long, the story ends before it even begins. This made me extra-sad seeing as McGinnis is one of my favorites, an insta-read, and I would have wanted more even if the story was 1000 pages long.

“You Wake With Him Beside You” by Cori McCarthy – 4/5

An unexpected and cutting poem about escaping one unhealthy relationship only to become trapped in another: “you wonder about the Titanic, was it so bad? / you’re drunk on melancholy, and it’s not even eight AM.” I think we’ve all been there, yeah?

“The Weight of Iron” by Amanda Sun – 3.5/5

Accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death as a sacrifice for “seducing” the innkeeper (read: being sexually assaulted by the innkeeper), Galen finds redemption, understanding, and revenge in the most unlikely of places – her would-be executioner. This story gets a little weird, but the ending is lovely and delicious.

“What She Left Behind” by E.R. Griffin – 4/5

In 1976, a young woman named Erin Wilcox vanishes from her bedroom; the only clue, a faux diamond earring discarded in the dirt below her window. Forty-two years later, her ghost reaches out to the home’s newest resident, a girl named Mel who understands Erin’s trauma all too well. I think my favorite part of this story is the multitude of baddies – or rather, how Griffin guts the Nice Guy ™ trope.

“After the Foxes Have Their Say” by Tracie Martin – ?/5 WTF happened

There’s a prison in the desert. A Warden who takes a wife who takes off with a caravan of orphans, on account of they’re girls and she doesn’t like how the men folk are eyeing them. And then there’s a daughter. Honestly, I have no idea what this story is about, though the imagery of your heart waltzing around in someone else’s rib cage will strike a chord with anyone who’s loved and lost.

“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta – 5/5

When Dr. Janet Sayre’s colleague, Dr. Peter Harvey, disappears while studying an isolated South American tribe, she travels into the Amazon rainforest in search of him. Here, she encounters the Ayhua, a community made up exclusively of women:

The women of this small village have developed a society completely devoid of male influence. Women provide everything for themselves and take the responsibilities that other native tribes have delegated to men, including hunting, protection, and all leadership roles. They have remained undiscovered and untouched from modern ideas and ideals. They live their entire lives within a twenty-mile radius of their birthplace, and they seem to exhibit no curiosity about the outside world. They are exceptional among all other cultures and present us with a unique opportunity to study what has in the past only been a hypothetical: What path would a society take if it were women, and not men, who ruled the world?

Though there are many children present – children who are mothered communally – Sayre and her companion, a linguist named Cassie, cannot figure out how the women are becoming pregnant. Nor do they know what becomes of the male babies. As she becomes closer to the women who have so generously welcomed them into their home – chieftess/medicine woman Chira in particular – Sayre must decide to what lengths she’ll go in order to protect her adopted family.

This story a) is bonkers; b) has the potential to become a racist, imperialist mess; c) is handled with care; and d) would make an amazing horror film, but only in the hands of screenwriters and directors and producers who would nurture it with an equal amount of care. This is easily one of my favorite stories in the book, and the length makes me feel like Golilocks discovering that perfectly sized bed.

“@Theguardians1792” by Jenna Lehne – 4/5

Kind of like The Chain, but swap out the land lines for twitter and kidnapped children for humiliated/injured/murdered misogynists.

“Gravity” by Kyrie McCauley – 5/5

All of the girls in the narrator’s family are cursed:

We bear the curse of levity. Laughter. Humor and mirth. But we cannot stop it, so even when things go wrong, a feeling of joy surges over us, like a wave obliterating a sand castle. One crest of foaming water, and our pain is erased from the world forever. That is how our sadness feels. Temporary. Gone before it ever reaches the surface. Also, we float.

She has to wear weights to keep her tethered to the earth, and the only time she can connect with her negative emotions is when she’s submerged in a large body of water. Her sweet, unassuming demeanor is a curse, but also a defense mechanism, meant to camouflage her from predators (nothing to see here), i.e. men. But her best friend Odette is the only one she cares about.

“Gravity” is a beautiful, surreal F/F romance story that “feels like braids coming undone.” I’m counting down the days until the release of McCauley’s upcoming debut novel, If These Wings Could Fly.

“The Guardrail Disappears” by Melody Simpson – 3.5/5

This is your standard Law & Order: SVU episode wherein a young woman realizes that she’s been kidnapped and raised by a stranger – but in a not-so-distant future, complete with autonomous vehicles.

“Good Sister, Bad Sister” by Azzurra Nox – 3/5

“Good Sister, Bad Sister” is a like your classic YA werewolf story, only the protagonist is a young Muslim woman whose mother is pressuring her to wear a hijab, and instead of using her newfound powers to dominate the basketball court and woo her crush, Dilay gets revenge on the dude who assaulted her older sister Sanem. I really dig the idea, but the writing feels a bit clumsy in places.

“Vigilante Lane” by S. E. Green – 4/5

The protagonist of this story is a close cousin of Alex Craft, she of Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. But with a little more gore.

“We Have But Lingered Here” by Liz Coley – 4/5

In which a nonbinary fight choreographer named Jules drafts the recently summoned spirits of Shakespeare’s plays to help her slay a demon – namely, her abusive father. This is a great story on its own, but I REALLY wanted to see the fallout.

“The Whispers” by Lindsey Klingele – 5/5

Inspired by the Suffragettes, the young women of Little Falls have run amok: refusing perfectly good marriage proposals; announcing their intentions to remain single; laughing and cavorting in public; and just generally flouting decency and societal norms. And so the men of the town devise a modest solution: cut out their voice boxes so that they need not be heard. It’s no wonder that, before long, the Falls will run red with blood. This is another gem that needs to grace the big screen, shut up and take my money please!

“Smile” by Emilee Martell – 4/5

This story is best summed up by that one Broad City “smile” gif + the movie Teeth. File alongside “Vagina Dentata” as a story that’s freaking amazing, but entirely too short for civility.

Also, while we’re talking gifs, I went searching in my blogging folder for “betty,” to find the cover image for this book. A Betty White gif also popped up and now I cannot think of Betty Bites Back without also thinking of this.

You’re welcome.

“Potluck” by Kamerhe Lane – 4.5/5

A story of a wake, told by the foods prepared for it. Or, perhaps more accurately, by the female hands that made the food.

“To Mary,” someone says. Or maybe they all say. Hard to tell. “She’s free.”

Very weird and experimental but, ultimately, fierce AF.

“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn – 5/5 holy shit

This story, y’all. WOW. What a note to end on.

A little bit Children of Men, a little bit Wilder Girls, “The Change” takes place in a near-future dystopia in which the next generation of young women, upon reaching puberty, sprout spikes and scales and quills and wings and fangs. Like the levity in “Gravity,” these biological weapons are defense mechanisms that women can use against their most dangerous predators: men. Only Mother Nature’s attempt to level the playing field backfires, and women become regulated, restricted, hunted.

Except. When our unnamed narrator gets her period, nothing happens: “I changed, but nothing changed.” As news of her existence spreads and she and Mother are beset by men who want her to bear their children, to make more of her – sweet, docile, unarmed women – they go into hiding. But they cannot outrun Adam’s Soldiers (“To be a member / they removed the same rib given to Eve.”) … but maybe that’s not a bad thing? Only by confronting the patriarchy does Eve’s daughter discover her true power.

Side note: I would love for Betty White to play Daughter’s ill-fated driver in the movie adaptation of this, for reasons.

(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: 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!)