Book Review: Last Girls by Demetra Brodsky (2020)

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

“Our end will bring our beginning to light.”

three out of five stars

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

When I reminisce about the pieces of art I’ve left behind over the years, I get pensive. I could have taken them, but I chose to leave them behind, in places we lived, in art rooms at different schools. Never signed, but as an artistic Honey Was Here trail.

If we were living in a different time, she’d be the first of us weirds to be tried as a witch. Birdie would be next, for failure to cooperate with the magistrates. And then me, because with my sisters persecuted I would straight up lose my mind.

Sixteen-year-old Honey Juniper and her two younger sisters – Birdie and Blue, collectively known at Elkwood High as “the weird sisters” – are preppers. Along with a handful of other families, they live on a secret compound in the backwoods of Washington State. Dieter Ackerman’s acolytes hide in plain sight: bartering and selling homemade goods in the small town of Elkwood, attending nearby Elkwood High School, pretending to live in the mobile home park they use for extra storage.

Though the Juniper sisters have moved five times in ten years, it’s starting to look like the Nest might be their final home…at least, until Dieter’s increasingly risky and erratic behavior, coupled with Alice Juniper’s social climbing, proves to be their undoing.

I expected to enjoy Last Girls so much more than I did. I mean, doomsday preppers! Badass sisters with pouty lips and wild hairdos! Forbidden love/lust! Sick presidential burns! Cultish stuff galore! A freaking peregrine falcon! Alas, it was not meant to be.

I think my main gripe is that there’s just too much going on here. A story about three sisters caught in a doomed doomsday prepper group (lol, see what I did there?) is interesting enough on its own. The culture of paranoia would make for a rather gripping psychological thriller; throw in some teenage hormones a la Remy and Honey, and you’ve got yourself one rousing tale. But on top of a prepper cult engaged in some sketchy terrorist activities and maybe under investigation by the authorities, we also have a triple kidnapping and some random psychic shit thrown in to make things extra weird, I guess.

To be fair, Blue’s prophecies are obvious throwbacks to Shakespeare’s witches – as are the sisters, collectively – as well as Cassandra of Greek mythology. Even so, it’s all just too much.

I also felt like many of the characters, including Honey and her sisters, could have been fleshed out more. The Juniper sisters feel more like a collection of quirks and eccentricities than honest-to-goodness people. And the secondary characters? Ugh. Caricatures, mostly: Magda is the jealous scorned wife; Annalise, the power-hungry second child; Dieter, the erratic messiah. Even Alice Juniper is elusive at best, and it’s her actions that set this whole story in motion.

There’s an exhilarating seed of a story here that sadly never fully blooms. I’m sure Blue would have something especially prescient to say here.

(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: We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman by Deborah Noyes (2020)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

This could have been spectacular.

three out of five stars

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

“Never is the joke on you, my boy. Remember that. The power is yours. Count your worth in coins.”

As an afterthought, he added, “Your parents certainly do.”

“We have very few pictures of any of us.” She lifted one of the many cabinet cards of General Tom Thumb. “Papa always liked them better.”

The subtitle of We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman is a bit misleading, as the eleven loosely connected short stories gathered in these pages are only marginally about PT Barnum. Rather, Noyes concerns herself with the people trapped in Barnum’s orbit, and imagines how his actions might have affected them.

Naturally, this is a pretty complicated subject: while Barnum arguably created gainful (and even profitable) means of employment for disabled folks who, in some cases, were considered “burdens” on their families, his exhibits leaned into racist, sexist, and albeist tropes, thus perpetuating the bigotry that drove many of Barnum’s performers into his arms. Though he was an outspoken abolitionist later in life, Barnum quite literally built his career on the back of Joice Heth, an elderly African-American slave who Barnum purchased and exhibited as “the 161-year-old nursing mammy of George Washington.” He even exploited Heth in death, offering her body up for a public, for-pay autopsy to “prove” her age and authenticity.

Given this, I expected that Noyes would elevate the voices of the performers who both prospered and suffered under Barnum’s thumb. Instead, there’s a mix of perspectives here: while some stories are told from the POV of performers (or their friends and family), the majority of the narrators – 6/11 – are Barnum’s female family members. The stories cross a nearly fifty-year time span and often occur at crucial (and tragic) moments in Barnum’s timeline:

The Mermaid (1842)
Caroline, the eldest of the Barnum girls, is itching to see her father’s newest acquisition: the Feejee mermaid, being displayed several floors above the family’s living quarters in the American Museum. Since daddy has precious little time for her, she’s determined to take matters into her own hands.

The Mysterious Arm (1842)
Young Charlie Stratton, who will eventually come to be known as General Tom Thumb, has just been recruited by PT Barnum. As he stays at the Museum, training for his upcoming European tour, Charlie befriends the Barnum sisters – including baby Frances and her older sister Helen.

Returning a Bloom to Its Bud (1845)
Charity Barnum, long-suffering wife of PT Barnum, pregnant with her fourth child and grieving the loss of her third, reflects on her life as she sets sail for the States after eight months spent touring Europe with her husband and his performers.

Beside Myself (1851)
When young Josephine agreed to tour the county with her childhood friend Jenny Lind, aka the “Swedish Nightingale,” she had no idea that it would mean losing herself – or the man that she loves.

We Will Always Be Sisters (1852)
Helen, now a young woman living on her father’s estate in Connecticut (Iranistan), is haunted by the ghost of her baby sister Frances – and by her older sister Caroline’s upcoming nuptials.

The Fairy Wedding (1863)
Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, inadvertently finds that his visit to the White House is set to coincide with the visit of Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren Stratton, as part of their three-year “honeymoon” tour, stopping in DC at Mary Todd’s request. Angry with his parents’ insistence that he not take up arms against the Confederacy, and still grieving the loss of his younger brother Willie, Robert’s disgust with the affair forces him to confront his relationship with his parents, as well as his own humanity (or lack thereof).

An Extraordinary Specimen of Magnified Humanity (1865)
It’s just another day for Anna Swan, a giantess from Nova Scotia who left her job as a teacher to join Barnum’s troupe: brunch with her friend Lavinia Warren Stratton, a lecture or two, and bedtime. And then a fire ravages the American Museum, killing most of Barnum’s nonhuman menagerie, nearly trapping Anna in its flames, and displacing them all.

The Bearded Lady’s Son (1868)
Sixteen-year-old Jack is the illegitimate son of a bearded lady who just landed a spot in Barnum’s roster. Trouble is, they’ve got to keep his existence a secret – Barnum can’t risk any whiff of impropriety in a show that struggles to avoid the margins. So Jack spends his days sketching the animals in Barnum’s menagerie…animals who, once again, are about to stoke the (literal) fire of Barnum’s vanity.

It’s Not Humbug If You Believe It (1869)
On the eve of William Mumler’s trial for fraud – at which her own father, none other than PT Barnum, is set to testify for the prosecution – Pauline commissions Mumler to take a spirit self-portrait of her. She hides it in a book in her father’s library, where it will sit for more than twenty years.

All Elephants Are Tragic (1889)
As the family gathers at the Barnum property in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to witness the demolition of the Waveport cottage to make way for the Marina house – Barnum’s gift to his second, much-younger wife Nancy – the newest, arguably most vilified member of the Barnums reflects on her fifteen years with PT Barnum, his daughters, and their children.

What Makes You Think We Want You Here? (1891)
Told from the perspective of Barnie – really named Helen after her mother, and then renamed by Barnum once he became estranged from Helen the elder – the Barnums have gathered at the deathbed of the family’s larger-than-life patriarch: to say goodbye, and to reminisce.

While the writing is skilled enough, and some of the stories engaging (the recurring theme of fire is especially compelling), the overall result just fell flat for me. I feel like this is something I should have enjoyed, thoroughly, and yet…and yet. With few exceptions, it’s weirdly boring and lacking in emotion.

I was disappointed that Noyes didn’t focus exclusively on the performers, even though not all of their narratives proved all that memorable.

Centering the women in Barnum’s life might also have worked out well, but mostly it felt like the stories didn’t go much of anywhere.

Honestly, I think the most eloquent writing manifests in Noyes’s narratives surrounding the nonhuman exhibits who suffered and died agonizing deaths in the multiple fires that destroyed Barnum’s museums over the years. For example, in “An Extraordinary Specimen of Magnified Humanity” Anna Swan bears witness to the deaths of countless animals – snakes, cats, moneys – even as she fights to overcome her shock-induced paralysis and save herself:

She sailed and swayed over the sea of hats in the street, yet another audience, a uniform mass applauding with joy, it seemed, such joy — as much because some kind soul had released the birds from the aviary upstairs, and almost as one they burst from a corresponding window, a wheeling, feathered blur: parrots, cockatoos, mockingbirds, hummingbirds, vultures, and eagles, even the great, stiff, clumsy condor. The crowd in the street seemed to sway with them as they flapped free, and for the instant Anna floated on air as her rescue crew paused to take in the sight, and for the merest instant she felt it, too, swaying there, the beauty of the moment.

Also heart wrenching is the tale of Jumbo the elephant, purchased from the London Zoo to tour in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, who sacrificed himself in a railway collision to save the life of a young calf. For his heroics, his corpse is dismembered and put on display by Barnum, exploited as a commodity even in death as “the Double Jumbo.” (Talk about a callback!) In “All Elephants Are Tragic,” second wife and “interloper” Nancy Fish considers her husband’s oh so brief mourning period and his shameful treatment of a “friend”:

As another of her husband’s British “acquisitions,” Nancy identified with Jumbo. […]

A year after the loss of Jumbo, the circus’s Winter Quarters in Bridgeport, the biggest animal training ground in the world, was leveled by fire, killing most of the animals. All Nancy remembered of that night was that poor Gracie the elephant had tried to swim to safety … making it all the way to the lighthouse before she sank under the waves. All elephants were tragic, it seemed to Nancy, captives stolen from their homes and made to perform against their wild natures.

THIS. This is the content I came here for. Immerse me in a chapter written from the perspective of one of Barnum’s nonhuman performers, the most long-suffering of them all. The fishes and monkeys forcibly joined to make the Feejee Mermaid (posthumously, obvs) perhaps, or the white whales boiled to death in their tank. Maybe Helen’s cranky old cat, banished to the Museum by Charity, never to be seen again.

Give me an act of nonhuman rebellion, or a whisper of feminist solidarity between h. sapiens and the furred and feathered creatures: for we are all their (read: the capitalist patriarchy’s) creatures.

(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: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (2020)

Friday, April 17th, 2020

Diagnosis: Murder

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 sexual assault.)

The girls stowed away repulsive, frightening experiences with males deep in their hearts without even realising it themselves.

Jiyoung was standing in the middle of a labyrinth. Conscientiously and calmly, she was searching for a way out that didn’t exist to begin with.

Jiyoung did not feel good as she checked ‘NO’ with her own hand. The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.

Kim Jiyoung lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Seoul with her husband, Jung Daehyun, and her baby daughter Jung Jiwon. A middle child who grew up in a working class family, Jiyoung attended university and landed a job at a small marketing agency after graduation. One of just a handful of women, she enjoyed her work well enough but quit after just a few years to have and raise Jiwon.

About a year after Jiwon’s birth, Jiyoung started exhibiting strange symptoms: she would “become” other people. Always women, always known to her, both living and dead: for example, her own mother, Oh Misook, or Cha Seungyeon, a mutual college friend of both Jiyoung and Daehyun who died in childbirth. Alarmed, Daehyun sought the help of a psychiatrist; Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is presented as the doctor’s case study of Jiyoung.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is basically a laundry list of the misogynist slights that Korean women – and especially Korean mothers – are subjected to, both historically and in contemporary society. (Ditto: women who dare to live and breathe and exist in any patriarchal society. As someone born and raised in the United States, I found roughly 97.8% of Jiyoung’s experiences easily translatable across cultures.) Even as I explain the plot this way, it seems like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 should make for a fairly tedious read; and yet, it’s anything but.

As Jiyoung’s psychiatrist traces a path through her early childhood, high school and university years, marriage, and motherhood, we’re forced to bear witness as a young girl’s spirit is beaten down, degraded, and eroded – just like her mother’s and grandmother’s before her – while, as outsiders looking in, we are powerless to stop it. We are watching a murder: psychological, emotional, psychic, spiritual. A death by a million cuts: some tiny, others not so much. Intergenerational trauma galore.

There are the “smaller” microaggressions, such as how the boys are always allowed to go first: served the first (and best) portions of food at home, or permitted to do their presentations first at school. Then there’s the bigger stuff: gender discrimination in hiring and pay; limited career opportunities and pink collar jobs; sex-selective abortion; the indoctrination into rape culture, starting in elementary school; sexual harassment and assault; the pressure to have children; and the simultaneous idolization and vilification of stay-at-home moms.

When Jiyoung finally “snaps,” you’ll wonder why it took so long. Her adoption of other personas isn’t the disease, but rather a symptom: of a society that dismisses, denigrates, devalues, and outright hates women. Only by becoming other women can she challenge the status quo. They function as Jiyoung’s protectors, when Jiyoung is barred from protecting herself. (Sometimes.)

I hate to quote Alyssa’s father, because he is 110% one of the pricks this story is about, but when the gif fits…
——————————

The coup de grace is the psychiatrist’s personal notes at the end, wherein he recounts his own wife’s struggles, thus positioning himself as the rare male beast, better suited to understanding Jiyoung’s predicament than most. Mansplaining meets “not all men,” while completely and utterly failing to help either beleaguered woman. It’s enough to make you wonder why Jiyoung didn’t opt for a female psychiatrist … but only if you missed the entire point of the 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: Space Boy, Volume 6 by Stephen McCranie (2020)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

The one where we finally discover Oliver’s flavor!

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

A long-running weekly comic on WEBTOON, Stephen McCranie’s Space Boy is teased as “A sci-fi drama of a high school aged girl who belongs in a different time, a boy possessed by emptiness as deep as space, an alien artifact, mysterious murder, and a love that crosses light years.”

The MC is Amy, a sixteen-year-old girl who’s pretty normal except for the fact that she’s an unwitting time traveler. Born on a mining colony, her family was forced to return to earth when her father lost his job. Since it’s a thirty-year journey, Amy and the ‘rents were cryogenically frozen for the trip: hence the “girl out of time.”

The family settles in Kokomo City, where Amy enrolls in South Pines Academy. Though she misses her BFF Jemmah (now old enough to be Amy’s mom; could this be the “love that crosses light years”?), she soon finds her own new social circles: football star David, his girlfriend Cassie, and their friends Zeph, Meisha, Maki, Logan, and Howard; and the school’s agriculture club, which includes fellow crossover Meisha, and Tamara and Shafer.

And then there is Oliver, the mysterious, silver-haired boy who does not seem to have a flavor. (Amy has synesthesia and “tastes” peoples’ personalities.) Though her friends think he’s trouble with a capital T, Amy gravitates to Oliver, and vice versa. But for reasons not yet revealed, Oliver’s very existence is classified – and their continued friendship endangers Amy’s life. Enter: the alien artifact and mysterious murder.

Volume 6 collects episodes 76 through 92 of the WEBTOON comic, originally published between 8/24/16 and 12/15/16 (yes, the trade paperbacks are very far behind! Do yourself a favor and create a WEBTOON account so you can stay up to date.)

One thing I don’t love about the trade paperbacks is that the plot seems to progress at a snail’s pace, and Volume 6 is no exception; 256 pages and we’re still not done with Spirit Week! Still, this is an enjoyable and bittersweet collection.

Volume 6 sees Oliver continue to distance himself from Amy, while fissures deepen among some of Amy’s friends. Amy gets to experience her first snowfall – and snow day! – for which mom thankfully yet temporarily lifts her grounding (that’s a whole ‘nother story). Amy finally discovers Oliver’s flavor (orange with hints of cinnamon, brimming with passion and vibrancy and life – the complete opposite of Nothing) – revealed, oddly enough, as he’s beating the piss out of a bully. Before she can even begin to process, Oliver and his foster dad Dr. Kim vanish, just as mysteriously as they arrived.

The agriculture club’s baby chicks make a quick cameo, as part of Tamara’s efforts to lift the spirits of a mopey Amy. My feelings about the ag club are something of a roller coaster: initially I was overjoyed that Amy made the connection between the soft, floofy, sentient creatures she was loving on and the chicken salad sammie on her plate, and vowed to go vegetarian. This quickly crumbled when she got an accidental mouthful of bacon on Oliver’s sandwich and decreed that it was fine, so long as the agriculture club doesn’t start raising baby piggies. Speciesist much?

And the very existence of animal agriculture so far in the future feels like a disappointing lack of imagination of the artist’s part. When I first started reading Space Boy, I thought it had to be at least 30 years in the future, to allow for Amy’s travel. Probably more like 100+ given all the new tech. But when Amy starts researching the Arno and its mission to reach the alien artifact, we learn that the year is actually 3355: The Arno launched in 3051, and was supposed to reach the artifact in 300 years – which, for Amy, was 4 years ago. 3051 + 300 + 4 = 3355.

So you’re telling me that it’s more than a thousand years in the future and we don’t have synthetic or lab-grown meat yet? That we’re still breeding and raising sentient creatures to be slaughtered for food? That our morals have evolved so little? Gross, dude. If this is the future, I hope humanity burns itself out well before 3355.

But yeah, baby chicks are hella cute.

(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: Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel (2020)

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

Only loosely based on the Gypsy Rose Blanchard case (& with a much more satisfying ending!)

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and suicide. This review contains vague spoilers.)

Most people don’t like holding on to anger. They feel it crushing and consuming them, so they let it go. They try to forget the ways they’ve been wronged.

But some of us cannot forget and will never forgive. We keep our axes sharp, ready to grind. We hold pleas for mercy between our teeth like jawbreakers.

They say a grudge is a heavy thing to carry.

Good thing we’re extra strong.

For most of her first eighteen years, Rose Gold Watts was in and out of the hospital, battling a plethora of health problems. Constantly nauseous and unable to eat, she was weak and thin – skeletal, even, weighing just seventy pounds at the age of eighteen. Since her stomach couldn’t tolerate regular foods, Rose Gold got most of her nutrition from a feeding tube that the doctors put in at her mother Patty’s request. Patty insisted on shaving Rose Gold’s head, claiming that her hair would otherwise fall out in clumps, or grow in unevenly. Rose Gold had her own wig collection by the time she was a teenager, along with a wheelchair for those days when she was feeling too unsteady to get around on her own. She suffered from sleep apnea and had a mouth full of yellow, rotten teeth, thanks to the havoc all that bile wrought on her enamel.

Home schooled, Rose Gold had little contact with the outside world; that is, until she convinced Patty to get the internet – “to help with school work” – at the age of sixteen. It was then that she met Phil in a chat room; Phil, who would piece together Rose Gold’s terrible symptoms and unconventional life experiences, and figure out what should have been plain to Rose Gold’s doctors. Namely, that she wasn’t sick at all, but was being poisoned and starved by Patty.

Though Darling Rose Gold is obviously inspired by a recent and rather infamous case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy – the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard by her nineteen-year-old daughter Gypsy Rose, and Gypsy Rose’s online boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn – the story veers from IRL events in some pretty significant ways: Dee Dee was not tried for her crimes; Gypsy Rose’s bio dad and his new wife are not total asshats; and the real Gypsy Rose, the one rotting away in jail (unjustly, imho), seems much saner and more well-adjusted than the non-murderous but still stone cold Rose Gold of fiction. Which is all fine and good, as long as you know that from jump street. Otherwise you might find yourself offended on the real Gypsy Rose’s behalf – if only initially, before the story’s twist becomes evident. I know I did.

Dammit, I’m trying my best not to give anything away, but it’s exceedingly difficult to review this book without dropping some spoilers! Even if they’re just of the maddeningly vague variety!

Darling Rose Gold is told in two narratives: past tense, in the weeks and years following “Poisonous Patty’s” trial, from Rose Gold’s perspective; and present day, five years later, when Patty is released from prison and is taken in by Rose Gold, in Patty’s POV. It’s evident pretty early on – from the time they pull into the driveway of Patty’s childhood home; or rather, when she has such an extreme, visceral reaction to it – that Rose Gold has a few tricks up her sleeve. Even so, Wrobel manages to sustain the psychological tension and the “will she or won’t she?”/”who’s the real villain here?” suspense throughout the story, escalating things to delicious heights (depths?) with the denouement. This is a much more satisfying tale than its “ripped from the headlines” inspiration.

Rose Gold makes for a compelling protagonist, whether you’re cringing in vicarious embarrassment for her teenage, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt just-sprung-from-a-bunker awkwardness, or rooting for her to get sweet, sweet revenge on her tormentor. Patty is appropriately frustrating, so much so that it’s hard not to root for her demise; I would’ve liked a few more present-day chapters from her perspective, so we revel in her anguish just a bit longer. And Billy, what a freaking tool. I really hope he was roasted and then summarily cancelled by the masses, otherwise he got off a little too easy, with just a few months of panic and suffering.

Also: I hope Rose Gold is able to get those new teeth she always wanted. I have a serious hang up about teeth, and it’s always the dental stuff that haunts me.

Read it if: you devoured The Act, but didn’t want to see Gypsy Rose serve any time for what was clearly a case of self-defense.

(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 Companions by Katie M. Flynn (2020)

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

A haunting glimpse into one possible future.

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

four out of five stars

Where I live now is a blank space. I imagine you live somewhere similar. I can fill it with light, with sorrow, drench it in horror, erase it all with an ocean roar. I can fill it with memories, you putting on your sister’s clothes, Lea! I can remember her name—I don’t know why. There are washes of gray nothing where whole years should be, but I remember thinking something bad would happen at that house party.

Standing on the cliffs, holding that shovel in my living teenage hands, the hot feeling of anger. We were just girls—what was I so angry about?

The Companions imagines a future San Francisco that feels all too possible; one shaped in equal measures by disease and capitalism (or are they just one and the same?).

Ravaged by several successive waves of a mysterious and highly contagious virus, the citizens of California are under quarantine. In San Francisco, residents are confined to crowded high rises; children attend school online and socialize in carefully planned and closely supervised play dates in their buildings. The internet is many peoples’ only link to the world outside their tightly sealed towers.

And then there are the companions: when people die, they can opt to have their consciousness downloaded into a semi-immortal body. But this comes at a price: companions are the intellectual property of Metis, the giant megacorp that birthed the companion technology. For a hefty fee, the grotesquely wealthy can remain in the custody of their descendants; the less fortunate belong to Metis, to rent out as it pleases. The bodies used to house the companions’ consciousness run the gamut, from beat-up, trashcan-shaped robots that sport hooks for arms, to lifelike human bodies capable of regenerating skin. Distribution is predictably class-based.

When I read the synopsis for The Companions – a sixteen-year-old murder victim turned first-gen companion goes rogue in order to hunt down her killer – I was hooked (sorry Lilac, no pun intended). However, this plot point primarily serves as a jumping-off point for a much larger story: about technological developments, corporate greed, unintended consequences, and cultural backlash. As much as I wanted to delve into story about robot revenge, I still greatly enjoyed the end result. (Unmet expectations aren’t always a bad thing!)

The narrative unfolds from the alternating perspectives of a whole host of characters, all of them bound by Lilac’s rebellion:

* There’s Lilac, of course, who wakes in her Rosie the Robot-esque body to find that she’s been requisitioned as the plaything of a teenage girl named Delilah.

* Nikki, Lila’s childhood best friend (and secret crush), whose unknown fate haunts Lilac decades later.

* Red/Mrs. Crozier, the teenage girl who killed Lila in a fit of jealousy, now a lonely and bitter old woman who lives in the Jedediah Smith Elderly Care Facility.

* Cam, one of Red’s caregivers.

* Gabe/Gabrielle, an orphaned street kid in San Francisco who ekes out an existence as a semi-professional thief.

* Diana, one of the scientists who developed Metis’s companion technology.

* Kit, an illegal companion duplicate.

* Rachel, a companion recruited as a mercenary.

* Jakob Sonne, an actor with dangerously independent ideas of his own.

* Mrs. Espera, ex-wife of studio exec Sydney Espera and mother to their adult daughter Isla.

* Rolly, the son of a farmer named James, who turned to disposing of companions for Metis after he lost much of his land after the quarantine.

* Andy, Rolly’s brother, who goes missing for a time when he’s kinda sorta kidnapped by a pair of companions.

While Lilac’s escape from Dahlia’s custody does set subsequent events into motion, the story becomes so much bigger than one person. Lilac’s singular act of rebellion inspires insurrection in others – sometimes with disastrous results. There are bombings and terrorists attacks and recalls. Acts of stunning inhumanity, as well as tiny moments of kindness and bravery.

Despite its somewhat diminutive size, The Companions is an ambitious book: it dares us to contemplate what immortality might look like, given our current sociopolitical climate. How might such a promising technology be twisted against us, made dystopian? How can we stop this happening? Can we, even?

Read it if: you rooted for the Cylons in BSG.

Read it with: Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, which is grander in scope yet has a similar vibe.

(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: Blood Countess by Lana Popović (2020)

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

“And if I was not deranged before, I have since succumbed.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including physical abuse, sexual assault, and murder.)

But I see it. Just as I see Lord Nádasdy’s hand close around her wrist, the skin paling with the force of his grip. I can see how it hurts her, in the way her smile slides off her face.

For all the gold and silver in her coffers, in some ways the countess is just like me.

A woman, with a man’s cruel hand around her wrist.

And is it truly Ferenc’s abuse, I begin to wonder, watching the corded muscles in Elizabeth’s neck, the wild elation flooding her face with every fall of the switch, that casts her to these abject depths? Or might there be some black vein of malice riving through her, too, nothing at all to do with him?

But that cannot be, it cannot. I could not love someone evil, and yet I love her so dearly, shudder with yearning for her touch.

Anna Darvulia is just thirteen the first time she meets the Countess Elizabeth Báthory. She unwittingly chases her kitten Zsuzsi, freshly rescued from a pack of bloodthirsty boys, in front of her Lady’s wedding procession – and, miraculously, lives to see another day.

Several years will pass before Elizabeth summons Anna to her side – or rather, to the bedside of her secret, illegitimate son Gabor, in the throes of a mysterious illness. Anna, the daughter of the village midwife and a skilled healer in her own right (“witch,” whisper some), diagnoses it as an infected bug bite and delivers Gabor from the jaws of death.

Elizabeth rewards Anna with employment, and enough coin to feed her struggling family – first in the scullery, then as a chambermaid to the Lady herself. Despite the rumors about Elizabeth’s cruel streak, Anna finds herself drawn to Elizabeth – so lovely, captivating, and mischievous. So like Anna herself, tied to an abusive man by the ropes of the patriarchy.

As Anna becomes more entwined with Elizabeth, she begins to see that the woman she loves is indeed the sociopath that everyone speaks about in hushed whispers in shadowy corners. She gets a front-row seat to Elizabeth’s cruelty – like, a literal front seat – yet Anna stubbornly clings to the fantasy that she can fix Elizabeth, pull her back from the edge of depravity; or, failing that, temper her abuse, if only a little. But when Anna realizes that she is as expendable as the rest, she takes drastic action to end Elizabeth’s reign of terror.

Very loosely based on the historical “Countess Dracula,” Blood Countess is not exactly what I expected. For one, the honest-to-goodness, vampiric bloodletting comes pretty late in the story. (In some ways, this almost feels like Elizabeth’s origin story.) The journey there is as much a psychological thriller as a slash-’em-up horror story.

Anna is a fascinating character, and her reactions to Elizabeth – her knee-jerk disbelief of the rumors, coupled with her justifications when she witnesses Elizabeth’s rage for herself – feels a lot like contemporary excuses we make for men who do bad things: “Well, he’s never hurt me personally, so he must be a good guy.” or “He was provoked.” or “But what about all the good he’s done for women.” Like, it was painful at times to witness Anna’s journey to the truth; onto her, I projected the faces of Ghislaine Maxwell, or the women seated at Harvey Weinstein’s table when he was so bravely called out by Kelly Bachman, Zoe Stuckless, and Amber Rollo. Handmaids of the patriarchy, if you will.

If anything, Blood Countess is an amazing case study of how abusers get away with it for so long. Elizabeth’s gender and her (perceived) connections with Anna make it all the more complex and meaty – doubly so with all the red herrings Popović throws down about men behaving badly. Did Ferenc and Mr. Darvulia deserve to die? Probably. But sometimes women (especially rich white women) are terrible too. Elizabeth’s masterful gaslighting of Anna was the icing on the cake.

Popović’s prose is gorgeous and lush and dark and sexy. Horrible yet exquisite. It’s like a rich piece of red velvet cake (decidedly not vegan), topped with not-fake blood icing. Your favorite Halloween candy, with razor blades hidden inside (just like mom warned you about!). Deliciously dreadful.

Come for the historical horror, stay for the doomed F/F, would-be/could-be Thelma & Louise-esque romance.

(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: Foul Is Fair (Foul Is Fair #1) by Hannah Capin (2020)

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020

Mean Girls + Kill Bill + The Craft

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, as well as murder and suicide.)

I said, I spat, I swore: You picked the wrong girl.
They did.
They had to.
It could only be me.
Not the first—
—but the last, the last, the last.
They picked the right girl.

“We’ll be the witches they don’t believe in until it’s too late.”

Elle, Mads, Summer, and Jenny: young, wealthy, powerful, privileged. The quartet of besties rules their LA social circle: “We were middle school six months early, wearing our shiny new crowns before anyone else knew a monarchy was coming.” They are as ruthless as they are rich. Summer ruins starry-eyed boys for fun; Jenny can kill with her saccharine sweetness. Mads is the daughter of a crime boss who taught her and Elle to defend themselves when Mads came out as trans and was bullied at school. Ride or die? They coined the term, bitches.

When they crash a party at St. Andrew’s Preparatory School to celebrate Elle’s sweet sixteen, the golden boys on the lacrosse team separate Elle from her pack, like so many wolves on the hunt. Duncan, king/captain, singles Elle out for slaughter; his younger brother, Malcolm, slips Rohypnol into her drink; and Porter guards the door while teammates Duncan, Duffy, Connor, and Banks take turns raping her. Duffy’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Piper witnesses the assault, but does nothing to stop it.

Elle arises from the ashes like a phoenix transformed: she is the same hard, cruel girl she was, but more. Now she is Jade with the razor-sharp claws, hair shorn and colored REVENGE black, eyes obscured by contacts that match her new name. She promptly enrolls in St. Andrew’s Prep and vows to get her bloody satisfaction before the week is out, before her bruises (and their scratch marks) have a chance to heal. Jade and her coven hatch a plan to take the golden boys (and one flock girl) down, all at the hand of one of their own.

Foul Is Fair is wild and audacious, in the best way possible. I almost passed on it, because Jade and her crew seem like characters I’d otherwise loathe: part of the 1%, kids who use their parents’ influence to get away with all sorts of transgressions, including bloody murder. (Think: the Drumpf kids, but with more panache and intelligence.)

But I do love me a good rape revenge story, and this one is in a class of its own: Kill Bill (which is of course I Spit On Your Grave + Bruce Lee) meets Mean Girls meets The Craft. Plus, for all her casual cruelty, the objects of Jade’s malice usually have it coming, for one reason or another. She is an avenging angel, if a fallen one at that. (Summer, though – Summer I wonder about. Spin-off, please? And a sequel for Lilia, I feel like that chick could be going places.)

I also found myself falling in like with the parents, again in spite of myself. I mean, these are some pretty terrible people: Jenny’s dad is a sleazy defense attorney who gets paid to victim-blame girls like Elle, and did I mention that Mads’s dad is a literal organized crime boss? Yet, despite their many flaws, these adults support their kids unconditionally – and not just monetarily, e.g., by buying their way out of trouble. Instead of putting a hit out on his daughter’s tormentors, Mads’s dad taught her how to fight…and then didn’t bat an eye when Elle casually mentioned that they were going to kill the bullies, not just kick their asses. Ditto Elle’s parents when, upon learning of their daughter’s assault, were content enough to let Elle handle it, her way. Murder heavily implied.

Is Foul Is Fair in any way, shape, or form believable? Nah. Unlike with Lisa Lutz’s The Swallows – another recent book tackling rape culture and sexual assault in an insular and privileged high school community – I can’t with a straight face insist that I can picture this playing out outside of the big (or little) screen. And that’s okay! Foul Is Fair is a deliciously savage rape revenge fantasy. One hundred percent, complete and total escapism and wish fulfillment.

I mean, if we can’t get justice in the real world, we deserve to see it with compounded, payday loan-esque interest in the fictional realm, right? (Trust me, patriarchy, you’re still getting the better end of the deal.)

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

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (2020)

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

This isn’t a love story.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexual harassment, rape, pedophilia, child abuse, drug use, and suicide.)

Fiona Apple was raped when she was twelve years old. I remember her talking about it in interviews back when I was twelve years old. She spoke about it so openly, the r-word coming out of her as though it were the same as any other. It happened outside her apartment; the whole time the man did what he did, she could hear her dog barking through the door. I remember crying over that detail while hugging our old shepherd dog, hot tears that I buried into his fur. I had no reason to care about rape then—I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved—but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really, though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.

“I tortured him,” I say. “I don’t think you understand how much I contributed to everything. His whole life descended into hell because of me.”

“He was a grown man and you were fifteen,” she says. “What could you have possibly done to torture him?”

For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.

“I just feel . . .” I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”

At the height of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault shitstorm, I was living in a rural area in the midwest: a swath of deep blood red in an already overwhelmingly red state. Guns, God, and (when it suits them) small government. The kind of place where everyone just assumes that everyone else agrees with them, on all the things, all the time. (Spoiler alert: I never did. A year out, I’ve found that I miss the weather; the politics, not so much.)

Anyway, I was visiting with a neighbor and the television just happened to be on, and the reporter just happened to be talking about Weinstein. The neighbor, an older conservative lady, could have chosen to ignore the news; she didn’t. Instead, she reacted with what was, to me at least, unexpected vehemence – directed not at Weinstein, but his accusers. (I guess Weinstein’s white male privilege trumped his liberal Hollywood elite status in her calculations.) Cue the rape apologism: Why did the women wait so long to come forward? If he was so bad, why did everyone continue to work with him? If true, how could this behavior continue for so long, unchecked? Etc., etc., etc.

Naturally, I disagreed, and the conversion quickly morphed into a larger discussion of sexual harassment and abuse. Come to find out, when she was a teenager – back in, oh, the 50s or 60s – she worked stocking shelves at a small, family-owned grocery store. Her boss was a creepy ass motherfucker who used to sexually harass his female employees. Among other things, he’d insist on stuffing her wages into her jeans pocket himself. If she wanted to get paid what she was owed, she had to acquiesce to being groped and fondled (read: sexually assaulted) by a man who was likely twice her age or older. Nice.

Yet even as she acknowledged that this behavior was unacceptable, she denied that she was a victim (or survivor, or what have you; the issue was not terminology), or that sexual harassment, assault, and rape are widespread problems. It was infuriating, but I also saw a disturbing logic in it: no one wants to be a victim; to be a victim is to be weak, vulnerable, and exposed. Why identify with the prey when you can side with the predator – and, in so doing, perhaps absorb some of his strength and power, make it your own? Of course THOSE WOMEN are lying; the alternative means that they are victims, and if they are victims, perhaps that makes me one too?

This is what played through my mind, on an endless loop, as I devoured My Dark Vanessa. Yes, devoured: though it is an impossibly difficult book to read, Russell’s writing – compassionate, insightful, shrewd AF – makes it go down just a bit easier. This might just be one of the “best” (read: most observant) fictional books on rape that I’ve ever read. (Sadly, I have read quite a few.)

Vanessa Wye is just fifteen when she meets her longtime abuser, Jacob Strane. At the beginning, he is simply her English teacher: a bespectacled middle-aged (forty-two, to be exact) employee at the private Browick School in Norumbega, Maine. She’s a sophomore who’s interested in poetry; he’s a pedophile who quickly confesses that he’s going to “ruin” her. Thus begins a seventeen-year “relationship” (scare quotes because it’s more accurately described as long-term abuse, even if the narrator resists seeing it this way) between the two.

The story is told by Vanessa, in two timelines: now, which is 2017, as Strane stands accused of sexual assault by multiple former students; and then, at the beginning of the school year in 2000. The story slowly progresses from both points, exploring the sexual abuse and its fallout, eventually converging in the here and now. (Interestingly, in the Acknowledgements, Russell says that the book took her eighteen years to write, which is roughly the timeline of My Dark Vanessa.)

Strane’s selection of Vanessa is hardly random: she’s shy, unsure of herself, a bit of a loner. She had a falling out with her best (and only) friend and roommate, Jenny, near the end of last semester, and she hasn’t yet recovered from the loss. She isn’t particularly close to her parents, and they live a few hours away from the school anyway. Strane doesn’t need to separate her from the herd, as she already stands apart (though he does excel at driving wedges too).

Though she has, through necessity, romanticized the abuse – both in real time, as it was happening, as well as retrospectively – it’s pretty easy for an outsider to see what’s going on. Strane grooms Vanessa, pushes an ever-expanding series of boundaries, and gaslights, stalks, threatens, and otherwise manipulates her. When he’s on the precipice of exposure, Strane has no qualms about throwing Vanessa under the bus – a move that smacks of premeditation.

Yet he has made Vanessa so utterly dependent on him – for attention, approval, and affection – that she cannot move on: not when she leaves Browick for home and public school; not when she reaches legal adulthood and goes off to college; and not as an adult. Strane has, as he promised, “ruined” her. (Though, thankfully, not beyond repair.) As Vanessa so desperately admits to her therapist, she needs for this to be a love story, because the alternative is too horrible to imagine.

Despite her protestations that she is not a victim, that what Strane did to her was not rape, we can see the toll the abuse has taken on Vanessa: again, both then and now. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of abuse will see the signs; for example, how Vanessa freezes up and dissociates from herself during the assaults. As a young adult and adult, she acts out sexually, engages in risky behaviors, and uses alcohol and drugs to cope. She very clearly suffers from PTSD. All of which belies her insistence that she was an equal and willing partner.

(In fact, statutory rape is not the only instance of assault Vanessa is subjected to by Strane; there are multiple scenes in which she either does not voice her consent, actively says no, cries in fear and pain, and/or is inebriated to the point that she loses consciousness.)

Russell does an excellent job of exposing Strane – and, by extension, all rapists – for what they are: misogynists who get off on subjugating women and girls. Rather than existing in a vacuum, they are symptom of a larger problem: a culture that makes excuses for powerful men (or any man), that dismisses and trivializes and denies sexual harassment and assault, and that hates women. Strane is but one in a long line of weak, pathetic men who are deserving of nothing but our scorn. His ultimate fate proves more than he deserves (and isn’t that always the way in this world?).

As for Vanessa, she can admittedly be frustrating at times. And, while it can be tempting to blame her for her obstinance (particularly when she attacks Strane’s other victims), mostly I just felt sorry for her: how do you even begin to heal when you cannot admit that you were even wronged? Russell gets mad points for portraying what could be, in the wrong hands, an unrelateable or even unlikable character, and infusing her with depth and nuance to further understanding and foster compassion. As far as psychological studies go, Vanessa Wye is a tour de force.

I also really enjoyed how the early-aughts setting grounded the story in my own childhood; the bits about Fiona Apple really connected with me, and I outright snorted when Vanessa (in her inner monologue only, natch) derided Strane for being the stupid one for not knowing who Britney Spears is (rather than Vanessa, for deigning to listen to that pop culture garbage). This all brought me back to my own teen years, and not always in a good way. We all have stories: “It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”

(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 Living (Warm Bodies #3) by Isaac Marion (2018)

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

This is the Warm Bodies ending we deserve.

five out of five stars

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

We are ten thousand generations of humans and millions more of simpler things, a vast history of lives and experiences condensed like an ocean of oil, growing deeper and more refined with each new moment of beauty. We want to ignite. We want to be heat and light. After billions of years, we are running out of patience.

“What we had before is what burned the world down. I’m ready for a whole new everything.”

“Chairs on the ceiling,” Tomsen adds. “An otter for president.”

Gebre looks at us for a moment, then tosses up his hands and turns back to his husband. “Well. Okay.”

Gael erupts with laughter. “You’re out of touch with the youth, old man.”

“I might even agree with them,” Gebre says with a shrug, “but they’re hardly representative of the general population.”

“We might be someday,” Julie says. “Maybe sooner than you think.”

“How do we make a better world without giving up a single piece of the old one? We don’t. We can’t. That’s a fucking stupid question.”

“No way around it, zombies are magic.”

Warm Bodies is a personal favorite of mine; if not in the top ten, then definitely the top twenty. (Hey, the likes of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler = stiff competition!) Until I met R. and Julie, never did I imagine that a book about the undead could be so beautiful and poetic. Romantic, even, and in a revolutionary, universal heartbeat kind of way.

The Burning World proved a letdown (albeit a teeny tiny one), as Marion traded some of the ardor for action adventure; it felt almost like an intermission between the more important stuff. In all fairness, bridging the gap between the beginning and end of a trilogy is HARD, and the second book in the series is still filled with its share of beautiful, transformative moments. (I challenge you to find a more tragically exquisite scene than when Nora’s patient, Mrs. A, pulls herself from the pit of the plague, only to succumb to her injuries after enjoying a few brief moments of her newfound humanity.)

I’m not gonna lie: I was nervous as heck to read The Living (especially right after the dumpster fire that was Fury, the series conclusion to another one of my faves, Menagerie).

Thankfully, The Living is a harmonious marriage of the previous two books: it’s got the race-against-time action-adventure chops of The Burning World, with all of the humor, heart, and humanity that made me fall head over heels for Warm Bodies.

The Living picks up immediately after the events of The Burning World, as R., Julie, Nora, Marcus, and (Huntress!) Tomsen flee an imploding NYC. What ensues is a road trip across the United States – including an especially precarious and trippy (as in LSD) journey through the Midwaste – as they try to beat Axiom to Post; save their kids from being assimilated into Axiom’s military-industrial complex; continue to spread the Gleam to the Dead and Nearly Living; and confront their pasts.

For Julie, this means finding her Nearly Living mother before she dies a second time; for Nora, it means confronting – and perhaps forgiving – memories she’s tried long and hard to repress; and for R., it involves a trip to the basement, and bringing his crimes against humanity – as both the head of the Burners and the heir to the Atvist megacorp – to light. And they’re all chasing Tomsen’s white whale, BABL, hoping to bring it crashing down, thus opening the lines of communication to humanity.

One of the delights of The Living is watching R. grow and evolve – and with it, his relationship with Julie. There’s this wonderful scene where Julie confesses that what first drew her to R. was his distinct lack of a background or baggage. He was a blank canvas on which she could project whatever she needed. Slowly, though, he has become full-fledged person – imperfections and all. R. didn’t have much of a choice when he devoured Perry; he was just following the plague’s biological imperative. But the towns that were consumed at his behest as a Burner, and the humans devoured by the machine that was Axiom? Those were R.’s doing. How could that young man grow into the monosyllabic zombie that Julie fell in love with? How can she reconcile the man she loves with the person he once was? How can he?

We also learn more about the nature of the plague; in general terms, it’s an allegory for the times we live in now, and one that’s perhaps more apt today than when the series began. The plague is forced unity and conformity; it is greed and pessimism. It is Axiom (Amazon, Blackwater, Purdue Pharma; Bethany Christian Services, CoreCivic, Wells Fargo): objectifying, tabulating, assimilating, corporatizing, mechanizing, consuming, regurgitating, and reassembling humans, nonhumans, and the natural world. It is apathy and stagnation; bigotry and tyranny. The only way through it? Love – and otter presidents.

The loveliest part of The Living, far and away, is the Library: a subconscious, supernatural, subatomic collective consciousness. A vast, limitless record of everyone and everything that ever has been, and ever will be. Though it has a longstanding policy of steering clear of human affairs, the state of the world has become such that the Library can no longer bear silent witness. This burning world, so desolate yet still so full of potential, needs a nudge. A bit of wisdom. A tiny miracle.

And the so Library whispers, cajoles, and calls out to our protagonists. Well, the older ones; the younger ones, Joan and Alex and Sprout and Addis – they can flit in and out of the stacks at will. They are able to sip and guzzle from the Library’s incomprehensible stores of knowledge whenever they like. Perhaps they can even use this wisdom to bend the laws of reality. They are the next generation; our future.

I hope they don’t mind, but I’m going to pocket a small piece of the Library, and slip it into my own weird, godless magpie version of “religion, not quite a.” There it will rest on the shelves alongside Octavia E. Butlers’s Parables duology; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; Carl Sagan’s starstuff; Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral”; and pieces of Light from Other Stars and The Psychology of Time Travel, by Erika Swyler and Kate Mascarenhas, respectively, and among other things.

It’s strange and perhaps a bit confusing, but also as magnificent as all get out. Just roll with it and you’ll have an extraordinary time, I promise.

Also awesome and compelling and worth a mention: Nora’s reunion with Addis; Nora + Marcus; Tomsen vs. BABL; The Suggestible Universe; Paul Bark (sounds an awful lot like Paul Blart!); Gael + Gebre; random philosophical debates with strangers in dive bars; and the feeling you get when a ghost smiles at you.

Gleam on.

(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: Fury (Menagerie #3) by Rachel Vincent (2018)

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

The series that started with a roar goes out with a weak, acquiescent whimper.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and forced abortion, pregnancy, and birth. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

“I cry foul. Humankind doesn’t deserve a sword and shield. Or even a plastic spork. Not after everything they’ve done to us. You should be fighting for us.”

If Menagerie – the first book in this trilogy – was a 2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful, it would be Bernie Sanders. Fury, on the other hand? More of a Joe Biden. Pete Buttigieg, at best.

Look. I absolutely loved, cherished, and adored Menagerie. Reading it was a rapturous moment for me, and for reasons that something like 97% of my fellow readers just won’t get. While the plight of the cryptids in this parallel universe created by Rachel Vincent has several obvious and unmistakable corollaries in our world – the treatment of Muslims in post-9/11 America, the demonization of brown immigrants, especially (but not exclusively!) under a Drumpf presidency – at the time I argued that the most obvious one was also the most apt: simply put, “Menagerie reads like a thinly veiled animal rights revenge fantasy.” Was that Vincent’s intention? Probably not, especially given how the later books played out. Like Oreos, Menagerie was accidentally vegan. But that doesn’t make it any less delicious.

My main gripe with its follow-up, Spectacle, wasn’t that Vincent walked back the animal-friendly undertones, but rather that she failed to tread any new ground. By swapping the site of Delilah’s enslavement and oppression from Metzger’s Menagerie (a struggling traveling circus) to the Savage Spectacle (a place where cryptids are rented out for basically anything, from canned hunts to rape), it seemed like she meant to up the stakes:

Establishments like the Savage Spectacle were whispered about in hushed, fearful tones from behind the bars of Metzger’s Menagerie. They were the boogie men that Metzger used to keep his captives in line: act up, and you’ll end up at a place even worse than here. But is it? Really?

While rape in the form of sexual trafficking is rampant at the Spectacle, rape also occurred at Metzger’s: he forced “exhibits” to breed so that he could sell their offspring. Instead of forced abortion, as at Spectacle, Metzger’s had forced pregnancy and birth. Captives were not intentionally murdered at the carnival, but they were neglected and sometimes shipped off to places where they would be killed, such as research institutions or game preserves.

Is it really possible to rank oppressions?

I feel like Spectacle is Vincent’s attempt to up the ante, to create a world more shocking and appalling than even Metzger’s. And I don’t think that’s possible, because again: how do you compare atrocities? It’s all terrible and horrifying and makes anyone with an ounce of humanity not want to live on this planet anymore.

Fury, on the other hand, represents a serious (and seriously disappointing) deviation from the much more radical and subversive Menagerie. Also, very little happens. Something like 75% of the book involves the main characters hiding out in a remote cabin, or sitting in their cars drinking slushees for the free incognito wifi. I shit you not.

Fury picks up nine months after Delilah & Co.’s escape from the Savage Spectacle. After they disabled Vandekamp’s ability-inhibiting shock collars and high-tailed it out of there, the government bombed the facility. The unlucky cryptids and abusive guards trapped inside were written off as collateral damage. On the upside, they have no idea how many cryptids survived – and escaped. They do suspect that Delilah and Gallagher are out there, BUT they remain blissfully unaware of Delilah’s pregnancy. Which is pushing ten months and might end with her demise at the chubby little hands of a fear dearg baby.

Delilah, Gallagher, Lenore, Zyanya, Claudio, Genni, Rommily, and Eryx are all hiding out in an off-grid cabin in the deep woods outside of DC. Lenore sirens people into giving them cash monies to survive, and she and Delilah – the most human-looking of the group – go into town once a week to check the news feeds. They mean to be searching for the missing members of their group – Lenore’s husband, Rommily’s sisters, Zyanya’s brother and children – but it’s hard to get anything done when you’re a notorious fugitive.

And then a spate of mass murders whips everyone into a frenzy. Teachers kill students, nurses kill patients, police kill civilians, soldiers kill everything that moves. Some begin to fear that this is the beginning of a second reaping. Cryptids are scapegoated all over again. Though it seems that things can’t get worse for nonhumans, the bottom drops even lower: checkpoints are set up, with orders to shoot loose cryptids on sight.

And then things really go off the rails when Delilah wakes up one morning covered in blood and grime. It seems she killed someone in her sleep; but with two badasses taking up space in her body – the furiae and her fetus – it’s anyone’s guess who the murderer is…or why the victims’ faces all look eerily similar in death. One thing we do know: she can’t stop won’t stop.

All this plays out against the backdrop of the first Reaping in 1986, as told from the POV of fourteen-year-old Rebecca Essig, one of the few kids who was lucky enough to survive the mass slaughter by virtue of having other plans that night. She was at a slumber party, only to skip out early and find two of her three younger siblings dead, and her parents covered in blood. Eventually, the government would take her six-year-old sister Erica – really a changeling, or surrogate – into custody, never to be seen again. Rebecca’s story centers on her search for the real Erica, and converges with Delilah’s in unexpected (and often confusing) ways.

*** So here is where the book goes terribly wrong (and where the SPOILERS start). ***

It turns out that, of the hundreds of thousands of surrogates that the government rounded up in 1986, five or six thousand survived. They have been kept in a Guantanamo-like facility, under the control of Vandekamp’s collars, presumably for research and interrogation. However, when Delilah and her friends disabled the collars, they disabled the whole lot of them, allowing the surrogates to escape.

Now in their mid-thirties, the surrogates aim to kickstart a second Reaping, this time by turning authority figures against the very people they should be protecting and serving. Hence: teachers vs. students, nurses vs. patients, cops and soldiers vs. civilians. I think – hope! – you can see where I’m going with this.

This plot like leads to some pretty cringe-worthy exchanges between the MCs. To wit:

“Authority figures.” My voice hardly carried any sound. “Instead of parents. The surrogates could be using authority figures this time. Anyone we’re supposed to be able to trust to protect us.”

“And now—maybe—they’ve found a new way to get to us,” Lenore said. “To make us suspicious of the people we should trust the most.”

and:

“They’ll keep feasting on our pain and chaos for as long as possible. They’ll keep turning teacher against student, nurse against patient, soldier against civilian. Stealing trust and security from us. Making us fear the very people who should protect us.”

Soldiers and cops, really? “People we should trust the most”? You can tell that a white person wrote this, the privilege is blinding. And in a story that’s ostensibly about the othering and oppression of marginalized communities, to boot. Like, I’m a middle-class white lady and even I get nervous around people with guns who can use them with near impunity. Crazy, that.

Put another way: anyone who’s paying even the slightest bit attention is already suspicious of militarized authority figures like soldiers and the police.

The ending, though? OMG, the ending. I can’t even with this appeasing centrist bullshit.

Because Delilah is tangentially responsible for the escape of the surrogates, the furiae has taken it upon herself to send out a sort of homing signal, luring all the escapees to Delilah’s doorstep. Once they meet, the furiae assumes control of Delilah’s body and straight-up slays them; there is no self-inflicted poetic justice here. (Hence the sleep-killing.) But killing them one at a time is a slow process, so Delilah hatches a plan to get thousands of them in one place and induce mass slaughter – with a human audience, so that they can see that we’re all on the same team. Gross, vomit, no want.

“I cry foul. Humankind doesn’t deserve a sword and shield. Or even a plastic spork. Not after everything they’ve done to us. You should be fighting for us.”

“Lenore, I’m not choosing humankind over cryptids. This isn’t us versus them. The surrogates are the enemy. And the only way humankind will ever understand that is if we show them that the rest of us are all on the same side.”

Uh, but you’re not. And this won’t work. Let me tell you why.

In the wake of 9/11, many Muslims denounced the actions of the hijackers; 6,024 self-identified American Muslims fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, fourteen of whom were killed overseas. Yet none of this has stopped countless right-wing politicians and commentators from condemning, vilifying, and marginalizing all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world because of the actions of a few. (Meanwhile, domestic terrorism largely remains the purview of white men, and yet you rarely hear calls for white men everywhere to disavow John Timothy Earnest or James Alex Fields Jr., lest they be guilty by association.)

Immigrants have a lower incarceration rate than natural-born citizens, yet the facts don’t stop 45 from saying things like “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Hell, some immigrants even put their bodies on the line by serving in the military, only to be deported once they return home. “Same team” my ass.

I could go on but this is depressing.

Bigotry is born of fear, sure; and this fear is often misplaced. But this assumes that people are open to education and growth, and often it’s just the opposite (deplorables in the house!). Bigotry is stubborn and entrenched, y’all. Sometimes people are just fucking horrible. Also consider that oppression is profitable. We’re not afraid of most nonhuman animals, yet we continue to exploit them; and, in this AU, cryptids are a big busine$$. Circuses and carnivals, research facilities, controlled hunts, unpaid labor, rape and forced birth, exotic meats, the military-industrial complex. Political capital and mobilizing the base. Humans have so very much to gain by keeping this system of dehumanization and oppression going.

Delilah’s sacrifice, the denouement of this story, is more tragic than noble. Menagerie had me hoping for total animal liberation: nothing more, nothing less. What we got was some half-assed, “hearts and minds,” if we cut off a limb for them, maybe they will deign to acknowledge the basic humanity in us, bullshit.

As far as I’m concerned, her story begins and ends with Menagerie. Spectacle is just kind of meh, while Fury is legit a slap in the face to everyone who rooted for Delilah and her adopted family of cryptids (and, by extension, the marginalized populations they represent in our own world).

Additional quibbles:

Gallagher’s only method of communication seems to be growling.

I do not like that he and Delilah hooked up; it feels like a really gross and icky taboo violation, and besides, can’t men and women ever “just” be friends (or champion and cause, as it were)?

Finally, Eryx. Oh, poor sweet Eryx. You and Rommily deserved so much better. We all did.

/rant

(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: Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri (2019)

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

“Who knew why straight people did anything, really.”

four out of five stars

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

You and I, we’re twenty feet and more than a hundred years apart.

(“the shape of my name”)

It is easy for him to imagine the worst things. Trying to see exactly what’s in front of him is harder. A plastic container full of living fruit. The streetlight shining through the window. The dangling thread of wool on his suit, the shiny black buttons. His cheap apartment, his silent and spectral roommate, the letter confirming his academic suspension, his infatuation with someone who switches out their gender like it’s an attractive but itchy sweater, his mother’s disappointment, his dwindling savings.

And the one thing he can’t see, can’t imagine: his future. That’s the monster, really, that’s lurking at the corner of this painting.

(“a silly love story”)

Maybe it’s my pitiful lack of imagination, or perhaps it’s just because I’ve written so damn many of these, but I always have the most trouble titling a review. It’s not uncommon for me to just pluck a choice quote from the book I’m reviewing. Here, though? The title pretty much chose itself.

Homesick: Stories is such a gloriously and unapologetically queer collection of short fiction. And it doesn’t feel gimmicky or purposefully overdone, either: the LBGTQ elements are organic, authentic, and fit seamlessly with the content of the stories. Like, they just are. And why not? The author is “queer and nonbinary/transgender” (and “One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which was pretty cool.”).

The writing here is exquisite and magical; every word and turn of phrase feels like it was conjured from the ‘verse using spells and potions. The stories could mostly be described as speculative fiction, with a liberal seasoning of fantasy and scifi throughout. Many of the tales have a surreal, dreamlike quality to them that will throw you for a loop – or twenty.

They didn’t all do it for me – them’s the breaks with anthologies – but even the “worst” of the bunch was entertaining and held my full attention. Really my main complaint, in the event that there is one, is that some of the stories either end abruptly or without a satisfactory conclusion. That said, “the shape of my name” and “before we disperse like star stuff” alone make Homesick a must read.

“a silly love story” – 4/5

There is a poltergeist living in Jeremy’s closet, unspooling the stitching on his ancient suit and stinking everything up with the smell of apricots and dust. There is also a bigender person named Merion haunting his heart, threatening to either break or cultivate it. This is a surprisingly sweet and tender story, and the monster is absolutely not what you expect it to be. (Hint: it’s a thousand times scarier than a mildly annoying ghost.)

“Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” – 3/5

I got Jane Doe, with Madelyn coming in a close second.

“dead air” – 4/5

Nita’s sociologically influenced art project/”ethnography of the people I fuck” goes off the rails when she falls in love with one of her subjects, a girl named Maddie. Maddie is haunted by her small town past, and before long those ghosts will devour Nita too. “dead air” is creepy and atmospheric, and has a kind of Blair Witch vibe, told as it is via a series of interview transcripts. I just wish I knew wtf was going on (!).

“she hides” – 3/5

After Anjana’s aging parents move into a nursing home, she’s tasked with cleaning out their house. In an otherworldly mirroring of her mom’s deteriorating mental state, the house begins to shrink before Anjana’s eyes. So she takes refuge in the hiding place of her childhood: her parents’ oversized bedroom bureau. “she hides” is beautifully told, yet it didn’t quite do it for me.

“let down, set free” – 3/5

In a letter addressed to her ex-husband, the narrator recounts how she left her old life behind: saddled atop a floating alien tree. An invasive species the government has instructed its citizens to burn, natch.

“the shape of my name” – 5/5 amazing

Originally published as a short story on Tor.com in 2015, “the shape of my name” is one of my favorites of the bunch. Heron was born in the 1950s and assigned female at birth. His mom knew that he’d one day make the transition to male and choose his own name. Not because she’s particularly insightful or progressive when it comes to gender roles and identity, but rather because her family has a time machine and she’s seen the future. Perhaps this is why she chose to live and die in self-exile in the future, abandoning Heron and his father in the present.

I’m sure you were lonely, waiting for me to grow up so you could travel again. You were exiled when you married Dad in 1947, in that feverish period just after the war. It must have been so romantic at first. I’ve seen the letters he wrote during the years he courted you. You’d grown up seeing his name written next to yours, with the date that you’d marry him. When did you start feeling trapped, I wonder? You were caught in a weird net of fate and love and the future and the past. You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.

“the shape of my name” is a magical, innovative, and aching scifi story that weaves time travel with trans issues in a way that’s simply breathtaking. It’s really just a thing of beauty and wonder, particularly in the words Cipri chooses to describe each year in the narrator’s experience. Every jump, every era, has its own distinct feeling and flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.

“not an ocean, but the sea” – 3/5

A middle-aged cleaning woman named Nadia finds an ocean hidden under her clients’ couch. At just a few pages, this is the shortest of the short stories. No less magical, but I want more!

“presque vu” – 4/5

Everyone in this unnamed town is haunted by something. Clay coughs up keys, usually while fast asleep at night. His neighbor Mari receives vintage postcards. Her boyfriend Finn wakes up with unspooled cassette tapes tangled in his hair. Clay’s ex-lover Joe gets phone calls from a ghost. And the entire community is plagued by wraiths, ethereal creatures who fly overhead and emit radioactive-esque glowing lights. Supposedly “unwinding” a wraith will rid its abuser of their haunting. Cue: some really vile and uncomfortable ugliness.

A lovely and brutal story, “presque vu” ended just a little too abruptly for my tastes.

“before we disperse like star stuff” – 5/5

Two years ago, the discovery of an intelligent nonhuman species – Megalictis ossicarminis, who lived three and a half million years ago, looked like a cross between river otters and wolverines, and were capable of using tools and written language – brought three friends together. There’s Damian Flores, an activist who left academia to pen a popular science book about his discovery; Min-ji Hong, PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Chicago and Damian’s close friend since their high school days at Camp Transcendent; and Ray Walker, a biology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas and Damian’s ex-lover.

Reunited for a documentary the Smithsonian network is shooting, the estranged friends try to work through the aftermath of their fame: Damian’s selling out (and Damian and Ray’s subsequent breakup), Min’s theft of the oracle bones, and the potential reinterment of the ossicarminis’s remains.

While “a long-extinct species of intelligent weasels” is both fascinating and ultimately what sold me on this collection, “before we disperse like star stuff” is as much about relationships as anything: romantic, platonic, societal. It’s about what we owe each other, including our ancestors and neighbors.

(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: Color outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna (2019)

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

“We won tonight because we saved what we love.”

four out of five stars

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

I swarm the stage with the other girls and here is Lourdes, jumping up and down like a circus girl on a pogo stick. She grabs my hand and I jump with her, the mess of our kiss less important than this moment when a tiny powerful woman stands, feet spread wide, and the crowd of boys parts for the shining raging mass of girls.

“GIRLS TO THE FRONT!” she yells again, and she is pure magic.

(“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil)

“Shiva,” he said quietly, “it was one conversation. It doesn’t mean I’ve been programmed.”

What if he doesn’t want to figure shit out?

“Of course you have. We all have. You just don’t notice because the program has been meticulously designed to benefit you.”

(“Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by Sangu Mandanna)

Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera are two authors on my (relatively short) insta-read list, making Color outside the Lines a no-brainer for me. Though I was emotionally devastated (!) that Adam Silvera’s story was not included in an early ARC of the book, some of the other stories made up for it (okay, almost). In my experience, anthologies tend to be uneven; and, while Color outside the Lines is no exception, I’m happy to report that each story is mildly entertaining at worst.

The overarching theme of the collection is YA fiction about interracial relationships, both opposite-sex and LGBTQ. Some of the stories are contemporary fiction, as I expected, but there’s a nice mix of historical fiction and fantasy as well. There are some happily ever afters here, while other endings will reduce you to a puddle of tears. A few are…frustratingly ambiguous. (To Elsie Chapman’s “The Boy Is,” I say: WHY NOT HAVE THEM BOTH?!? Like for real though, they both sound delightful, and it’s just toasted cheese and a donut, yo!)

Anna-Marie McLemore’s “Turn the Sky to Petals” is achingly beautiful and magical; no surprise there! “Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by editor Sangu Mandanna is as charming as it is brief; I’m really looking forward to reading more from her (The Lost Girl just jumped up a few spots on my TBR list).

Speaking of new-to-me-authors, Michelle Ruiz Keil’s “Gilman Street” is a freaking revelation. Set in 1980s California, and boasting a rad punk vibe, I can only hope “Gilman Street” is just a little taste of what we’re in store for with All of Us with Wings, Ruiz Keil’s upcoming debut novel. Having just been ghosted by her friend Kelly (for her sleazy BF Ben and his racist friends), Tam skips school and heads down to Berkley, where a chance encounter with a badass drummer named Lourdes changes the course of Tam’s life for the better. Spoiler alert: there will be Bikini Kill.

I also quite loved “Giving Up the Ghost” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas. In this world, kids are gifted Ghost Mentors at the age of nine, to help guide them through adolescence – and life, if they so choose. (A Ghost Mentor is mandatory only until one’s seventeenth birthday, at which time you may opt to have it removed.) Whereas his parents got a Buddhist monk and a cobbler from Mumbai, Sanjiv got stuck with Ching, a bloodthirsty pirate from the nineteenth century. Her advice, among other things? To re-introduce himself to his childhood crush Addy thusly: “Hi, do you remember me? I’m Sanji and we used to try and glue our hands together in preschool so we wouldn’t be separated at the end of the day—wanna bang?” The story’s structure is a countdown to Sanjiv’s birthday. Cue: dramatic tension.

Samira Ahmed’s period piece “The Agony of a Heart’s Wish”, featuring two star-crossed lovers – both victims of British colonialism, circa 1919 – will shred your heart to pieces. Ditto: Lydia Kang’s “Yuna and the Wall,” though in a much happier and more hopeful kind of way. Oh, and Lori M. Lee’s “Starlight and Moondust”? 110% as ethereal as the title would have you believe.

Color outside the Lines is a really fantastic collection, in both concept and execution, and even if romance isn’t normally your thing.

“Turn the Sky to Petals” by Anna-Marie McLemore – 4/5
“What We Love” by Lauren Gibaldi – 3/5
“Giving Up the Ghost” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas – 5/5
“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney – 3/5
“Starlight and Moondust” by Lori M. Lee – 4/5
“Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by Sangu Mandanna – 4/5
“The Agony of a Heart’s Wish” by Samira Ahmed – 5/5
“The Coward’s Guide to Falling in Love” by Caroline Tung Richmond – 3/5
“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim – 4/5
“Faithfull” by Karuna Riazi – 4/5
“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil – 5/5
“The Boy Is” by Elsie Chapman – 3/5
“Sandwiched in Between” by Eric Smith – 3/5
“Yuna and the Wall” by Lydia Kang – 5/5

TK from Danielle Paige and Adam Silvera

(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: 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!)