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

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

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

Delia

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

Josie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 25th, 2019

“It’s like death and toffee.”

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not gonna lie, I loled.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chimera.
Or, switched around:
Ah, crime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Friday, January 18th, 2019

A weirdly enchanting dystopia.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

A faithful adaptation, for better or worse.

three out of four stars

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

My feelings on this are conflicted and messy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 28th, 2018

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

three out of five stars

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

— 2.5 stars —

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

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

“Apocalypse?”

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

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (2018)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

If you liked Dexter

five out of five stars

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

“Femi makes three, you know. Three, and they label you a serial killer.”

My phone lights up and I glance at it. Ayoola. It is the third time she has called, but I am not in the mood to talk to her. Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely, or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.

The first time her sister Ayoola killed a man, Korede was certain that it was in self-defense. The third time around, Korede has her doubts. But, when summoned to the scene of the crime, Korede dutifully helps Ayoola scour the blood from the carpet and dispose of the body – because that’s what big sisters do, right? Take care of their younger siblings…even if they just so happen to be knife-wielding sociopaths.

But when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade Otumu, a kind and handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works as a nurse, Korede is forced to choose sides. Will she save the object of her unrequited love, or stick by Ayoola’s side? Things get even crazier when “the patient in room 313” – a comatose man to whom Korede thought it would be safe to spill her guts – unexpectedly wakes up. What does he remember of her bizarre confessions, if anything? And just what is the story behind Ayoola’s weapon of choice?

At first glance, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a gender- and race-bent version of Dexter, set in Lagos, Nigera, and told from sister Deb’s POV. AND I AM SO HERE FOR IT. My Sister has a similar dark and twisted sense of humor that’s simply delightful. Like, Korede ought to do stand-up on her nights off.

Yet while the murdery stuff does propel the plot forward, at its core My Sister is a story about family (but then, so too is Dexter). This is a story about how surviving trauma and coming up and out of a horrific situation can bond people together for life. Doubly so if they already share the bond of sisterhood. Heaven help the dudebro who tries to get between them.

If you liked Dexter (and especially if you loathed the series finale!), or even if you’re just looking for something a little unconventional and weird, definitely give My Sister, the Serial Killer a try. It’s got short, punchy chapters (I was not surprised to read that Braithwaite was shortlisted as a top-ten spoken-word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam; each chapter feels a bit like a self-contained poem or stream-of-consciousness) and a wickedly clever vibe. This might just go down as one of my favorites of 2018.

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

Book Review: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah (2018)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

I had such high hopes for this one!

two out of five stars

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

When I got to the Panah, I was unused to the sight of women’s bodies not swollen and distorted by pregnancy. It seemed wrong, at first, as if something was missing. It took me months to realize that a woman’s stomach wasn’t always convex; that its default state was not always filled with another being.

DNF at 59%, because life is too short to spend time on books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Set in the kind-of distant future, Before She Sleeps imagines a world wherein women are a scarce commodity. Nuclear war and climate change have drastically altered the landscape of South West Asia (and, indeed, the world), while a gender-specific virus has wiped out a majority of its female citizens. In the resulting chaos and power vacuum, an authoritarian order known as the Authority seized control.

Within the borders of Green City, life is strictly regimented – for everyone, but women especially. Women are not allowed to: work outside the home, keep journals, choose their own husbands (or number thereof), or use contraception, obtain abortions, or engage in family planning of any sort. They are required to maintain public profiles, so that men can shop for them online like so many consumer goods (unlike laptops, though, women cannot be bought or sold – only the Perpetuation Bureau can assign a Wife a new Husband); undergo rigorous and routine physical exams, including fertility monitoring; and accept as many Husbands – and pregnancies – as the Bureau deems fit.

It’s the inverse of fundamentalist Mormons, yet somehow women get the short end of the stick in this arrangement too (shocking, that!). Ostensibly, women are precious cargo to be treated with care and respect: in Green City, “it [is] a capital crime to hit or abuse a woman.” However, rape is a de facto part of the marriage system, as women are not permitted to choose their partners, nor deny them “life-giving” sex. After all, that is a woman’s sole purpose in society: to bear as many children as possible.

Yet girls and women still find ways to resist. Some children hide messages for each other, illicit forms of communication in a society where females are given precious little opportunity to interact with one another. On the more extreme end are the runaways, the fugitives, the disappeared women. Some of these women find their way to the Panah, a refuge located in a long-forgotten underground bunker on the outskirts of town. There they work as escorts, but instead of sex, they deal in emotional intimacy, something sorely lacking in these modern, dystopian marriages. Within this backdrop, we meet Lin, the niece of one of the Panah’s founders; Sabine, who escaped an early marriage arranged by her own father; and Rupa, who longs to return to society, despite the miseries it rained down upon her as a girl.

Before She Sleeps sounds like it should be right up my alley: I love dystopias, doubly so if they have a feminist bent, and I am a total Margaret Atwood fangirl. (Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale never fail to reel me in.) This seemed like a slam dunk. And, while I adore the concept, the actual execution left much to be desired. For lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, Before She Sleeps just didn’t do it for me.

Each chapter alternates between a different character’s perspective. This was all fine and good when it was just Lin, Sabine, and Rupa – but once Shah tossed in a few of Green City’s male denizens mid-book, it got to be a little too much for me. Moreover, I never really got a sense of each character’s distinct personality; the overall writing style felt pretty uniform across chapters. Oftentimes the character’s physical reactions felt overdone to the point of a bad B movie script. When imagining how some scenes might play out, all I could picture were comically terrible improv actors. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it.

There are also quite a few info dumps – which, it must be said, isn’t always a mood killer for me, but here they often popped up in weird and awkward places. To wit: As Reuben races across town to retrieve his illicit mistress’s illegal girl, passed out unconscious in the street and maybe dying of who knows what, his thoughts randomly wander to … how he became one of the most powerful men in Green City? I mean, seriously! More likely that train of thought would go something like this: “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT FUCK WHAT AM I GONNA DO WE ARE SO FUCKED OH SHIT PLEASE DON’T LET THERE BE A RED LIGHT OH FUCK ME FUCK THIS FUCK EVERYTHING I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT I NEED A VACATION.”

So, yeah, file this one in the “devastating disappointment” drawer. Bummer!

(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: Someone I Used to Know by Patty Blount (2018)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

Smashing the patriarchy, one Pinterest board at a time!

four out of five stars

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

“Ms. Lawrence,” he says, taking off his glasses. “I understand how you feel—”
“Really?” I snap back. “How did you get over your rape?”

“The reason men like Ariel Castro and Elliot Rodger and Aaron Persky exist is because men like us never called them out on their bullshit the first time they showed it.”

THEN: Ashley Lawrence and her older brother Derek used to be BFFs. Until they weren’t. But even all Derek’s conventionally crappy older brother behavior – ditching his younger sister, giving her a mean-spirited nickname, and just generally shunning her at school – couldn’t foreshadow his reaction when Ashley is at first sexually harassed, and then raped by his football teammate Victor Patton as part of a “team-building” scavenger hunt. When called to testify, Derek partakes in the same rape culture that paved the way for Vic’s violation of Ashley: He dismisses the scavenger hunt as “just a game,” and says that he doesn’t think Vic should be punished too harshly. For raping his fourteen-year-old sister. Needless to say, the rape and its aftermath cause something of a rift in the Lawrence family.

Told from Ashley and Derek’s alternating perspectives, in a series of then/now flashbacks and present-day narration, Someone I Used to Know explores how toxic masculinity, the idolatry of the high school football team, and rape culture more broadly contributed to Ashley’s rape, and shaped the community’s reaction to the resulting trial, Victor’s conviction, and the (short-lived) cancellation of the football program.

NOW: It’s been two years since Vic raped Ashley at homecoming; much has changed, but also not. Bellford High School is about to re-institute the football program, and Victor is getting out of prison after serving just sixteen months of a paltry two-year sentence. The Lawrence’s marriage is on the brink of collapse, as mom and dad both have different ideas of how to deal with Ashley and Derek’s feud, for lack of a better term.

For me, this was one of the more interesting (and frustrating! parents, gawd!) parts of the story, since I have a younger brother I haven’t spoken to in twenty years or so. The rift has nothing to do with sexual assault, thankfully, just him generally behaving like a dick. It was illuminating to see the effect it had on the senior Lawrences, though I was disappointed that mom and dad didn’t more firmly come down on Ashley’s side, given the circumstances.

Ashley is an amazing, take-no-shit protagonist who turns to activism to deal with her trauma: with the help of Sebastian, the only truly “nice guy” on the football team, she starts a club called Bengals Against Rape, and challenges her community to “Raise the BAR” when it comes to their treatment of girls and women. Likewise, Derek – now in self-exile at college in Long Island, hundreds of miles from home – joins Guys Against Rape, where he’s disgusted to be just one of six men at the first meeting.

Whereas the bulk of the story feels authentic and believable – depressingly so – Derek’s sudden discovery that RAPE CULTURE IS REAL! and complete 180 from rape apologist to #1 DEFENDER OF WOMEN FOR ALL TIME! strained my credulity a bit. That said, I understand the need to end things on a somewhat hopeful note, and the one Blount struck isn’t too far out there. And, to be fair, Blount is quick to point out Derek’s flaws, which cannot be wholly and immediately covered up by his good intentions. More so, we all have work to do, a concept that’s adeptly illustrated by this one really great brainstorming scene between Ashley and Sebastian (where the latter reminds the former that not all rape victims are female, and it’s important to acknowledge them too).

In sum, Someone I Used to Know is a pretty great – by which I mean insightful and illuminating, if damn depressing – exploration of rape culture, from “innocuous” and ubiquitous “sex sells” advertising to rape “jokes” and “jokey” rape threats; from sexual harassment to rape apologism, and everything in between. What Vic did to Ashley definitely falls on the more extreme end of the spectrum, but the various and sundry “smaller” slights that came before and after are all part and parcel of a culture that enables and excuses violence against women.

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

Book Review: Quiver by Julia Watts (2018)

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

You say helpmeet, I say handmaid.

five out of five stars

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

Mr. Hazlett’s getting worked up, too. A vein in his forehead bulges disturbingly. “In a Christian home, the man is like God, and his wife is the holy church.”

Dad laughs out loud. Maybe a little too loud. “So you get to be a deity, and she just gets to be a building?”

I don’t know what shocks me more—my grandmother cursing or hearing her say I have the right to choose what to do with my life.

— 4.5 stars —

Liberty Hazlett is the oldest of six children. Well, seven counting the baby on the way. Nine with the two angel babies that died in utero. Each child is named after a Christian virtue: Justice, Patience, Faith, Valor, Charity. They live in rural Tennessee, where father James has his own small business (Hazlett and Sons Pest Control), and mother Becky homeschools them. The kids (the girls in particular) have little contact with the outside world, and their everyday lives are strictly regulated. (For real: they’re allowed ten minutes for a shower, as “it’s not good to stay in the bathroom too long because it leads to temptation”).

Libby and her family are part of the Quiverfull movement: a Christian patriarchy that doesn’t practice any form of birth control, including so-called “natural family planning.” (Think: the Duggars.) Rather, they “trust the Lord” to give them as many children as he desires/thinks they can handle – each of which is to become an arrow in the Lord’s quiver, a Christian soldier in His army, hence the sect’s (read: cult’s) name.

At sixteen years old, Libby is barreling towards marriageable age. This means wedding a virtuous Christian man of her father’s choosing; accepting her husband as the head of the household; and obeying him in all matters, from sex to finances to child rearing…even what opinions she should adopt on any given topic under the Heavens. It also means churning out children like a baby factory, until her body wears out. Only, pray as she might, Libby doesn’t want this life for herself. She knows it’s sinful, but she has two eyes and a fully functioning brain, and she can see the toll it’s taking on her mother.

Zo Forrester and her family – younger brother Owen and parents Jen and Todd – just moved into “the old Dobbins place” next door. Life in Knoxville was wearing them all down, so they traded it in for a simpler existence in the country. Todd traded in his nursing job for one at the department of health, and Jen homeschools the kids and does some weaving on the side.

The Hazletts might define Zo as an uppity young heathen woman, but Zo’s gender identity is more complicated than all that: she’s gender fluid.

Being a lesbian was really important to Hadley, and she wanted me to say I was one, too. But if I said I was a lesbian, I’d be saying I was a 100 percent girl who only liked other 100 percent girls, and I couldn’t say that. Sometimes I feel like a boy in lipstick. Sometimes I feel like a girl with a bulge in her jeans. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter. I’m fine with all of this, but Hadley wasn’t.

In contrast to the “tragic queer” narratives that dominate fiction (yes, LGBTQ folks face higher levels of violence across the board, and it’s important to explore this – but we need uplifting, happy stories, too!), the Forresters are incredibly accepting of both their kids. They’re also super-progressive and open-minded, basically the exact opposite of Lord James, so much so that I wish they could retroactively and imaginarily adopt me.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Grace and Fury (Grace and Fury #1) by Tracy Banghart (2018)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

A YA Spin on The Handmaid’s Tale Set in 1600s Italia

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. This review contains very vague spoilers.)

“One evening,” Serina had recited from memory, her recent singing lessons coating her voice with honey, “as the sun eased toward the horizon and the moon rose from its slumber, two birds flew along the path made on the water by the setting sun. They dipped and sagged, their battered wings barely holding them aloft. Every now and then, one would falter and fall toward the water, all strength gone. The other would dive and catch the first on its back, carrying its partner for a time.

“The two birds traveled this way for many leagues, until the path of the sun had faded and the moon’s silver road appeared. The ocean shimmied and danced beneath the birds, intrigued by their obvious love for each other. The ocean had never loved anything so much, to burden its own back with another’s survival. It didn’t understand why the birds didn’t fend for themselves—the stronger leave the weaker and carry on.

“It took the ocean some time to understand that apart, the birds would never have made it so far,” Serina had continued, wrapping an arm around Nomi’s shoulders. “That their love, their sacrifice, gave them both strength. When at last, the two little birds, their bright red and green feathers tarnished from their long journey, could no longer hold themselves free of the endless water, the ocean took pity on them. Rewarding their steadfastness, it pushed land up from its depths—huge, lush hills with fresh, clean water, towering cypress trees, and all the fruits and berries and seeds they could ever desire. The lovebirds alighted in the shady, cool branches of an olive tree, their tired wings wrapping around each other, their beaks tucked into each other’s feathers. And at last, they were able to rest.”

Every aspect of their world, down to Viridia’s prisons, pitted women against each other while men watched.

Serina and Nomi Tessaro are daughters of Viridia – which kind of sucks, since women aren’t valued very highly in their culture. Women are only allowed three vocations: factory workers, servants, or wives. Rarely do they get to choose which. Also on the list of no-nos: reading, disobedience, impertinence, wearing their hair above their shoulders, cutting their hair without the say-so of a man, and engaging in violence, if even as a means of self-defense. Women who break the rules – so-called criminals – are imprisoned on the imposing volcanic island of Mount Ruin.

Serina and Nomi are alike in that they’re both gunning for a way out: Serina hopes to trade her dirty industrial village of Lanos for the rich, opulent city of Bellaqua by becoming one of the Heir’s first three concubines – his Graces. Viridia is a monarchy, presided over by a sort of king called the Superior. The present Superior has two sons, Malachi and his younger brother Asa; at his upcoming twentieth birthday celebration, Malachi will choose his first three Graces. Serina is determined to be one of them. Success will mean that she and Nomi – serving as her handmaiden – will be spared a lifetime of drudgery. Failure is not an option.

Nomi is the younger sister, and also the more rebellious – the Fury to Serina’s Grace. Nomi’s escape – and her downfall, perhaps – lies in the magical worlds that swell and beckon from between the covers of books. When Nomi is tempted by the palazzo’s vast library, things go sideways. Before the sisters can utter a tart retort, Nomi has been chosen as one of Malachi’s Graces, while Serina is condemned to fight and die on Mount Ruin. Both sisters must summon up the other’s strength to survive – and maybe even overthrow the patriarchy.

I love a good feminist yarn, and Grace and Fury doesn’t disappoint. Well, mostly. Initially the tone felt a little on the young end of YA for my taste, but I quickly warmed to each sister’s voice. I feel like the MCs could stand to be a little more fleshed out, but I’m hoping we’ll see this in the sequel. I thought Banghart did a great job with the supporting characters; I want to know more about Oracle and Maris and Helena and Anika – and Val’s parents, too.

I saw the surprise twist coming a mile away, and I bet more astute readers will spot it even sooner. (The clue for me was in the horses. Never trust a dude who abuses animals.) I almost had trouble believing that Nomi fell for the ruse (“It was so obvious now.” No kidding!), but once I sat back and tried to truly imagine myself in her shoes, I can kind of get it. I mean, she’s totally alone, completely out of her element, with no one to trust, and here comes this slithery little serpent telling her what she wants/needs to hear. And I mean, it’s not like she had any better options.

The climax of the story was well worth it; rarely do books compel me to talk (or shout!) back at them, but I was yelling and hand-waving at Serina, as though she could hear me (“Fight him! Challenge him to fight!”). The last scene just leaves so many possibilities open, I cannot wait to see where the story goes.

Also great is Viridia’s entire backstory, which prominently features strong, badass women getting shafted by THE MAN. How many centuries, and how little has changed?

(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: Sadie by Courtney Summers (2018)

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Serial + The Girls, with a pinch of Vigilante = Sadie

five out of five stars

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

I’m going to kill a man.

I’m going to steal the light from his eyes. I want to watch it go out. You aren’t supposed to answer violence with more violence but sometimes I think violence is the only answer. It’s no less than he did to Mattie, so it’s no less than he deserves.

I don’t expect it to bring her back. It won’t bring her back.

It’s not about finding peace. There will never be peace.

I’m not under any illusions about how little of me will be left after I do this one thing. But imagine having to live every day knowing the person who killed your sister is breathing the air she can’t, filling his lungs with it, tasting its sweetness. Imagine him knowing the steady weight of the earth under his feet while her body is buried six feet below it.

This is the furthest I’ve been from anything that I know.

My eyes burn, and tears slip down my cheeks and I can’t even imagine how pathetic I look. Girl with a busted face, torn-up arm, begging for the opportunity to save other girls. Why do I have to beg for that?

Nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter has had a pretty effed up life. Born to a young, single mom with multiple addictions (alcohol, cocaine, heroin) and a rotating roster of enabling boyfriends, Sadie grew up in a trailer park in the small, struggling town of Cold Creek, Colorado. (Population: eight hundred.) She developed a stutter at a young age, but her mother Claire never sought treatment; consequently, Sadie was bullied, isolated, and shamed for it, for most of her life.

Claire’s own mother, Irene, died of breast cancer when Claire was only nineteen herself; Sadie’s striking physical resemblance to Irene was just one of many reasons why Claire had trouble bonding with her daughter. Younger sister Mattie Southern (she got the matrilineal surname; Sadie did not – telling, that) arrived six years later, and Sadie tried her best to be Mattie’s mother and father. When Claire ran out on her and Mattie, Sadie dropped out of high school to support her family. She was only sixteen.

After two years of limping along, with no small support from May Beth Foster – manager of the trailer park and their deceased grandmother’s best friend – Mattie disappeared. Her body was found three days later in an apple orchard several miles outside of town. Nine months later, Sadie too goes missing; her car is found thousands of miles away, in a town called Farfield. When the local police write Sadie off as just another runaway, May Beth reaches out to West McCray, journalist and host of the podcast Always Out There, for help.

Told in the alternating perspectives of Sadie (as she tracks down her sister’s killer) and West (in the form of his investigative podcast, The Girls, as he retraces Sadie’s steps, now three months cold), we embark on a Serial-type mystery that’s also a biting interrogation of rape culture, class, and misogyny.

I mean, I guess you could shelve Sadie under “mystery,” but it’s so much more than that. In a way, it’s a mystery within a mystery: who killed Mattie, and what happened to Sadie? Sadie already knows the answer to the former, and it’s revealed probably halfway into the story. The bigger question is what became of Sadie when she reached the end of her journey – and this is a blank we readers are left to fill in ourselves. In this way, the ending is a tease, but also a blessing: realistically, Sadie’s fate was likely not a happy one. And yet, by leaving things as she does, Summers allows us to hope, to dream, to retain our faith in a flawed young woman who wanted nothing than to save other girls like herself.

Sadie is also stark and uncompromising look at rape culture, much in the vein of All the Rage. Summers’s writing is at once beautiful and cutting; she dissects all manner of sexist tropes and stereotypes, from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the idea that men are only truly capable of grasping women’s humanity when they have a daughter of their own to care about and fear for and worry over. (Claire’s confrontation with West? Pure cathartic bliss.)

Sadie, Mattie, Claire, May Beth, Marlee – Summers has populated Sadie with a cast of complex, nuanced women characters. Sadie rather reminds me of a more realistic version of Alex Craft, the protagonist in Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. (Let’s face it, we can’t all be cold and calculating feminist serial killers.) Her relationships with Mattie, Claire, and May Beth are fascinating in their messiness. I love how Summers challenges our assumptions by allowing various characters to offer their own versions of oft-told stories at the 11th hour, long after our own impressions of them have begun to harden.

If you’ve never read a Courtney Summers book, you owe it to yourself to correct that ASAP. My first was All the Rage (amazing!), and with Sadie she’s fast becoming a favorite author of mine. I wouldn’t quite call Sadie a rape revenge story, but it’s a pretty fine distinction, and if you “enjoy” that subgenre as much as I, Sadie is a good choice on this front too.

(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: Spectacle (Menagerie #2) by Rachel Vincent (2017)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Missing that certain indefinable something that made MENAGERIE so special.

three 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.)

“This one isn’t like the others,” the woman—his wife?—said, and the sharp edge in her voice could have cut glass.

“I’m like them in every way that matters,” I insisted.

I frowned, studying the dryad. She looked different from when they’d taken her the afternoon before, but I couldn’t…

Her hair. She’d had several beautiful whitish blooms blossoming in her hair.

Now those blossoms were gone.

One of the other ladies knelt next to her and laid a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder, but the nymph turned on her, teeth gnashing. Mossy-green eyes flashed beneath the tiny woody tendrils growing in place of her eyelashes.

“Oh…” Simra breathed, and I turned to her with a questioning look. “They got rid of it.”

“It?”

“The baby.”

“She was pregnant?” I whispered, horrified. “Vandekamp ended it?”

“His wife. She won’t let the ‘monsters’ breed.”

The only thing I could imagine worse than being forced to end the pregnancy was how Magnolia might have gotten pregnant in the first place.

When Menagerie debuted in 2015, I devoured an early copy faster and with more passion than a piping hot bowl of Daiya cheese sauce. It alternately had me squealing in delight, pumping my fist in the air, and squirming in my seat as if a whole mess of fire ants had set up residence there. More than anything, Menagerie inspired a jaw-dropping sense of disbelief: am I really reading what I think I’m reading here? I then went on to spend most of the next five days writing one of my most epic reviews ever. (Rivaled only by my treatise on The Female of The Species.)

Since then, I’ve read it several more times, including on audiobook, which incidentally spawned one of my favorite video recordings of one of my favorite rescue dogs, Mags (she of The Hunger Games fame; her son’s name is Finnick).

When the sequel was finally (!) released into the wild, I promptly requested an ARC on NetGalley…and then proceeded to sit on it for more than a year. I was just so scared to touch the damn thing! While Menagerie was most likely meant as an allegory for the treatment of Muslims (and brown people as a whole) after 9/11, it was impossible for me not to read it as a story about animal rights, however unintentional. (In the vegan community, we call this “accidentally vegan,” like Oreos. Yum!)

Every mistreatment of the cryptids in Delilah’s world – both the humanoid and more “bestial” ones – has an obvious and devastating corollary here in the real world, in our interactions with nonhuman animals. From forced impregnation to the separation of parents and children; the exhibition of animals in zoos and circuses; vivisection, including for the most trivial of reasons, like developing new household cleaners; physical punishment under the guise of training; and even crush videos and bestiality. And while we dismiss these atrocities since they’re “only animals,” Vincent nails the crux of the issue in Menagerie: it’s not intelligence that counts, or DNA, or one’s physical approximation to humans. The only thing that matters is sentience: a being’s ability to feel pain (or joy) and suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? – Jeremy Bentham

The cryptids in Menagerie are indeed sentient – as are the billions of nonhuman animals we enslave, torture, and kill every year. It’s impossible not to draw parallels.

And yet. Given that I’m 99.9% positive these parallels were unplanned, I worried that Vincent would walk them back in the sequel; undo some of the amazing arguments put forth in Menagerie. And so I hemmed and hawed and put Spectacle on the back burner until I could stand the suspense no further.

The good news is that my fears were largely unfounded. While the moral and philosophical underpinnings of Delilah’s furiae – so eloquently (though not imperfectly) laid out in Menagerie – remain mostly unstated in Spectacle, they are not challenged in any way. Delilah and her compatriots are the victims: victims of a cruel and inhumane society that dehumanizes, objectifies, and others them. Because humans are afraid. Because it elevates them. Because they can. Because there is a profit to be made by doing so.

The bad news? Spectacle is just an okay book. Entertaining enough, sure, but nowhere near as revolutionary as Menagerie.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018)

Friday, June 29th, 2018

A Searing Indictment of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape, including the rape of children and nonhuman animals, as well as victim blaming, transphobia, suicide, PTSD, anorexia, self-injury, and more.)

It’s a pain … it’s a cellular pain now, okay? It’s not a memory, it lives in me like a heart.

Ten years ago, I was having a beer with a friend after work and a few hours later, I was violently assaulted and left for dead behind a dumpster. No, worse—I was left for living. My assaulter wanted me to live through what I had experienced. It was a gesture of torture, a most excruciating gift.

She was just a normal woman.
She had brown hair and brown eyes.
She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t ugly.
She wasn’t really old but she wasn’t young either. She was just a normal woman.

When I first read the synopsis for Any Man, I was skeptical. Best case scenario, I thought it might be a well-meaning – but ultimately doomed – attempt to foster empathy for survivors of rape by switching up the genders: making the perpetrator a woman, and her victims men. I say doomed because, let’s face it: the same misogynist stereotypes that blame and shame women also silence male victims. If women are the weaker sex, how frail must a man be to be physically overpowered by a woman? How can a woman “rape” a man when intercourse hinges on his arousal? (Assuming a pretty narrow definition of rape or sexual assault, this.) If men are DTF 24/7, how can one possibly be raped? And so on and so forth.

Worst case scenario, I worried that Maude – the “serial female rapist who preys on men” – would be reduced to a femi-Nazi caricature, a bitter, man-hating harpy who attacks and emasculates random men, perhaps as a misguided form of revenge for past trauma. Maybe she’d even inspire her own fan club or copycat vigilante group. And while there are echos of this misogynist cutout in the public’s reaction to Maude, I think we’re meant to see it as ridiculous, even horrifying. Because, at the core of Tamblyn’s writing lives a sense of compassion for Maude’s victims – and, by extension, all victims/survivors – as well as a keen and incisive understanding of the trauma they’ve experienced.

Honestly, when I realized that Amber Tamblyn was the author, that’s the moment I decided to take a chance on Any Man. Her feminist cred earned her the benefit of the doubt; if anyone could do this story justice, I thought (hoped) it might be her. And Tamblyn does not disappoint: this is easily one of the “best” books I’ve read this year. Acerbic, witty, and as shrewd as it is painful to read. Any Man is not an easy book to read, or even one that’s particularly enjoyable (though there are some odd, unexpected moments of levity, such as Tamblyn’s imagined Twitter celeb reactions), but it’s powerful and memorable and really goddamn important.

Beginning with Donald Ellis of Watertown, New York, Any Man follows the wake of devastation that a female serial rapist – who the police will eventually dub Maude, after her OkCupid profile – leaves in her wake. The narrative takes place over a period of ten years, as Maude’s victim count grows from one to two to five (undoubtedly much higher since the majority of rapes go unreported, for the very reasons explored here). She operates mainly in the Northeastern United States (as far as we know), and her complete and utter lack of a pattern makes her especially difficult to catch.

Her victims range in age from ten to sixty-four; they are married, or single; they have children, or not; they are white, or biracial; one is an openly gay celebrity, while another is a trans man. Maude may initiate contact with the victims weeks before the encounter, or ambush them entirely. Her choice of weapons and method of attack vary wildly. One thing each attack seems to share in common is its unique depravity. (THIS BOOK COMES WITH A STRONG TRIGGER WARNING.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering (2018)

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Mostly underwhelming.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. This review contains vague spoilery stuff.)

He will always come back for more, Lucy. He won’t give it up until he has to. Dr. Wattenbarger’s words resounded in my head—he had meant them as a warning; I savored them as hope.

Faced with the prospect of seeing her ex Stephen at her best friend Bree’s upcoming wedding*, twenty-five-year old Lucy Albright recalls their tumultuous – nay, toxic – relationship. This is a story about two shitty people and their shitty on-again, off-again courtship. Told in alternating perspectives, so we can get the full, skin-crawling experiencing of bouncing around in a sociopath’s head. (Said sociopath would be Stephen, and no, you will not find yourself rooting for him, a la Season Five Dexter.)

I’m really not sure what to make of Tell Me Lies; it’s readable enough, though I can’t exactly call it enjoyable. Lucy is an awful person, and not in relation to Stephen. I’ve had shitty boyfriends, too, and I know all too well what it’s like to know that you’re making bad decisions, even as you make them, and commit wholeheartedly anyway. No, Lucy was terrible well before she met Stephen.

That Unforgivable Thing her mom CJ did? The one that’s teased to death and not revealed until nearly halfway into the story? It was a betrayal of Lucy’s dad and had absolutely zero to do with Lucy herself. Lucy at least acknowledges him as a fellow aggrieved party, but his suffering mostly takes a backseat to hers. It’s silly and selfish and hella immature, especially as Lucy falls back on it time and again as the reason her life went so off track. More than once I wanted to backhand her across the face while yelling “Not everything is about you!”

It gets worse as Lucy becomes enmeshed with the (probably?) emotionally abusive (manipulative, certainly) Stephen during college. The low point comes when Lucy skips her fifteen-year-old dog Hickory’s final days and euthanasia in order to meet Stephen’s family. Not at his suggestion, either; she doesn’t so much as mention it to him. Whatever shred of sympathy I felt for Lucy evaporated in that moment.

And then there’s Stephen, who was involved in a manslaughter or hit and run or whatever you want to call it, and is never punished for his role in a girl’s death, even as it kinda-sorta-but-not-really comes to light. Okay, so he wasn’t accepted to his first round of law school picks, boo hoo. How about some jail time to go with that bruised sense of white male entitlement?

While this is all too believable, it’s also deeply unsatisfying; sometimes it seems like fiction is the only universe in which men are held to account for their violence and misogyny. That Stephen is not feels like a bit of a betrayal in itself.

Basically I just couldn’t with anyone or anything.

* Though it’s wholly unclear why Stephen is even invited, let alone allowed to bring a plus one. He and Evan weren’t particularly close in college, and certainly not tight enough that Bree would feel forced to make her bestie revisit that part of her past.

(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: Only Human (Themis Files #3) by Sylvain Neuvel (2018)

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Yokits!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for the previous two books in the trilogy)

You think the world ch … changed while you were gone? It hasn’t. This is who we are.

What does a man’s life amount to? What does the life of a thousand, a billion? What is an ant’s life worth? I see now that the answer is irrelevant. It’s the question that matters. Should the ant let itself die, crushed under the weight of its own insignificance? Or should it live, fight giants, and build magnificent cities underground? What do I choose?

It was always you, Rose. Just you. This is your movie. The rest of us are just extras in it.

When last we visited the world of the Themis Files – a world in which the discovery of an alien robot/spaceship/war machine upended humanity, in ways both good and bad (but, let’s face it, mostly bad because humans gonna human) – physicist Rose Franklin, linguist-turned-pilot Vincent Couture, ten-year-old orphan Eva Reyes, and EDC head General Eugene Govender were on board Themis, celebrating their unlikely victory against alien invaders, when the ship powered up and transported them … somewhere else.

The quartet have spent the last nine years living in limbo on the alien planet Esat Ekt – “Home of the Ekt,” the builders of Themis and unfortunate contributors to humanity’s gene pool. Due to their strict moral philosophy of non-interference in the evolutionary paths of other species, and well as regional political BS, the Ekt cannot decide whether to send the accidental guests home, as aliens – or make them stay, as part-Ekt citizens.

It was this very philosophy of non-interference that led the Ekt to attack earth in Waking Gods, releasing a toxic gas that killed millions. What the Ekt meant as a surgical strike against their own people quickly snowballed, since the original twenty-four Ekt visitors couldn’t keep it in their pants, so to speak. The mass casualties sent shock waves through both planets: the earth of today performs mandatory blood tests on its citizens; anyone deemed to have “too much” alien DNA is rounded up and put in camps, even executed. Meanwhile, the fiasco has led to civil unrest on Ekt, with the h. sapiens guests/prisoners serving as a constant, painful reminder of the Ekt’s epic fuckup. Something’s gotta give.

Only Human is a pretty solid end to a series that I’ve really enjoyed. Like its predecessors, the story is told via a series of interviews, journal entries, and the like, in both flashbacks (to Rose et al.’s time on Ekt) and real-time. As you can probably gather from this sentence, Rose, Vincent, and Eva have managed to find their way back to Earth, which is now in possession of not one but two alien robots. In a post-9/11 climate of paranoia and fear, this is very much Not A Good Thing. The parallels Neuvel makes to our current political climate are inescapable, and I had to wonder how much of the story he wrote before/after the 2016 election (or if he altered the narrative at all later). The ultimate view he posits of humanity is both grim, but also cautiously hopeful.

I really enjoyed getting to know teenage Eva, and to see Vincent as a father. The father-daughter conflict seemed a little over the top at times, but Eva’s narrative is really compelling: a “freak” who saw visions on Earth, Eva is more or less “normal” – if a bit of an alien curiosity-slash-celebrity – on Ekt. Vincent is pretty insistent that he wants Eva to have a “normal” life – but to her, Ekt is it. So you can imagine her angst at being forced to leave by dear old dad. (I was pretty peeved with him until the final chapters.)

I also came to love Mr. Burns – something I wouldn’t have thought possible in books one or two – and kind of teared up at the surprise twist ending. Slow clap on that one.

Someone needs to stop giving these war criminals government jobs though, smh. #StillNotReadyForThemis

(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: A Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow (2018)

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Somewhere, A Unicorn Is Crying

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including the rape, torture, and murder of children.)

For the children, when your time is done, it is VERY important to THANK YOUR LANDLORD—they’ve been such CARING roommates!!! Remember, without THEM, you would never have been able to have your moment of balance. For the landlords, when YOUR time is done, THANK your BODY!!! (For the wonderful times it provided.) NEVER FORGET that it gave you so much more time than your child-tenants had! And THANK the FRIENDS and FAMILY that you LOVED . . . and thank this beautiful BLUE EARTH. — from “The End” (the Guidebook)

— 2.5 stars —

Something strange and awesome is happening in the small town of Saggerty Falls, Michigan – and in towns both large and small all over the world (presumably). The spirits of murdered children (“tenants”) are returning to this beautiful blue earth, temporarily inhabiting the bodies of recently deceased adults (“landlords”) in order to exact revenge (the “moment of balance”) on their killers. They are guided through this adventure by a psychic mentor (“porter”) – in this case, one Annie Ballendine, a former teacher who was institutionalized after she began to hear voices. Annie was rescued and trained by Jasper, the porter before her; and, as her cancer returns, Annie knows that the time is nearing for her pass the baton to her successor. But how will she find this person, while also dealing with the “haywire” events that presage a Porter’s passing?

Depending on how compassionately the narrative is crafted, rape revenge stories are some of my favorites (quite possibly because rape carries so few consequences for the perpetrators here in the real world. Fiction is often much more satisfying.) Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species has become the gold standard for me; Alex Craft is the ultimate antihero, and the book does an exemplary job deconstructing rape culture. I envisioned the titular murdered children as miniature Dexter Morgans-in-training, crammed into the meatsuits of unsuspecting (but ultimately game) adult humans. Like Alex, but with even more personal vendettas. Maybe even with a splash of Chucky from Child’s Play in there somewhere. In other words, horrible and magnificent. Yes, my expectations for this one were through the proverbial roof.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Hollow Girl by Hillary Monahan (2017)

Friday, October 13th, 2017

A shrewd interrogation of rape culture – now with dark magic!

four out of five stars

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

“The single most important thing to know about magic is that there is always a price. Making the impossible possible is difficult, as it should be, so I must weigh results against what I am willing to pay. It is never a gratuitous thing. This makes some people—people like Silas—disbelievers. They see my unwillingness to perform on command as a sign that the magic is untrue. Let them drown in their ignorance. When it is time for them to know a witch’s wrath, they will know it—and there will be no mistaking it.”

Seventeen-year-old Bethan Jones is a diddicoy: born to a Romany mother and a gadjo father, she was left in the care of her caravan’s wise woman, Drina, after the death of her mother Eira during childbirth. Her apprenticeship under the drabarni should have kept her safe – and might have, under other circumstances. But the chieftain’s son, Silas, has set his sights on Bethan. Silas is spoiled, entitled, and cruel; a dangerous powderkeg of toxic masculinity and male privilege that his father Wen (himself a recovering teenage bully) lacks the fortitude to extinguish.

So it’s no surprise when Silas’s sexual harassment and stalking of Bethan escalates to rape. Silas and his four cronies ambush Bethan and her would-be beau, Martyn, on the way home from market. The assault leaves Bethan physically and psychologically scarred – and desperate to save Martyn, who’s left for dead after the attack. With the help of Gran and her dark magic, Bethan just might be able to resurrect Martyn, while exacting revenge on her assailants too. She has three days to collect a finger, an eye, a nose, a tooth, and an ear from the five boys. What becomes of them after the harvest is entirely up to Bethan.

I was super-excited when I first heard of The Hollow Girl. Lately I’m really into rape revenge stories; as I said in my review of A Guide for Murdered Children, if done right, rape revenge stories can provide a satisfying outlet/alternative to real life, where rape is more likely to be excused and minimized than punished and condemned. Throw in the supernatural twist and diverse cast of characters, and I’m sold.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)

Friday, August 4th, 2017

Weary, Cheeky, and (Maybe? Just a Wee Bit?) Wise

four out of five stars

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

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

It’s amazing how much damage one penis can do.

Tom Barren is an outlier, though not in a good way: he’s a ne’er do well, living in paradise. His is a world of flying cars that can pilot themselves. Of food synthesizers and clothing recyclers. Urban planning taken to outrageous levels, with interlocking buildings, fantastical skyscapes, and massive biosphere preserves. Patches that monitor and adjust your blood alcohol content (“booze cruise”). Android sex dolls and interactive storytelling. Complete gender equality (!). Corporations that actually strive to improve consumers’ quality of life, rather than marketing cheap, useless junk just to turn a profit (!!!#$#@^).

Sounds like the stuff of fiction, right? Except all this really did happen, thanks to the Goettreider Engine and the unlimited clean energy it generated by harnessing the movement of the Earth.

This was the world we were meant to live in. That is, until our narrator bumbled into his father’s time machine and accidentally sabotaged Lionel Goettreider’s infamous 1965 experiment, thus altering the trajectory of history – right before the fail safe protocols boomeranged his sorry ass home. Only when he woke up, it was in our crappy world, complete with global conflicts, mass species extinctions, accelerating climate change, and (presumably) a looming election that would put a reality teevee buffoon in the White House.

Somewhat ironically, Tom’s life changes for the better: in this reality, he goes by John. Rather than being a disappointment to his genius father, he’s a successful architect. And, oh yeah, his mother is still alive!

Can Tom somehow reverse the course of history and set things right? Does he even want to?

All Our Wrong Todays is a fun and satisfying time travel romp that’s got a few tricks up its thermal stranded sleeve. The wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff is highly enjoyable – I especially loved learning about Tom’s world – though it is a lot to keep straight by story’s end. (But this is kind of par for the course.) The Tom/John and Penelope/Penny plot line reminded me a little of Blake Crouch’s time travel/alternate reality tale, 2016’s Dark Matter, but the two are completely different beasts: All Our Wrong Todays is a little more absurd and tongue-in-cheek. The balance of humor here is pretty much perfect here, imho.

As for the narrator, you either kinda-sorta like him or you hate him. Tom is your typical mediocre straight white dude, with one key difference: he’s well aware of and will readily admit to his mediocrity. He harbors no delusions of grandeur or self-entitlement. He’s a fuckup, and he knows it. He’s trying to do better but dammit, it’s hard work!

Honestly, all the self-denigration rather ingratiated Tom to me: sometimes it was like Mastai was holding up a mirror. A distorted funhouse mirror that exacerbates all your flaws and creates new ones where none existed, but still. I could relate to Tom more than I’d care to admit. If you’ve got self-esteem issues, you might just empathize.

I wasn’t too keen on the rape scene, mostly because it felt a little too much like a tool, a plot device to steer the story in one direction or another. The word “rape” doesn’t even appear in the book, even as Mastai stresses that what happened to Penny was A Very Bad Thing. The thing is, I suspect that a significant percentage of readers won’t even label this as a sexual assault, which is why it’s so important to clearly and emphatically identify it as such. (“Attack” is the harshest term used.)

As an aside, the food synthesizers must mean that all the food in Tom’s world is vegan, or could easily be made so …

… right?

(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 Ship Beyond Time (The Girl from Everywhere #2) by Heidi Heilig (2017)

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Adventure, Romance, and Plenty of Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff

three out of five stars

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

“Our lives are before us, not behind.”
“That depends on where you’re standing on the timeline.”
“What of free will?”
“Some people don’t believe free will exists.”
“Some people don’t believe in demon octopus, either.”

“You might wish many things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come true. This doesn’t seem like that sort of fairy tale.”

Fresh off their escape from 1884 Hawaii, Nix, Kashmir, and the crew of the Temptation arrive in Slate’s timeline – present-day New York City. Here they hope to catch their collective breaths, but it’s not long before Nix is pulled into yet another mystery/adventure.

After discovering that her grandmother Joss left a prophecy about Nix on Slate’s back (“She said you’ll end up just like me … You’ll lose the one you love! … To the sea.”), Nix is approached by a mysterious stranger. Dahut promises Nix that her father, the sailor Donald Crowhurst, will show Nix that it’s possible to change the past – and future – but only if she meets him in the mythical city of Ker-Ys. Desperate to save Kashmir – for surely Kashmir is the loved one referenced in the prophecy, yes? – Nix reluctantly agrees. But in rescuing Kash from his destiny, will Nix erase her own past?

But what good was a warning if she had already seen it happen? Did she expect me to simply brace myself for the inevitable? Or did she want me to try to change it? The thought surfaced like a bloated body; bile burned on the back of my tongue. For years, I had watched my father try to do that very thing, dragging me in his wake, unsure whether each journey would be my last.

The Ship Beyond Time has so many of the elements that made me fall in love with The Girl from Everywhere: a cast that’s as diverse as it is interesting; a harmonious blend of fantasy and reality, mythology and history; and a really great romance. It was lovely watching the relationship between Nix and Kash develop, especially considering the many wrenches thrown at them via the inevitable wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. For example: if mythic worlds are willed into being by their Navigators, what does that make Kashmir? Nix’s literal dream guy? That’s got to muck with a guy’s sense of self, I tell you what.

(More below the fold…)