Book Review: Sorrow of the Earth: Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and the Tragedy of Show Business by Éric Vuillard (2017)

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

What did I just read?

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review. Trigger warning for violence against Native Americans, including genocide.)

However, the real spark was elsewhere. The central idea of the Wild West Show lay somewhere else. The aim was to astound the public with an intimation of suffering and death which would never lose its grip on them. They had to be drawn out of themselves, like little silver fish in a landing net. They had to be presented with human figures who shriek and collapse in a pool of blood. There had to be consternation and terror, hope, and a sort of clarity, an extreme truth cast across the whole of life. Yes, people had to shudder—a spectacle must send a shiver through everything we know, it must catapult us ahead of ourselves, it must strip us of our certainties and sear us. Yes, a spectacle sears us, despite what its detractors say. A spectacle steals from us, and lies to us, and intoxicates us, and gives us the world in every shape and form. And sometimes, the stage seems to exist more than the world, it is more present than our own lives, more moving and more persuasive than reality, more terrifying than our nightmares.

There’s no mistaking the sound of iniquity on the move.

Originally published in France in 2014 (under the title Tristesse de la terre), Sorrow of the Earth is the first of Éric Vuillard’s novels to be translated into English. A work of historical fiction, it tells the story of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, which traveled throughout the United States and Europe, under various names, for thirty years around the turn of the century (1883–1913).

While the show featured a number of performers and attractions – including Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler; trick shooter Lillian Smith; Calamity Jane; and reenactments of the riding of the Pony Express trail and stagecoach robberies, to name a few – Vuillard centers the narrative on Native Americans, to great effect. The Wild West show employed a number of Indigenous performers, most notably Sitting Bull, as well as survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Perversely, these last were hired in part to perform in a reenactment of their own victimization; only instead of a massacre, the audience witnessed a battle: “the Buffalo Bill interpretation of the facts,” to quote Vuillard. Likewise, in Cody’s reimaging of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, none other than Buffalo Bill himself swoops in at the last moment to avenge Custer and his men.

In other words, the show glorified its star and ringmaster, while rewriting history and vilifying the oppressed Native populations. To add insult to injury, Indigenous people were recruited to assist in their own denigration.

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Book Review: Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, Patricia Hruby Powell & Shadra Strickland (2017)

Monday, January 30th, 2017

“Tell the Court I love my wife”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program, as well as an e-ARC through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism and an allusion to rape.)

MILDRED

Richard once said,
“It could be worse, Bean.
If you was the white one
and I was the colored one,
people saw us together?
They’d lynch me.
We can do this.”

RICHARD

After waiting another year –
more like fourteen months –
they lost that case.
Is that four now?
They called for another.

They lawyers sure are excited
for losing.

As its 50th anniversary approaches, the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia is receiving some extra attention: from the recently released film starring Ruth Negga (forever my Annie Cresta!) and Joel Edgerton (titled simply Loving), to a mention on the ABC sitcom Blackish, and now a “documentary novel” written by Patricia Hruby Powell, with illustrations by Shadra Strickland.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Loving vs. Virginia struck down the state’s anti-miscegenation statute (the Racial Integrity Act of 1924) – and, by extension, similar statutes that existed in twenty-five other states – which prohibited whites from marrying outside their race. Interestingly, no such restrictions existed for non-whites, which is part of what led to the law’s downfall: The Lovings’ lawyers argued that the emphasis on maintaining the racial purity of whites (but not nonwhites) presupposed the superiority of the “white race,” in clear violation of the 14th Amendment.

In Loving vs. Virginia, Hruby Powell tells the story of Mildred and Richard’s historic fight, from the genesis of their relationship to their victory in the Supreme Court on June 12, 1967 (a day that’s now remembered as Loving Day). The couple grew up together in Central Point, Virginia; their rural neighborhood was home to people of all colors: black, white, Native American, and multiracial. (Mildred herself was light-skinned, with both African and Native American ancestry.) They socialized, shared potluck dinners, and helped each other with farm work. Despite the state’s law against it, interracial relationships were not unheard of.

Millie and Richard started dating in 1955, and two years later they had their first child, Sidney Clay. When Mildred found herself pregnant for the second time, the couple decided to get married – in nearby Washington, D.C. Just five weeks later, they were arrested in the dead of night. Sheriff Garnett Brooks and two deputies stormed into the couple’s bedroom in the Jeter house and demanded of Richard, “Who’s that woman you’re sleeping with?” When Mildred replied that she was his wife, Brooks shot back, “Not here, she ain’t.”

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Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden (2017)

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

four out of five stars

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

“What happened?” she asked.

“My fish are gone! Some durak from the village must have come and …”

But Vasya was not listening. She had run to the very brink of the river.

“It’s not yours!” she shouted. “Give it back!” Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. “Now!” she yelled. “Catch your own fish!” A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward. Instinctively, she clutched it, and turned a grin on her brother.

“A prophecy then, sea-maiden.”

“Why do you call me that?” she whispered.

The bannik drifted up to the bench beside her. His beard was the curling steam. “Because you have your great-grandfather’s eyes. Now hear me. You will ride to where earth meets sky. You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit. You will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, weep for a nightingale, and die by your own choosing.”

Marina, thought Pyotr. You left me this mad girl, and I love her well. She is braver and wilder than any of my sons. But what good is that in a woman? I swore I’d keep her safe, but how can I save her from herself?

Vasilisa Petrovna is born to a lord and a princess, on the edge of the Russian wilderness, many centuries ago. She comes on the tail of the first howling winds of November, and her mother Marina leaves the earth shortly thereafter. Vasya is raised by her four older siblings – Kolya, Sasha, Olga, and Alyosha – and her mother’s aging nurse, Dunya. And, to a lesser extent, her father Pyotr Vladimirovich: every time Pyotr looks into the face of his screeching child, he sees the ghost of his dead wife. So mostly he avoids dealing with her too much.

With time, Vasya grows wild and bold, just like Marina intended. She can see creatures that others cannot, the chyerty of the old religion: The domovoi, household-spirits who guard the home; the vodianoy in the river and the twig-man in the trees; the vazila, who are one with the horses; the rusalka, the polevik, and the dvornik. Vasya feeds them with bread and friendship; she fortifies their strength and, in return, they teach her their secrets: how to talk to animals, swim like a fish, and climb trees like no human child should be able to.

Marina’s mother, you see, had the gift of second sight. While Marina had only a little of her mother’s gifts, she knew that Vasya would have even more. Much more. A prophecy told her as much. Yet in a Rus’ caught between the old religion and Christianity, Vasya’s neighbors whisper that she’s a witch who cavorts with demons. The arrival of Father Konstantin only deepens the rift between worlds, as do the snow, fire, and famine that follow swiftly on his heels. Though she just wants to keep her family and her village safe, Vasya will soon find herself caught in the middle of a struggle between two ancient forces.

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Book Review: Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch (2016)

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Fell a little short of my expectations.

three out of five stars

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

She heard a wag in the audience say, “It’s a chimpanzee in a dress!”

Someone shouted, “Loup garou!” She laughed. Her eyes twinkled, her smile was genuine. Now that she was on, she didn’t feel so bad. I’m looking at you, she thought. You are looking at me. And you’re paying.

Funny. After all this time he could still get lost in looking, just looking at her. Marie didn’t have that. Her face, though hairy enough, was completely human. With Julia, you did wonder.

Julia Pastrana was a singer/dancer/musician/actress/all-around performer who lived in the 19th century. The details of her early life are sketchy. An indigenous Mexican born in a small village in the state of Sinaloa in 1834, Julia was raised in the household of Pedro Sanchez, who briefly served as the governor of Sinaloa. Here she was trained as a mezzo soprano and dancer, and also became fluent in Spanish, English, and French, in addition to her native Cáhita. In 1854, she was sold to Francisco Sepúlveda, a customs official in Mazatlán, and was brought to America, where she toured under the management of J.W. Beach and Theodore Lent. She and Lent eloped not long after, and they toured Europe together. Their first baby was born in Moscow in March 1860, but lived only three days. Julia died five days later of “postpartum complications.”

Julia was born with a rare genetic condition called generalized hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, which caused thick black hair to grow all over her body, as well as severe gingival hyperplasia, which resulted in an overdeveloped jaw and thickened lips and gums. She was variously billed as a “Bear Woman”; a human-ape hybrid; and the offspring of an orangutan and a human.

After Julia’s death, Lent arranged to have his wife and son’s bodies preserved by Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. He displayed the mummies in a glass cabinet and toured with their remains for years. Lent found another woman with features similar to Julia’s and remarried. He reinvented Mrs. Theodore Lent: Version 2.0 as Zenora Pastrana, sister of the late Julia Pastrana, and added her to the tour. The show made him a wealthy man. He may or may not have been committed to an asylum in Russia, where he died in 1884.

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

If you can embrace the weird, this is one lovely and amazing story.

five out of five stars

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

Pavla revels in her name because she knows that if nothing is little, then it must be something indeed.

“You’re the one who said all time exists,” Danilo says. “The past exists. The future exists.”

It’s true. She did say this. And she does somehow believe that what has happened to her and what will happen to her exist simultaneously, that the story is already written but not yet told. She must be like someone in one of her mother’s stories who has existed for centuries of telling and will exist even after her mother is gone. How else to explain her life? As something random?

“I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to come,” he hears himself say.

Pavla Janáček is born at the turn of the century in a rural village located in a small, unnamed (but likely Slavic) country. She arrives in the twilight of her parents’ lives: after much trying and four miscarriages, mother Agáta finally enlisted the help a “gypsy.” She believes that Pavla’s “condition” is a punishment from God for her blasphemy. Pavla is born a dwarf, with a head that’s too large for her torso and arms and legs that are disproportionately short.

The chilly reception Pavla initially receives from Agáta gradually warms and deepens, as mother and daughter are forced into close proximity by the harsh winter weather. With spring comes love; Pavla is the child Agáta and Václav have always wanted. She ages, but grows precious little; she continues to sleep in her crib for the next fourteen years. She’s a precocious child and a fast learner; she teaches herself to count using the slats on her crib and, when she turns seven, Václav takes her on as his assistant at his plumbing business. She starts school a year later, where her cunning eventually wins over her classmates.

And then Pavla hits puberty and her parents get the foolish notion to “fix” her: for what will happen to their lovely daughter (and Pavla is indeed a beauty, ‘from the neck up’) when they’re gone? They begin dragging her from doctor to doctor, hoping for a miracle cure, until they wind up in the office of the biggest charlatan of them all: Dr. Ignác Smetanka, whose outlandish and cruel “treatments” leaved Pavla scarred, traumatized – and bearing the countenance of a wolf, seemingly overnight. But the transformation from dwarf to (average-sized) wolf-girl won’t be the only metamorphosis Pavla experiences before her story’s ended.

Pavla’s strange journey intersects at multiple points and in unexpected ways with that of Dr. Smetanka’s young assistant Danilo – the clever boy who built the rack that once again made Pavla an object of shame and terror.

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Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

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Book Review: To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party, Skila Brown (2016)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

“The men think they’re following a trail … But I know.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for cannibalism and domestic violence.)

There’s only a little gap between rain and snow,
an open window of sunshine to go,
it all must be timed just right
or it will go all wrong,
like a cup of tea that slips
from too hot to too cold
without leaving enough time
in between to drink it.

Imagine.
He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

When you picture the Donner Party, of course cannibalism is the first thing to come to mind. OF COURSE. After all, it’s THE reason this ill-fated expedition made it into the history books: the gruesome lengths that many of the surviving members had to go to to stay alive. And yet murder and cannibalism isn’t where their stories begin, or end. There’s also romance, adventure, and optimism. A can-do spirit and the pursuit of the American Dream. Even if this dream is built on the backs of those who lived here before us.

(Several times, the caravan’s livestock is freed/stolen by “Indians” – who I couldn’t help but root for – and Brown briefly mentions the indigenous populations in the Author’s Note. When the killing starts, it’s the group’s Native American guides who are the first to go.)

In To Stay Alive, Skila Brown reconstructs these events through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves, who was nineteen when she and her family set out from their home in Lacon, Illinois to make a new life California. The already-arduous journey turned deadly when the Donner-Reed Party, as it came to be known, found themselves snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47, just a hundred-odd miles shy of their destination. While the majority of the party made camp next to Truckee Lake in anticipation of the spring thaw, supplies quickly dwindled, and so a small group set out on foot to find help. When they ran out food, they were forced to eat the dead to survive – first those felled by starvation and hypothermia, and then those murdered for food. (I’m not sure how closely To Stay Alive reflects reality, but the whole murdering-people-for-food thing seems a little more controversial IRL.)

To Stay Alive is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it’s a novel written in verse and 2) its intended audience, which is middle grade readers.

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Book Review: Yesternight, Cat Winters (2016)

Friday, October 14th, 2016

Supernatural horror + timeless misogyny = a compelling creepshow.

four out of five stars

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

Dreamt I to-day the dream of yesternight,
Sleep ever feigning one evolving theme,
— Of my two lives which should I call the dream?

—George Santayana, “Sonnet V,” 1896

Alice Lind,
Alice Lind,
Took a stick and beat her friend.
Should she die?
Should she live?
How many beatings did she give?

If I hadn’t been a psychologist—if I didn’t find the idea of reincarnation so absurd—I would have wanted Violet Sunday to exist.

A female mathematical genius.

A Victorian female mathematical genius.

What an absolutely delicious idea.

A school psychologist, Alice Lind spends her days traversing the western United States, administering psychological and intelligence tests to children and advising the Department of Education how it can better help students who are being under-served in their communities. While the work certainly goes to Alice’s desire to help kids – especially troubled ones like her younger self – too often she feels trapped, suffocated, and bored.

After obtaining her Master’s degree, Alice applied to multiple doctoral programs, with the hope of one day studying human memory – and its malleability and resilience, particularly where repressed memories are concerned. Despite her obvious skill and passion, Alice was rebuffed at every turn, only to watch her less qualified peers move on to bigger and better things. The year is 1925, you see, a time when higher education for women was considered a quirky anomaly at best – and a sinful rejection of one’s “God given” role as a woman at worst.

Our first glimpse of Miss Lind comes as she steps off the train and into her latest two-week placement at Gordon Bay, Oregon – by the special request of the schoolteacher, Miss Simpkin. Among her pupils is a precocious seven-year-old named Janie O’Daire (to whom Miss Simpkin is also known as “Aunt Tillie”), an exceptionally bright student and apparent math prodigy, who seems to experience memories of another life. A past life.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016)

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Harrowing and heartbreaking — and brimming with humanity.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including slavery and rape, and offensive language.)

Cora couldn’t pay attention. The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

RAN AWAY
from her legal but not rightful master fifteen months past,
a slave girl called CORA;
of ordinary height and dark brown complexion;
has a star-shape mark on her temple from an injury;
possessed of a spirited nature and devious method.
Possibly answering to the name BESSIE.
Last seen in Indiana among the outlaws of John Valentine Farm.
She has stopped running.
Reward remains unclaimed.
SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.
December 23

Sixteen-year-old Cora was born on the Randall plantation in Georgia, just like her mother before her. Mabel’s mother, Ajarry, was the first of their line to set foot on American soil. She was kidnapped, separated from her family, and enslaved when she was just a girl. Twice she tried to commit suicide on the long voyage across the Atlantic, to no avail. She married three times and birthed five children; Mabel was the only one to survive into adulthood. Mabel had a little more luck in her escape attempt: when Cora was ten or eleven, she ran away, never to return.

The first time Caesar asked Cora to run away with him, she refused. Three weeks later, she said yes. In the interim, Cora had snapped; just for a second, throwing her body over that of a young boy named Chester to shield him from punishment. A beating with a cane, for the crime of bumping into his owner’s brother, thus spilling a drop of wine on his shirtsleeve. She’d landed on Terrance Randall’s radar; Terrance, who was now poised to assume control of his brother James’s half of the plantation. Terrance, the crueler and more sadistic of the Randall boys.

“She had not been his and now she was his. Or she had always been his and just now knew it.”

So Caesar and Cora make a break for it, with a little help from the famed Underground Railroad. Only here, Whitehead reimagines the UR as an honest-to-goodness, wood and steel train; one that travels through tunnels carved into the rock by black and brown hands. A railroad that runs up and down the East Coast, on an intermittent schedule, with stops closing and rerouting as needed.

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Book Review: The Unseen World, Liz Moore (2016)

Friday, July 29th, 2016

Brilliant, heartfelt, and full of surprises.

five out of five stars

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

The work of the Steiner Lab, in simple terms, was to create more and more sophisticated versions of this kind of language-acquisition software. […]

These applications of the software, however, were only a small part of what interested David, made him stay awake feverishly into the night, designing and testing programs. There was also the art of it, the philosophical questions that this software raised. The essential inquiry was thus: If a machine can convincingly imitate humanity—can persuade a human being of its kinship—then what makes it inhuman? What, after all, is human thought but a series of electrical impulses?

“What can I get you to eat, hon?” asked Liston, and rattled off a list of all the snacks of the 1980s that Ada was never permitted to have: canned pastas by Chef Boyardee, Fluffernutter sandwiches, fluorescent Kraft macaroni and cheese. In truth, Ada had never even heard of some of the food Liston offered her.

I was told to ask you something, said Ada finally.
I know, said ELIXIR. I’ve been waiting.

Ada Sibelius had something of an unconventional upbringing, beginning with her very conception. At the tender age of 45, Dr. David Sibelius – “director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny” – decided that he wanted a child. Ada (named after one of David’s favorite entries in the Encyclopædia Britannica) was born to a surrogate one year later. This was no small thing back then: 1971, to be exact.

In keeping with his eccentric nature, David decided to homeschool his daughter; or rather lab-school her. Ada accompanied David – as she called him – to work every day, where she was immersed in his world, in the language of mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, and computer science. In the absence of any biological relatives, David’s colleagues – Charles-Robert, Hayato, Frank Halbert, and Diane Liston – became her extended family; his interests were hers. Ada learned to solve complex equations, decrypt puzzles, and present and defend theories. David filled composition books with the names of books, songs, pieces of artwork, and even wines that she should try one day; a cultured bucket list before its time. In many ways, their relationship was more like that of a teacher and his student than a father and his daughter.

At the Steiner Lab, David and his colleagues studied natural language processing and developed language-acquisition software. Their crowning achievement – David’s second child, if you will – was ELIXIR (mmmm, magic!). Everyone at the lab – including Ada – took turns chatting with ELIXIR, to teach it the words and rules and complexities of language. The program was meant to acquire language the way that humans do, and learn it did. Slowly but surely, ELIXIR grew alongside Ada, evolving from garbled, nonsense text to a semi-eloquent conversationalist (albeit one who reflected the habits and speech patterns of its teachers). For Ada, ELIXIR was a confidant, a non-recoverable diary; she poured her heart and soul into ELIXIR, especially when things got bad.

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Book Review: The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

Monday, June 13th, 2016

A book so shrewd and insightful, it’s sometimes painful to read.

five out of five stars

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

When I’d first tried to tell Dan, on the night of a brownout in Venice that summoned a candlelit, apocalyptic intimacy, he had burst out laughing. Mistaking the hush in my voice for the drop of hilarity. Even after I convinced Dan I was telling the truth, he talked about the ranch with that same parodic goof. Like a horror movie with bad special effects, the boom microphone dipping into the frame and tinting the butchery into comedy. And it was a relief to exaggerate my distance, neatening my involvement into the orderly package of anecdote.

It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperbacks with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach. The couple of lines that did mention me were buried in an out-of-print book by a former poet, and he’d gotten my name wrong and hadn’t made any connection to my grandmother. The same poet also claimed that the CIA was producing porn films starring a drugged Marilyn Monroe, films sold to politicians and foreign heads of state.

In my teens and early twenties, I was what you’d call a true crime buff. I downed scintillating mass market paperbacks by the dozen: Deep Cover, Serpico, Wiseguy, The Stranger Beside Me, Chasing the Devil, The Devil in the White City, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Under the Banner of Heaven – you name it. For a time I fantasized about studying forensic psychology. My favorite stories were those that centered on cults: the indoctrination into bizarre religious beliefs, the charismatic (yet obviously slimy and possibly sociopathic) leader, the epically tragic ending. Naturally, my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was well-loved; and, in college, I was lucky enough to write a paper on Jonestown for a sociology course.

My point being: Emma Cline’s The Girls was an instant must-read for me. A novel based on the Manson Family? Give it to me now!

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Book Review: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H.P. Wood (2016)

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

An Entertaining Coney Island Mystery With a Side of Social Commentary

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racist/sexist/ableist language and sexual harassment.)

May 1904. Coney Island’s newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened. Its many spectacles are expected to attract crowds by the thousands, paying back investors many times over.

Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine. But when she returns, Kitty’s mother has vanished. The desk clerk tells Kitty she is at the wrong hotel. The doctor says he’s never seen her although, she notices, he is unable to look her in the eye.

Alone in a strange country, Kitty meets the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet. A relic of a darker, dirtier era, Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Magruder’s Unusuals take Kitty under their wing and resolve to find out what happened to her mother.

But as a plague spreads, Coney Island is placed under quarantine. The gang at Magruder’s finds that a missing mother is the least of their problems, as the once-glamorous resort town is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Everything about the Cabinet is grimy and fusty and strange. Nazan smiles. It’s everything she’d hoped it would be. It’s perfect.

Along the street comes the clip-clop of distraction. Spencer recognizes the tinkling bells of Children’s Delight—a portable fourseater carousel pulled along by a fine white horse. The Children’s Delight was such a part of his childhood; he and Charlie used to search for it on every family visit to Coney. What a relief that some things never change. And yet. A young girl with pigtails, no more than ten years old, sits atop the cart. It is packed with corpses.

2015 saw the publication of so many wonderful carnival- and circus-themed novels that part of (me the bookish part) was sad to see the year end. There was Kristy Logan’s The Gracekeepers, in which North and her bear cub traverse the sea (which now covers most of the planet) with their circus troupe on the Excalibur. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels follows Coney Island sideshow performer Odile Church as she travels to Manhattan in search of her sister, who fled The Church of Marvels when it burned to the ground, taking the sisters’ mother – and their livelihood – with them. In The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler weaves an imaginative tale about a librarian named Simon who comes into possession of an old book – a circus ledger dating back to the 1700s. Only by unraveling its secrets can he lift the curse that’s plagued his family for generations. And then there’s Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers, a retelling of Romeo & Juliet featuring two rival families of performers, the Palomas (mermaids) and Corbeaus (tightrope walkers/tree climbers). Last but not least is Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie, an “accidentally vegan” tale that features cryptids, hybrids, and shapeshifters, which quickly became an all-time favorite.

While this year doesn’t seem quite as rife with carnies and “freaks,” I was overjoyed to see early copies of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Woods and Juliette Fay’s The Tumbling Turner Sisters on NetGalley. I’m also eagerly anticipating the release of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval in early 2017.

Anyway, the point is that I have a soft spot for stories starring circus performers, and H.P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is a welcome addition to the genre. Of all the books I mentioned, it shares the most in common with Church of Marvels: set in a similar time period (1895), it too features a distraught young woman scouring New York City for a missing loved one in the wake of a personal tragedy.

Set in 1904, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet involves an outbreak of the pneumonic plague, a pack of wayward leopards, a mysteriously vanished Englishwoman, and a corporate and political conspiracy. At the center of it all is Theophilus P. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a dime museum located on the “wrong end” of Coney Island. While the dusty old museum doesn’t see much traffic, the basement bar known as Magruder’s Unusual Tavern serves as a gathering place for Coney Island’s extended family of “freaks” – or Unusuals, as they like to call themselves. (By the same taken, “normal” people are “Dozens” – as in “a dime a.”) When Unusuals and Dozens alike start dropping like flies, Magruder’s becomes the base of operations – and, when the quarantine threatens to rip Coney Island apart, Magruder’s is their last stand.

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Book Review: The Wolf in the Attic, Paul Kearney (2016)

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

An Egyptian Werewolf in Oxford

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment/assault and allusions to rape.)

I understand now all the fairy tales, those that talk of the dangers of the deep forest, and the beasts that lurk there. All those fears were true. I know them now. I am in the middle of one such story, and all I want is out of it.

— 3.5 stars —

It’s 1929, and another year is drawing to a close in Oxford. Eleven-year-old (almost twelve!) Anna Francis hates it, all of it: the cold, dreary weather. The short days and unforgiving nights. The drafty house and her empty belly. Her father’s sadness, so often drowned in a bottle of Scotch. The isolation and loneliness and profound sense of alienation.

Anna and her father are refugees; the last surviving members of the Sphrantzes clan. Once they lived in Smyrna, a Turkish city on the Aegean Sea, like their ancestors before them. But the end of the Great War gave birth to the Greco-Turkish War – after which most of the Christians remaining in Smyrna were forced to leave. When their community was sacked, Anna and Georgio wound up on a ship bound for England. Anna’s mother wasn’t as lucky; along with many pretty young girls and women, she was kidnapped by Turkish forces. Nor do they know the fate of Nikos, Anna’s older brother and a member of the army deployed to fight the Turkish forces. Her trusty doll Penelope – named after Odysseos’s wife, Pie for short – is all she has left of him.

Though Anna and Georgio live in a ginormous house, just the two of them, Anna has trouble finding time for herself. During the day, she’s hounded by the strict Miss Hawcross and her menacing ruler; and at night, her father frequently hosts Committee meetings, such that her house is teeming with strangers. So she sneaks out to roam the streets of Oxford, and explores the upper floors of the house, long since closed off and forbidden to her, in search of adventure. This is how she meets the strange boy, with dark hair and skin like hers: but eyes that glow in a way that no human’s should.

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Book Review: Burn Baby Burn, Meg Medina (2016)

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Burn that mother down.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for domestic violence.)

The bruise on my neck is compact and the color of liver. It’s right at my voice box, too, so when I stand at the mirror, it looks like a bullet hole to the throat.

Mima pretends she doesn’t see it.

We’re in a secret club together. All those times I never asked about her wrists, about the fleshy part of her thigh, even the faint circle of teeth at her cheeks all those years ago after one of Hector’s tantrums. More recently, the days she uses my CoverGirl without my permission.

All too often, anti-rape campaigns focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Under the guise of “helpful advice,” women are told what we can do to avoid being raped: Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Don’t take your eyes off the drink you bought yourself. Don’t get drunk in public. Don’t drink in public, period. Don’t walk home alone. Don’t walk the streets at night, period. Sometimes the advice is downright contradictory: Wear pants, since they make rape slightly more difficult. But don’t wear skinny jeans because, in the event that you are raped, no one will believe you. (Skinny jeans are so difficult to peel off that your rapist must have had your cooperation and thus your consent.)

At best, these “tips” are given with good intentions and provide a false sense of control over a chaotic world. At worst, they’re a crass attempt to police the behavior of women – for our own protection, of course. *

Perhaps most alarmingly, these types of rape prevention campaigns contribute to the stereotype of the rapist as a menacing stranger, lurking in the bushes or an alleyway, just waiting for the perfect victim to come along; an animal prowling the urban jungle. Someone evil and unknowable. An anomaly.

In reality, 82% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. They are our partners, our dates, our friends, our coworkers, and our classmates. How does walking home in a group help to prevent rape when the rapist is waiting for us at home?

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DNF Book Review: The Girl with Ghost Eyes, M. H. Boroson (2015)

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

 

It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring great shame to Li-lin and her father—and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.

When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer’s ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.

With a rich and inventive historical setting, nonstop martial arts action, authentic Chinese magic, and bizarre monsters from Asian folklore, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is also the poignant story of a young immigrant searching to find her place beside the long shadow of a demanding father and the stigma of widowhood. In a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity, one woman may be the key to holding everything together.

(summary via Goodreads)

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Book Review: Wolf By Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1), Ryan Graudin (2015)

Monday, October 19th, 2015

“The wolves of war are gathering…”

five out of five stars

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

Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them – made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same.

Her story begins on a train.

Babushka – the one who gave her purpose.

Mama – the one who gave her life.

Miriam – the one who gave her freedom.

Aaron-Klaus – the one who gave her a mission.

Vlad – the one who gave her pain.

These were the names she whispered in the dark.

These were the pieces she brought back into place.

These were the wolves she rode to war.

An exhilarating and imaginative fusion of alternate history, science fiction, and historical fiction, Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf mines the many what ifs? surrounding World War II: What if the United States had held fast to an isolationist foreign policy? What if the Hitler had successfully executed Operation Sea Lion? What if the combined forces of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan had won the war, painting most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa red? What if Nazi scientists successfully found a way of “curing” Untermensch, making them at least appear more perfectly Aryan on the surface? What if these experiments surpassed even Dr. Mengele’s wildest dreams, creating mutants who are able to change their skin at will, the way you or I would change our clothes?

While the first three scenarios were arguably possible at one point or another in history – and Nazi scientists did indeed try to tinker with eye color – that last what if is what catapults Wolf By Wolf into the realm of science fiction/fantasy. And is it glourious. (Misspelling intentional.)

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Book Review: The Uninvited: A Novel, Cat Winters (2015)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Hope is the Girl with Bright Blue Butterfly Wings

five out of five stars

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

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

We were music. We were jazz. We were alive.

Like her mother Alice and her Granny Letty before her, Ivy Rowan can see Uninvited Guests. Ghosts, harbinger spirits who only appear to Ivy to herald a death. Instead of offering her comfort, the ghosts of her beloved ancestors inspire nothing but fear and dread in Ivy’s bleeding heart. Every time they visit her, someone dies.

The year is 1918. As the twin horrors of World War I and the Spanish Influenza rip across the globe, leaving millions of corpses in their wake – many of them the young and the healthy; those who should have their whole lives ahead of them – the ghosts seem to come at Ivy in droves. Death is a constant.

There’s her younger brother Billy, who was killed in the Battle of Saint-Michiel just a month ago. Eddie Dover, target of so many teenage crushes, also felled in battle. And Albrecht Schendel – the German businessman her father Frank and youngest brother Peter beat to death in cold blood.

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Book Review: Orphan Number Eight, Kim van Alkemade (2015)

Friday, August 7th, 2015

A Tense Psychological Thriller Tempered With a Heartrending Coming-of-Age Story

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence, including illicit human experimentation. Also, this review contains a plot summary with minor spoilers.)

The question sounded strange in the present tense. I used to think that orphaned was something I’d been as a child and since outgrown. It occurred to me, though, that was exactly how I’d been feeling all summer.

“I guess anyone alone in the world’s an orphan,” I said.

The year is 1918, and four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz has just landed in the Infant Home, an orphanage for Jewish kids under the age of six in New York City. After her lying, cheating, rapist father accidentally kills her mother* and then runs from the police, Rachel and her brother Sam are effectively orphaned, taken in by the Jewish Children’s Agency. Two years her senior, Sam is sent to the Orphaned Hebrews Home.

The children are considered lucky, in a sense: funded by wealthy patrons, the Infant Home and Orphaned Hebrews Home are well-regarded. Whereas gentile kids in their position – and there are many, left penniless, homeless, and/or without a family to call their own by the twin terrors of the so-called Spanish Influenza and World War I – would be left to fend for themselves, Rachel and Sam get a roof over their heads, beds to call their own, three square meals a day – even an education.

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Book Review: Church of Marvels: A Novel, Leslie Parry (2015)

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

“I have witnessed the sublime in the mundane…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher.)

But this story, in truth, is not about me. I am only a small part of it. I could try to forget it, perhaps. I could try to put it behind me. But sometimes I dream that I’ll still return to the pageantry of the sideshow, hide myself beneath costumes and powder and paint, grow willingly deaf among the opiating roar of the audience and the bellow of the old brass band. It will be like the old days – when Mother was ferocious and alive, before the Church of Marvels burned to the sand. But how can I return now, having seen what I have seen? For I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.

Why, he wondered, did he have to peddle his difference for their amusement, and yet at the same time temper it, suppress it, make it suitably benign?

How would it feel to know there were people who’d chosen to live as they felt, not as they appeared, and never looked back? Could she bear their happiness, as shunned as they were? Was she brave enough?

She had seen it done. Wherever they glittered in the afterlife – flying among the high rafters of heaven, swimming with her mother in an undersea cave – she hoped the tigers had known it, and roared.

For the first time in her seventeen years, Odile Church is alone. Her mother’s sideshow carnival, the Church of Marvels, burned to ash in the spring, the casualty of a freak fire. With it went her mother, many of her friends, and the only life she knew. Her twin sister, Isabelle Church, was spared – only to run off to Manhattan not long after. That was three months ago; three months without a word.

And then Odile receives a cryptic, ominous letter from Belle: “If for some reason this is the last letter I should write to you, please know that I love you.” Armed with little more than an old map of her mother’s and Belle’s letter, Odile hops the next ferry to Manhattan in search of her sister.

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Book Review: Forbidden (Forbidden #1), Kimberley Griffiths Little (2014)

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Rich in Detail and Drama

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through the book blog Batch of Books. Trigger warning for rape.)

1759 BC, the deserts of Mesopotamia. Sixteen-year-old Jayden – daughter of Pharez, of the tribe Nephish – is about to perform the betrothal dance before the women of her tribe, sealing her fate as the soon-to-be-wife of Horeb, her adopted cousin and prince in training. Handsome, powerful, and wealthy, Horeb is considered a real catch by many of the young women in this desert-dwelling tribe. Only Jayden sees him for who he truly is – a cold, calculating man, filled with cruelty and sadism. (Perhaps because Horeb only drops his mask for her, delighting in tormenting someone completely lacking in recourse – for when they wed, she will become his property.)

Though their betrothal dates back to their childhoods, there might have been a time when Jayden’s father could have renegotiated or even broken it. Originally it was her older sister Leila’s marriage to Zenos, the elder of the two brothers, which took precedent. Zenos was first in line to become tribal King upon the death or retirement of his father, Abimelech, and Leila was to rule as his Queen. But all that changed when Zenos died during a raid the previous year – pinning all of her family’s hopes on Jayden’s thin shoulders.

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