Book Review: Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019)

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

Dear James,

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

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

“So how do I find my words?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love that Helaine is not a stereotype.

I love that El is an atheist.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina (2019)

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

“fine. new hell, whatever.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence inflicted on black bodies, including rape and medical experimentation.)

this bruise ain’t no girl
she gone
she never gon be again
she too much a ghost even
for burial

when he left
seem like he stayed
like i kept
some of it
like i ain’t
have no other way

and now Betsey say
i expecting

how you translate
a bludgeonin to
a birth?

you tell me how
i’m suposed to
do that –

a baby.
from the mud pile…
a baby…

one more
thing i don’t know
how to carry.

i say:
what you make a dem stars?
he say:

they just like us. sizzlin dead.

— 4.5 stars —

Like his homeland, the man widely regarded as “the father of modern gynecology” built his wealth and success on the bodies of slaves. Specifically, enslaved black women who suffered debilitating complications from childbirth.

J. Marion Sims is credited with a number of advancements in the field of gynecology: He developed a precursor to the modern speculum, using a spoon and complicated series of mirrors. He built the first women’s hospital in his backyard in Montgomery, Alabama, despite his reported disgust with women’s anatomy. (He wrote in his autobiography, “if there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.”) Most famously, he developed a way of repairing vesicovaginal fistula.

Vesicovaginal fistula is caused during childbirth “when the woman’s bladder, cervix, and vagina become trapped between the fetal skull and the woman’s pelvis, cutting off blood flow and leading to tissue death. The necrotic tissue later sloughs off, leaving a hole. Following this injury, as urine forms, it leaks out of the vaginal opening, leading to a form of incontinence.” Similarly, rectovaginal fistula can cause fecal incontinence; Sims explored treatment for this condition as well.*

And he did it all on the backs of the most vulnerable: enslaved black women.

Over a period of four years, Sims experimented on twelve female slaves who suffered complications from childbirth. He subjected each woman to multiple surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia (though some were given opium post-op). Sometimes he had an audience; on other occasions, the women themselves had to assist in Sims’s procedures. Many were brought to him by their “owners,” seeking to recoup their “investments.” Sims purchased one woman outright so that he could experiment on her. Only three of these women’s names resisted burial under the weight of history: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, all of whom suffered from fistula. Sims violated Anarcha thirteen times before he declared her a success.

In Anarcha Speaks, poet/activist/educator – and mother – Dominique Christina attempts to reconstruct Anarcha’s life, imagining the events that might have landed her on Sims’s doorstep/operating table/torture chamber. Sims doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the book, giving us a chance to get to know Anarcha as a person, and not “just” the ill-fated woman in that horrifying Robert Thom painting. After this, Christina occasionally alternates their perspectives: slave/patient and doctor/”massa.” I’m not sure I loved this convention: I think perhaps the story would have been more powerful coming from Anarcha and Anarcha alone; and besides, history is overflowing with the perspectives of privileged white men – do we really need to hear more? On the other hand, Sims’s POV gives necessary context on how doctors/society regarded black women – and their pain.

Anarcha Speaks is powerful, raw, and visceral. I don’t always love poetry because I don’t usually “get” it, but Christina’s prose cuts to bone. I can’t exactly call Anarcha Speaks an enjoyable read, but it’s a necessary one, and skillfully done. This tiny little powerhouse of a tome would equally be at home on a history syllabus or in a class on medical ethics as in a creative writing course.

* He also experimented on children and babies, in an attempt to treat trismus nascentium; these interventions were met with a hundred percent fatality rate, which he blamed on the mothers (all black). Naturally.

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

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

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Not one of Winters’s best.

two out of five stars

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

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

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

— 2.5 stars. DNF at 58%. —

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2019)

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

A horrifying, based-on-a-true-story addition to the growing body of #MeToo literature.

five out of five stars

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

We won’t have to leave the people we love? says Neitje. Greta points out that the women could bring loved ones with them. Others question the practicality of this, and Ona mentions, gently, that several of the people we love are people we also fear.

Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not harm another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year-old child.

Mariche can contain herself no longer. She accuses Ona of being a dreamer. We are women without a voice, Ona states calmly. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams— so of course we are dreamers.

Between 2005 and 2009, a group of nine men raped hundreds of women, girls, and children in an isolated Bolivian Mennonite settlement called Manitoba Colony. In many cases, the men – fellow believers and members of the community – were related to the victims, who were their sisters, cousins, aunts, nieces, etc. Using belladonna procured from a veterinarian in a neighboring Mennonite colony, the men blew the sedative through doors and windows, incapacitating entire households, and then spent the night assaulting their victims, alone or in groups. Victims would wake up sore and bruised, sometimes with dirt, blood, and semen staining their sheets, or with grass in their hair. Many of the victims had no memory of the assault, while others recalled the night’s events in fragments and flashes.

Though many of the women and children were reluctant to recount their experiences (the children, especially, lacked words with which to describe what had been done to them), the sisters – Mennonites refer to all members of the community as “sisters” and “brothers” – began to whisper amongst themselves. Word spread, as it always does. The leaders of Manitoba Colony – men, them all – dismissed the women’s experiences as “wild female imagination,” or punishment wrought down by God or Satan for unnamed sins. The perpetrators were given otherworldly origins: they were demons and ghosts, whose manifestations for which the women were ultimately responsible. Or the women were simply lying, either to cover up adultery or for attention.

The rape ring was finally uncovered when two men were caught trying to break into a neighbor’s home in June of 2009. They gave up a few of their friends, and so on, until nine men – between the ages of 19 and 43 – were implicated. The trial took place in 2011; the rapists were sentenced to 25 years apiece, while the veterinarian who supplied the drug got 12 years. Officially, 130 victims were identified during the trial, but the number is likely much higher. The case shone a light on domestic violence and sexual assault in conservative, insulated Mennonite colonies. Indeed, in a follow-up visit to Manitoba Colony for Vice in 2013, journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky discovered evidence that the mass rapes are still happening. (Google “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia” to see the report, as well as a two-part documentary available on YouTube.)

The fact that the case even went to trial is remarkable in itself. While Mennonites, like all religious groups, have various factions and adherents ranging from liberal to more conservative, the Manitoba Colony is on the extreme end of the spectrum. Mennonites have their origins in 16th century Netherlands; due to religious persecution, its converts spread around the globe over the intervening centuries. Named after the Canadian province they fled in the early 1900s, the Manitoba Colony eventually settled in Bolivia thanks to an agreement with the country, that they would be largely autonomous and free to govern themselves. In terms of law enforcement, except in cases of murder, the Manitobans are free to handle crime as they see fit.

Manitoba leadership only turned the rapists over to the Bolivian government for their own safety: they were afraid that, if the men remained in the colony, they would be killed by the victims’ male relatives. With no police force or judicial system, local ministers “investigate” and mete out punishment for wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, crimes of this nature largely go unpunished and tend to reoccur.

Enter Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, which the author somewhat cheekily describes as “both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.” (Burn.) In this reimagining of events, the rapists were indeed turned over to the Bolivian government (in this case, it was because of Salome with a scythe, vs. men with pitchforks, which I love). However, the colony’s remaining men, having had a change of heart, have traveled to the nearest city to post bail for their brothers. (This plot hole is my only issue with the story: why bring the accused back to await the trail date when they were sent away for their own safety? Is it because they recanted their confessions?)

The women have two days before they return, rapists in tow. Two days to decide what their response should be.

They have three options, as they see it:

1. Do nothing.
2. Stay and fight.
3. Leave.

And so eight women climb into a disused hay loft for a surreptitious meeting/debate. Eight women, and one man to record the minutes – because women, only schooled to the age of twelve, are not taught to read or write. Luckily, the man is sympathetic to their plight, and a bit of a rebel/outcast himself. A group of sisters who have already thrown their caps into the do-nothing camp? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong; Women Talking is not heavy on action. While I’d argue that it is suspenseful, the tension is understated: what will the women do to defend themselves, if anything?

There’s a lot of talking in this book: as another reviewer noted, it’s right there in the title. And probably this isn’t everybody’s thing. But I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. And, when it was over, I spent a few more hours reading about the case online. It’s horrifying, not just in the sheer scope of abuse, but in the bizarre stories used to explain it away. (Rape apologism on LSD.) Perhaps most horrifying is how completely the women were – are – trapped by circumstance, as becomes evident as the narrative unfolds.

Not only are the women illiterate (by design), thus unable to read a map; they have no idea where they live in relation to the outside world. Their colony is remote and they have only horses and buggies for travel. They speak only Low German in a Latin American country. Leaving is difficult, while fighting arguably goes against their pacifist beliefs. But staying and continuing to endure the abuse? Being forced under threat of excommunication to forgive their rapists? Unthinkable.

What is their duty to God? To the patriarchs of their colony? To their community? To their faith? To their children? To themselves?

As I devoured the book, I found myself wondering just how much of it is true, and what is merely artistic embellishment? As it turns out, most of the more outrageous details are fact. The youngest victim was a three-year-old toddler (though it’s unclear if she actually contracted an STD, as Miep did in the book). The women were denied counseling by the colony elders, on the reasoning that, if they were unconscious and unaware during the attacks, what harm could it have done? (In fact, Low German-speaking counselors volunteered to visit the colony and work with survivors, free of cost; colony leaders turned them away without so much as mentioning it to the women.) The women were “encouraged” to forgive their attackers; if they failed to do so, they received a personal visit from Bishop Neurdorf, “Manitoba’s highest authority.”

An especially appalling detail, not mentioned by Toews: Old Mennonite women are not allowed to testify (nor vote, hold office, etc.). At the trial, the victims’ male relatives had to offer testimony on their behalf. Women were not allowed to speak of the violence inflicted on them – not even at the trial of their oppressors.

So as bad as Women Talking is, I have to believe that the reality is so very much worse. Especially since the hayloft meeting – the most hopeful part of the book – is a flight of the female imagination, so to speak.

Also, Toews spent the first eighteen years of her life in a Mennonite community, so I’ve got to trust that she knows that of which she writes.

While it’s tempting to blame the mass rapes on the Mennonite religion – and, indeed, the patriarchal power structure, fear of outsiders, and physical and linguistic isolation of the colony certainly contributed to the sheer scope and longevity of the crimes – rape is … everywhere. As I write this review, a NYT piece just broke a scandal involving the systemic rape of nuns by priests, who then forced their victims to abort the resulting pregnancies (just proving that their opposition to abortion is less about babies and more about power over and control of female bodies). There’s even a great moment when Mejal “not all men”s the proceedings – to which Ona replies: “Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

Anywhere that women (or girls, or boys, or LGBTQ people, or the disabled, or POC, etc.) are dehumanized, objectified, and othered; anywhere that one group is given total or near-total power over others; anywhere there is inequality and certain segments of the population are marginalized, discriminated against, and disbelieved, there will be rape. Whether it’s an isolated Mennonite colony in eastern Bolivia, or a college dorm room in Columbus, Ohio. In the office of a powerful Hollywood producer or the Oval Office.

The question becomes, what are we – you and I – going to do about it?

There’s nowhere to flee, and “nothing” has been the status quo for far too long.

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

Book Review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields (2019)

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Hugely disappointing.

two out of five stars

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

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

DNF at 65%.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: 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: 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: All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell (2018)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

“‘Peace, love and empathy,’ Annabelle murmurs, and then we fade away.”

four out of five stars

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

“All my life, people have told me what to do or taken what’s mine. The same is true for you! We’ve been raised among pirates who call themselves gentlemen. And I’m ready to turn the tables. I’m ready to take what’s mine and maybe a few things that aren’t.”

(“The Sweet Trade” by Natalie C. Parker)

We lived. We survived to whisper our names to each other even if we could not yet confess them to anyone else.

(“Roja” by Anna-Marie McLemore)

Anna-Marie McLemore. Malinda Lo. Sara Farizan. Dahlia Adler. Mackenzi Lee. If the lovely and delightful concept of All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages wasn’t enough to have me drooling over this book, the list of authors attached to the project would have easily sealed the deal.

Though they all fall under the heading of historical fiction (fwiw, as someone who was herself a young adult during Y2K, it’s hard for me to think of a story set in 1999 as “historical”), the seventeen short stories found here stretch across a variety of genres: fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romance, etc. This can sometimes make for a jarring transition between stories, but for the most part their LGBTQ protagonists bind them together almost seamlessly.

Anthologies tend by their very nature to be at least a little uneven, but All Out is consistently enjoyable, if not downright awesome. The lowest rating I gave any one story is a three, and these are few and far between. Most of my notes are downright gushy; two stories merited a “fucking amazing!” (“Molly’s Lips” and “Every Shade of Red”); there was one “pure magic” (“Healing Rosa”); and of “The Inferno & The Butterfly” I said simply “great” (I think I was struck speechless tbh).

What I like best – other than the exquisite storytelling and abundance of imagination – is the sheer breadth of diversity. There are F/F and M/M romances, to be sure; but also trans protagonists and heroes, a fair amount of crossdressing (both as a means of subterfuge and as self-expression), and even one or two asexual characters. Some of these teens know very well who they are and are totally comfortable with it, thank you very much; while others are still in the process of learning and becoming. And there are teens from a variety of time periods, nations, cultures, and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Picking favorites is hard! But Elliott Wake’s “Every Shade of Red” – a retelling of Robin Hood wherein Robin is a trans boy, given name Lady Marian, who is running away from a forced marriage – stands out in particular. The ending is both heartbreaking but also brimming the promise of adventures yet to come; I can only hope that it’s the first part of an ongoing series. I’d settle for the written word, but this is a story that belongs on screen.

I also fell in love with “Molly’s Lips” by Dahlia Adler. Two besties fall in love – or rather, find the courage to profess their love for one another – in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. I’m a huge Nirvana fan, and Annabelle’s revelation by linear notes was pure magic. It also reminded me of how much poorer the world is without Kurt here. Especially now, when we need all the little sparks we can get.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing is as beautiful and enchanting as always; inspired by the life of Leonarda Emilia, “Roja” is the story of two fierce and indomitable star-crossed lovers. (“Known to history as la Carambada, Leonarda wore men’s clothing, but became notorious for revealing her breasts to the powerful men she’d just robbed as she rode off.” How rad is that?)

And “Healing Rosa” had me cursing the stars that we have to wait so long for We Set the Dark on Fire, the debut novel from Tehlor Kay Mejia.

There are so many more wonderful stories, too many to mention. Best just pick up a copy of All Out and see for yourself.

 

Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (El Bajío, México, 1870) – 5/5
The Sweet Trade by Natalie C. Parker (Virginia Colony, 1717) – 4/5
And They Don’t Kiss at the End by Nilah Magruder (Maryland, 1976) – 3.5/5
Burnt Umber by Mackenzi Lee (Amsterdam, 1638) – 5/5
The Dresser & The Chambermaid by Robin Talley (Kensington Palace, September 1726) – 3.5/5
New Year by Malinda Lo (San Francisco—January 21, 1955) – 4/5
Molly’s Lips by Dahlia Adler (Seattle—April 10, 1994) – 5/5
The Coven by Kate Scelsa (Paris, 1924) – 3/5
Every Shade of Red by Elliott Wake (England, Late Fourteenth Century) – 5/5
Willows by Scott Tracey (Southwyck Bay, Massachusetts, 1732) – 3/5
The Girl With the Blue Lantern by Tess Sharpe (Northern California, 1849) – 3.5/5
The Secret Life of a Teenage Boy by Alex Sanchez (Tidewater, Virginia, 1969) – 5/5
Walking After Midnight by Kody Keplinger (Upstate New York, 1952) – 4/5
The End of the World As We Know It by Sara Farizan (Massachusetts, 1999) – 4/5
Three Witches by Tessa Gratton (Kingdom of Castile, 1519) – 3.5/5
The Inferno & The Butterfly by Shaun David Hutchinson (London, 1839) – 5/5
Healing Rosa by Tehlor Kay Mejia (Luna County, New Mexico, 1933) – 5/5

 

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

Book Review: Pestilence, Volume 1 by Frank Tieri and Oleg Okunev (2018)

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

I’d almost rather have a zombie chew my nose off than read this again.

one out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and misogyny. This review contains spoilers.)

DNF at 75%.

The year is 1347, and the Black Death is sweeping through Eurasia. Sent to dispatch a rogue crusader in a distant kingdom, a regimen of the Church’s army known as the Fiat Lux is summoned to the Vatican to rescue the Pope. Instead they are unwittingly drawn into a vast conspiracy involving zombies, religious dogma, and Jesus and Lucifer.

On the surface, Pestilence is a pretty cool idea: what if the Black Plague was actually a zombie outbreak? The plot line is surprisingly boring, though, and I only really cared about one character, who’s killed off just as he becomes interesting.

Worse still is the dialogue. If I had a dollar for every time “cocksucker” or “cunt” makes an appearance, I could buy an entire case of Daiya cheese. (At the 5% case discount, yes, but still: that shit is expensive!) I don’t have a problem with swearing, but here it’s pathetically overdone, as if it was written by a couple of ten-year-old boys who just discovered the f-word. There’s also some pretty gratuitous female nudity [side eye], as well as a full-page pillage-and-rape panel that’s both wholly unnecessary and obnoxiously insensitive [lighting this book on fire].

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Book Review: Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (New Edition) by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (2017)

Friday, February 9th, 2018

“Assimilation as Revolution.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racist violence, including depictions of lynchings.)

Zane Pinchback is a real-life superhero. But instead of a cape and leotard, he wears a suit and carries a hot comb and notebook. A light-skinned black man, Zane is an investigative journalist whose alter ego “Incognegro” pens a regular column at the New Holland Herald. Able to pass as white, Zane bears witness to crimes against African-Americans, including the wave of lynchings that swept the south after the Civil War.

Tired of toiling away in obscurity, Zane is ready to retire Incognegro for good. That is, until his editor assigns him a case that he cannot walk away from. A white woman – a prostitute with gang connections – was found dead and dismembered in Tupelo, Mississippi. A sheriff’s deputy has gone missing. And an angry mob is ready to pin it all on her boyfriend/partner, Alfonso – a man Zane knows well. It’s up to Incognegro to figure out who really killed Michaela Mathers … before another innocent man’s life is violently ended.

Loosely inspired by the life of Walter Francis White, who worked for the NAACP as an investigator and went on to lead the organization for 24 years,Incognegro is a must read. The artwork is brilliant; the murder mystery, compelling; and the historical fiction aspect of the book, both educational and heartrending. I found the blend of fact and fiction quite masterful; the whodunit plot line distracts a little from the horrors of racist violence, making those scenes a little easier to process. (“Distract” doesn’t quite feel like the right word – since the different threads of the story are so intimately linked – but it’s the best I can do.)

Though Incognegro is primarily about racism – the social construction of race; white supremacist groups then and now; racist violence at the turn of the century, and how that informs contemporary culture – Mat Johnson also explores gender and sexism. I’ll admit, when Zane patronizingly admonishes his friend Mildred that “darling, this is not really a discussion for a lady,” I bristled. Visibly, I’m sure. While certainly appropriate for the age, I was rather annoyed that Johnson let this sexism stand unchallenged. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see it called out explicitly in the discussion guide. Better still is the murder mystery’s big reveal, which includes one of my favorite plot twists of all time.

And the closing panels? Pure perfection.

Originally published in 2008, this 10th anniversary edition includes a forward from the author, as well as reading group/discussion guide and sketchbook. Following the book’s re-release is a prequel titled Renaissance. If it’s half as good as the original, I need it like yesterday. I can only hope that this is the start of a regular series.

(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: 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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