Book Review: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (2019)

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

An important story, but not without its failings.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 4th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Women are only schooled until the age of ten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s no wonder the men fear it.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (2019)

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

A Sapphic coming out story, told in verse.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the plus side, Holt introduced me to the term “lesbionic,” so there’s that.

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

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke & Laura Silverman (2019)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

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

three out of five stars

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

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

(“Indoor Kids” by Alex London)

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

(“The Hold” by David Levithan)

My chewing sounds like applause.

(“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

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

(“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta)

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

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

“You need something else, hon?”

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

(“Smile” by Emilee Martell)

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

(“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn)

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

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

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

“Vagina Dentata” by Mindy McGinnis – ?/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta – 5/5

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

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

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

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

“@Theguardians1792” by Jenna Lehne – 4/5

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

“Gravity” by Kyrie McCauley – 5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vigilante Lane” by S. E. Green – 4/5

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

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

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

“The Whispers” by Lindsey Klingele – 5/5

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

“Smile” by Emilee Martell – 4/5

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

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

You’re welcome.

“Potluck” by Kamerhe Lane – 4.5/5

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

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

Very weird and experimental but, ultimately, fierce AF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Avant-Guards, Volume 1 by Carly Usdin & Noah Hayes (2019)

Friday, September 6th, 2019

*heart-eyes emoji*

five out of five stars

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

After losing her basketball scholarship at state, Charlie Bravo (yes, she’s heard that one before) is a new transfer at the Georgia O’Keeffe College of Arts and Subtle Dramatics (“where everything is open to interpretation!”). Even though she’s vowed to steer clear of team sports, her stubbornness is no match for Olivia, an adorably plucky overachiever who managed to build a women’s basketball league, herself, from scratch. The only thing standing in Liv’s way is Charlie, by which I mean that the Avant-Guards are short just one player, and Liv has decided that Charlie is that woman.

It doesn’t hurt that Charlie is H-O-T and Liv would like nothing more than to mash their faces together in a very non-platonic way.

Sports are not normally my thing, but I do love a) intrepid heroines; b) storylines that celebrate female friendship and elevate it over rivalry; c) worlds populated by diverse peoples, especially when some of them are queer women of color; d) f/f romances; and e) black girl magic. The Avant-Guards has all of the above, in spades, as well as hoop-shooting, curvaceous witches; an on-campus coven; a pretty sexy nonbinary character named Jay; and bucket of rainbow confetti.

This is the sweetest, most adorable and wholesome book I’ve read in quite some time, and I mean that in the best way possible. The Avant-Guards is literally brimming with heart emojis. And the art is just perfect, cute and so very complementary to the story and characters. (You might say it’s an, erm, slam dunk.) Every. Single. Panel. saw me ooh-ing, ahh-ing, and sqee-ing in delight. (And, save for the doggos, I am not the squee-ing type.)

And this was all before the impromptu dog adoption event at half-time in the inaugural game! If I wasn’t already I goner by then.

(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: Life of the Party: Poems by Olivia Gatwood (2019)

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Law & Order: SVU meets the Button Poetry YouTube channel

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.)

If you have a son, how will you love him?
She is pacing the living room,
while the Thanksgiving Day Parade
plays behind her, a montage of inflated
cartoon bodies, floating slow
down 6th Avenue, smiles
painted onto their faces.

I consider not responding.
I consider explaining that I can love him and not trust him. I consider saying that I won’t
love him at all. Just to scare her. Instead, I say,

If I am ever murdered, like,
body found in a ditch, mouth
stuffed with dirt, stocking
around my neck, identified
by my toenails, please don’t go
looking for a guilty woman.

(“My Grandmother Asks Why I Don’t Trust Men”)

16. Laughter is not about humor,
it is about acknowledging a shared joy.
Laughter is about bonding.

EXAMPLE: WHEN I HEAR MEN LAUGHING,
I DO NOT ENTER THE ROOM.
I CRAWL HOME IN THE DARK.

(“Mans/Laughter”)

Aileen, I wish I could’ve taken you there.
It’s too late now. I wish you hadn’t hurt all those people.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know you hate it when I say that,
what I meant was that I wish all those people hadn’t hurt you.

(“Aileen Wuornos Isn’t My Hero”)

In the Author’s Note, Gatwood writes at length about her obsession with true crime shows, and the resulting – if paradoxical – feelings of fear and control they instilled in her:

I want to believe that the motivation behind most true crime is to bring to light the epidemic of women’s murder worldwide, to use nonfiction storytelling as a method of illuminating a clear pattern. But I don’t believe that. If that were true, it wouldn’t focus on crimes committed by random strangers, and instead would reveal the much more common perpetrators: men whom these women knew and often loved. If true crime were truly mission-oriented, it would focus on the cases that are not explicitly perverse and shocking, the ones that are familiar, fast, and happen at home. If true crime sought to confront the reality of violence against women, it would not rely so heavily on fear-mongering narratives of cisgender white girls falling victim to men of color.

Life of the Party: Poems is a reaction to these shows, and the culture that spawned them. The same culture that taught her to fear men, and her own body. These poems are about crimes true and fictionalized; about violence against women, in all its forms: physical, sexual, psychological; violences so conspicuous that they are impossible to ignore, as well as the “smaller” insults called microaggressions. Gatwood identifies and names these things, embodies them in her verse, gives them life in her words – all so that she may eviscerate them with the same.

Gatwood’s poems are at at once stirring and despondent; beautiful and cutting (not that the two are mutually exclusive!); fierce and feminist AF. Life of the Party is both a memoir and a cultural history; some of the loveliest and most heartbreaking poems are those which incorporate actual headlines from real-life cases: “Murder of a Little Beauty” (JonBenet Ramsey), “Body Count: 13” (the West Mesa murders). Aileen Wuornos is present in so many of these verses, even when she is just passing through, like a visitor in the night.

There are odes to the women of Long Island (“when I show them the knife I carry in my purse, tell me it’s not big enough”), bitchface (“resting bitch face, they call you but there is nothing restful about you, no”), unpaid electricity bills, and a lover’s left hand. Woven throughout the named poems is an untitled, serialized piece about Gatwood’s babysitter, the cool older girl who, by book’s end, either overdosed – or was killed by her abuser, depending on your POV.

Yet, as bleak and depressing as many of these poems are/can be, Life of the Party ends on hopeful notes: “All of the Missing Girls are Hanging Out Without Us,” having a grand old time (surprise!) and, “In the Future, I Love the Nighttime,” thanks to the virus that did away with all the violent-minded men in the world. (Turns out the apocalypse is just peachy!)

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

Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019)

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Feminist horror, yes please and thank you, may I have some more?

four out of five stars

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

The Tox didn’t just happen to us. It happened to everything. […]

The way it happened is that the woods got it first. That’s what I think, anyway. Even before the wilderness reached inside us, it was seeping into the earth. The trees were growing taller, new saplings springing up faster than they had any right to. And it was fine; it was nothing worth noticing, until I looked out the window and couldn’t see the Raxter I knew anymore. That morning two girls tore each other’s hair out over breakfast with an animal viciousness, and by afternoon the Tox had hit us.

“We’ve been studying them,” Paretta says, crouching down in front of me. “The irises, and the blue crabs too. All of this is something we’re calling the Raxter Phenomenon.”

A phenomenon. Not a sickness, not a disease. It burns through my heart—that’s the word I’ve been looking for—but there’s something about the way she says it. The name too familiar, too easy on her tongue.

“Did they teach you about Raxter Blues at school?” she asks. “About what makes them special?”

I nod.

You mean the lungs

“And the gills,” Paretta says. “It’s pretty amazing, right? So it can survive anywhere. And I think it’s pretty amazing, too, that you girls are part of it now.”

Part of it. The way our bodies alter and bend. The way our fingers darken just before we die, pure black spreading up to our knuckles.

I think I have been a problem all my life. Here I am where problems go. First Raxter and now here, and I have always been heading here, haven’t I, haven’t I. Too bright and too bored and something missing, or perhaps something too much there.

The several hundred tweens and teens who attend the Raxter School for Girls run the gamut. Some, like Hetty Chapin, were admitted on scholarship when her father, a Navy man, was stationed at nearby Camp Nash. Others are warehoused there by parents who didn’t know how to deal with them; this would describe Hetty’s bestie Byatt. And then there’s Reese, the third point in this particular triumvirate (just one of many cliques at Raxter), who grew up on the island and whose father, Mr. Harker, works as a groundskeeper and general caretaker at Raxter.

Aside from the occasional tour group, he’s also the only cis man to walk Raxter Island on the regular. (That we know of! Dun dun duuuun!)

Raxter was already home to several biological anomolies – the Raxter irises, which bloom all year long; and the Blues, crabs that sport both gills and lungs for all-terrain survival – so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Tox hit, altering the landscape of Raxter in ways both horrifying and wondrous. The flora took over, transforming Raxter into a forested backdrop from so many Grimm fairy tales. The nonhuman inhabitants grew to monstrous sizes. Predators became vicious and unpredictable, and even herbivores like deers sprouted canines better suited to ripping flesh from bones than leaves from trees.

And the girls.

The girls were either reclaimed or transformed by the wild, depending on your point of view; made a part of Raxter’s savage, shifting ecosystem, or else metamorphosed into something new. Something better. By which I mean something better suited to its environment; something with more favorable odds of survival. Their old environment or new one, you ask? Both. Neither. All of the above.

When the Tox hit, it changed everyone, though not in the same ways. One of Hetty’s eyes fused shut. Byatt grew a second spine and, eventually, her voice became a weapon capable of inflicting great violence. Reese’s skin turned silver and scaly, one of her hands grew lizard claws, and her hair took on an ethereal aura. Some girls grew teeth inside of them and coughed them up at night; one started to feel a second heartbeat in her chest. Blisters, boils, bruises, sores, scars. Webbed fingers and gills. No one bothers to hide their anomalies anymore; what’s the point?

Most of the adults dropped dead, save for Ms. Welch and the Headmistress. Mr. Harker started acting erratic and then disappeared into the woods. Some of the girls succumbed as well; the rest live in constant dread of the next flare-up.

Raxter Island is under quarantine; the school, already surrounded by an imposing iron fence, has become a prison/sick ward. Already isolated, internet service to Raxter was cut off pretty quickly. The regular supply drops help, but it seems that there’s never enough food to go around. Camp Nash, along with the Navy and CDC, implores the girls to stay alive and wait for help to come.

But it’s been a year and a half. How long can they hold on?

Spoiler alert: not much longer. When Byatt falls ill – by which I mean extremely ill, sicker than the others and in such bad shape that she cannot get around on her own – and is sent up to the super-secretive infirmary wing of the school, it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring everything to a head. Everyone at Raxter misses someone, or something. The question becomes, to what depths are they willing to sink to get it?

Wilder Girls is such a great story – true, edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle reading. The characters are complex and compelling; the dynamics between Hetty-Byatt and Hetty-Reese and Hetty-Byatt-Reese are fascinating, and there’s a really lovely f/f romance in here to boot. The atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and the adults make for great villains (or antiheroes, again depending on your POV). The writing is a thing of beauty, and the subversive feminist elements really make the story shimmer and sparkle (and assail you with painful insights). This is a memorable piece of feminist horror with a dystopian twist, and I can’t wait to see what Power does next.

Honestly, the only downside (and reason for the four-star rating) is the ending, which leaves things a little open-ended for me. Then again, wrapping things up with a shiny red bow would have felt cheap and dishonest, so there’s that.

I won’t say more for fear of spoiling things (it’s really best to go in cold I think), but the hype is real. Badass ladies (and male allies), you want to read this book.

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

Book Review: All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil (2019)

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

This DNF hurt like h*ck.

two out of five stars

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

After the death of her grandmother Loretta, seventeen-year-old Xochi finds herself in San Francisco, alone, on the run, and down to her last few bucks. And then she somewhat serendipitously has a platonic meet-cute with Pallas, a precocious twelve-year-old who also just so happens to be the heir to a rock royalty family. Faster than you can say “content warning,” Xochi is installed in their storybook Victorian mansion as Pal’s governess. In an attempt to cheer Pallas up one evening, the pair accidentally conjure two demons in Pal’s claw-foot bathtub – demons who trace a path of destruction through Xochi’s troubled past.

I really thought I’d love All of Us with Wings. I mean, it’s an #OwnVoices rape revenge story with LGBTQ elements, ferchrissakes! And “Gilman Street,” Ruiz Keil’s contribution to the YA romance anthology Color Outside the Lines, is a thing of punk rock beauty and wonder.

Sadly, Wings lacks the magic and energy of “Gilman Street.” The writing feels choppy and uneven, and the story is veeeerrry slooooow to get started. By the time I DNF’ed at the 59% mark, Xochi’s demon children had only committed one murder, and the only being consciously aware of their presence is Peasblossom the cat. (In theory, I love that Ruiz Keil humanizes the cat by giving him a voice, but here the multiple perspectives really don’t add anything to the story.)

What we do get is a shit ton of Xochi lusting after Pal’s dad Leviticus, who is eleven years her senior (and whose only notable personality trait seems to be that he’s a rock star). Actually, that’s not so much the problem as is Lev’s lusting after Xochi – and then acting on said lust, even though he knows it’s wrong for multiple reasons. There are some gross, rape culture dynamics going on here (adult man/teenage girl; employer/employee; 1%/impoverished high school dropout), which are only exacerbated by the fact that I don’t know whether Ruiz Keil means for us to be rooting for them as a couple.

Like, it’s understandable that Xochi has complicated relationships with older men considering her past experiences, but Lev’s actions are simply inexcusable. In all fairness, it’s possible that the demon spawn will target him later in the story, I just couldn’t bring myself to read that far.

Anyway, it pains me to give this book so few stars, especially since I seem to be in the minority (serious case of fomo over here), but it is what it is.

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

Book Review: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (2019)

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

A raw and unflinching memoir with moments of humor.

four out of five stars

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

In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity–what it means and how to think about it–for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

Gender Queer is a raw, honest, and often funny exploration of sexuality and gender identity, written by non-binary, gender queer cartoonist Maia Kobabe. Assigned female at birth, this memoir recounts Kobabe’s journey to understand and define eirself. Why, for example, is e drawn to gay M/M porn when all of em closest intimate relationships are with women? Which pronouns best fit? Is e doing a disservice to eir students by staying in the closet? And just how can e write realistically smutty fanfic when e’s never been kissed?

One thing I was struck by is just how open-minded Kobabe’s family is – even if they sometimes stumble. (But then so do we all, as e points out. On that note, I’m not even 100% sure I’m using the Spivak pronouns correctly, despite consulting the chart on Wiki. I apologize in advance.) The panel where Kobabe’s cousin’s wife Faith thanks Kobabe for the email about eir’s pronouns, and says how blessed she is to be part of this wonderful family, moved me to tears. This is how it should be. We need more positive coming out stories like this.

That’s not to suggest it was all rainbows and wet puppy noses. Kobabe’s account of going to the gynecologist for a Pap smear is harrowing. I hate it as a cisgender woman with social anxiety issues (but no genital-related dysphoria); I can only imagine how terrifying that trip was/is for Kobabe.

I was also surprised by how much I related to some of Kobabe’s experiences, like not wanting breasts (I too have had the cancer fantasy); hiding my period; and being discomfited by women’s underwear.

Gender Queer is a vital read, just for the section on pronouns alone.

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

Book Review: Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019)

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

Dear James,

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

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

“So how do I find my words?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love that Helaine is not a stereotype.

I love that El is an atheist.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and mental health issues.)

“The funny thing is, the other time travelers—I’m thinking of Teddy Avedon in particular, he’s been showing me the ropes—they keep telling me that it’s green to be so excited. They mean I’m being gauche. Teddy says I’ll get used to seeing dead people. But I think he’s wrong. Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is he. I will never take that for granted.”

Two women, who’d already witnessed each other’s deaths, married on the first day of spring. […]

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

It’s 1967 and time travel is about to become a reality – thanks to four brilliant young women.

The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace—who never gave the same account of her history twice—was an expert in the behavior of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialized in nuclear fission.

Among other things, their invention will make it more difficult for society to deny them their accomplishments:

And because time travellers appear again and again as the years go by—long past their natural lifespan—it would be harder to write these women out of history. They would be visible, for all to see.

Yet, shortly after traveling forward an hour into the future (time travel being possible only between points in which the infrastructure exists which, for the purpose of this story, is between 1967 and 2267 … mysterious!), Barbara – Bee for short – suffers a breakdown on live TV and is promptly institutionalized. It’s later theorized that the disruptions in daylight triggered a bipolar episode in Bee, who was already predisposed. Nevertheless, Bee is ostracized from the burgeoning Time Travel Enclave, largely at funder Margaret’s behest.

Fast forward fifty-plus years. Bee marries, has a child, is widowed, has a grandchild. She shies away from the spotlight and largely abandons her scientific pursuits. She lives a cozy, contented life in a cottage by the sea, kept company by her garden, her doggos, and her granddaughter Ruby. She is, in a way, written out of history (despicably, by another woman).

That is, until the day she finds an origami rabbit on her front step. Inside is in inquest notice, dated five months in the future, into the death of an unidentified woman in her 80s. Afraid that Bee will soon be murdered – multiple gunshot wounds, her body discovered in the locked basement boiler room of a toy museum by a volunteer – Ruby launches a covert investigation into the Conclave’s other three founders. Meanwhile, Bee tries to get back into the Conclave’s good graces.

The Psychology of Time Travel jumps back and forth in time – from the invention of time travel in 1967; to last half of 2018, in the months leading up to the murder; to the crime’s fallout, in 2019 – and is told through multiple perspectives: Bee, Margaret, Grace, Lucille, and Ruby, naturally; Odette, the young graduate student who makes the gruesome discovery; Ginger, Ruby’s sometimes-lover; Angharad, an astronaut who joins the Conclave after Bee’s ousting; and Siobhan, a psychologist from the 22nd century. Every. Single. Narrator. is a woman, which is such a refreshing and surprising delight, I can’t even.

Sometimes stories told in this way can prove difficult to follow but, once I got used to the rhythm, I became lost in the tale. It’s a little bit mystery, a lot of geeky good science fiction, and – perhaps above all else – a surprisingly philosophical exploration of how time travel might affect us: the travelers specifically, and society more generally. Mascarenhas’s vision might surprise you.

This is an exceptionally difficult book for me to review, but probably not for the reasons you might think. I read it while one of my beloved puppers – fifteen years young! – was dying…though I did not realize it at the time. She’d been struggling with dementia for about ten months, which was difficult to watch; but I thought we had at least a few more months together. Sadly, O-Ren was euthanized at home five days after I finished The Psychology of Time Travel: she was refusing to eat or drink, and her nighttime pacing became more frantic, even as her energy waned and she could no longer do laps around the house without falling, repeatedly. Most likely she also had a brain tumor, like her friend Mags, who passed away just four months before – on Thanksgiving, no less. One of my final memories of Rennie will be pacing around the house with her while reading The Psychology of Time Travel on my Kindle. Needless to say, this review was written in tears.

Point being, it’s been a rough few years for me. In just under six years, I lost six dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. I had to sell my house and move back home. My last remaining doggo is thirteen-and-a-half and I’m waiting on a neurology consult to see if Finnick might have a brain tumor as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he leaves me, too. Some days these dogs are the only thing that keeps me going. In this context, I found The Psychology of Time Travel’s meditations on death especially appealing.

This book is called The PSYCHOLOGY of Time Travel for a reason: turns out that time travel can really fuck a person up.

When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

This idea is both amazing and terrifying. To think that your loved one will forever exist during a certain period in time, even if they do not exist at this particular moment, and that you can visit them at the drop of a hat, is…wonderful. Magnificent. Liberating. I would give anything to be able to do that. To bump crooked noses with Peedee, or smell Ralphie’s musk, or rub Kaylee’s piggy belly. To talk to Shane or go on a hike with Mags. To once again toss a tennis ball around with little puppy Rennie.

Yet, as we soon learn, this mutability of death is a double-edged sword. Time travelers become cruel. Hardened. Some of this is in the management, sure, but even the “good” ones struggle with doing what’s right – why not, when you can put that weight on your silver self’s shoulders?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a thoughtful contemplation on love, loss, and – yes – destiny. Another pitfall of already knowing the future? Subjugating your will in order to choose the path that you think your life is “supposed” to take: seeing the future makes it so. But who’s to say the future cannot be changed?

So, yes, time travel is a magical experience – but took much knowledge can become a prison of its own.

The time travel also lends itself well to all sorts of neat little details, from the slang (“For instance—intercourse with one’s future self was called forecasting. Intercourse with one’s past self was a legacy fuck.”) to the scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character (see also: slang). You never know just when or how some characters’ lives will intersect, and the guessing makes for a really enjoyable experience.

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

Book Review: Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

A one-of-a-kind anthology, though hopefully not for long.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence against LGBTQ and Indigenous peoples.)

I knew the apocalypse had started before he said her name.

“Legends Are Made, Not Born” by Cherie Dimaline

Strange Boy and Shadow Boy realized at last that they had never been alone. They were just the first to free their hearts and fly in their own beauty.

“The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds” by Daniel Heath Justice

These are not my stories but they touch me, and they make me see the world outside as even more bright and beautiful than I did before I read them, and I know they will for you too.

“Letter From the editor” by Hope Nicholson

I don’t know that it’s truly one of a kind, but Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is the first anthology of Indigenous #OwnVoices LGBTQ SF/F I’ve ever come across – and hopefully not the last. The eight stories (and two essays/intros, and one poem) contained within these pages are pure magic, brimming with light and love and starstuff. And don’t forget the space puppies!

My favorite was easily né łe! by Darcie Little Badger, in which recently-dumped Dottie King, dvm, impulsively signs up as a veterinarian for a nascent Mars colony. Five months into the nine-month journey, she’s pulled out of stasis when the dogs’ pods malfunction. She falls in love with the Starship Soto’s pilot, Cora, over the care and feeding of forty rambunctious Chihuahuas – and one “defective” Husky. It’s sweet and fun and I’ve got to agree with Cora that rolling around in a dog pile (with dogs who might never die! MAGS I MISS YOU SO MUCH.) sounds like the very best way to pass a day.

Cherie Dimaline’s “Legends are made, not born” is impossibly beautiful, in so many ways. Set in a future and on a world that doesn’t look too terribly different from our own, the story’s protagonist is sent to live with a family friend when his mother dies in a snowmobile accident. Auntie Dave is “a six-foot Cree” who’s a little big magic.

Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds” is strange and lovely, with imagery that will take your breath away. In a dystopia of no obvious time or place, Strange Boy (and, eventually, Shadow Boy) fight against hatred and bigotry to bring color and kindness back to their people, against seemingly insurmountable odds.

With shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, “Perfectly You” by David A. Robertson a perfect scifi tale about fear and longing and regret. And taking chances and letting go. Some of the post-coma scenes just about tore my heart in two.

I also really loved “Valediction at the Star View Motel” by Nathan Adler, and not just because of the Charlotte’s Web references (though that ending did really bring me back: lazy summer afternoons, dog-eared, water-stained paperback clutched tight to my chest while dozing in the hammock out back).

It’s hard to say too much about any one story, for fear of spoiling the choicest bits, so best stop while I’m ahead. Suffice it to say that Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time has a little bit of everything: humor, beauty, compassion, ass-kicking. Not to mention androids who long to be human and pretty queer girls who can talk to nonhuman animals.

 

CONTENTS
Letter From the editor | Hope Nicholson 7
beyond the grim dust oF What Was Grace | L. Dillon 9
returning to ourseLves: tWo sPirit Futures and the noW | Niigaan Sinclair 12
aLiens | Richard Van Camp 20
Legends are made, not born | Cherie Dimaline 31
PerFectLy you | David A. Robertson 38
the boys Who became the hummingbirds | Daniel Heath Justice 54
né łe! | Darcie Little Badger
60 transitions | Gwen Benaway 77
imPoster syndrome | Mari Kurisato 87
vaLediction at the star vieW moteL | Nathan Adler 103
ParaLLax | Cleo Keahna 116
bios 118

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

Book Review: A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams (2019)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Filled with peoples, worlds, futures, and acts of rebellion that you won’t soon forget.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against a variety of marginalized groups.)

You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

Seanan McGuire is an insta-read for me – but, even without her name attached to this project, A People’s Future of the United States is still a book I would have pounced on. With its riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, plethora of diverse contributors, and focus on futures that might be – at a time when the present is so damn depressing – there’s no way I could pass it up. And, rather than offer an escape from the now, the stories here challenge the reader to follow this thread to its possible conclusions; to imagine what this world could become, for better or worse; and to rise up, resist, and perhaps steer it to a better, more humane place.

My main issue with anthologies is that they tend to be uneven – but A People’s History of the United States is as close to uniformly awesome as you can get without being pure perfection. There are a few stories that I just found okay, and one that I skipped altogether. But most of the rest? Took my breath away.

For whatever reason (the first bit of the synopsis maybe?), I came to the table expecting visions of future utopias: suggestions for how we can fix this broken planet we call home. And while there are a few budding socialist Edens to be found here – Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World” springs to mind – most are of the dystopian variety. And that’s both okay and, let’s be honest, totally realistic. The good thing is that, within every story lurks a glimmer of hope. Sometimes it’s tenuous and fragile, but it’s there, waiting to be nurtured into fruition. My heart, you guys? Swelled so much that it felt fit to burst clear out of my chest. Some of these yarns are that darn shiny.

There are way too many to discuss them all, but here goes.

“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley is as strange as it is lovely. Half the time I was not entirely sure what I was reading, but I was sure I wanted more. In this far-off future dystopia, words are power (though “Knowledge [isn’t] enough.”), a power that’s been chained by the powers that be. Paper is outlawed, so Librarians like the Needle tattoo the stories of the world on their very skin: “manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.” (Tell me you didn’t feel those chills.) In the end – or the beginning, rather – these stories become a superpower of sorts, smoke let loose on the battleground. The first of many revolutions.

Sam J. Miller explores “the place of sex in a broader strategy of political resistance” in “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right.” Forced to seek anonymous, illicit sex in back alleys and swampy underpasses (Homosexuality? Illegal. Along with a laundry list of other identities and interests.), Caul finds himself in a parallel world at the moment of orgasm: “A place where what we do matters.” And so this tool of the state – he who installs phone cloners up and down the streets of NY, to help the government better surveil its residents – comes to realize that he can be used to dismantle it. (And tell me your heart didn’t sink down into the depths of your belly the day that Prince became contraband.)

In “Riverbed,” Omar El Akkad revisits the site of a mass human rights abuse on its fiftieth anniversary. After a group of suicide bombers attacked a US sporting event with massive casualties, Khadija Singh’s family was rounded up and taken to a detention center, ‘for their own protection.’ (Never mind that they are Sikh, and not Muslim. In her father’s words, Americans are “brittle with privilege.”) It was only after he escaped that her brother was murdered. On the eve of the unveiling of a gaudy new museum to ‘commemorate’ the tragedy, Dr. Singh returns to the property to retrieve her brother’s meager belongings, so that no part of him might remain in the place of his captivity.

Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls” is a biting look at a world in which contraception, made illegal (while boner pills thrive!), is dealt on street corners like cocaine or heroin. After being orphaned by a forced pregnancy that killed her mom, Alyssa goes to work for the Matriarchs, selling condoms to young women and her local patrolman (already father of nine) alike. There’s an arrest, and a shakedown involving a hypocritical Senator (founder of the Abstinence League!) who wants an abortion for his pregnant, unwed teen daughter (See: ‘The only moral abortion is my abortion.’), and a double-cross to save the day.

Also nestled under the “utopia” umbrella is “O.1” by Gabby Rivera, in which a plague called IMBALANCE (“a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed”) killed the 1% and left most of the rest of the population sterile. That is, until a couple named Mala and Orion Lafayette-Santana manage to conceive Baby 0.1 – and the personal quickly becomes the object of public consumption as the the Federation of Free Peoples rallies around this new life. When Mala, Orion, and their birth worker Deviana Ortiz go missing from their home in North Philly, panic – and a massive manhunt – ensues. Told from their alternating perspectives, “O.1” is a story of hope and resilience. This might be the only time I’ve wished for biological warfare, okay. Team Imbalance all the way.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is simply brilliant: I mean, drug-sniffing, made-that-way racist dragons, sated with collard greens and hot sauce, domesticated with love and affection, and then turned against their (common) oppressors? What’s not to love about that?

Ditto: the aforementioned “No Algorithms in the World,” in which Hugh Howey imagines what society with a guaranteed basic income might look like, from both sides of the generational divide.

In “The Referendum,” Lesley Nneka Arimah reminds us why we should always listen to black women.

And Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder” is an epic tale distilled into short story form that will leave you wanting more.

I’m certain I’m overlooking a few favorites, but this is a pretty good start. If you like smart speculative fiction, told by a diverse group of voices, with a strong foundation in the here and now, A People’s Future of the United States is a slam dunk.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Quiver by Julia Watts (2018)

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

You say helpmeet, I say handmaid.

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

— 4.5 stars —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Open Earth by Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre (2018)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

The future is queer AF!

four out of five stars

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

Out of the ruins of old Earth blossoms a new culture that’s open, sexually liberated, and queer AF!

Twenty-year-old Rigo is an alien, of sorts: a human being born in space. Of Earth, but not from Earth. Rigo and her peers are generation of pioneers: space, political, social, sexual. The California‘s motto – “Serve the Greater Good” – is applicable to all areas of life on the ship, including the bunks. Among the tweens, teens, and young adults, monogamy is seen as taboo: it encourages social isolation and jealousy and works against peak genetic variation. “Friends with benefits” kinda sorta goes without saying; same-sex couplings aren’t just tolerated, but accepted without question; and polyamory is the norm. Even the ‘rents are a little kinky!

So when Rigo begins feeling a little too drawn to Carver, her queer and geeky lab mate, she’s reluctant to give voice to these feelings for fear of being ostracized. Not to mention, coming as out conventional and old school, like her scientist parents. What’s a curvy, pansexual, polyamorous refugee girl to do?

Open Earth probably isn’t for everyone. There’s not much of a plot, save for Rigo’s attempt to navigate her love life while keeping her self-identity intact. While technically a science fiction comic, the story could take place anywhere. Or maybe not: perhaps it will take nothing less than hundreds of years and millions of miles from our current state of being to embrace such a radical and liberated (dare I say socialist?) ethos.

Anyway, I enjoyed the characters and the society and the general world-building. There’s wonderful representation here, and I’m not just talking gender identity and sexual orientation. I’d love to see additional stories set in this ‘verse, perhaps featuring characters we’ve already met (Rigo’s parents being first on the list!), or those from California’s past or future.

(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: Flocks by L. Nichols (2018)

Friday, September 14th, 2018

A touching and whimsically-illustrated memoir about growing up trans and Southern Baptist.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobia, depression, self-harm, and eating disorders.)

L. Nichols was born in Louisiana (some time in the mid-to-late-1970s, if the rad TMNT reference is any indication!) and assigned female (“Laura”) at birth. Raised in a conservative Southern Baptist community, L. always felt different; an outcast, a freak, a sinner.

Throughout his childhood and teen years, L. tried to suppress his attraction to girls – and was further confounded by the occasional crushes he developed on boys. While he enjoyed some parts of the church experience – the emphasis on faith, the sense of fellowship, and the feeling that there are things bigger than oneself – his church’s virulent homophobia and adherence to rigid gender roles alienated L. and led to isolation, depression, and self-harm.

But whereas L.’s community failed him on one front, it succeeded on another: despite his being labeled “female,” L.’s family and teachers encouraged him to pursue his love of science and technology, culminating in a Master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab. It was during his college years that L. pinpointed the reason for the animosity he felt toward his body, and decided to transition.

Flocks is L.’s memoir, told in graphic novel format. The vehicle through which L. chooses to tell his story perfectly encapsulates the many contradictions in his life: while STEM majors aren’t typically considered artsy or creative, L. is indeed a talented artist. His sad little rag doll depiction of himself is at once whimsical and rather heartbreaking (doubly so when we witness stuffing fall out of self-inflicted cuts on his legs). Given all he’s been through, L.’s upbeat, optimistic attitude is downright uplifting. (And I typically consider myself an Oscar the Grouch type, so that’s quite a compliment coming from my neck of the dump.)

While the main thrust of the story is L.’s burgeoning sexuality and exploration of his gender identity, he tackles a number of other serious topics as well: his parents’ acrimonious divorce; the pressure of choosing a major and settling on a career path, post-graduation; polyamory; eating disorders; self-harm; depression; binge drinking; an appreciation of nature and the natural world; and the impact of community and in-group/out-group identity on one’s sense of self.

It’s an engaging, beautiful story, in both form and content. There’s a little bit of repetition of themes and ideas early on (and not between chapters, i.e. to string them together, but within the same chapters), which does detract from the story. Even so, it’s a must-read, and not just because it’s more or less a one of a kind story, at least at this point in time. (Dear publishers, please give us more of this! Kay thanks bye.)

(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 Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

“I felt it here,” I say.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault, misogyny, child abuse, and homophobia.)

And I knew then what I’d known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was the problem.
And I didn’t want any of those boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all.

(“The Last Fifteen-Year-Old”)

Ms. Galiano asks about the themes and presentation style
but instead of raising my hand I press it against my heart
and will the chills on my arms to smooth out.

It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think.

But it felt more like a gift.

(“Spoken Word”)

Because so many of the poems tonight
felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
if I did that for someone else?

(“Invitation”)

Some people find novels written in verse gimmicky, but I adore them. I love poetry, but don’t always “get” it, which can be frustrating. (Or, to quote the Poet X: “I don’t always understand every line / but love the pictures being painted behind my eyelids.”) But the poems in verse novels are usually more straight forward and easier to grasp. Plus there’s something about the departure from more traditional narrative structures that just pulls me in. A novel written in verse is just what I need, every once in awhile. And The Poet X might be my favorite to date.

To say that fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in a strict Catholic household is an understatement. She and her twin, Xavier (but whom X mostly refers to as “Twin” in a way that’s super-endearing) were “miracle babies,” of a sort, born when their Dominican parents were already “old” and had given up on a family. Mami and Papi’s was an arranged marriage; Altagracia would have preferred to marry God instead of the philanderer she ended up with. But she looks at Xavier and Xiomara as her reward for the misery she’s endured.

Consequently, Mami projects all her dreams of extreme religiosity and life in the nunnery onto her children – her daughter especially. Xiomara’s life is strictly regulated, from who she can associate with (talking to guys is not allowed; forget about dating!) to what she can do with her time outside of school (homework, chores, and church good; social life bad). Punishment includes hours spent kneeling on grains of rice in front of her mother’s altar to the Virgin Mary – or a slap across the face. (There’s actually worse, but giving it away would involve spoiling the plot.)

As tall and formidable as Xavier is small and scrawny, Xiomara has always settled conflicts with her fists, much to her mother’s disapproval. As she grows older, Xiomara’s discontent and disobedience only grow and swell. She challenges Father Sean as he espouses the Church’s more misogynist teachings. She falls far her lab partner, Aman, over a pair of shared earbuds at the smoke park. She commits her increasingly “treacherous” thoughts to paper. And then, when Xiomara joins the poetry club at school and eventually enters a slam contest, she commits the gravest sin of all (in Mami’s estimation, that is): she airs her family’s dirty laundry, in public.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Luisa: Now and Then by Carole Maurel (2018)

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Letters to My Teenage Self Meets Freaky Friday

four out of five stars

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

When the book’s synopsis says that an adult Luisa “encounters” her fifteen-year-old self, I just assumed this meeting would be more metaphorical than anything else: Luisa rediscovers her old diaries, perhaps, or pens a letter to her younger self (a la Dear Teen Me). But this encounter is more literal – and science fictiony – than that.

One evening, on her way back from a friend’s house, young Luisa falls asleep on the bus – only to awaken seventeen years later, in 2013. All the technological wonders that surround her (cell phones! twitter! wi-fi! mp3 players!) pale in comparison to the chance meeting she has with her adult self … but not in a good way.

Whereas teenage Luisa dreamed of becoming a fine art photographer, adult Luisa specializes in porn – food porn, that is. (Nothing wrong with a good quiche, okay.) She lives in small apartment in Paris, bequeathed to Luisa by her estranged Aunt Aurelia, with whom she shares more in common than she can possibly know. She’s still single, flitting from one unsatisfying hetero relationship to another. Worst of all – to her teenage self, at least – Luisa never kept in touch with her first love: a girl named Lucy, who was the target of bullies and Luisa’s mother’s scorn alike.

As the two versions of the same woman begin to morph into one another in Freaky Friday-esque fashion, Luisa must confront her fears – and her family’s homophobia – in order to … what? Integrate her selves? Find her way home? Prevent the bloody apocalypse?

If I’m not always sure what’s happening in Luisa: Now and Then, at least I can say that it’s a touching, fun, and compassionate ride. The message about reconciling your present life with your past dreams is universal, and Luisa’s struggle to accept – if not define – her sexuality is handled with care, nuance, and love. Recommended for LGBTQ adults and teens, of course, and more generally everyone whose life didn’t go exactly as planned.

(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: Chimera: Book One – The Righteous and the Lost by Tyler Ellis (2018)

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A promising start to a new series.

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

Reminiscent of Firefly and Saga, Chimera follows the exploits of a rag-tag group of space traveling misfits. There’s Alice, the captain, who was the war-hungry Emperor-God’s champion in a previous life; her brother Charlie, who went AWOL from the rebel coalition; Russell, a three-eyed, telekinetic, wolflike alien; and Wex, the crew’s translator, who just so happens to look like an iguana. Their latest heist? Retrieve an artifact called the “chimera” – and use the funds to get the heck out of the ‘verse, and the holy war that’s tearing it apart.

Based on the cover – specifically, its minimalist, playing-it-oh-so-close-to-the-vest artwork – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chimera, or whether I really wanted to bother with it at all. I’m glad I did, because the artwork is stunning. Seriously, the cover doesn’t begin to do it justice. The world building is easily the best part of Chimera, from the desolate desert landscape to the plethora of wonderful and imaginative aliens.

Less shiny is the actual story line, which I sometimes found muddled and confusing. There are so many different factions to keep track of, and their relationships to one another aren’t always clear. The true nature of the titular “chimera” remains a mystery throughout most of the book, and even when we get more information on it, it’s alternately referred to as both a piece of tech and a planet, which is hecka confusing.

You know the old admonition to “show, don’t tell”? It’s the exact opposite with Chimera.

Additionally, the first book feels incomplete; it ends before the story arc can be wrapped up, and as a result is deeply unsatisfying.

Still, I regret nothing. The Righteous and the Lost is a promising start to a new series, and I look forward to the next installment. Maybe the inevitable re-read will even improve my grasp of the first book.

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