Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon (2016)

Friday, November 4th, 2016

A raw, unflinching, powerful, and very necessary book.

five out of five stars

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

I find my notebook and pencil and I start to write. The letters flow from deep inside me without even a pause to worry about which way is which and where to put what. And my head fills with memories and stories from so long ago that fences weren’t even invented yet. Stories that haven’t even happened yet. Stories that the world won’t see for years and years. All those stories swirl through my head, but I suck them all in and tell them to wait. Because first I have to write the most important story of them all. The story which isn’t even a story. The story that has to be told, no matter how hard it is to tell.

Ten-year-old Subhi was born in an Australian detention center. Originally from Burma (Myanmar), his Maá and older sister Queeny (Noor) were forcibly removed by soldiers, put on a boat and compelled to set sail at gunpoint. His ba, a poet, was imprisoned by the government.

Their offense? Subhi and his family are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. In the Author’s Note, Fraillon explains that “the United Nations and Amnesty International have declared the Rohingya to be one of the most persecuted people on earth, and a recent investigation by Al Jazeera News suggested that the government of Myanmar is committing genocide in its treatment of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being hunted into extinction.”

For the past decade, they’ve been in limbo: unable to return to their native country, but unwelcome where they washed up. Like the United States, Australia has a policy of mandatory detention; refugees are treated much like criminals.

In order to keep his mind from turning to “mush,” Subhi clings to stories – the familiar, well-worn tales of his family, and new ones belonging to the nine hundred other refugees who live in the detention center alongside him. Especially cherished are those stories dreamed up by his ba; stories of the Night Sea, which sometimes washes over Subhi’s camp as he dreams, leaving cryptic treasures in its wake: A small statue of a knight. A little blue toy car. A sketch of a thousand birds in flight. A green coin rimmed with black smudges. Subhi believes that these are messages, sent by his ba – and that, one day, he’ll come in person to rescue them from this non-existence.

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Book Review: Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood (2016)

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Margaret Atwood makes Shakespeare better. Margaret Atwood makes everything better.

five out of five stars

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

He’s been chewing over his revenge for twelve years – it’s been in the background, a constant undercurrent like an ache. Though he’s been tracking Tony and Sal on the Net, they’ve always been out of his reach. But now they’ll be entering his space, his sphere. How to grasp them, how to enclose them, how to ambush them? Suddenly revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare. Oh, to watch their two faces! Oh, to twist the wire! He wants to see pain. “We’re doing The Tempest,” he said.

Felix Phillips’s life – or at least his life thus far – is like something out of a Greek tragedy. As the Artistic Director (and sometimes-director/actor/star) of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, he pushes the envelope, rides his actors hard, and produces some pretty edgy fare – which often puts him in the crosshairs of the Board. Like many of the creative types he works with, Felix is more or less married to his job. That is, until he meets Nadia and is sucked into a late(r)-in-life romance. In the span of just four years, Felix got married; had a child; lost Nadia to a staph infection after childbirth; lost his daughter Miranda to meningitis; and lost his job at the Makeshiweg Festival.

Felix blames his assistant Tony Price for that last. According to Felix’s line of reasoning, Tony waited until Felix was vulnerable – distracted by grief – to swoop in and steal his job. A scheme made easier by Felix himself: too caught up in the magic of the theater, Felix was more than happy to hand over the more mundane tasks – boozing and schmoozing the donors and patrons, for example – to his assistant. Much like Prospero – the protagonist of The Tempest, which Felix was producing when he was unceremoniously canned – he paved the way for his own betrayal.

Devastated, in more ways than one – for the now-cancelled The Tempest was to be staged in his late daughter’s honor – Felix assumes an alias (F. Duke), moves to a hovel in the middle of nowhere, and becomes a recluse. A recluse visited by the apparition of his dead daughter, who mysteriously ages alongside Felix.

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Book Review: Burning, Danielle Rollins (2016)

Monday, April 4th, 2016

Entertaining enough, but not without some issues.

three out of five stars

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

If my dad taught me anything it was what it felt like to want something, whether it was a book in a faded folder, or him, or whatever was on the other side of a tiny silver lock. But my dad taught me something else too, something that stayed hidden in my memories until years later, when a little girl with black eyes knocked it loose. Monsters are more interesting than heroes, he’d said. I had no way of knowing then, as I lay awake through the night with stories echoing in my head, that he was talking about us. He was talking about me.

In the nearly two years since I started coming up with four letter words to write on Issie’s hand, I had never once thought of “hope.”

Located near Syracuse, New York (the fictional) Brunesfield Correctional Facility is home to one hundred-odd girls between the ages of ten and eighteen. A large minority are considered low-security: runaways and unwanted teens whose parents dumped them in the system. Roughly half are in for drug offenses; along with the dozen girls convicted of theft and destruction of property, these inmates are considered medium-security. And then there are the high-risk inmates, the violent offenders, the so-called “monsters” of the group, one step above Seg in the prison hierarchy: Seventeen-year-old Angela “Angie” Davis and her dorm mates, Cara and Issie.

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Book Review: The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron), Margaret Atwood (2015)

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

“Never mind which wife is whose,” says Jocelyn. “We can’t waste time on the sexual spaghetti.”

How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?

The dystopian society at the heart of The Heart Goes Last is surprisingly mundane – which makes it all the more chilling. Stan and Charmaine live in the northeastern United States, which has been hit especially hard by the latest recession. Things went to ratshit seemingly overnight (“Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated currency. Not enough jobs, too many people.”). Charmaine’s company, an upscale retirement chain called Ruby Slippers, scaled back its eastern operations, leaving Charmaine out of a job; Stan’s position at Dimple Robotics soon followed. They held onto their cozy starter home as long as they could, but before you can say “outsourcing,” they’d lost that too. From solidly middle class to homeless, in the blink of an eye.

Now they sleep in their car, surviving on the meager wages Charmaine earns waiting tables in a seedy bar, desperately searching for work and trying to stay ahead of the roving gangs of thieves and rapists that own the streets come nightfall. So when Charmaine spots an ad for the Positron Project – an experimental city/prison in Consilience – the two are understandably quick to sign their lives away. Full employment, zero crime, free housing – and the only way you can leave is in a pine box. But why would anyone want to abandon the safety of these walls to go back out there? You can’t eat freedom, yo.

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Book Review: The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma (2015)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Dark, Haunting, Beautiful – One of My Favorites of 2015

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review from book blogger Miss Print. Also, trigger warning for sexual harassment and allusions to rape.)

Home is where the heart is, and where the hell is, and where the hate is, and where the hopelessness is. Which made Aurora Hills pretty much like home.

Amber Smith is a little more than three years into four-year sentence at Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for manslaughter. After she ages out, she’ll be transferred to an adult prison for killing her abusive stepfather, a crime she may or may not have committed at the tender age of thirteen.

Then one hot, humid August night, the cell doors come open – and for a few glorious hours (no one quite knows how long the power was out and the COs caught unawares; it’s as though time has stopped, or lost all meaning), the forty-one girls housed at Aurora Hills get a taste of the freedom long denied them. Some, like Amber’s cellmate D’amour, make a run for it – only to be carved open by the barbed wire atop the first fence, and then burned to a crisp by the middle, electrified fence. Others overtake the various wings – A, B, C, even D, which houses the suicides – ransacking the canteen and causing general mayhem.

But Amber? Despite her protestations that none of them are special (“…the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could.”), that night Amber is afforded something very special indeed: a glimpse of their future.

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