Book Review: Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones (2017)

Monday, February 6th, 2017

“Such sensuous enjoyment.”

four out of five stars

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

I surveyed my kingdom. Chaos. Cruelty. Abandon. I had always been holding back. Always been restrained. I wanted to be bigger, brighter, better; I wanted to be capricious, malicious, sly. Until now, I had not known the intoxicating sweetness of attention. In the world above, it had always been Käthe or Josef who captivated people’s eyes and hearts—Käthe with her beauty, Josef with his talent. I was forgotten, overlooked, ignored—the plain, drab, practical, talentless sister. But here in the Underground, I was the sun around which their world spun, the axis around which their maelstrom twirled. Liesl the girl had been dull, drab, and obedient; Elisabeth the woman was a queen.

“I may be just a maiden, mein Herr,” I whispered. “But I am a brave maiden.”

When Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is claimed by the Goblin King and kidnapped to the Underground, it’s up to Liesl to rescue her. After all, it’s Liesl and her mother who keep the family together and the inn running. Plain, drab, boring Liesl, who lacks Käthe’s voluptuous beauty, or her brother Josef’s virtuosity with the violin. Liesl, who composes her wild and untamed music only under the cloak of night; the music Josef polishes and performs to accolades, but for which Liesl seeks neither praise nor recognition. Like legions of unremarkable girls before her, Liesl labors in the background, her accomplishments usurped or denigrated by the men around her, depending on the circumstances.

Yet the Goblin King – Der Erlkönig, Lord of Mischief – sees Liesl for who she truly is: a unique talent, full of beauty and grace. A soul brimming with passion and wonder – and, yes, even anger and lust. A worthy opponent. The girl with whom he once sang and danced in Goblin Grove, all those years ago. The girl who forgot him – and her promise to him – once she traded in their silly childhood games for a mop and bucket and likely spinsterhood.

Liesl descends into the Underground on a sacrifice of sheet music, only to find that her mission to rescue Käthe is just the opening round of her game with Der Erlkönig. Once a mortal man, the Goblin King sacrificed his soul to bring peace to the world above. Now he is forever confined to the Underground, where he rules over the goblins and fae who once wreaked havoc on earth. But in order to turn the seasons, he requires a spark. Passion. A wife. Yet Der Erlkönig’s brave maidens do not survive long in the Underground – and, should Liesl succeed in freeing Käthe, he will need a replacement if spring is to come.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The You I’ve Never Known, Ellen Hopkins (2017)

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

A complex, nuanced, and heart-rending coming-of-age story.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, rape, and racist/sexist/homophobic language.)

Home
Four letters,
one silent. A single syllable
pregnant with meaning.

I’m getting married. That should have an exclamation mark, shouldn’t it? I guess a small part of me is excited to leave my current existence behind in favor of something brand-new. But the closer I get to the appointed time, the more I think I might’ve made an awful mistake.

My childhood is a jigsaw puzzle,
with chewed and misplaced
pieces. I’ve always known that.
What I didn’t realize
is that even if every correct piece
was fitted perfectly into place,
the resulting picture would’ve been
interpretive art.

When she was just a toddler, Ariel’s father Mark kidnapped her. Of course, she doesn’t know this – yet. Raised on a steady diet of her father’s lies, Ariel thinks her mother Jenny ran off and abandoned the family to be with another woman. The duo has spent the last decade and half moving from town to town, state to state, mooching off her father’s latest conquests when possible, shoplifting and sleeping in the car when not.

After years of bouncing around, Ariel and Mark have finally settled in Sonora, California – which is to say, they’ve managed to stay in one place for a whopping fifteen months. Ariel was able to attend a whole year of high school uninterrupted, joined the basketball team, and even made two friends: teammates and fellow “freaks” Monica and Syrah. Mark’s in a somewhat stable relationship with a woman named Zelda, and things are looking … good. That is, if you don’t look too hard.

Mark is … a piece of work. Actually, that’s an understatement: the man’s a full-on sociopath. Kidnapping isn’t the worst of his offenses. He’s emotionally and physically abusive, treats his daughter like a possession, and demands total obedience at all costs. He has a laundry list of rules that Ariel must follow; some, like leaving her shoes at the front door and not bringing any stray animals home, go to his rigid nature, while others only make sense when Ariel discovers the truth about herself. Unlike other parents, Mark isn’t keen on the idea of letting his seventeen-year-old daughter get a driver’s license (never mind a car!) or a part-time job, even though both would make his life infinitely easier. Nor is he thrilled when she saves the life of local VIP girl Hillary Grantham, thus attracting the attention of the media.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, Veronica Chambers, ed. (2017)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A bittersweet love letter to the outgoing FLOTUS.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and misogyny.)

Barack and Michelle Obama served this country for two terms as President and First Lady of the United States of America. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man—with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle. Michelle! That name now carries a whole world of meaning. And a whole world of memory. And a whole world of a magic.

(“Preface,” Ava Duvernay)

Thank you, Michelle, for showing a generation of women, including me and my daughter, what it means to dwell in possibility.

(“Acknowledgements,” Veronica Chambers)

For all of my adult life – the entire time I’ve been paying attention to politics, really – I’ve vastly preferred our president’s wives over their husbands: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and now Michelle Obama. (The same will probably hold true of Melania, but it’s an impossibly low bar, okay.) No matter their political allegiances, the FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) tend to be a least a shade more progressive than their men, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom. Not that they’re allowed to voice these views: American prefers its First Ladies be seen, not heard, functioning as little more than their husbands’ appendages or cheerleaders. “Stepford Wives-in-Chief,” Tiffany Dufu puts it. Remember how viciously then-FLOTUS Hillary was shot down for daring to advance health care reform?

Michelle Obama is in a league of her own, though. Like many Americans, I was captivated with her from Day 1. I loved that she refused to play the role of the bland, devoted wife; a blank canvas onto which Americans/voters could project their versions of ideal femininity. She spoke of Barack like he was a regular guy, rather than an up-and-coming rockstar politician. Yet it was evident that these two crazy kids were deeply in love. She (and her family) was a lightning rod for every bit of racist and sexist excrement the right could throw at her, yet Michelle handled it with grace and finesse. We watched as Lady O. – and her style – evolved from first to second term; she went from high-power lawyer to high-fashion mom, as described by Tanisha C. Ford (“She Slays”). She had fun, was comfortable in her skin, and was perfectly imperfect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

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

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Wesley Lowery (2016)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

A crucial look at the birth of the Movement for Black Lives.

four out of five stars

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

It wasn’t until hours later that our arrest began to sink in. I’d arrived in Ferguson two days earlier thinking I’d be there for just a couple of days. I’d write a feature or two, and then I’d go back to DC and to writing about politics. But as I paced the carpeted floor of my hotel room in downtown St. Louis that night, it became clear that I wasn’t escaping Ferguson anytime soon.

Resident after resident had told more stories of being profiled, of feeling harassed. These protests, they insisted, were not just about Mike Brown. What was clear, from the first day, was that residents of Ferguson, and all who had traveled there to join them, had no trust in, and virtually no relationship with, the police. The police, in turn, seemed to exhibit next to no humanity toward the pained residents they were charged with protecting.

Ferguson would birth a movement and set the nation on a course for a still-ongoing public hearing on race that stretched far past the killing of unarmed residents—from daily policing to Confederate imagery to respectability politics to cultural appropriation. The social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” and with cell phone and body camera video shining new light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong. Even if Mike Brown’s own questionable choices sealed his fate, did Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland all deserve to die?

Journalist Wesley Lowery had just moved from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post when the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson rocked Ferguson, Missouri – and then the world. Though he had his heart set on covering politics, Lowery was quickly dispatched to Ferguson, where his arrest just two days into the protests drew national attention. Along with Ryan Reilly from the Huffington Post, Lowery was escorted out of a local McDonald’s where he’d been working; despite the officers’ smug attitudes (“Oh, you’ll be charged with a whole lot of things.”), Lowery spent just twenty minutes in a Ferguson holding cell before being released.

What began as a short business trip snowballed into Lowery’s new beat, covering law enforcement and justice. Once Lowery and his colleagues started paying attention, they found cases of police brutality, excessive force, and corruption cropping up all over the country. Some weeks, the young reporter barely had time to catch his breath in between assignments, so frequent are police shootings. (According to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police fatally shoot roughly 1,000 civilians per year. Local police departments are not required to record these numbers, nor is there a federal database to track them.) Lowery and his team would eventually win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their coverage of police shootings.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, Bailey Poland (2016)

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

“THE PERSONAL COMPUTER IS THE POLITICAL COMPUTER”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, harassment, and death and rape threats.)

When dealing with things like cybersexist abuse, it cannot be said often enough that there is no way to solve a problem without understanding it.

[I]t is worth noting that nearly every technological advancement throughout history has been seen as too liberating for women— and therefore dangerous.

Like many women who dare to voice an opinion online, Bailey Poland has first-hand experience with cyber-harassment and abuse. She typically gets a few dozen abusive tweets every night; when she briefly became the latest target of Gamergate, that number jumped to several hundred. She monitors the Twitter profiles and Facebook pages of past harassers on the daily, looking for signs that another wave of abuse is imminent. She and her activist friends have a sort of informal arrangement, where they tip each other off to possible threats. Dealing with the daily onslaught of abuse is tedious, demoralizing, and exhausting – and that’s kind of the point, from the harasser’s perspective.

One particularly dedicated misogynist harassed Poland for over a year, periodically sending her rape and death threats via Twitter. She finally decided to file a police report – and was lucky enough to get an officer who took her concerns seriously and was reasonably knowledgeable about the internet. (Either one is rare, but both together? Like an invisible pink unicorn!) Even so, nothing came of it; the department couldn’t even be bothered to keep Poland updated on its progress. And this represents a best-case scenario: the vast majority of victims don’t even get this far.

But Poland didn’t stop there: rather, she decided to make online harassment and abuse the topic of her first book. In Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, Poland explores the odious and often scary landscape of cybersexism. This encompasses not just the most egregious abuses: death and rape threats, doxxing and swatting, Gamergate and MRAs (and, now, the alt-right), but also more subtle forms of sexism and sexist microaggressions, such as mansplaining, talking over women, and dominating conversations. Even the very design of the internet – with its anything goes, Wild West type attitude – ignores women’s experiences and prioritizes men’s “freedom of speech” and self-expression over that of women and other marginalized groups.

(More below the fold…)

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.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: When the Moon Was Ours, Anna-Marie McLemore (2016)

Monday, October 24th, 2016

“And she told me a story yesterday/About the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea”

four out of five stars

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

Someday, he and Miel would be nothing but a fairy tale. When they were gone from this town, no one would remember the exact brown of Miel’s eyes, or the way she spiced recado rojo with cloves, or even that Sam and his mother were Pakistani. At best, they would remember a dark-eyed girl, and a boy whose family had come from somewhere else. They would remember only that Miel and Sam had been called Honey and Moon, a girl and a boy woven into the folklore of this place.

The closer she got to him, the more she felt it in her roses, like a moon pulling on a sea.

Miel and Samir are the odd ones out in their small town. In a sea of white faces, their brown skin marks them as different (she, Latina; he, Pakistani); and in this tight-knit community, their outsider status is only compounded by the fact that they were not born here.

Sam’s story is somewhat mundane, or so he thinks: his mother, Yasmin, arrived in search of work. Miel’s origins are a bit more fantastical and mysterious: as a child, she arrived on a wave of rust-brown water, spit out by the abandoned water tower when it was deemed a safety hazard and finally brought down. Angry and hysterical (and no doubt disoriented), Miel kicked and screamed; something about losing the moon. Just a child himself, Sam was the only one brave enough to approach this dangerous, feral girl. He wrapped her in his jacket, soothed her with her voice, and returned the moon to her, one hand-painted, candle-lit orb at a time.

From that point on, they were inseparable, each one half of a whole: Miel and Samir. Honey and Moon. The cursed girl from whose wrist roses grow, and the boy who everyone insists on calling a girl. The girl who’s terrified of pumpkins and water, and the boy who helps pumpkins grow.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker (2016)

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Belongs in high school libraries everywhere.

five out of five stars

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

Non-Natives thus position themselves, either wittingly or unwittingly, as being the true experts about Indians and their histories—and it happens at all levels of society, from the uneducated all the way up to those with advanced college degrees, and even in the halls of Congress. […]

The result is the perpetual erasure of Indians from the US political and cultural landscape. In short, for five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.

Imagining huge fields of gold, which did not exist, Columbus instituted what later became known as the encomienda system, large estates run on forced labor for the purposes of extracting gold. Las Casas reported that when mining quotas were not met by the Indians excavating the gold, their hands were cut off and they bled to death. When they attempted to flee, they were hunted down with dogs and killed. So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field.

He [King George] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

—Declaration of Independence

— 4.5 stars —

Native Americans should be honored to have sports teams named after them.

The Indians lost the war, why can’t they move on already?

Indian casinos make everyone rich.

Whether your ancestors were indigenous to North America or not, no doubt you’re familiar with at least a few of these myths about Native Americans. Actually, that’s an understatement, given that our culture – right down to its founding documents – is steeped in such half-truths, contested theories, and outright lies. They’re taught in our high school history books (Columbus discovered America; the convoluted and decontextualized myth of Thanksgiving), trotted out for celebrations (Native American mascots; cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes), and have been used to strip Native tribes of their lands, power, and self-determination (“real” Indians live on reservations/meet blood quantum requirements/belong to a tribe/adhere to certain spiritual practices).

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Jessica Luther (2016)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

A Fan’s Take on the Intersection of Rape Culture, Racism, and Capitalism in College Football

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence against women, obviously.)

So I am not what you’d call a sports fan. Occasionally I enjoy playing baseball, basketball, or tennis for funsies or fitness, but that’s about the extent of it. I ran out of fucks to give as a spectator when my youngest brother aged out of Little League.

Jessica Luther, on the other hand, “was born with garnet and gold blood.” Her parents graduated from Florida State University; she spent her autumns rooting for the Seminoles religiously; and, when it came time to go off to college, she only applied to one school. Once at FSU, she had her ass planted firmly in the bleachers for every home game, rain or shine, humidity and frost be damned:

I learned early on how to be a fan. There are rules and rituals the fans of a sports team follow and do, a kind of collective performance before and during games that show the love for our school and team. The playbook for fans consists of memorizing chants, wearing the right colors, painting our faces, and always singing along whenever you hear the school’s fight song. The most important play, though, is the one where you give your team your love and devotion, and you trust in the players and coaches even when they play badly and even if you have to ignore what they do when they are off the field and out of uniform. This, the fan playbook prescribes, is what good fans do. I used to be a really good FSU fan.

That is, until the 2012 rape allegations against Jameis Winston forced her to confront some of the more problematic aspects of the sport she so loves.

Let me stop right here and say that it’s not that you have to be a fan of something in order to earn the right to critique its more problematic aspects; far from it. But the particularities of fan identity vis–à–vis sports – Luther cites studies which show that many fans’ self-esteem is linked to their team’s performance – certainly encourage suspicion and hostility towards outsiders, as do structural barriers against women in sports, not to mention larger cultural narratives surrounding rape and violence against women. To the football fans in the audience, Luther wants you to know that she’s one of you, and her interrogation of that which you hold most dear comes from a place of love: both for victims/survivors, and for the sport itself. The wake up call is coming from inside the house, okay.

(More below the fold…)

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

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Harrowing and heartbreaking — and brimming with humanity.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Jesmyn Ward (2016)

Friday, August 19th, 2016

You need to read this book.

five out of five stars

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

[W]e are writing an epic wherein black lives carry worth, wherein black boys can walk to the store and buy candy without thinking they will die, wherein black girls can have a bad day and be mouthy without being physically assaulted by a police officer, wherein cops see twelve-year-old black boys playing with fake guns as silly kids and not homicidal maniacs, wherein black women can stop to ask for directions without being shot in the face by paranoid white homeowners. I burn, and I hope.

– Jesmyn Ward, Introduction

A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country.

– Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning”

Anthologies tend to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the eighteen pieces in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race are uniformly excellent. There wasn’t a single poem or essay that I didn’t love. I devoured the whole thing in most of an afternoon, and was left hungering for more.

Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – “A Letter to My Nephew” in particular – Jesmyn Ward compiled a collection of essays on race by and for a new generation. The result is eclectic and surprising and just straight-up breathtaking.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – a more academic bent, perhaps? – but in this case, I think my preconceptions were a positive, because The Fire This Time upended them in the best way possible. Through a mix of poems, personal essays, letters, and creative nonfiction, the contributors explore a wide range of topics, both expected and not: the black immigrant experience; police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement; walking while black; reassessing one’s long held identity in the wake of contemporary DNA testing; the legacy of slavery in New England; depression and loneliness as a consequence of cultural disconnectedness; constructing composite fathers; metafiction in hip hop; and “artistic rituals of labor,” from grandmamas to Outkast.

(More below the fold…)

Audiobook Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison, Samantha Mabry (2016)

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Awful narrator is awful.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

— 2.5 stars —

In theory (on paper? hardee har har!), A Fierce and Subtle Poison has the bones of a great story – or at least one I’m all but guaranteed to love. A mad scientist. A cursed house (not to mention a haunted hotel and beach). A witch with green skin, hair made of grass, and a belly full of poison. A setting with a nonwhite majority, and a diverse cast of characters to match. Star-crossed lovers … maybe. More than one pair, perhaps. A tragic ending.

And yet this book never really took off for me. There are a ton of little details that vexed me, but ultimately what it comes down to is the narrator: Lucas Knight is irritating as fuck, and not in an enjoyable, Gone Girl, love-to-hate-him kind of way.

The son of an American real estate developer, Lucas is both aware of and repulsed by his father’s bigotry and arrogance, as well as the privilege that being rich and white affords them both. The senior Michael Knight is pretentious, overbearing, and casually racist. Sure he married an “island girl,” but that doesn’t mean that he has any respect for her culture, land, or people. (See, e.g., the “I have a black friend argument.”) He constantly refers to Puerto Ricans as backwards and ignorant. Likewise, he treats “the help” – those islanders who work at his hotels, washing his clothes, cooking and serving his meals, and cleaning his rooms – like you’d expect: as part of the background scenery, at best. Whereas Lucas cherishes the wild, unspoiled nature of the island, Michael looks at a pristine beach and sees only shiny new hotels (and the cash monies they’re sure to bring). Even the historic St. Lucia doesn’t get a pass.

Michael reserves the worst of his loathing for the island women, especially the ‘bitter harpy’ – I’m paraphrasing, but not by much – Detective Mara Lopez, who’s ‘out to get’ Lucas and his dad because she’s ‘jealous of their wealth.’ Displaced feelings much, hmmm? Why don’t you tell Lucas what you really think of his mother?

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Book Review: The Gilda Stories: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition, Jewelle Gomez (2016)

Friday, June 17th, 2016

A subversive and exhilarating read!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

“Why do you say others may kill and we must not?”

“Some are said to live through the energy of fear. That is their sustenance more than sharing. The truth is we hunger for connection to life, but it needn’t be through horror or destruction. Those are just the easiest links to evoke. Once learned, this lesson mustn’t be forgotten. To ignore it, to wallow in death as the white man has done, can only bring bitterness.”

My love is the blood that enriches this ground.
The sun is a star denied you and me.
But you are the life I’ve searched for and found
And the moon is our half of the dream.

That she hit him with his own whip seemed to startle him more than the pain.

The Girl is just nine when her mother passes away – of the flu, contracted from one of the white women she was caring for in the main house. Scared that she’ll be sold off like her father, she runs away, getting as far as the state line that separates Mississippi from Louisiana before being discovered by a bounty hunter. Gilda finds the Girl in her cellar, shaking and covered in blood – and with the corpse of her would-be rapist at her feet.

As with many girls before her, Gilda takes the Girl in, offering her sanctuary in her saloon/brothel. But Gilda and her lover/business partner, Bird, take a special interest in this girl, teaching her how to read and write in multiple languages; how to grow her own food and run a business; and, eventually, in the ways of their kind. Gilda is a three hundred-year-old vampire, you see, and her days walking this earth are numbered. Tired of the war, hatred, and inequality that surrounds her, Gilda yearns for her “true death,” and hopes to turn the Girl so that Bird will not be left alone in her absence.

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

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

An Entertaining Coney Island Mystery With a Side of Social Commentary

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates (2016)

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Three Cheers for the Clinton Cackle!

five out of five stars

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

Our experiences of all forms of gender prejudice—from daily sexism to distressing harassment to sexual violence—are part of a continuum that impacts all of us, all the time, shaping ourselves and our ideas about the world. To include stories of assault and rape within a project documenting everyday experiences of gender imbalance is simply to extend its boundaries to the most extreme manifestations of that prejudice. To see how great the damage can be when the minor, “unimportant” issues are allowed to pass without comment. To prove how the steady drip-drip-drip of sexism and sexualization and objectification is connected to the assumption of ownership and control over women’s bodies, and how the background noise of harassment and disrespect connects to the assertion of power that is violence and rape.

And so we accepted all these stories, and more, until in April 2015—exactly three years after the project was launched—one hundred thousand entries had poured in. This is their story. This is the sound of a hundred thousand women’s voices. This is what they’re telling us.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are in the middle of an international epidemic. One in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, 38 percent of all women murdered are killed by their partners. Around the world, women are subjected to forced marriage, stoning, trafficking, female genital mutilation, childhood pregnancy, acid attacks, “honor” killings, “corrective” rape, lives of slavery and servitude because of their second-class citizenship. In some countries they are pushed toward enlarging their breasts to satisfy male demand. In others their breasts are painfully flattened with hot stones to deter male lust. In some places their vaginas are painfully stuffed with dry cotton to make them swell with discomfort so they will tighten for men’s pleasure. In others their sexual organs are decimated to control women’s sexuality.

Actually, I do think you should be alarmed. I think we should all be alarmed.

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Book Review: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique W. Morris (2016)

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Because Black Girls Matter

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for discussions of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment, rape, and sexual trafficking.)

Born into a cultural legacy of slavery, Black American women have interpreted defiance as something that is not inherently bad. Harriet Tubman was defiant.

Michael Brown. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker. Tony Robinson. Akai Gurley. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice.

While the seemingly never-ending stream of tragedies involving the murder of unarmed black men and boys at the hands of law enforcement has focused media attention on the issues of police brutality, the militarization of local police forces, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and systemic racism, too often women and girls are excluded from the discussion. However, intersectional feminist and anti-racist activists aim to center the experiences of black women, who must contend with both race- and gender-based oppression. Thanks to initiatives like #SayHerName and #BlackGirlsMatter, the names of Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, and Tarika Wilson will not be lost to history.

While writing Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique W. Morris spent four years researching race and gender disparities in our educational system – and engaging with the girls and women directly impacted: namely, young women in New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Northern and Southern California. The result is a book that’s as heartbreaking as it is informative.

Though she uses several high-profile cases – such as the assault of fifteen-year-old, bikini-clad Dajerria Becton at the hands of McKinney, Texas cop Eric Casebolt, and the handcuffing of six-year-old Floridian Desre’e Watson for throwing a tantrum in class – as jumping-off points, Morris looks beyond the most egregious examples of excessive force. She delves deeper, exploring how the proliferation of “zero tolerance” policies in the ’90s, the presence of police or “student resource officers” (SROs) in schools, and the criminalization of minor or nonviolent offenses – including behaviors that aren’t even against the law, such as “talking back” or violating a school’s dress code – create a hostile educational environment, especially for black girls.

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Book Review: The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig (2016)

Monday, February 15th, 2016

[Insert Fangirling Gif Here]

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Edelweiss.)

Nix’s life began in Honolulu in 1868. Since then she has traveled to mythic Scandinavia, a land from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, modern-day New York City, and many more places both real and imagined. As long as he has a map, Nix’s father can sail his ship, The Temptation, to any place, any time. But now he’s uncovered the one map he’s always sought—1868 Honolulu, before Nix’s mother died in childbirth. Nix’s life—her entire existence—is at stake. No one knows what will happen if her father changes the past. It could erase Nix’s future, her dreams, her adventures . . . her connection with the charming Persian thief, Kash, who’s been part of their crew for two years. If Nix helps her father reunite with the love of his life, it will cost her her own.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Heidi Heilig’s debut novel (dear gods, can this really be her first novel? it’s so damn shiny!) The Girl from Everywhere is the sort of book that makes me wish I was a more eloquent writer – if only so I could craft a review that does it justice. As it is, I’m fighting the urge to post a whole slew of my favorite Firefly gifs and call it a day.

Instead of the usual review, allow me to bullet point this bad girl. (The bullet points keep me on point and spoiler-free.) Here are twelve reasons why you should read The Girl from Everywhere, like, yesterday.

1. The seamless blend of reality and fantasy.

The Girl from Everywhere is nothing if not an epic mashup of genres – and some of my favorites, to boot. Time travel screams SF to me, and yet Slate’s ability to Navigate is also wonderfully fantastical. We have historical fiction and even some travel writing in the Hawaiian backdrop, and along with more mundane settings, like contemporary New York City, The Temptation also visits places that only exist in myth.

Though Slate is the one able to break through the Margins of a map, to reach a different time and place, it’s Nix’s knowledge of history and mythology that truly steers the ship. Many of The Temptation’s voyages are in pursuit of the 1868 Honolulu map – or rather, in search of items that might make their quest more fruitful and convenient: a never-ending pitcher of wine from Greece, a bottomless bag from 1600s Wales, an army of terra cotta warriors from the Qin dynasty.

So very much to savor and explore after the story’s over and the wait for the sequel is driving you bonkers!

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

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

 

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

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

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

(summary via Goodreads)

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Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

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 child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

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