Book Review: The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore (2015)

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

A magical retelling of Romeo & Juliet – and with a much more satisfying ending, at that!

four out of five stars

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

The rain on her dress and his shirt would stick them to each other, dissolve the skin between them, until their veins tangled like roots, and they breathed together, one scaled and dark-feathered thing.

Lace’s first encounter with Cluck is in the parking lot of a convenience store located on the outskirts of Almendro, California, a sleepy little town. Three of her cousins are attacking Cluck, pummeling him with their fists and feet, for no reason other than his perceived difference. Well-versed in the art of taking a beating – thanks to his older brother Dax – Cluck just lies there, taking it, hoping that his lack of participation will sap some of the fun out of their “game.” Lace chases his attackers away, and then offers Cluck ice cubes wrapped in her scarf to sooth his cuts and bruises. Both mistake the other for a local – when, in fact, they are members of two rival families of traveling performers.

The Palomas and Corbeaus travel all across North America, but always cross paths in Almendro; the crowd drawn there by the annual Blackberry Festival is just too good to pass up. For years, they were simply rivals, showpeople competing over the same sets of eyeballs. But one flooded lake and two dead performers – one from each family – turned them to enemies. Each blames the other for the “natural disaster,” with the stories and superstitions becoming more outlandish year after year. Each family can agree on one thing, however: the only acceptable way to touch a Paloma (or Corbeau) is in the pursuit of violence.

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Book Review: Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It, Kate Harding (2015)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

An Insightful, Sometimes-Snarky, Surprisingly Readable Interrogation of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

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

I’ve been a fan of Kate Harding’s ever since her days blogging at Shakespeare’s Sister (now Shakesville). I think I first caught wind of her latest project, Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It, more than a year ago, and have spent the interim occasionally checking the book’s Amazon listing, where the publication date seemed to creep further and further away. And it’s no wonder: every month brings with it a new development in the national conversation about rape and rape culture.

As Harding explains in the Author’s Note:

When I sold the proposal for this book in 2012, I foolishly agreed to finish the manuscript in six months, because my agent, editor, and I agreed that rape culture was having a moment, as it were. News of the Steubenville, Ohio, gang rape case was picking up steam, and the memory of Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe was fresh in all our minds. Sexual violence was suddenly a popular topic, but – based on national conversations about rape in the 1970s and 1990s that started strong and dissipated quickly – we feared that if we waited too long, this book might be released to a public that was already over it.

The bad news is that it took me way longer than six months to finish the manuscript. The good news – amazingly, wonderful, really sort of mind-blowing news actually – is that years later, Americans are still walking seriously about rape and rape culture.

Asking for It is a welcome addition to the conversation: smart, witty, and surprisingly enjoyable. Well, not enjoyable, exactly – that’s not quite right – but Harding’s sometimes-snarky tone and penchant for calling bullshit as needed make for a slightly less depressing read.

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Book Review: Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson (2015)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Falling in love with hominids – despite our many failings.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual assault. The individual story summaries contain general plot details and/or vague spoilers. If you’re rather approach the collection with unsullied eyes, skip these.)

Millie liked sleeping with the air on her skin, even though it was dangerous out of doors. It felt more dangerous indoors, what with everyone growing up.
(“The Easthound”)

“Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?”
(“Message in a Bottle”)

Confession time: This is my very first time reading Nalo Hopkinson, despite the fact that I’ve collected several of her novels over the years. (So many books, so little time!) Given how much I enjoyed Falling in Love with Hominids, I aim to rectify this ASAP.

Falling in Love with Hominids is Hopkinson’s second collection of short fiction, published some fourteen years after Skin Folk. She’s also edited/contributed to four others: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000); Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003); So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (2004); and Tesseracts Nine: New Canadian Speculative Fiction (2005). Born in Jamaica and raised in a middle/creative class literary environment, Hopkinson moved to Toronto at the age of sixteen and currently lives in Riverside, California. Her work often draws on Caribbean history and language, and exhibits wonderful diversity: gender, race, sexuality, nationality, you name it.

These hallmarks are on full display in Falling in Love with Hominids, which features eighteen new and previously published tales. An eclectic mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fairy tale retellings, and the outright absurd, the stories found here are both highly entertaining and marvelously profound. The protagonists grapple with a variety of issues, from the mundane to the otherworldly: navigating the perilous landscape of adolescence; the politics of black hair; sexual abuse and assault; racism, misogyny, and homophobia; grief and loss; what it means to be human (and whether this status can even be relegated to humans); and the possibilities of alien visitation and botanic sentience.

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Book Review: Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, Julia Heaberlin (2015)

Monday, August 10th, 2015

He Hunts Me, He Hunts Me Not

four out of five stars

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

The abandoned field on the Jenkins property was licked to death by fire about two years before the Black-Eyed Susans were dumped there. A reckless match tossed by a lost car on a lonely dirt road cost a destitute old farmer his entire wheat crop and set the stage for the thousands and thousands of yellow flowers that covered the field like a giant, rumpled quilt.

The fire also carved out our grave, an uneven, loping ditch. Black-eyed Susans sprung up and decorated it brazenly long before we arrived. The Susans are a greedy plant, often the first to thrive in scorched, devastated earth. Pretty, but competitive, like cheerleaders. They like to crowd out the others.

One lit match, one careless toss, and our nicknames were embedded in serial killer lore forever.

Sixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright went out for a run one night and woke up in a grave. One minute, she was at Walgreens, buying a box of tampons and a Snickers bar for Roosevelt, the homeless man she passes every Wednesday on her running route; the next, she was barely clinging to life at the bottom of a ditch in a field of Black-eyed Susans. From the moment she was discovered, Tessie and the three bodies lying next to her – two skeletons and a fresh corpse – would forever be known as the Susans. Strangers in life, but sisters in death.

Though Tessie has no recollection of the assault – indeed, cannot even hope to identify her attacker, having lost her sight (“hysterical blindness”) after waking in the hospital bed, only to see a get well card sent by the killer (maybe) – District Attorney Al Vega still calls her to testify. It’s her testimony, along with junk science and a racist justice system (a contradiction in terms), that lands Terrell Darcy Goodwin on Death Row.

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Book Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman (2015)

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

You Reading. Is Bone.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Major trigger warning for rape, human trafficking, forced abortion and sterilization, violence, and scenes of war.)

These be the Sengles in the time I speak of, when my trouble grown. Of baby children, be Bother Zero Tool, the Answer Zero Ka, Fine One Ndiaye, Bell Eyes One Ndiaye, and Lolina-tina One Diouf, Crow’s child with Mari’s Ghost. Be healthy screaming babies, they got grandy rolls of fat. These all got mothers living but the twins Bell Eyes and Fine.

Of littles, there be Dinty Moore Two Fall who cannot hear, Naomi Two Forgotten, Maple Two Diop who be a son of John of Christ, Mohammed Three Insulting, Story Four Duval that has got reddish hair, Problem Four Tool, Luvanna-Lana Five of Lowell, Best Creature Five Wang who is misname and be annoying, Mustapha Five Insulting, Dollar Saver Six Fall, a fine enchanting little who can sing, Baboucar Seven Grandpa, Jeep Cherokee Seven Skips and Foxen Seven Fall. The mother of all three Falls be alive but gone to Lowell, now name Lowell Second Plumber and got posies bad.

Of the eights and nines, there be my vally Keepers Eight Fofana, worth all other children, and her favorite hatred Mouse Eight Wang. Progresso Nine Wilson and My Sorrow Nine Wang been solo-animoses for some years, ain’t speak with never another child.

Then come Marlboro Ten Tete-Brisee and Kool Ten Tete-Brisee, twins, birdcatcher-age and lean. Shiny Eleven Angels be a prettieuse and flirtish girl that give bad sign of wisdom, for she dabbit after Crow. Shiny chosen her own name, this be the measure of her wits. Redbook Twelve Ba, Bowl Thirteen Tete-Brisee and Cat Fancy Thirteen Ba all go ridiculous in love with Driver. They tend the littles and tell reveries one to the other, all day long. Jonah Fourteen Feet the only weakly jones, and scary since his brother took to Lowell two years gone. Then come Jermaine Fourteen Uptown, Christing born and Christing seriose in gentleness. Jermaine be wisty for my love, and many Lowells also and some Christings sleeping hungry for my love.

Next be Tequila Fourteen Tool, Mari’s Ghost Fourteen Diouf, Hate You Fourteen Ka, and Asha Badmouth Fifteen Feet. Then come my place. Then come malicieuse Crow Sixteen Doe, and Villa Seventeen Insulting, fool infatuate for any male. When she ain’t bother males, she eat, that be the list of what she do. Last come my Driver, which make thirty-eight in Sengle town.

These been my Sengles in the year when Driver been our sergeant; time that kindly John been husband of the Christing fellowship; when the Lowells’ El Mayor been Sengle born and Sengle brave. Mamadou was NewKing of Mass Armies, savage like his people – yet the child have dignity and sense, best of the worst.

Fat luck been the story of this year. Snares ever struggling full, and every arrow find a turkey. Any a sleeper street we did maraud, that street give food. We war like twenty guns, but no one injure. Sling our hammocks in the crowns of sycamores like secret birds, and rest there, chattering and smoking, noses to the stars. Children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear.

Yo when Driver sicken, this the happiness we lose.

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Book Review: A Bollywood Affair, Sonali Dev (2014)

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

A Fun, Sometimes Over-the-Top Madcap Bollywood Romance

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Also, there are clearly marked spoilers towards the end of this review. Trigger warning for rape and child abuse.)

Like tens of millions of her peers, Malvika “Mili” Rathod is a child bride.* In a bargain struck by her grandmother and the groom’s grandfather, Mili was married off at the age of four; she has spent the past twenty years waiting for her husband to return to Balpur and claim her.

Unfortunately, hers was not a meeting of the minds, in even the loosest sense of the term: a year after the marriage, her betrothed’s mother packed up Virat and his younger brother Samir and moved the family to Nagpur, away from the clutches of their abusive and controlling grandfather. Not long after, Lata sent notice to the Balpur village council to have the marriage annulled; unbeknownst to the Rathods, grandfather retracted the paperwork. For the next two decades, he led Mili and her naani on, milking them for her dowry in exchange for empty promises that this would be the year that Virat – now a Squad Leader in the Indian Air Force – would send for her. Grandfather passed away several years ago, and naani is starting to panic: when she’s gone, who will care for her granddaughter?

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Mini-Review: “Wakulla Springs,” Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (2013)

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Not What I Expected!

four out of five stars

It’s said that the Wakulla Springs wilderness – including the fifteen miles of caves which cuts through the water’s depths – is home to a menagerie of creatures, both real and mythical: black panthers, rhesus macaques, the Clearwater Monster, the Skunk Ape, and a thousand-pound hammerhead known as Old Hitler. Yet “Wakulla Springs” is less a tale about monsters than it is the journey of one family (and, by extension, the evolution of social mores and attitudes). Beginning with matriarch Mayola, the story of the Williamses is inexorably linked to the Springs: by culture, tradition, and superstition – and a series of cheesy Tarzan movies shot on location in Wakulla County, Florida.

The plot’s surprisingly sparse, especially given the story’s length and description. (“Wakulla Springs” reads more like a novella than a short story.) Each of the four parts or chapters focuses on a different member of the Williams clan, and his or her experiences with Wakulla Springs and the exclusive, “whites only” resort situated on its banks. Cultural signposts indicate each segment’s particular timeline; while African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

It makes for an enjoyable and engaging read, even if most of the “monsters” we meet are of the human and institutional variety.

P.S.: Free Cheetah!

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

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The protagonists are pulled from several generations of the Williams clan, all of whom are connected to Wakulla Springs and the “whites only” resort located on its banks: African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, and by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

 

Book Review: The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks & Caanan White (2014)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

five out of five stars

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

In 1917 we left our home to make the world “safe for democracy.” Even though democracy wasn’t exactly “safe” back home.

We went by many names. The 15th. The 369th. And before going “over there,” we called ourselves “The Black Rattlers.” Our French allies called us “The Men of Bronze.”

And our enemies called us “The Harlem Hellfighters.”

Recruited in Harlem, trained in Camp Whitman, New York (and, disastrously, Spartanburg, South Carolina), and eventually deployed to the Western Front in France, the 369th Infantry Regiment – otherwise known as The Harlem Hellfighters – changed the course of history, even as its own government engineered its failure.

The 369th spent 191 days in combat – more than any other American unit, black or white. None of their men were captured by the enemy, nor did they lose any ground; in fact, they were the first men to reach the Rhine River. The 369th volunteered to stay behind in the front trenches for an expected German bombing the day after Bastille Day, 1918, even though it meant almost certain death. One of their soldiers single-handedly fended off German raiders with only a rifle and a bolo knife; for this, Henry Lincoln Johnson earned the nickname “Black Death” – and was the first American to receive the French Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War). In 2003, the US awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross; his supporters are still lobbying for the Medal of Honor.

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Book Review: Saga, Volume 1, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012)

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Fragile Things

four out of five stars

“Ideas are fragile things. Most don’t live long outside of the ether from which they were pulled, kicking and screaming. That’s why people create with someone else.”

Marko and Alana are two young soldiers fighting on opposite sides of an ancient and never-ending galactic war. No one remembers why the citizens of Landfall – the largest planet in its galaxy – and Wreath – its only satellite moon – don’t get along. All anyone knows is that the two rocks are mortal enemies, and they must choose sides. (You’re either with us, or you’re against us.) Since the planet and its moon can’t obliterate one without destroying the other, the conflict has long since been outsourced, until it engulfed every world in the galaxy. There’s no escaping it.

A soldier with the Wreath contingent, Marko surrendered to Coalition Forces on the planet of Cleave and swore off violence altogether. Once imprisoned, Alana was assigned to guard him. Instead, they fell in love and ran away together. Three months later, and with their pursuers hot on their trail, baby Hazel is born. All these lovers want to do is raise their young family in peace; but with Prince Robot IV and mercenary “The Will” on their trail, it’s likely that their subversive idea will be snuffed out before it’s able to take root and blossom.

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Book Review: Pointing With Lips, Dana Lone Hill (2014)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

“Ain’t gotta lie to kick it.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free pdf copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape, violence, and drug and alcohol use.)

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Dana Lone Hill offers us a glimpse inside “a week in the life of a rez chick” with her debut novel Pointing With Lips. We meet 32-year-old Sincere Strongheart – “Sis” for short – the titular “rez chick,” just as she’s trying to sell some of her jewelry to the tourists who have flocked to town for the annual Oglala Nation Fair and Rodeo. (“People from all over America and the world are fascinated with us, maybe because we are still here after all the bullshit America put us through.”)

During the course of the week, we follow Sis as she spends time partying with her best friends Boogie and Zona; evading brother George, a cop who’s constantly throwing his siblings in the drunk tank; quits/is fired from her dead-end job at the Great Sioux Shopping Center, the one and only grocery store on the rez; rescues her sister Frieda’s kids from one of her drug-fueled sex parties; and flirts with friend Ricky and border town white guy Mason. There’s also the town parade (Planned Parenthood was banned for life when it handed out condoms instead of the more standard, diabetes-inducing candy) and brother Misun’s going-away BBQ, complete with plenty of family drama.

Against this backdrop, we see Sis slowly slide from social drinking into the bottomless pit of alcoholism, which has claimed the hopes, dreams, and lives of so many of her friends and family.

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Book Review: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino et al. (2013)

Friday, December 20th, 2013

A Must for Tarantino Fans

four out of five stars

Based on the 2012 film of the same name, Django Unchained is a slavery revenge fantasy in the vein of previous Tarantino movies, namely Inglourious Basterds (Holocaust revenge) and Kill Bill (rape revenge). Caught after an unsuccessful escape attempt, slaves Django and his wife Broomhilda are auctioned off to separate bidders. Whereas Hildi finds herself in the clutches of Calvin Candy – a self-proclaimed Francophile who is as rich as he is evil – Django is eventually acquired by Dr. King Schultz, a dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Schultz offers Django his freedom in return for his help identifying and killing the Brittle brothers, who were employed as overseers by Django’s previous owners. (Naturally, Django can’t believe his luck: killing white men, and getting paid for the privilege? Sign me up!)

Touched by Django’s love for Hildi (and compelled by his hatred for “the flesh trade”), the German-born Schultz takes Django on as a partner and apprentice. The two spend the winter training together, while Django earns the money to buy Hildi’s freedom. Come spring they make the journey to Candyland, ostensibly to buy a slave for the purposes of Mandingo fighting. When their ruse is discovered by the “head” house slave Stephen (power being relative), everything goes sideways, as they say.

Since the graphic novel is adapted from the original script, it contains some new material – including a number of scenes featuring Broomhilda. I’m pretty bummed that these were cut from the movie, as they helped to better flesh out her character, which mostly functions as an archetype of the damsel in distress. Not that this isn’t in some ways a step up from how women of color are portrayed on screen – but still, I would have liked to have gotten to know Hildi better as a person. “Little Troublemaker” hints at so many stories left untouched, don’t you think?

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Book Review: March: Book One, John Lewis (2013)

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

“The Boy from Troy”

four out of five stars

The first in a planned trilogy, March: Book One follows the life of Congressman John Lewis (GA-5), one of the “Big Six” leaders in the civil rights movement and a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Book One covers Lewis’s early years, where his love of education often conflicted with his duties on his family’s Alabama sharecropper’s farm. After high school, Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University (“the boy from Troy who wants to desegregate Troy State,” as MLK referred to him during their first meeting), where he became involved in non-violent protest and helped organize the Nashville sit-ins, which were successful in desegregating local lunch counters. The scenes of students rehearsing the demonstrations – and all the abuse it entailed – are especially harrowing. Along with dozens of fellow protestors, Lewis was arrested (the first in a long string of arrests; as of October 2013, when he was arrested for marching in favor of immigration reform, Lewis has been arrested some 45 times) and sentenced to a $50 fine or 30 days in the county workhouse. Lewis and his colleagues were ultimately released under the orders of Nashville Mayor Ben West.

Lewis recalls these events to a group of young visitors just hours before the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, which he and his family are to attend, thus firmly connecting past and present. The artwork by Nate Powell is pleasing and certainly gets the job done, though part of me wishes that these scenes from the past had been rendered in color instead of black and white, making them come alive, so to speak.

Though it includes harsh language (understandable given the context), I think that March is suitable for middle school readers on up. The “n word” is dropped with some frequency, but it’s important for parents to discuss the hateful legacy of this (and other slurs) with their children. Additionally, March can be a useful tool for introducing the history of the civil rights movement to middle and high school students. While it is rather light on details – this is a graphic novel, after all! – March can help teachers meet students on their level and engage them with topics in which they might not otherwise take an interest. March shouldn’t be the beginning and end of the lesson, but rather a starting point. It certainly made me hungry to know more.

I found the early scenes of Lewis tending to his family’s chickens particularly touching and poignant. Lewis had an especial affinity for those birds destined for his dinner plate; he talked to them, named them, came to recognize and appreciate their distinct personalities, and even sermonized to and baptized them. When his parents killed one for meat – chopping his head off, or breaking her neck – Lewis remained angry with them for days, and made himself scarce during these meals. Thus it was no small disappointment to see him readily dismisses the ethical implications of exploiting sentient creatures for food – not to mention, devalue the fierce bonds he formed with these beings – with a clichéd line about the circle of life.

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