Book Review: The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

“In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to fight. That’s not the world I live in.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review though Netgalley. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, and suicide.)

“When I look at what the editors have written about us, I have to wonder how they see us. Do you know what I mean?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Like, are we even human?”

“I would cut off the penis of any man who talk about me like this,” said my mother, as she gazed down at a score sheet. “You know what I would like to see? A bad-blowjob contest. That would teach them.”

Gemma and Mel, who had seemed so lost, suddenly looked up at Mom like she was their new queen.

I remember the first time I saw them. They were walking down the hall together. Bald, proud, angry. The boys didn’t laugh when they saw them. They’d never been quieter. You could feel their fear. The girls didn’t look like girls anymore. They looked like warriors.

Come to think of it, Witt herself was like an inkblot test. Everyone saw something different.

Forced to leave her previous job at “plummy” Warren Prep after a male student-turned-stalker secretly videotaped her engaged in a totally adult, totally consensual sex act, Alex Witt finds herself teaching English lit (well, creative writing) at second-tier Stonebridge Academy (though she draws the line at fencing). Given all the slut shaming and unearned scrutiny that she’s already weathered, it’s no surprise that Alex keeps to herself, playing house in an abandoned cottage in the forest and only doing the bare minimum, course-wise. However, all this changes when an anonymous, introductory writing assignment – something of a tradition in her classes – elicits some strange responses.

Repeated references to the Darkroom (and a shared distaste for BJs) compel Witt to dig deeper – as do the cryptic notes left in her cabin; the rumors half-whispered by fellow faculty and staff; and a seemingly nonconsenual sex act Witt witnesses in the bathhouse. As Witt and the teenage girls/warriors she inspires turn over the rock that is Stonebridge Academy, exposing the rape culture that lurks underneath, the so-called “gender war” escalates, ultimately leaving two dead in its wake.

So here’s the deal. Is the plot of The Swallows a little outlandish? Maybe. Not in substance, but perhaps scope. The Ten, the Darkroom, the Dulcinea award? Totally believable. The victim blaming, rape apologism, and institutional cover-up of sexual assault? Abso-fucking-tootly. Granted, the lack of adult supervision is a bit shocking at times, and the extent to which the conflict escalates here can generously be described as unusual. But is it unheard of? Spare a thought (and perhaps a triumphant fist pump) for the Greek woman who doused a British man’s genitals in liquor and then set them on fire after he sexually assaulted her in a bar. Suddenly jalapeño blowjobs and Molotov cocktails don’t seem so ridiculous.

If anything, the heights (or depths, depending on your POV) the swallows go to enact their revenge is a cautionary tale: this is what happens when adults, when those in charge, when our authorities and institutions and culture fail to take misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape seriously. When the marginalized are forced to find their own justice, outside of the bounds of the law and cultural norms. When those who are taught to silence their voices, to tamp down their righteous anger, finally explode like so many powder kegs. Things get really fucking ugly. In this way, The Swallows is wildly successful.

It feels really reductive to call this a tale about “gender wars,” though. This is a fight against rape culture, full stop. Some of the girls lean in to the misogyny, while some of the guys work to subvert it. You do what you’ve got to: to survive, or to sleep at night.

Also, The Swallows is a damn engaging story. Lutz’s writing is feminist and empowering but also makes for a great, twisty, edge-of-your-seat thriller. The characters – even the sleazy ones; see, e.g., Finn Ford and Leonard Witt – are interesting and multidimensional. Alex is pretty rad but her mother Nastya is in a whole ‘nother stratosphere of badassery. The scenes where Witt creates – and then Nastya revises – the “blowchart” are exquisite.

I’m even a little tempted to get my own axe tattoo.

Of all the characters in The Swallows, Nastya is most deserving of her own spinoff story.

I also loved the multiple POVs: Lutz tells the story from the alternating perspectives of Alex Witt (the instigator), Gemma Russo (the resistance fighter), Norman Crowley (the defector), and Mr. Ford (the editors, all grown up), sometimes revisiting a specific event from different perspectives. This technique adds depth and nuance to the narrative…but mostly it’s just cool AF, such as when the girls shave their heads. The differently-gendered reactions to the unveiling straight up gave me goosebumps.

Even though The Swallows requires some suspension of disbelief, the need is not terribly great, and that’s what should scare you most. As a reader, as a woman, as a human being.

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

Book Review: Window Horses by Ann Marie Fleming (2017)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Now I have to see the movie!

four out of five stars

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

Window Horses is the graphic novelization of a 2016 animated film of the same name, written by Ann Marie Fleming and starring Sandra Oh (with what I can only assume is a brief cameo by Ellen Page, at least judging from the book). The story’s protagonist is a young biracial woman named Rosie Ming. Born to a Chinese-Canadian mother and an Iranian refugee father, Rosie was left in the care of her maternal grandparents after her father abandoned his family and her mother died in a tragic accident.

Fast food worker by day, Francophile by – who are we kidding, 24/7 – Rosie keeps her poetry a secret. That is, until she’s invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. Having self-published but one book of poetry, Rosie has no idea how the festival’s organizers discovered her. Though she’s nervous to travel to her father’s homeland – she’s never even been outside of Canada, for pete’s sake – and is plagued by imposter syndrome, Rosie knows that this is an opportunity she simply can’t pass up. Little does she know how truly life-changing the trip will be.

Window Horses is a sweet and heartfelt story: about the bonds of family and community, the stupid and even selfish things we sometimes do for love, and the power of words and poetry, with a little bit of a history/civics lesson thrown in, to boot. The art – primarily done by Kevin Langdale, with poems illustrated by a variety of other artists – is stunning. I especially loved how the breadth of different contributors and styles played off the poetry, adding extra depth and nuance.

The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way? Dietmar, or rather Mehrnaz’s insistence that he’s only rude to Rosie because “that is the way some young men are…,” you know, when they like a girl. Boys will be boys and all that nonsense. Blecht.

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

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

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

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

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Watersnakes by Antonio Sandoval (2018)

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

A swing and a near-miss.

three out of five stars

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

Mila is swimming in the forest when she meets a mysterious girl named Agnes. By way of introduction, the mischievous Agnes shouts “water snake!,” causing Mila to jump from the water in fright. For her part, Mila is inexplicably drawn to Agnes’s teeth. If this all sounds weird, welcome to the world of Watersnakes.

Turns out Agnes has been dead for eleven years. Within her resides a black octopus/the former king of the sea. Her teeth are his warriors, determined to restore their ruler to his throne. I’d be worried that I’m dropping spoilers right and left here, if the book’s synopsis hadn’t already spilled the beans.

I wanted to fall in love with Watersnakes – I mean, just look at that friggin’ cover! – but alas, it is a swing and a miss.

Pros: The artwork. MY GODS, the artwork. It’s apologetically weird and occasionally surreal and grotesque, but always in the most beautiful way. It also contains one of my favorite horror tropes – SHE’S BEEN DEAD FOR YEARS!!! – and the LGBTQ elements immediately captured my interest, but…

Cons: The plot is terribly, frustratingly underdeveloped at best, and downright confusing at times. Worse: the FF romance is undermined by a kinda-sorta case of mistaken identity (no want!). Worst: When “picnic hunting” – i.e., dressing in papier-mâché animal masks and robbing an unsuspecting family of their picnic snacks – Mila pinches the ass of (read: sexually assaults) a fellow teen girl. I shit you not, I did about a dozen double takes, damn near certain I had misread the panel. (I didn’t.) Gross.

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

Book Review: Someone I Used to Know by Patty Blount (2018)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

Smashing the patriarchy, one Pinterest board at a time!

four out of five stars

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

“Ms. Lawrence,” he says, taking off his glasses. “I understand how you feel—”
“Really?” I snap back. “How did you get over your rape?”

“The reason men like Ariel Castro and Elliot Rodger and Aaron Persky exist is because men like us never called them out on their bullshit the first time they showed it.”

THEN: Ashley Lawrence and her older brother Derek used to be BFFs. Until they weren’t. But even all Derek’s conventionally crappy older brother behavior – ditching his younger sister, giving her a mean-spirited nickname, and just generally shunning her at school – couldn’t foreshadow his reaction when Ashley is at first sexually harassed, and then raped by his football teammate Victor Patton as part of a “team-building” scavenger hunt. When called to testify, Derek partakes in the same rape culture that paved the way for Vic’s violation of Ashley: He dismisses the scavenger hunt as “just a game,” and says that he doesn’t think Vic should be punished too harshly. For raping his fourteen-year-old sister. Needless to say, the rape and its aftermath cause something of a rift in the Lawrence family.

Told from Ashley and Derek’s alternating perspectives, in a series of then/now flashbacks and present-day narration, Someone I Used to Know explores how toxic masculinity, the idolatry of the high school football team, and rape culture more broadly contributed to Ashley’s rape, and shaped the community’s reaction to the resulting trial, Victor’s conviction, and the (short-lived) cancellation of the football program.

NOW: It’s been two years since Vic raped Ashley at homecoming; much has changed, but also not. Bellford High School is about to re-institute the football program, and Victor is getting out of prison after serving just sixteen months of a paltry two-year sentence. The Lawrence’s marriage is on the brink of collapse, as mom and dad both have different ideas of how to deal with Ashley and Derek’s feud, for lack of a better term.

For me, this was one of the more interesting (and frustrating! parents, gawd!) parts of the story, since I have a younger brother I haven’t spoken to in twenty years or so. The rift has nothing to do with sexual assault, thankfully, just him generally behaving like a dick. It was illuminating to see the effect it had on the senior Lawrences, though I was disappointed that mom and dad didn’t more firmly come down on Ashley’s side, given the circumstances.

Ashley is an amazing, take-no-shit protagonist who turns to activism to deal with her trauma: with the help of Sebastian, the only truly “nice guy” on the football team, she starts a club called Bengals Against Rape, and challenges her community to “Raise the BAR” when it comes to their treatment of girls and women. Likewise, Derek – now in self-exile at college in Long Island, hundreds of miles from home – joins Guys Against Rape, where he’s disgusted to be just one of six men at the first meeting.

Whereas the bulk of the story feels authentic and believable – depressingly so – Derek’s sudden discovery that RAPE CULTURE IS REAL! and complete 180 from rape apologist to #1 DEFENDER OF WOMEN FOR ALL TIME! strained my credulity a bit. That said, I understand the need to end things on a somewhat hopeful note, and the one Blount struck isn’t too far out there. And, to be fair, Blount is quick to point out Derek’s flaws, which cannot be wholly and immediately covered up by his good intentions. More so, we all have work to do, a concept that’s adeptly illustrated by this one really great brainstorming scene between Ashley and Sebastian (where the latter reminds the former that not all rape victims are female, and it’s important to acknowledge them too).

In sum, Someone I Used to Know is a pretty great – by which I mean insightful and illuminating, if damn depressing – exploration of rape culture, from “innocuous” and ubiquitous “sex sells” advertising to rape “jokes” and “jokey” rape threats; from sexual harassment to rape apologism, and everything in between. What Vic did to Ashley definitely falls on the more extreme end of the spectrum, but the various and sundry “smaller” slights that came before and after are all part and parcel of a culture that enables and excuses violence against women.

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

Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

“I felt it here,” I say.

five out of five stars

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

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

(“The Last Fifteen-Year-Old”)

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

It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think.

But it felt more like a gift.

(“Spoken Word”)

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

(“Invitation”)

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018)

Friday, June 29th, 2018

A Searing Indictment of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape, including the rape of children and nonhuman animals, as well as victim blaming, transphobia, suicide, PTSD, anorexia, self-injury, and more.)

It’s a pain … it’s a cellular pain now, okay? It’s not a memory, it lives in me like a heart.

Ten years ago, I was having a beer with a friend after work and a few hours later, I was violently assaulted and left for dead behind a dumpster. No, worse—I was left for living. My assaulter wanted me to live through what I had experienced. It was a gesture of torture, a most excruciating gift.

She was just a normal woman.
She had brown hair and brown eyes.
She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t ugly.
She wasn’t really old but she wasn’t young either. She was just a normal woman.

When I first read the synopsis for Any Man, I was skeptical. Best case scenario, I thought it might be a well-meaning – but ultimately doomed – attempt to foster empathy for survivors of rape by switching up the genders: making the perpetrator a woman, and her victims men. I say doomed because, let’s face it: the same misogynist stereotypes that blame and shame women also silence male victims. If women are the weaker sex, how frail must a man be to be physically overpowered by a woman? How can a woman “rape” a man when intercourse hinges on his arousal? (Assuming a pretty narrow definition of rape or sexual assault, this.) If men are DTF 24/7, how can one possibly be raped? And so on and so forth.

Worst case scenario, I worried that Maude – the “serial female rapist who preys on men” – would be reduced to a femi-Nazi caricature, a bitter, man-hating harpy who attacks and emasculates random men, perhaps as a misguided form of revenge for past trauma. Maybe she’d even inspire her own fan club or copycat vigilante group. And while there are echos of this misogynist cutout in the public’s reaction to Maude, I think we’re meant to see it as ridiculous, even horrifying. Because, at the core of Tamblyn’s writing lives a sense of compassion for Maude’s victims – and, by extension, all victims/survivors – as well as a keen and incisive understanding of the trauma they’ve experienced.

Honestly, when I realized that Amber Tamblyn was the author, that’s the moment I decided to take a chance on Any Man. Her feminist cred earned her the benefit of the doubt; if anyone could do this story justice, I thought (hoped) it might be her. And Tamblyn does not disappoint: this is easily one of the “best” books I’ve read this year. Acerbic, witty, and as shrewd as it is painful to read. Any Man is not an easy book to read, or even one that’s particularly enjoyable (though there are some odd, unexpected moments of levity, such as Tamblyn’s imagined Twitter celeb reactions), but it’s powerful and memorable and really goddamn important.

Beginning with Donald Ellis of Watertown, New York, Any Man follows the wake of devastation that a female serial rapist – who the police will eventually dub Maude, after her OkCupid profile – leaves in her wake. The narrative takes place over a period of ten years, as Maude’s victim count grows from one to two to five (undoubtedly much higher since the majority of rapes go unreported, for the very reasons explored here). She operates mainly in the Northeastern United States (as far as we know), and her complete and utter lack of a pattern makes her especially difficult to catch.

Her victims range in age from ten to sixty-four; they are married, or single; they have children, or not; they are white, or biracial; one is an openly gay celebrity, while another is a trans man. Maude may initiate contact with the victims weeks before the encounter, or ambush them entirely. Her choice of weapons and method of attack vary wildly. One thing each attack seems to share in common is its unique depravity. (THIS BOOK COMES WITH A STRONG TRIGGER WARNING.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

Canon Gordon Croney, vicar of Leeds, considers police-controlled houses of prostitution to be impractical. “I know it’s an easy answer, but I believe it could make the problem worse,” he said.

“If prostitutes came under police protection, then it could make a psychopath like the Ripper prey on innocent women.”

So many popular cultural monuments to Sutcliffe have been built by men. Perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another story, if you don’t belong to the group of people the Ripper wanted to kill?

So what’s the truth?
Maybe it’s something like this:

Ordinary men are capable of extraordinary violence.
Women and girls are neither virgins nor whores.

None of it is funny.

Between 1969 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe – who would eventually become known as the Yorkshire Ripper – attacked at least twenty women, killing thirteen of them. He primarily targeted sex workers, either because he was conned by a prostitute and her pimp – or because God commanded him to. (When caught, he pled not guilty due to diminished capacity, on account of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s currently serving a life sentence.) However, not all of his victims were sex workers; the investigators’ inability to reconcile this inconsistency is perhaps one of many reasons they bungled the investigation, for example, by ignoring important evidence from an eyewitness who survived, 14-year-old Tracy Browne. Sutcliffe was caught in January 1981 – after he was brought in for driving with false license plates. The police had interviewed him nine times at that point, and had countless “photofits” bearing his image in their files.

The author – who goes by the pseudonym Una – was just entering her teenage years when the attacks escalated. Born in 1965, Una lived in west Yorkshire; her formative years were colored by the hysteria and misogyny whipped up by the killing spree. By the police and in the media, the Ripper’s victims were deemed complicit in their own assaults; what else could women with “loose morals” expect? As his body count grew and came to include “regular” women (and girls), evidence of immorality could be found everywhere: going out drinking at night (with or without your husband), dating outside your race, arguing with a boyfriend.

No one was safe, and that’s kind of the point: Peter Sutcliffe was a misogynist and, to the extent that he targeted sex workers, it was because he felt he could get away with it. And he did, for far too long.

2016-10-26 - Becoming Unbecoming - 0010 [flickr]

Nor was the Yorkshire Ripper the only threat facing the women of England in 1977. According to current rape stats for England and Wales, 1 in 5 women aged 16 to 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Only about 15% of victims choose to report; some 90% know their attackers. Furthermore, 31% of young women aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The Ripper may have been the face of violence against women in the mid- to late-1970s but, in truth, danger lurked much closer to home.

(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.

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Book Review: The Female of the Species, Mindy McGinnis (2016)

Monday, September 19th, 2016

There aren’t enough stars in the universe.

five out of five stars

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

The shelter is running a neuter-and-spay clinic next month. One of my jobs this morning is to get the mail, fighting the urge to throw a rock at a speeding car when the driver wolf-whistles at me. The mailbox is full of applications for the clinic, most of them for dogs but a handful of cats as well. Rhonda, the lady who runs the shelter, has me sort them out, dogs and cats, male and female.

Rhonda snorts when she sees all the male dogs on the roster. “People don’t learn,” she says.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Everyone thinks if you fix a male dog it will lower his aggression, but most of the biters are female. It’s basic instinct to protect their own womb. You see it in all animals—the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance.

Like her father before her, who abandoned the family when she was a kid, Alex Craft has violent tendencies. Unlike Daddy Dearest, however, what piques Alex’s rage is injustice: bullying, animal abuse, rape jokes, and violence (particularly that of a sexual nature). If her father had stayed, it’s entirely possible that they would have come to blows, since he sometimes seemed one frayed nerve away from wife beating territory. But Alex saw him as a kindred spirit, and in his absence, she has no one to relate to or confide in. No one to teach her how to channel her rage in a productive way.

Alex’s older sister Anna helped to keep her wolf caged. When Anna was murdered, Alex unlocked the door.

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Book Review: Shallow Graves, Kali Wallace (2016)

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Horror With a Heart

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including rape culture.)

Mom and Dad would be so disappointed. They had always told us there was no such thing as ghosts.

There’s something Karen Garrow once said about the fate of the universe. It was on one of her television shows, an episode I watched a dozen times on the basement TV. All of us, she said, all of us and all of everything that had ever existed and ever would exist, it was all made up of matter that formed in the very first moments of the universe, and it would all last until the very end. The atoms would decay, the particles would break apart, everything would disintegrate and shatter until it was unrecognizable – too degraded – but that would take so many billions and billions of years we didn’t even have words for time scales that large. Everything had come from the same hot explosion and everything would end in the same empty darkness. It had nothing to do with what we believed or what we wanted or how desperately we needed to reassure ourselves that the brief moment in which we lived meant anything at all. None of it would matter in the end.

And Karen smiled her playful smile, and she said, “But it isn’t the end yet. It matters now, everything we have, for as long as we can hold onto it.”

I was so fucking tired of men deciding whether or not I got to go on existing for another day.

One minute, seventeen-year-old Breezy Lin is at a high school party; the next, she wakes up in a shallow grave, in a vacant house just a few blocks from her house, a creepy man haunted by a creepier shadow eagerly digging her free. She reaches for him, pulls…and something in him snaps. The coroner’s report will list the cause of death as a heart attack, but Breezy killed him. Just like he killed that family of four, gathered around a dinner table, so many years ago.

A year has passed since her death, and during this time Breezy has morphed into something unnatural. Raised by magic – and the deaths of thousands of birds, every single one within a two-mile radius of her grave – Breezy is a revenant. An animated corpse, resurrected from death to hunt the living. Breezy can spot killers, who wear their guilt like a cloak; their sin calls to hear, awakens her hunger, and after she eats, she will carry their ghoulish memories with her, always. Unable to go home, Breezy starts hitchhiking across the country, seeking vengeance for other murdered souls.

But not for her. Never for her, because Breezy has no memories of her death. Her murder remains a mystery.

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