Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)

Friday, August 4th, 2017

Weary, Cheeky, and (Maybe? Just a Wee Bit?) Wise

four out of five stars

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

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

It’s amazing how much damage one penis can do.

Tom Barren is an outlier, though not in a good way: he’s a ne’er do well, living in paradise. His is a world of flying cars that can pilot themselves. Of food synthesizers and clothing recyclers. Urban planning taken to outrageous levels, with interlocking buildings, fantastical skyscapes, and massive biosphere preserves. Patches that monitor and adjust your blood alcohol content (“booze cruise”). Android sex dolls and interactive storytelling. Complete gender equality (!). Corporations that actually strive to improve consumers’ quality of life, rather than marketing cheap, useless junk just to turn a profit (!!!#$#@^).

Sounds like the stuff of fiction, right? Except all this really did happen, thanks to the Goettreider Engine and the unlimited clean energy it generated by harnessing the movement of the Earth.

This was the world we were meant to live in. That is, until our narrator bumbled into his father’s time machine and accidentally sabotaged Lionel Goettreider’s infamous 1965 experiment, thus altering the trajectory of history – right before the fail safe protocols boomeranged his sorry ass home. Only when he woke up, it was in our crappy world, complete with global conflicts, mass species extinctions, accelerating climate change, and (presumably) a looming election that would put a reality teevee buffoon in the White House.

Somewhat ironically, Tom’s life changes for the better: in this reality, he goes by John. Rather than being a disappointment to his genius father, he’s a successful architect. And, oh yeah, his mother is still alive!

Can Tom somehow reverse the course of history and set things right? Does he even want to?

All Our Wrong Todays is a fun and satisfying time travel romp that’s got a few tricks up its thermal stranded sleeve. The wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff is highly enjoyable – I especially loved learning about Tom’s world – though it is a lot to keep straight by story’s end. (But this is kind of par for the course.) The Tom/John and Penelope/Penny plot line reminded me a little of Blake Crouch’s time travel/alternate reality tale, 2016’s Dark Matter, but the two are completely different beasts: All Our Wrong Todays is a little more absurd and tongue-in-cheek. The balance of humor here is pretty much perfect here, imho.

As for the narrator, you either kinda-sorta like him or you hate him. Tom is your typical mediocre straight white dude, with one key difference: he’s well aware of and will readily admit to his mediocrity. He harbors no delusions of grandeur or self-entitlement. He’s a fuckup, and he knows it. He’s trying to do better but dammit, it’s hard work!

Honestly, all the self-denigration rather ingratiated Tom to me: sometimes it was like Mastai was holding up a mirror. A distorted funhouse mirror that exacerbates all your flaws and creates new ones where none existed, but still. I could relate to Tom more than I’d care to admit. If you’ve got self-esteem issues, you might just empathize.

I wasn’t too keen on the rape scene, mostly because it felt a little too much like a tool, a plot device to steer the story in one direction or another. The word “rape” doesn’t even appear in the book, even as Mastai stresses that what happened to Penny was A Very Bad Thing. The thing is, I suspect that a significant percentage of readers won’t even label this as a sexual assault, which is why it’s so important to clearly and emphatically identify it as such. (“Attack” is the harshest term used.)

As an aside, the food synthesizers must mean that all the food in Tom’s world is vegan, or could easily be made so …

… right?

(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: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (2017)

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Octavia E. Butler Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment (Finally!)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

Inventive, hypnotic, unflinchingly honest – such is the work of Octavia Estelle Butler, and in Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, the grand dame of science fiction finally receives the graphic novel treatment she so desperately deserves.

First published in 1979, Kindred tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported to the antebellum south. She finds herself on a Maryland plantation, circa 1812(-ish), placed directly in the path of a drowning boy named Rufus. Over a period of weeks (her time) and years (his), Rufus will unconsciously summon Dana to his side whenever his life is endangered. Though she’s often tempted to let the selfish young man – and heir to the Weylin plantation – die, to do so would threaten her very existence. Rufus is Dana’s distant ancestor, and her life depends on the continuation of his. That is, at least until Grandmother Hagar Weylin has a chance to be born.

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There’s a well-known nerdy maxim (or trope, if you prefer) that time travel isn’t safe for black people, or women, or [insert your marginalized group here]. Time travel is “exclusively a white [male] privilege,” as Louis CK put it. Kindred manifests this principle in ways both chilling and potent. Dana uses her time in the past to try and change things for the better, if only in tiny increments: she surreptitiously teaches some of the enslaved children to read, and attempts to steer her great-grandfather in a more enlightened direction. Yet history is more likely to change Dana than vice versa, as she notes with shock and horror as she finds herself growing accustomed to the daily cruelties of slavery.

Likewise, when Dana’s white husband Kevin is left stranded out of time – for a whopping five years, as she later learns – Dana is frightened of who or what she might find upon her return. How might an era steeped in racism and misogyny stain the man she loves?

Kindred is one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite writers. The prospect of an adaptation left me both nervous and excited, which is par for the course when it comes to literature that’s burrowed its way into my heart and mind. But Damian Duffy’s translation of the work is masterful; he mostly captures the spirit and tone of the original, and deftly condenses the novel into a comic book format.

(I say mostly because, let’s face it, Octavia Butler is in a class of her own. The original work is infinitely more harrowing, but the adaptation is still pretty great. If you haven’t yet read Kindred, you owe it to yourself to start today. If you have, this will definitely leave you clamoring for a re-read.)

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From the first panel, which ominously proclaims “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” John Jennings’s artwork is moody and atmospheric.

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Many of the palettes are stripped down, with two or three colors dominating many of the scenes.

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He employs some pretty neat tricks, such as placing close-ups of Dana and Rufus side-by-side to emphasize both their opposition and interconnectedness,

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and underscoring Dana’s trips through time and space with dramatic changes in color. Some of the drawings, especially of Rufus and his father Tom, are a little rough around the edges – which struck me as perfectly apt, given the circumstances. Dana, on the other hand, is a near-perfect mirror image of how I envisioned her.

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Even the design of the book is breathtaking. The book cover features an almost gothic landscape of dark purple trees against a black sky and lavender moon. On the back side, the Weylin house beckons. The first and last pages are splashes of red with streaks of pink; Dana, Isaac, or Alice’s skin after a brutal lashing.

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Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation is a wonderful homage to Octavia Butler and the world she built, explored, and ultimately dismantled in Kindred. I hope it’s also a hint of what’s to come: from Kindred to the Parables duology, Lilith’s Brood to the Patternmaster series, Butler’s novels and short stories are all but begging for second lives on screens both big and small, panels in comic books and fan conventions the world over. May Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s work introduce a whole new generation of fans to this extraordinary writer.

(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: Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges (2017)

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

oh h*ck.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review. Trigger warning for allusions to rape, child abuse, domestic violence, animal abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.)

I first discovered Nicole Georges’s artwork nestled within the pages of Bitch Magazine. Instantaneously smitten, my adoration only grew when I learned that Georges was a vegan who referred to her furry sidekick Beija as her “canine life partner.” Her 2010 Invincible Summer Queer Animal Odyssey calendar still rests in the plastic protective covering it arrived in. (Don’t worry, I take it out every once in awhile for much-deserved admiration.) I enjoyed her debut graphic novel, Invincible Summer: An Anthology, well enough, though haven’t quite gotten around to reading Calling Dr. Laura. Even so, I can say with 99.9% certainty that Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home is her best work yet.

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My Mags, more noodle than dog.
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At the tender age of sixteen, Georges adopted a dog as a gift for her then-boyfriend and first love, Tom. The ensuing back-and-forth demonstrates why you should never give a dog as a gift: despite clearing it ahead of time with Tom’s mother, Tom’s stepfather did not sign off on the deal. Nicole’s mom reluctantly allowed her to keep the dog, but Beija’s many behavioral problems quickly wore her patience thin.

Beija harbored an intense dislike/fear of men, children, and veterinarians; did not enjoy being picked up or touched on her sides; did not suffer invasions of space lightly; and frequently antagonized/was victimized by other dogs. She was temperamental and required patience, compassion, and understanding – much like her new human.

And so, in a situation so weird and improbable that it seems like the plot of a bad Fox sitcom, you have both sets of parents conspiring to push their teenagers out of the nest and into a seedy apartment, just so they could have a Beija-free home: “Starting now, this gift would change the course of both our lives. […] All of this in order to keep the dog. As if we’d had a teen pregnancy.”

While Nicole’s relationship with Tom would soon implode, her partnership with Bejia proved to be for keeps. Through unhealthy relationships, annoying roommates, professional upheavals, and the trials and tribulations of growing up and discovering oneself, there was one constant in Nicole life. And if she just so happened to have four legs, a soft tummy, and spoke in a series of barks, whimpers, and tail wags, so what? Family is what you make of it.

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Fetch is Rennie-approved.
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Most of the blurbs I’ve read so far focus on the coming-of-age aspect of Fetch (e.g., it’s not “just” a book about a dog). And while it is indeed that – after all, at the time of her death, Beija had lived with Nicole for almost exactly half of Nicole’s life – to me Fetch is, above all else, a love letter to and everlasting celebration of a best friend. A soul mate. A patronus, to quote Georges. (A daemon, in my vocab.) The dogs, they will always come first. PRIORITIES.

There’s this one Mutts comic I love: It’s a lovely day, and Ozzie is walking Earl on a long leash. A little heart bobs in a thought bubble above the human’s head. To the right is a quote by one W.R. Purche: “Everyone thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong.”

To borrow a phrase from an online friend (Marji Beach, who works at another awesome animal sanctuary called Animal Place), it’s clear that Nicole considers Beija the best worst dog ever. Their love for one another shines through every panel and page, making the inevitable goodbye that much more heartbreaking. It took me a full week to read the book, just because I couldn’t bear to face the last forty pages.

I think it’s safe to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to Fetch, and animal lovers will take something a little extra special away from their experience. When I say “animal lovers,” I mean both in the conventional sense – i.e., those who care for culturally appropriate animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits – as well as those of use who extend that circle of compassion to all nonhumans. There are precious few comic books that I could call overtly vegan – only two come to mind, namely Matt Miner’s Liberator and The Animal Man by Grant Morrison – and I’m happy to add Fetch to the list. While Georges only drops the v*-word (vegetarian or vegan) a handful of times, she does introduce readers to animal rights issues in a gentle, subtle way. If you’re not on the lookout (and I always am!), you might just miss it.

Though all the better to sneak into your subconscious, worming and niggling and prodding you to think about the face on your plate or the skin on your back … to see them as someones rather than somethings, more alike than different from the dog snuggled up next to you or fast asleep at your feet.

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Full disclosure: In between bites of spider trappings, Rennie assisted me in writing this review.
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I especially loved Bejia’s manifesto, “I am not a stuffed animal,” which surreptitiously introduces readers to the idea of intersectionality: “It’s kind of like feminism, but for dogs.” That line (along with countless others) literally had me squealing for joy. Little Beija-Boo – is she a shar pei-doxy mix? corgi and beagle? who knows! – is adorable and tubby, even as she’s telling you to back the fuck off.

I could go on and on – about the many weird parallels between Georges’s life and mine; about how I see pieces of Bejia in my own dogs; about the many ways, both large and small, that my loved ones and I have adapted our everyday routines and very existences to better accommodate our four-legged family members – but suffice it to say that Fetch is a must-read for anyone who’s ever loved (and lost) a dog (though you may want to wait until the loss isn’t quite so fresh – the ending is freaking brutal).

Ditto: anyone who just likes good storytelling or quirky artwork. I know I’ve focused on the nonhumans for most of my review – hey, that’s how I do – but even those rare scenes sans doggos are beautifully rendered and engaging.

In summary: Fetch is easily my favorite book of 2017 thus far, graphic novel or no.

Aaaaand just in case the previous 1,000 words didn’t convince you, here are a few of my favorite panels to help seal the deal.

(That last one? So charming that it displaced foster doggy as the background on my desktop. Temporarily, but still.)

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Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

Monday, July 10th, 2017

Enjoy with a slice of red velvet cake.

four out of five stars

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

While there were other multiple homicides during those years, none quite got the nation’s attention like ours. We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood. As such, we were each in turn treated like something rare and exotic. A beautiful bird that spreads its bright wings only once a decade. Or that flower that stinks like rotting meat whenever it decides to bloom.

I understand that urge for more information, that longing for details. But in this case, I’m fine without them. I know what happened at Pine Cottage. I don’t need to remember exactly how it happened.

Quincy Carpenter: marketing grunt, food blog maven, massacre survivor.

Quincy was just a sophomore in college when it happened. She and her five best friends – boyfriend Craig, BFF Janelle, and friends Betz, Amy, and Rodney; collectively known as the East Hall Crew – were renting a cabin in the Poconos, celebrating Janelle’s birthday, when Joe Hannen stumbled into their lives. Janelle, being the wild and carefree member of the group, invited him to stay for dinner. Since she was the birthday girl, she got to call the shots.

You kind of wonder whether things would have went down differently had they known that Joe wasn’t a stranded motorist, but rather a recent escapee from the nearby Blackthorn Psychiatric asylum. (This sounds hella ableist, and there’s certainly that potential; but the many plot twists don’t necessarily play into the stereotype that mentally ill people are inherently violent, and vice versa.)

By the end of the night, everyone would be dead, save for Quincy. Almost before the blood could dry, the media nicknamed Quincy the Final Girl – one of three, at least in recent memory. Though Quincy had no desire to be defined by tragedy, she would forever be lumped in with fellow survivors: the reclusive Samantha Boyd (Nightlight Inn), and do-gooder Lisa Milner before her (a sorority house in Indiana).

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Book Review: Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century: The F Word Project by Maureen Burdock (2015)

Friday, June 30th, 2017

To quote Trina Robbins in the Forward: Let’s start a movement!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, McFarland. Trigger warning for violence against girls and women, including rape.)

— 4.5 stars —

There are so many words that come to mind when I think of Maureen Burdock’s Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century – and, yes, many of them are f-words: Fierce, fiery, and fun. Fabulous. Force, as in one to be reckoned with. Feminist, naturally. But also intersectional and inclusive. In the spirit of solidarity and sisterhood. With music in the cafés at night/And revolution in the air. (Borrowing from yet another folk singer.)

Beginning with the Author’s Note, Feminist Fables sent chills dancing up and down my arms.

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The five stories contained within its pages show women – of all ages, ethnicities, religions, sizes, and classes – working to combat misogyny in their communities and make the world a better place. In “Marta & the Missing,” a karate instructor named Marta decides to do what the police (including her own father) will not: hunt down the perpetrators of femicide in Juárez.

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“Maisa & the Most Daring Muslim Women” features a djinn who uses her culinary skills to save her daughter Lale from an honor killing. But once the young woman is made invisible, Maisa faces a new challenge: how to help her daughter be seen again.

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The heroine of “Mona and the Little Smile” is just a child – one who uses her art to transform her reality, and those of other children like her: namely, victims of rape.

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Meanwhile, Mumbi trains her literal butt off in order to score an upset at the Berlin marathon in “Mumbi & the Long Run.” Not for fame or glory, but for the cash prize – which she hopes will save her cousin Esther from female genital mutilation/cutting.

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The collection ends with a personal story written by Halima Mohamed Abdel Rahman, a woman who was subjected to FGM at the age of six – and went on to attend college and become a freelance journalist and activist.

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Book Review: Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma, & Valentine De Landro

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

“Lean in, can you hear it?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for plot points involving rape, misogyny, and transphobia.)

About a month ago Goodreads started sending me emails every time I marked a book read: “You finished Heart-Shaped Box. What’s next?” Usually I just send them to the trash without a second thought; just another gimmick to increase engagement, you know? But the one for Bitch Planet? Kind of gave me pause.

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What comes next after that dope ass ending? I NEED TO KNOW! As for ideas on what we can do in the meantime? I’m down (though I somehow doubt that, say, volunteering as a clinic escort or showing up to your state capitol building in full Handmaid regalia will make Goodreads’ top ten suggestions).

So I really dug the first volume, Extraordinary Machine, when it came out in October 2015. I think I even pre-ordered it, something I rarely do, on the strength of DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly (which was released earlier that year, and I cannot recommend strongly enough). It was smart and unapologetic and feminist as fuck, with a diverse and believable cast of characters. (Black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women – a disparity that’s only like to worsen under the Protectorate.)

When I reread Extraordinary Machine prior to diving into the second volume, my love for it only grew*: in today’s political climate, wherein nearly 63 million of my fellow citizens voted a reality tv buffoon and admitted sexual assailant into the White House (due in no small part to a backlash against the first black President in addition to sexism and misogyny), dystopias like Bitch Planet seem more trenchant than ever.

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And President Bitch? Well, it’s even better than its predecessor. (With a name like that, was there any doubt?) Fittingly, the volume starts off with fallen hero Meiko’s backstory – which spans a full issue and includes a prominent trigger warning for rape. Equal parts heart-rending and amazing, it left me in awe of the entire Maki clan – father Makoto in particular.

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The narrative then picks up more or less where Extraordinary Machine left off, only shit doesn’t go down quite how you’d expect. Kam finds who/what she’s looking for (how did I miss that foreshadowing in Volume 1!?), the N.C.s realize they’re not the only “auxiliary compliance outpost” on their ship, and we meet President Bitch – a black woman who’s been labeled a terrorist by the (largely white, all-male) Protectorate. Naturally.

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Things go sideways before you can say “Illegitimi non carborundum,” and Volume 2 ends with a challenge, and a promise: as long as the women of earth and space have each other’s backs, the resistance lives. All hail President Bitch!

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Book Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo (2017)

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

An insightful and sometimes uncanny story about relationships, trauma, and the darkest corners of our secret selves.

four out of five stars

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

There were still little green ribbons covering Lisa’s locker, but every morning some would have fallen down overnight, scattered like tiny leaves, and she would pick them up and toss them into the bottom of her own locker. How long would they let that locker, 64C, sit there, unused? How long did missing-person ribbons stay up? Was there an expiration date, some point where they officially became irrelevant, a day when the fall of Lisa Bellow became the winter of someone else, as Evan had predicted from the start?

“You’re popular,” Jules said. “I can’t believe it. Of all of us, I didn’t think it would be you first.”

Maybe they were all bitches, Claire thought. Maybe that was all there was to be in eighth grade. Maybe you didn’t have any choice. Maybe your only choice was figuring out what kind of bitch you wanted to be.

One crisp October afternoon, thirteen-year-old Meredith Oliver stops by the Deli Barn on the way home from school, to treat herself to a root beer soda for a job well done on her algebra test. Ahead of her in line stands her arch nemesis, Parkway North Middle School’s resident Mean Girl, Lisa Bellow. Her presence so unnerves Meredith that she almost turned tail and ran – that is, until Lisa caught her eye through the door. She couldn’t show Lisa any weakness, not with so much at stake.

As the sandwich farmer* is taking Lisa’s order (overly complicated, natch), a masked man strides in and robs the cashier at gunpoint. He forces Meredith and Lisa to lay down on the sticky floor of the restaurant while he walks the cashier to the back of the store, in search of a safe that doesn’t exist. When he comes back – alone – he forces Lisa to her feet and leaves with her. Traumatized, Meredith stays on the floor for another eleven minutes (“eleven glorious minutes”), until another customer walks in and find her. Even then, it takes a group of paramedics and “a needle full of Thorazine to peel her from her cherished spot.”

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a strange and wonderful book. It’s about how Meredith copes with the trauma of the robbery and kidnapping, yes; but hers is not the only trauma we bear witness to. Meredith’s mother, Claire; her seventeen-year-old brother Ethan; Lisa’s mother Colleen; and Lisa’s friends Becca, Abby, and Amanda – all of them are working through their own “stuff,” not all of it related to Lisa’s disappearance. Yet the ripples of her kidnapping and likely murder reverberate through all their lives.

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Book Review: The Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel (2017)

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and violence against women, including rape, as well as suicide. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to keep it as vague as possible.)

“Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”

My feelings for Allegra were never complicated. It didn’t matter if she acted crazy or made me angry or smothered me with devotion. In my whole life, she was the only person I simply loved. And I left her anyway.

THEN

Camilla Roanoke’s suicide doesn’t come as a surprise to her fifteen-year-old daughter Lane. For as long as she can remember, her mother has struggled with depression – not to mention alcoholism, mood swings, and blinding bouts of rage. Some days the tears come so fast and thick that they threaten to drown them both. So when she’s found dead in their NYC bathroom, bathrobe belt wrapped around her neck, Lane is more or less numb. Yet the cryptic note Camilla left behind – I tried to wait. I’m sorry. – puzzles Lane. The news that she has family – her mother’s parents, Yates and Lillian Roanoke – who aren’t merely willing to take Lane, but actually want her? Well, that’s the biggest shock of all.

Camilla rarely spoke of her life on the family estate, Roanoke, situated among the prairies and wheat fields of Osage Flats, Kansas. And there’s a damn good reason for it – one that Lane will discover during summer she turns sixteen. One hundred days of being a “Roanoke Girl” was all she could take before she fled Kansas – hopefully for good.

NOW

Eleven years later, a late-night phone call from her grandfather summons Lane back to Roanoke. Back home. Her cousin Allegra is missing, and Lane is determined to find out what happened. It’s the least she can do, for leaving Allegra behind all those years ago.

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Book Review: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry (2017)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

A difficult yet necessary read.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence related to slavery, including racism and rape.)

This book is written in a historical moment that historians have not yet named—a moment when black persons are disproportionately being killed and their deaths recorded. We witness the destruction of their lives via cell phones and dash and body cameras. The current voyeuristic gaze contains a level of brutality grounded in slavery. I call this moment the historic spectacle of black death: a chronicling of racial violence, a foreshadowing of medical exploitation, a rehearsing of ritualized lynching that took place in the postslavery era. African Americans and their allies respond by rejecting the devaluation of their bodies with the phrase #BlackLivesMatter. This book, however, argues that the historical record is clear: #BlackBodiesMatter.

Dear wife, they cannot sell the rose
Of love, that in my bosom glows.
Remember, as your tears may start,
They cannot sell th’ immortal part!

(A poem carved by an enslaved black man named Mingo, on the beam of his cell, as he awaited trial and execution.)

Whether it’s some rando on a plantation tour, or a nationally syndicated talk show host, it always boggles my mind when people insist that some slaves were treated well: “like members of the family.” I guess this means they weren’t flogged on the daily, forced to live in unheated shacks, or forcibly bred? Idk, given that women and children were largely considered the property of their husbands and fathers; the first case of child abuse wasn’t prosecuted in the United States until 1874; and marital rape wasn’t a thing in all 50 states until 1993, forgive me if I don’t find this argument terribly compelling. But I digress.

I may have received the same sanitized, whitewashed public high school education as everyone else – but it doesn’t take an especially critical thinker to realize that, at the end of the day, slaves were property. In the eyes of the law, they were more somethings than someones: more like a television set or CD player (or, to use more contemporary examples, a banjo or a milk pan) than a human being. Some enslavers may have been less cruel than others, sure, but that doesn’t negate the power differential one bit. To borrow an example from this text, kindly patriarch Dr. Carson may have provided medical care for his slaves, and worried about their well-being after his death, but if he had had a bad day, there was nothing preventing him from taking his frustrations out on one of them. As his property, it was well within his right to punch, whip, stab, shoot, starve, dismember, rape, or molest them. And therein lays the problem: when you dehumanize and objectify others, especially but not only by relegating them to the status of property, it excuses any and every abuse imaginable. Slaves exist at their captors’ mercy.

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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.

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Book Review: The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg (2016)

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Quite possibly the most beautiful graphic novel I’ve ever read. ALL THE STARS AND MOONS.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for threats of rape.)

They luxuriated sinfully in that most beautiful of all things: The written word.

All those stories you have told, all those wonderful stories…
They are nothing to OUR STORY. People will tell it in years to come…
And they will say, that was a story about Love.
And about two brave girls who wouldn’t take shit from anyone.

Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it.
Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, in a land called Early Earth, there lived two star-crossed lovers: Cherry, a fair and lovely young woman from the Empire of Migdal Bavel, and her maid, Hero.

Despite her vaguely masculine name, Hero was a young woman as well – and a servant and runaway, at that – both conditions which conspired against their love. Cherry’s father insisted she marry a man who could provide for her; and so, after dodging his demands for one blissful summer (spent in the arms of Hero, of course), Cherry finally acquiesced. Luckily, Hero was able to accompany Cherry to the castle of her new husband, Jerome, where she stayed on as Cherry’s maid – and her secret lover. Like many of the men in Migdal Bavel, Jerome was a rather dim-witted and arrogant misogynist, you see, so Hero and Cherry were able to outwit him with minimal effort.

And then one day Jerome made a foolish bet with his friend Manfred, a man a little less stupid but a whole lot crueler than himself.

2016-12-28 - 100 Nights of Hero - 0004 [flickr]

If Manfred could seduce his ‘obedient and faithful’ (*snort!*) wife Cherry, then Manfred would win Jerome’s castle. If not, Manfred’s castle would become Jerome’s. Jerome would feign a business trip, giving Manfred a full one hundred days to execute his fiendish plot.

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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.

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Audiobook Review: Afterward, Jennifer Mathieu (2016)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

A surprisingly gentle story about trauma, recovery – and finding support in the most unexpected of places.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape/childhood sexual abuse.)

Caroline

Maybe it’s Jason McGinty’s weed or my own desperate, clawing attempt to try to do something to help Dylan, but I get an idea. The beginning of one, anyway. Something hazy and weird and probably screwed up.

Ethan

Groovy notices the brush in my hand and flips over, squirming in excitement. His tail even wags. I’d have to be a pretty big asshole not to brush this dog right now.

Eleven-year-old Ethan Jorgenson is out riding his bike one warm Texas afternoon when a car runs him off the road. Before he can even process what’s happening, Ethan finds himself crammed on the floor of a truck, surrounded by cigarette butts and Snickers wrappers, a gun pressed to his head. For the next four years, Ethan is held captive by a middle-aged man named Martin Gulliver.

Though Ethan’s abduction is big news in Dove Lake, the police have zero leads to go on. That is, until Marty snatches another boy, eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson, meant to be Ethan’s “replacement.” Shortly before he went missing, Dylan’s neighbor noticed the boy walking around outside, alone – which is unusual, since Dylan has low-functioning autism and never goes out unsupervised. Around the same time, she spotted an unfamiliar black pickup truck with severe damage to the rear bumper. The police traced the vehicle to Marty’s workplace in Houston, a hundred miles away; when they approached him, he slipped out the back of the restaurant and shot himself in the head. When they searched Gulliver’s apartment, they were shocked to find not one, but two missing boys: Dylan and Ethan.

This story is about what happens afterward: the slow and painful recovery that comes after an unimaginable trauma.

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Book Review: Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny (2016)

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Entertaining and thought-provoking, this novella left me wanting more. (Sooooo much more!)

five out of five stars

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

“All I wanted was to make something small and bright and good, something that lasted a little while, a little while longer than I did. All I wanted was to push back against the darkness just a little bit. To live in the cracks in capitalism with the people I care about, just for a little while. But it turns out I can’t even have that. And now I just want to burn shit down.”

It’s the turn of the century – the 21st, to be exact – and humanity has finally discovered the fountain of youth. It comes in the form of a little blue pill that will cost you $200 a pop on the black market; a little less, if you’re one of the lucky few who has insurance. Most don’t, as this “weaponization of time” has only exacerbated class inequality.

Only the wealthiest citizens can afford life-extension drugs; regular folks deemed “important to society” – scientists, artists, musicians, the occasional writer – may receive a sponsorship to continue their work, but ultimately they live and age and die at the whim of those more powerful than they. Show a modicum of concern for the working class, and you just might find your sponsorship revoked.

Alex, Nina, Margo, Fidget, and Jasper are a group of artist/activists living in a dilapidated, mouse- and mold-infested flat in the underside of Oxford city. They work day jobs where they can find them, but their real passion is playing at Robin Hood. A few times a week, they load up their food truck with cheese sammies or mystery stews made of reclaimed food, and distribute free meals to Oxford’s neediest citizens. At the bottom of each foodstuff is a happy meal surprise: a little blue pill, most likely stolen. One per person, no second helpings.

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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.

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

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Book Review: Yesternight, Cat Winters (2016)

Friday, October 14th, 2016

Supernatural horror + timeless misogyny = a compelling creepshow.

four out of five stars

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

Dreamt I to-day the dream of yesternight,
Sleep ever feigning one evolving theme,
— Of my two lives which should I call the dream?

—George Santayana, “Sonnet V,” 1896

Alice Lind,
Alice Lind,
Took a stick and beat her friend.
Should she die?
Should she live?
How many beatings did she give?

If I hadn’t been a psychologist—if I didn’t find the idea of reincarnation so absurd—I would have wanted Violet Sunday to exist.

A female mathematical genius.

A Victorian female mathematical genius.

What an absolutely delicious idea.

A school psychologist, Alice Lind spends her days traversing the western United States, administering psychological and intelligence tests to children and advising the Department of Education how it can better help students who are being under-served in their communities. While the work certainly goes to Alice’s desire to help kids – especially troubled ones like her younger self – too often she feels trapped, suffocated, and bored.

After obtaining her Master’s degree, Alice applied to multiple doctoral programs, with the hope of one day studying human memory – and its malleability and resilience, particularly where repressed memories are concerned. Despite her obvious skill and passion, Alice was rebuffed at every turn, only to watch her less qualified peers move on to bigger and better things. The year is 1925, you see, a time when higher education for women was considered a quirky anomaly at best – and a sinful rejection of one’s “God given” role as a woman at worst.

Our first glimpse of Miss Lind comes as she steps off the train and into her latest two-week placement at Gordon Bay, Oregon – by the special request of the schoolteacher, Miss Simpkin. Among her pupils is a precocious seven-year-old named Janie O’Daire (to whom Miss Simpkin is also known as “Aunt Tillie”), an exceptionally bright student and apparent math prodigy, who seems to experience memories of another life. A past life.

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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).

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Book Review: Last Seen Leaving, Caleb Roehrig (2016)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and rape. This review contains a spoiler in the form of Flynn’s secret – but it’s revealed so early on that it’s not much of a spoiler, imho.)

“I won’t be your safeguard or your excuse or your problem anymore,” she spat suddenly, venomously. “Either admit the truth, or find a new place to hide, because I’m done!”

Her feet pounded across the shadowy hayloft, then descended the ladder, and then crossed the barn underneath me. I heard the door creak open, and caught a glimpse of her glowing blond hair as she jogged from the barn back into the trees, heading toward the meadow.

It was the last time I saw her. Those were the last words she spoke to me.

One crisp October afternoon, fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty returns home after school, only to find a cop car parked conspicuously outside. Flynn’s girlfriend January McConville has been missing for nearly a week, and Flynn may have been the last person to see her. As if that fact isn’t damning enough, Flynn claims not to have known about January’s disappearance: since her mother and stepfather forcibly transferred her to Dumas, a private school for rich kids located on the other side of town, they’d been growing apart. In fact, January broke up with him right before she vanished. (Strike three!)

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