Book Review: [Dis]Connected: Poems and Stories of Connection and Otherwise edited by Michelle Halket (2018)

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Uneven, yet ultimately worth it.

three out of five stars

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

“There is a story about a man who watched me bathe nude and was so overcome with adoration and desire that he approached me. They say I turned him into a deer before he could even speak and watched his hunting dogs rip at his flesh. Men have spent thousands of years romanticizing their unwanted advances, their assaults. They have spent just as long demonizing women for their anger and their retribution.”

– “The Unholy Wild,” Trista Mateer

Mama raised us on her own, a house full of girls, though it wasn’t really a house. We lived up on the third floor and every summer when the heat would rise, we would fight like animals over the bathroom for a cool shower and a few moments of privacy. And when the door-banging and screaming stopped and one of us was nursing bruised knuckles, Mama would call us out into the living room. “I am raising a house full of girls,” she’d say, her voice tired. And the three of us would look down at our feet, quiet and sorry. Because Mama only ever called us girls when we had really fucked up.

Otherwise, she called us her babies, and she loved us even more than she was afraid for us.

– “Ultra,” Yena Sharma Purmasir

It’s a shame, really, how humans try to take the things they’re not allowed to have.

– “Small Yellow Cottage On The Shore,” Amanda Lovelace

So the concept behind this collection of poems and short stories, explained by editor Michelle Halket in the intro, is brimming with promise and intrigue:

The concept and theme of the book are of being connected. We seem to live in a hyper connected world, yet we increasingly hear stories of loneliness, isolation and disconnect. This book is about connecting poets with each other; connecting poetry with short fiction; and publishing stories about connection and/or a lack thereof. The premise was this: Each of the fully participating authors was to submit three poems adhering to this theme. These three poems would be assigned to a randomly chosen counterpart. That counterpart would select one of the poems and write a short story based on it.

Like most anthologies, though, the result is somewhat uneven: There are pieces I loved, adored, and cherished – poems and short works of fiction that will stick with me for days and weeks to come. Others were merely forgettable, and there were even one or two that I skimmed or skipped altogether. That said, the gems are shiny enough to make the mining worth it.

Let’s start with the premise. Whereas I expected (rightly or not) a focus on technology, and how it binds us together – and drives us apart – the theme of connection was approached in a much more general way. More often than not, “connection” was just a stand-in for relationships, and all their messy bits: love and loss, joy and grief, rebellion and oppression. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I had hoped for a collection with a sharper focus. You might feel otherwise.

The convention of further linking each piece together by repeating a line from the previous work, while an interesting idea, didn’t work for me in practice: rather than feeling organic, the lifted lines mostly had a clunky feel to them. I don’t think it helped that they appeared in bold to further draw attention to them. I think it would have been more fun to let the reader spot the bridges for herself, no?

As for the pieces themselves, I’ll be honest: I picked up [Dis]Connected for one reason and one reason only – because Amanda Lovelace’s name was connected to the project. And her contributions do not disappoint! Her poems are among my favorites; “A Book and Its Girl” is both playful and lovely, and “Sisters: A Blessing” hints at what’s in store for us with her third installment in the Women Are Some Kind of Magic series, The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One.

Ditto: “Small Yellow Cottage on The Shore,” in which a sea witch must defeat the scariest monsters of them all – entitled white men – in order to save the love of her life, a selkie kidnapped for the purposes of sex trafficking and forced marriage. Oh, and her long lost love, another selkie similarly victimized. (The only thing I didn’t love about this story? That they let the dudebros live. This isn’t a silly prank or harmless mistake, but rather organized, systemic rape. LET YOUR RETRIBUTION RAIN DOWN FROM THE SKY! SLAY THEM ALL! LET NO RAPIST DRAW ANOTHER EARTHLY BREATH!)

[Dis]Connected also introduced me to some new favorites: every word Yena Sharma Purmasir writes is magic, from her short story “Ultra,” to the poems “Things That Aren’t True” and “If My Aunt Was On Twitter @lovelydurbangirl.” Trista Mateer’s “The Unholy Wild” gives a voice to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, along with a girlfriend and (an ever narrowing) place in contemporary society. It is wild and beautiful and fiercely feminist; it’s no mystery why I pictured her as a topless Leslie Knope. Iain S. Thomas’s “Driving With Strangers” is alive with some of the most achingly beautiful imagery you’ll ever read, while “A Way To Leave” by R.H. Swaney and Liam Ryan’s “The Train” are the most wonderful kind of melancholy.

The only piece I actively disliked – had a visceral “oh gross!” reaction to, in point o’ facts – is “Where the Sea Meets the Sky” by Cyrus Parker. A #MeToo story told from the perspective of the (accidental? are we really supposed to read it that way?) rapist, it just felt wrong and unnecessary. Our culture is overflowing with this POV; what are we to gain from experiencing a “date rape” through the perpetrator’s eyes? Hard pass.

(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: To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham & Harper Lee (2018)

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

A faithful adaptation, for better or worse.

three out of four stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and racist violence.)

My feelings on this are conflicted and messy:

– How do you judge an adaptation of an existing work: on its own merits, or in its faithfulness to the source material? On the latter point, Fred Fordham’s adaptation is a definite success. His graphic novel adaptation is loyal to both the plot and tone of Harper Lee’s classic, and even plays on the nostalgia of the 1962 movie. Comic book Atticus is a dead ringer for Gregory Peck, and the Finch kids resemble their respective actors as well.

– My first experience with To Kill a Mockingbird was as a tween, well before I had to tools and knowledge to identify its more problematic aspects, chiefly the novel’s inherent racism. Revisiting the story as an adult, in a different format, was…jarring. Some of the racism is plainly evident, e.g., is it ever okay for a white writer to use the n-word, even if historically accurate? And isn’t it kind of gross for a story about Jim Crow racism and the lynching of a black man to center white voices? But there are so many layers to unpack, including liberal hero Atticus Finch’s racism. (If he existed today, Atticus might be one of people pleading for “civility” from both sides. Yuck.) I found myself cringing as much as tearing up.

And that’s kind of the crux of the matter, right? No doubt To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel will evoke all sorts of nostalgia (coupled with an irrational desire to protect and defend a cherished piece of one’s childhood), especially in white Americans; but don’t let that prevent you from engaging with the book critically.

fwiw, I’d love to see a reimagining of Harper Lee’s story told from Calpurnia or Helen Robinson’s perspective.

(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: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018)

Friday, December 28th, 2018

The end comes not with a bang, but with a whimper.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.)

— 2.5 stars —

“You know, when young people come over, sometimes some of them talk about the end of the world,” Aileen said, breaking the silence and snapping Evan out of his woolgathering. He looked up from the plaid pattern on the vinyl tablecloth to the old woman’s face.

“They say that this is the end of the world. The power’s out and we’ve run out of gas and no one’s come up from down south. They say the food is running out and that we’re in danger. There’s a word they say too — ah . . . pock . . . ah . . .”

“Apocalypse?”

“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world.”

Moon of the Crusted Snow starts out with a promising premise: how would the apocalypse play out on a remote Anishinaabe reservation in Canada, where food scarcity is common, connection to the grid is new and sometimes unreliable, and communication with the rest of the world is reliant on technology? Where the winter is long and punishing, especially without modern conveniences like electric heat and grocery stores? Throw in a migratory stream of white refugees looking to escape a failed society on land to which they’d previously banished this continent’s original habitants, and I’m in.

The result is actually kind of dull. The end of the world comes slowly, indeed. Told from the perspective of Evan Whitesky, a youngish father and employee of public works, the story unravels gradually, as the rez first loses satellite service (read: internet and tv), followed by cell service, satellite phones, and finally the power. Two of the nation’s young men, attending college in Gibson, return with eerie tales of a city abandoned. Then a stranger named Justin Scott, a sketchy paramilitary type, follows, effectively dividing the reservation into two camps.

This should be where the tension heightens – but really, most of the societal breakdown we see is of the bureaucratic variety. When people inevitably start freezing to death in the streets – and, later, their homes – I started to think that Scott’s ulterior motives would be unveiled…but no. The final reveal is, well, weird. Scott and his adherents are stealing bodies from the makeshift morgue and feasting on the dead. It’s almost presented in a way that…suggests the Anishinaabe are the only cultures in which cannibalism is taboo? Like Scott tricked his hapless followers into violating this sacred Anishinaabe code or something? But, like, white people aren’t rushing to eat human flesh either. That’s why movies like Alive hold such a curious fascination. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, and the cannibalism is just code for laziness, or taking the easy way out, in which case, sure. White privilege at its basest.

Either way, I almost DNF’ed it multiple times. But because I hate giving bad reviews, let me end on a positive note: Rice’s narrative provides a much-needed insight into reservation life.

(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: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

If you liked Dexter

five out of five stars

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

“Femi makes three, you know. Three, and they label you a serial killer.”

My phone lights up and I glance at it. Ayoola. It is the third time she has called, but I am not in the mood to talk to her. Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely, or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.

The first time her sister Ayoola killed a man, Korede was certain that it was in self-defense. The third time around, Korede has her doubts. But, when summoned to the scene of the crime, Korede dutifully helps Ayoola scour the blood from the carpet and dispose of the body – because that’s what big sisters do, right? Take care of their younger siblings…even if they just so happen to be knife-wielding sociopaths.

But when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade Otumu, a kind and handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works as a nurse, Korede is forced to choose sides. Will she save the object of her unrequited love, or stick by Ayoola’s side? Things get even crazier when “the patient in room 313” – a comatose man to whom Korede thought it would be safe to spill her guts – unexpectedly wakes up. What does he remember of her bizarre confessions, if anything? And just what is the story behind Ayoola’s weapon of choice?

At first glance, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a gender- and race-bent version of Dexter, set in Lagos, Nigera, and told from sister Deb’s POV. AND I AM SO HERE FOR IT. My Sister has a similar dark and twisted sense of humor that’s simply delightful. Like, Korede ought to do stand-up on her nights off.

Yet while the murdery stuff does propel the plot forward, at its core My Sister is a story about family (but then, so too is Dexter). This is a story about how surviving trauma and coming up and out of a horrific situation can bond people together for life. Doubly so if they already share the bond of sisterhood. Heaven help the dudebro who tries to get between them.

If you liked Dexter (and especially if you loathed the series finale!), or even if you’re just looking for something a little unconventional and weird, definitely give My Sister, the Serial Killer a try. It’s got short, punchy chapters (I was not surprised to read that Braithwaite was shortlisted as a top-ten spoken-word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam; each chapter feels a bit like a self-contained poem or stream-of-consciousness) and a wickedly clever vibe. This might just go down as one of my favorites of 2018.

(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: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah (2018)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

I had such high hopes for this one!

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

When I got to the Panah, I was unused to the sight of women’s bodies not swollen and distorted by pregnancy. It seemed wrong, at first, as if something was missing. It took me months to realize that a woman’s stomach wasn’t always convex; that its default state was not always filled with another being.

DNF at 59%, because life is too short to spend time on books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Set in the kind-of distant future, Before She Sleeps imagines a world wherein women are a scarce commodity. Nuclear war and climate change have drastically altered the landscape of South West Asia (and, indeed, the world), while a gender-specific virus has wiped out a majority of its female citizens. In the resulting chaos and power vacuum, an authoritarian order known as the Authority seized control.

Within the borders of Green City, life is strictly regimented – for everyone, but women especially. Women are not allowed to: work outside the home, keep journals, choose their own husbands (or number thereof), or use contraception, obtain abortions, or engage in family planning of any sort. They are required to maintain public profiles, so that men can shop for them online like so many consumer goods (unlike laptops, though, women cannot be bought or sold – only the Perpetuation Bureau can assign a Wife a new Husband); undergo rigorous and routine physical exams, including fertility monitoring; and accept as many Husbands – and pregnancies – as the Bureau deems fit.

It’s the inverse of fundamentalist Mormons, yet somehow women get the short end of the stick in this arrangement too (shocking, that!). Ostensibly, women are precious cargo to be treated with care and respect: in Green City, “it [is] a capital crime to hit or abuse a woman.” However, rape is a de facto part of the marriage system, as women are not permitted to choose their partners, nor deny them “life-giving” sex. After all, that is a woman’s sole purpose in society: to bear as many children as possible.

Yet girls and women still find ways to resist. Some children hide messages for each other, illicit forms of communication in a society where females are given precious little opportunity to interact with one another. On the more extreme end are the runaways, the fugitives, the disappeared women. Some of these women find their way to the Panah, a refuge located in a long-forgotten underground bunker on the outskirts of town. There they work as escorts, but instead of sex, they deal in emotional intimacy, something sorely lacking in these modern, dystopian marriages. Within this backdrop, we meet Lin, the niece of one of the Panah’s founders; Sabine, who escaped an early marriage arranged by her own father; and Rupa, who longs to return to society, despite the miseries it rained down upon her as a girl.

Before She Sleeps sounds like it should be right up my alley: I love dystopias, doubly so if they have a feminist bent, and I am a total Margaret Atwood fangirl. (Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale never fail to reel me in.) This seemed like a slam dunk. And, while I adore the concept, the actual execution left much to be desired. For lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, Before She Sleeps just didn’t do it for me.

Each chapter alternates between a different character’s perspective. This was all fine and good when it was just Lin, Sabine, and Rupa – but once Shah tossed in a few of Green City’s male denizens mid-book, it got to be a little too much for me. Moreover, I never really got a sense of each character’s distinct personality; the overall writing style felt pretty uniform across chapters. Oftentimes the character’s physical reactions felt overdone to the point of a bad B movie script. When imagining how some scenes might play out, all I could picture were comically terrible improv actors. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it.

There are also quite a few info dumps – which, it must be said, isn’t always a mood killer for me, but here they often popped up in weird and awkward places. To wit: As Reuben races across town to retrieve his illicit mistress’s illegal girl, passed out unconscious in the street and maybe dying of who knows what, his thoughts randomly wander to … how he became one of the most powerful men in Green City? I mean, seriously! More likely that train of thought would go something like this: “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT FUCK WHAT AM I GONNA DO WE ARE SO FUCKED OH SHIT PLEASE DON’T LET THERE BE A RED LIGHT OH FUCK ME FUCK THIS FUCK EVERYTHING I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT I NEED A VACATION.”

So, yeah, file this one in the “devastating disappointment” drawer. Bummer!

(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: Please Don’t Grab My P#$$y: A Rhyming Presidential Guide by Julia Young & Matt Harkins (2018)

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Would be funny if it wasn’t so damn depressing.

four out of five stars

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

This is a list of things you can grab
And yes, I’m gonna sound pushy
For once in your life, listen up
DON’T EVER FUCKING GRAB MY PUSSY

In this picture book-for-adults, NYC-based comedians Julia Young and Matt Harkins combine irreverent poetry with powerful illustrations by Laura Collins to call out Drumpf for his long and shameless history of sexual assault, rape, and general harassment of women.

Their cheeky and sometimes weird sense of humor disarms the reader, all while imparting an important message about consent: namely, DON’T EVER FUCKING GRAB MY PUSSY!. Instead, they provide a handy list of things Drumpf can grab instead: his golf putter, the remote control, his favorite shade of crayon – Caucasian, natch. Tragically, none of these suggestions involve a live wire or the testicles of a very angry and untethered grizzly bear.

To be perfectly honest, some of the euphemisms the authors employ for vagina threw me off; certainly these sound made up, I thought. But I googled a few and, sure enough, they are all slang variations of pussy. (*shaking head*) Although I must admit a certain affection for “dildo hotel.”

Please Don’t Grab My P#$$y: A Rhyming Presidential Guide is good for a chuckle or two, tempered by the odd dry heave and stifled sob; it would be so much funnier if our current reality wasn’t so damn depressing. (The painting of Hillary being sworn in cut like a katana to the heart.) Still, it’s a necessary and dynamic piece of activism.

(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: Grace and Fury (Grace and Fury #1) by Tracy Banghart (2018)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

A YA Spin on The Handmaid’s Tale Set in 1600s Italia

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape. This review contains very vague spoilers.)

“One evening,” Serina had recited from memory, her recent singing lessons coating her voice with honey, “as the sun eased toward the horizon and the moon rose from its slumber, two birds flew along the path made on the water by the setting sun. They dipped and sagged, their battered wings barely holding them aloft. Every now and then, one would falter and fall toward the water, all strength gone. The other would dive and catch the first on its back, carrying its partner for a time.

“The two birds traveled this way for many leagues, until the path of the sun had faded and the moon’s silver road appeared. The ocean shimmied and danced beneath the birds, intrigued by their obvious love for each other. The ocean had never loved anything so much, to burden its own back with another’s survival. It didn’t understand why the birds didn’t fend for themselves—the stronger leave the weaker and carry on.

“It took the ocean some time to understand that apart, the birds would never have made it so far,” Serina had continued, wrapping an arm around Nomi’s shoulders. “That their love, their sacrifice, gave them both strength. When at last, the two little birds, their bright red and green feathers tarnished from their long journey, could no longer hold themselves free of the endless water, the ocean took pity on them. Rewarding their steadfastness, it pushed land up from its depths—huge, lush hills with fresh, clean water, towering cypress trees, and all the fruits and berries and seeds they could ever desire. The lovebirds alighted in the shady, cool branches of an olive tree, their tired wings wrapping around each other, their beaks tucked into each other’s feathers. And at last, they were able to rest.”

Every aspect of their world, down to Viridia’s prisons, pitted women against each other while men watched.

Serina and Nomi Tessaro are daughters of Viridia – which kind of sucks, since women aren’t valued very highly in their culture. Women are only allowed three vocations: factory workers, servants, or wives. Rarely do they get to choose which. Also on the list of no-nos: reading, disobedience, impertinence, wearing their hair above their shoulders, cutting their hair without the say-so of a man, and engaging in violence, if even as a means of self-defense. Women who break the rules – so-called criminals – are imprisoned on the imposing volcanic island of Mount Ruin.

Serina and Nomi are alike in that they’re both gunning for a way out: Serina hopes to trade her dirty industrial village of Lanos for the rich, opulent city of Bellaqua by becoming one of the Heir’s first three concubines – his Graces. Viridia is a monarchy, presided over by a sort of king called the Superior. The present Superior has two sons, Malachi and his younger brother Asa; at his upcoming twentieth birthday celebration, Malachi will choose his first three Graces. Serina is determined to be one of them. Success will mean that she and Nomi – serving as her handmaiden – will be spared a lifetime of drudgery. Failure is not an option.

Nomi is the younger sister, and also the more rebellious – the Fury to Serina’s Grace. Nomi’s escape – and her downfall, perhaps – lies in the magical worlds that swell and beckon from between the covers of books. When Nomi is tempted by the palazzo’s vast library, things go sideways. Before the sisters can utter a tart retort, Nomi has been chosen as one of Malachi’s Graces, while Serina is condemned to fight and die on Mount Ruin. Both sisters must summon up the other’s strength to survive – and maybe even overthrow the patriarchy.

I love a good feminist yarn, and Grace and Fury doesn’t disappoint. Well, mostly. Initially the tone felt a little on the young end of YA for my taste, but I quickly warmed to each sister’s voice. I feel like the MCs could stand to be a little more fleshed out, but I’m hoping we’ll see this in the sequel. I thought Banghart did a great job with the supporting characters; I want to know more about Oracle and Maris and Helena and Anika – and Val’s parents, too.

I saw the surprise twist coming a mile away, and I bet more astute readers will spot it even sooner. (The clue for me was in the horses. Never trust a dude who abuses animals.) I almost had trouble believing that Nomi fell for the ruse (“It was so obvious now.” No kidding!), but once I sat back and tried to truly imagine myself in her shoes, I can kind of get it. I mean, she’s totally alone, completely out of her element, with no one to trust, and here comes this slithery little serpent telling her what she wants/needs to hear. And I mean, it’s not like she had any better options.

The climax of the story was well worth it; rarely do books compel me to talk (or shout!) back at them, but I was yelling and hand-waving at Serina, as though she could hear me (“Fight him! Challenge him to fight!”). The last scene just leaves so many possibilities open, I cannot wait to see where the story goes.

Also great is Viridia’s entire backstory, which prominently features strong, badass women getting shafted by THE MAN. How many centuries, and how little has changed?

(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: Sadie by Courtney Summers (2018)

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Serial + The Girls, with a pinch of Vigilante = Sadie

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women and children, including rape.)

I’m going to kill a man.

I’m going to steal the light from his eyes. I want to watch it go out. You aren’t supposed to answer violence with more violence but sometimes I think violence is the only answer. It’s no less than he did to Mattie, so it’s no less than he deserves.

I don’t expect it to bring her back. It won’t bring her back.

It’s not about finding peace. There will never be peace.

I’m not under any illusions about how little of me will be left after I do this one thing. But imagine having to live every day knowing the person who killed your sister is breathing the air she can’t, filling his lungs with it, tasting its sweetness. Imagine him knowing the steady weight of the earth under his feet while her body is buried six feet below it.

This is the furthest I’ve been from anything that I know.

My eyes burn, and tears slip down my cheeks and I can’t even imagine how pathetic I look. Girl with a busted face, torn-up arm, begging for the opportunity to save other girls. Why do I have to beg for that?

Nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter has had a pretty effed up life. Born to a young, single mom with multiple addictions (alcohol, cocaine, heroin) and a rotating roster of enabling boyfriends, Sadie grew up in a trailer park in the small, struggling town of Cold Creek, Colorado. (Population: eight hundred.) She developed a stutter at a young age, but her mother Claire never sought treatment; consequently, Sadie was bullied, isolated, and shamed for it, for most of her life.

Claire’s own mother, Irene, died of breast cancer when Claire was only nineteen herself; Sadie’s striking physical resemblance to Irene was just one of many reasons why Claire had trouble bonding with her daughter. Younger sister Mattie Southern (she got the matrilineal surname; Sadie did not – telling, that) arrived six years later, and Sadie tried her best to be Mattie’s mother and father. When Claire ran out on her and Mattie, Sadie dropped out of high school to support her family. She was only sixteen.

After two years of limping along, with no small support from May Beth Foster – manager of the trailer park and their deceased grandmother’s best friend – Mattie disappeared. Her body was found three days later in an apple orchard several miles outside of town. Nine months later, Sadie too goes missing; her car is found thousands of miles away, in a town called Farfield. When the local police write Sadie off as just another runaway, May Beth reaches out to West McCray, journalist and host of the podcast Always Out There, for help.

Told in the alternating perspectives of Sadie (as she tracks down her sister’s killer) and West (in the form of his investigative podcast, The Girls, as he retraces Sadie’s steps, now three months cold), we embark on a Serial-type mystery that’s also a biting interrogation of rape culture, class, and misogyny.

I mean, I guess you could shelve Sadie under “mystery,” but it’s so much more than that. In a way, it’s a mystery within a mystery: who killed Mattie, and what happened to Sadie? Sadie already knows the answer to the former, and it’s revealed probably halfway into the story. The bigger question is what became of Sadie when she reached the end of her journey – and this is a blank we readers are left to fill in ourselves. In this way, the ending is a tease, but also a blessing: realistically, Sadie’s fate was likely not a happy one. And yet, by leaving things as she does, Summers allows us to hope, to dream, to retain our faith in a flawed young woman who wanted nothing than to save other girls like herself.

Sadie is also stark and uncompromising look at rape culture, much in the vein of All the Rage. Summers’s writing is at once beautiful and cutting; she dissects all manner of sexist tropes and stereotypes, from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the idea that men are only truly capable of grasping women’s humanity when they have a daughter of their own to care about and fear for and worry over. (Claire’s confrontation with West? Pure cathartic bliss.)

Sadie, Mattie, Claire, May Beth, Marlee – Summers has populated Sadie with a cast of complex, nuanced women characters. Sadie rather reminds me of a more realistic version of Alex Craft, the protagonist in Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. (Let’s face it, we can’t all be cold and calculating feminist serial killers.) Her relationships with Mattie, Claire, and May Beth are fascinating in their messiness. I love how Summers challenges our assumptions by allowing various characters to offer their own versions of oft-told stories at the 11th hour, long after our own impressions of them have begun to harden.

If you’ve never read a Courtney Summers book, you owe it to yourself to correct that ASAP. My first was All the Rage (amazing!), and with Sadie she’s fast becoming a favorite author of mine. I wouldn’t quite call Sadie a rape revenge story, but it’s a pretty fine distinction, and if you “enjoy” that subgenre as much as I, Sadie is a good choice on this front too.

(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: Spectacle (Menagerie #2) by Rachel Vincent (2017)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Missing that certain indefinable something that made MENAGERIE so special.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and forced abortion.)

“This one isn’t like the others,” the woman—his wife?—said, and the sharp edge in her voice could have cut glass.

“I’m like them in every way that matters,” I insisted.

I frowned, studying the dryad. She looked different from when they’d taken her the afternoon before, but I couldn’t…

Her hair. She’d had several beautiful whitish blooms blossoming in her hair.

Now those blossoms were gone.

One of the other ladies knelt next to her and laid a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder, but the nymph turned on her, teeth gnashing. Mossy-green eyes flashed beneath the tiny woody tendrils growing in place of her eyelashes.

“Oh…” Simra breathed, and I turned to her with a questioning look. “They got rid of it.”

“It?”

“The baby.”

“She was pregnant?” I whispered, horrified. “Vandekamp ended it?”

“His wife. She won’t let the ‘monsters’ breed.”

The only thing I could imagine worse than being forced to end the pregnancy was how Magnolia might have gotten pregnant in the first place.

When Menagerie debuted in 2015, I devoured an early copy faster and with more passion than a piping hot bowl of Daiya cheese sauce. It alternately had me squealing in delight, pumping my fist in the air, and squirming in my seat as if a whole mess of fire ants had set up residence there. More than anything, Menagerie inspired a jaw-dropping sense of disbelief: am I really reading what I think I’m reading here? I then went on to spend most of the next five days writing one of my most epic reviews ever. (Rivaled only by my treatise on The Female of The Species.)

Since then, I’ve read it several more times, including on audiobook, which incidentally spawned one of my favorite video recordings of one of my favorite rescue dogs, Mags (she of The Hunger Games fame; her son’s name is Finnick).

When the sequel was finally (!) released into the wild, I promptly requested an ARC on NetGalley…and then proceeded to sit on it for more than a year. I was just so scared to touch the damn thing! While Menagerie was most likely meant as an allegory for the treatment of Muslims (and brown people as a whole) after 9/11, it was impossible for me not to read it as a story about animal rights, however unintentional. (In the vegan community, we call this “accidentally vegan,” like Oreos. Yum!)

Every mistreatment of the cryptids in Delilah’s world – both the humanoid and more “bestial” ones – has an obvious and devastating corollary here in the real world, in our interactions with nonhuman animals. From forced impregnation to the separation of parents and children; the exhibition of animals in zoos and circuses; vivisection, including for the most trivial of reasons, like developing new household cleaners; physical punishment under the guise of training; and even crush videos and bestiality. And while we dismiss these atrocities since they’re “only animals,” Vincent nails the crux of the issue in Menagerie: it’s not intelligence that counts, or DNA, or one’s physical approximation to humans. The only thing that matters is sentience: a being’s ability to feel pain (or joy) and suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? – Jeremy Bentham

The cryptids in Menagerie are indeed sentient – as are the billions of nonhuman animals we enslave, torture, and kill every year. It’s impossible not to draw parallels.

And yet. Given that I’m 99.9% positive these parallels were unplanned, I worried that Vincent would walk them back in the sequel; undo some of the amazing arguments put forth in Menagerie. And so I hemmed and hawed and put Spectacle on the back burner until I could stand the suspense no further.

The good news is that my fears were largely unfounded. While the moral and philosophical underpinnings of Delilah’s furiae – so eloquently (though not imperfectly) laid out in Menagerie – remain mostly unstated in Spectacle, they are not challenged in any way. Delilah and her compatriots are the victims: victims of a cruel and inhumane society that dehumanizes, objectifies, and others them. Because humans are afraid. Because it elevates them. Because they can. Because there is a profit to be made by doing so.

The bad news? Spectacle is just an okay book. Entertaining enough, sure, but nowhere near as revolutionary as Menagerie.

(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: Atar Gull (Long Courrier) by Fabien Nury & Brüno (2016)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Like, glacially so.

three out of five stars

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

Based on a novel of the same name, penned by the French writer Eugène Sue and published in 1831, Atar Gull is a story of revenge – of the “dish best served cold” variety. Taken prisoner by Taroo, chief of the Great Namaquas, Atar Gull finds himself on a slave ship bound for the West Indies. During the voyage, the Catherine is attacked and ultimately boarded by a band of ruthless pirates, led by Captain Brulart. A ruse, a sacrifice, and a ship chase later, Atar Gull is one of the few surviving captives when the vessel finally docks in Jamaica. Here, he’s sold to plantation owner Tom Will; part of a lot of “Negroes and Negresses” to serve as a dowry for his daughter Jenny.

While all these horrors are certainly just cause for what comes later (or some of it, anyway), the breaking point comes when Atar Gull learns the fate of his father, the chief of the Little Namaquas before him. If the previous pages didn’t completely dispel with the myth of the “benevolent slaveowner” (an oxymoron if ever there was one), then certainly this calculating and heartless scheme will do the trick.

Gazing upon his father’s lifeless face, Atar Gull hatches a plan of revenge that’s slow to unravel, yet destroys everything in its path.

Usually I love revenge stories that center members of oppressed groups as anti-/heroes, but my feelings were a little more conflicted here. It’s hard to root for Atar Gull without restraint, since so many innocents suffer under his wrath: Will’s human captives and nonhuman chattel chief among them. Consequently, Atar Gull’s revenge felt a little empty and … unsatisfying. The final panels, though? Chilling AF.

(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: Box of Bones #1 by Ayize Jama-Everett & John Jennings (2018)

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Off to a promising start!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism, misogyny, and violence, including rape.)

I very rarely read single issues of comic books, let alone review them, for one simple fact: I just don’t have the patience to wait for the next issue in the series! Much like TV shows, I’d rather wait until the entire series has come out and then binge them all at once. But when the fledgling issue of Box of Bones popped up on NetGalley, I just couldn’t resist.

Luckily, the story in this first issue is somewhat self-contained. While we’re introduced to the concept of the main plot, most of the action takes place in the form of a flashback.

UC Berkeley student Lindsay Ford’s research into the appearance of “spectral creatures” at key moments in Black American (North and South) history has landed her in front of the faculty, arguing for the viability of her project. When asked if there’s a personal reason behind her academic interests, Lindsay remembers a story told to her by her grandfather. As teenagers, Jim and his friend Gauge were brutally attacked – beaten nearly unconscious and, in Gauge’s case, raped – by a gang of racist white classmates. Gauge turns to her mother’s “New Orleans voodoo” – in the form of a box of bones to which the practitioner must sacrifice her soul – to unleash her revenge.

While I do enjoy a good rape revenge story – because, let’s be honest, the world of fiction is pretty much the only time abusive men are held accountable for their actions – rape is also overused as a plot device. Gauge’s violation takes place off-screen, but it still comes like a punch to the gut, especially since it looks for a hot second like she might escape. Revenge comes quickly and is satisfying as heck. So I guess my feelings are mixed on this one.

Otherwise the story is engaging enough; a solid start to what looks like a promising series. Overall I enjoyed the artwork; though the monster has an over-the-top, gonzo feel to it, I quickly found myself digging the style.

I especially like how it changes and morphs with each “victim.” (Scare quotes because some of those peeps totally had it coming.)

3.5 stars.

(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 Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow (2018)

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Somewhere, A Unicorn Is Crying

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including the rape, torture, and murder of children.)

For the children, when your time is done, it is VERY important to THANK YOUR LANDLORD—they’ve been such CARING roommates!!! Remember, without THEM, you would never have been able to have your moment of balance. For the landlords, when YOUR time is done, THANK your BODY!!! (For the wonderful times it provided.) NEVER FORGET that it gave you so much more time than your child-tenants had! And THANK the FRIENDS and FAMILY that you LOVED . . . and thank this beautiful BLUE EARTH. — from “The End” (the Guidebook)

— 2.5 stars —

Something strange and awesome is happening in the small town of Saggerty Falls, Michigan – and in towns both large and small all over the world (presumably). The spirits of murdered children (“tenants”) are returning to this beautiful blue earth, temporarily inhabiting the bodies of recently deceased adults (“landlords”) in order to exact revenge (the “moment of balance”) on their killers. They are guided through this adventure by a psychic mentor (“porter”) – in this case, one Annie Ballendine, a former teacher who was institutionalized after she began to hear voices. Annie was rescued and trained by Jasper, the porter before her; and, as her cancer returns, Annie knows that the time is nearing for her pass the baton to her successor. But how will she find this person, while also dealing with the “haywire” events that presage a Porter’s passing?

Depending on how compassionately the narrative is crafted, rape revenge stories are some of my favorites (quite possibly because rape carries so few consequences for the perpetrators here in the real world. Fiction is often much more satisfying.) Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species has become the gold standard for me; Alex Craft is the ultimate antihero, and the book does an exemplary job deconstructing rape culture. I envisioned the titular murdered children as miniature Dexter Morgans-in-training, crammed into the meatsuits of unsuspecting (but ultimately game) adult humans. Like Alex, but with even more personal vendettas. Maybe even with a splash of Chucky from Child’s Play in there somewhere. In other words, horrible and magnificent. Yes, my expectations for this one were through the proverbial roof.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One (Women are some kind of magic #2) by Amanda Lovelace (2018)

Monday, March 5th, 2018

“warning II: no mercy ahead.”

three out of five stars

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

misogyny
/m ‘säj ne/
noun
1: the power-driven hatred of women.
2: just the way things are.

misandry
/mi ‘ sandre/
noun
1: the reactionary, self-preserving hatred of men.
2: somehow this is going too far.

our
very being

is considered
an inconvenience,

our bodies
vacant homes

wrapped in layers
of yellow tape,

our legs
double doors

for one man
(& one man only)

to pry open so
he can invade us

& set down his
furniture,

never once
asking us

how we feel
about the curtains.

– they love us empty, empty, empty.

in this novel
the woman protagonist

claims she’s not like
those other girls,

not because she finds
their femininity

to be an insult or
a weakness, no—

it’s
because

she knows
all women have

their own unique
magic

that cannot be
replicated by her

or any other
woman.

– the plot twist we’ve all been waiting for.

It pains me that I didn’t love this book more than I did.

I credit Lovelace’s first collection, The Princess Saves Herself in this One, with reigniting my love of poetry. Accessible and invigorating, it showed me that I could both enjoy – and understand – modern poetry. Based on the strength of the first book, and the fairy tale promise of the follow-up’s title, my expectations were really quite high. Maybe unfairly so.

If you read The Princess Saves Herself in this One, many of the pieces here will feel familiar to you; this is not necessarily a bad thing. Lovelace’s words have the same fierce intersectional feminist spark that drew me to Princess. There’s a lot to love here – but there’s also quite a bit of repetition. I was also hoping for a more obvious connection between the poems and fairy tale villains; maybe a retelling here or there. Mostly though the poems just draw on imagery of witchcraft and witch hunts. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, especially given the current backlash against the #MeToo campaign. I was just hoping for something … more.

That said, there are some really wonderful and memorable poems within these here pages. The topics are timely AF, and I love that Lovelace takes care to embrace all women under the banner of sisterhood (say it with me: all women are authentic). If you love women and love poetry, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One is still a pretty solid pick, and I look forward to the next title in the “Women are some kind of magic,” The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in this One.

(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: Pestilence, Volume 1 by Frank Tieri and Oleg Okunev (2018)

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

I’d almost rather have a zombie chew my nose off than read this again.

one out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and misogyny. This review contains spoilers.)

DNF at 75%.

The year is 1347, and the Black Death is sweeping through Eurasia. Sent to dispatch a rogue crusader in a distant kingdom, a regimen of the Church’s army known as the Fiat Lux is summoned to the Vatican to rescue the Pope. Instead they are unwittingly drawn into a vast conspiracy involving zombies, religious dogma, and Jesus and Lucifer.

On the surface, Pestilence is a pretty cool idea: what if the Black Plague was actually a zombie outbreak? The plot line is surprisingly boring, though, and I only really cared about one character, who’s killed off just as he becomes interesting.

Worse still is the dialogue. If I had a dollar for every time “cocksucker” or “cunt” makes an appearance, I could buy an entire case of Daiya cheese. (At the 5% case discount, yes, but still: that shit is expensive!) I don’t have a problem with swearing, but here it’s pathetically overdone, as if it was written by a couple of ten-year-old boys who just discovered the f-word. There’s also some pretty gratuitous female nudity [side eye], as well as a full-page pillage-and-rape panel that’s both wholly unnecessary and obnoxiously insensitive [lighting this book on fire].

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Ntozake Shange (2017)

Monday, January 29th, 2018

“i am more dangerous than noreiga”

four out of five stars

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

all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you white
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
(“my father is a retired magician”)

i haveta turn my television down sometimes cuz
i cant stand to have white people/ shout at me/
(“from okra to greens”)

we need a god who bleeds now
whose wounds are not the end of anything
(“we need a god who bleeds now”)

Wild Beauty falls into that weird, nebulous category of “poems I’m not sure I completely understand, but am mostly smitten with anyway.” A mix of new and previously published poetry from Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauty is enchanting and seductive and, occasionally, raw AF. Shange explores wide-ranging issues, including race, gender, sexuality, love, the military-industrial complex, the police state, the process of creating art, and the centrality of music in her life. As is par for the course with poetry, I wasn’t convinced that I was always picking up what Shange put down, but I was happy to come along for the ride anyway. Well, more or less: it’s true that I did skim a few of the pieces, but these were few and far between.

Among my favorites are “my father is a retired magician”; “toussaint”; “live oak”; “irrepressibly bronze, beautiful & mine”; “rise up fallen fighters”; “7 tequilas gone”; “the stage goes to darkness”; “crooked woman”; “about atlanta”; “who needs a heart”; and “pages for a friend.” I fear that “crack annie” will stick with forever, though not in a good way; the poem is written from the pov of a mother who facilitates the rape of her seven-year-old daughter in exchange for drugs, and it is simply haunting. “ode to orlando” is as well, though in a more melancholy (as opposed to nauseating) way. Written in the days after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Shange reflects on how the tragedy did – and could have – impacted her own family. (Shange’s daughter is gay and has in fact been to the club.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters (2018)

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Walters is at her best when she’s playing Frankenstein with fairy tale tropes.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence against women and suicide.)

Once upon a time there was a monster. This is how they tell you the story starts. This is a lie.
(“Tooth, Tongue, and Claw “)

Don’t be fooled by the breadcrumbs in the forest. This is not a fairy tale.
(“A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take”)

You won’t catch me in my underwear. I sleep in my fucking coveralls.
(“The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter”)

Between the oft-quoted “Once upon a time there was a monster…” line (reproduced above; I just couldn’t help myself!), and the deliciously dark story titles, I was practically frothing at the mouth to read an early copy of Cry Your Way Home. Alas, this collection of short stories – an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale retellings, and the stray piece of contemporary fiction, all bound by a fierce undercurrent of feminism running throughout – is more of a mixed bag than I’d hoped. There are a few gems here, but also a good many underwhelming and ultimately forgettable stories, too.

The collection opens on a strong note with “Tooth, Tongue, and Claw,” easily my favorite of the bunch. A mix of Beauty and the Beast and The Handmaid’s Tale (or perhaps “The Lottery”), the story ends with a surprising twist that’s as satisfying as it is lurid. A mashup of various fairy tales/spin on the entire genre, “A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take” is equal parts beautiful, chilling, and cautionary. While I think Walters is at her best when writing in this wheelhouse, I also quite enjoyed some of her science fiction; “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter,” “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love,” and “The Floating Girls: A Documentary” are all worth a read or two or three.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Wild Embers by Nikita Gill (2017)

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

“She is alone. | And oh | how brilliantly she shines.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and interpersonal violence.)

We are the blood
of the witches
you thought were dead.

We carry witchcraft in our bones
whilst the magic still sings
inside our heads.

When the witch hunters
imprisoned our ancestors
when they tried to burn the magic away.

Someone should have
warned them
that magic cannot be tamed.

Because you cannot burn away
what has always
been aflame.

(“Witch”)

It is the law of the universe
that even ghosts understand
as long as they matter to someone
they still exist and in your heart
they stand.

(“Ghost Story”)

I really wanted to love this collection of poetry more than I did – although this isn’t to suggest that I didn’t enjoy it. Nikita Gill’s poetry is powerful, passionate, and fiercely feminist. With Wild Embers, she fans the flames of rebellion – against a culture so steeped in misogyny and sexism that it’s taken as the norm, the default, the air we breathe – and at a time when we need it, desperately. Whether reimaging sexist fairy tales and myths or challenging abusers – including her own – Gill’s words cut deep, to the bone. They’re also accessible and satisfying, in a way that poetry isn’t always.

Yet she often employs similar imagery and themes, such that the poems start to feel a little repetitive by the final quarter of the book. Less might be more here. Also, I wish she’d taken the idea of giving each part its own unique theme and run with it a little harder. The first section is so clearly about humanity’s relationship to the cosmos, the starstuff that coalesces in our atoms and spirits … and yet, with the exception of parts III and VI (fairy tales and mythology, respectively), she mostly abandons themes (or at least more apparent ones) after so skillfully priming her audience for them.

Overall, though, it’s a valuable collection of poetry, raw and full of hope and resistance.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Hollow Girl by Hillary Monahan (2017)

Friday, October 13th, 2017

A shrewd interrogation of rape culture – now with dark magic!

four out of five stars

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

“The single most important thing to know about magic is that there is always a price. Making the impossible possible is difficult, as it should be, so I must weigh results against what I am willing to pay. It is never a gratuitous thing. This makes some people—people like Silas—disbelievers. They see my unwillingness to perform on command as a sign that the magic is untrue. Let them drown in their ignorance. When it is time for them to know a witch’s wrath, they will know it—and there will be no mistaking it.”

Seventeen-year-old Bethan Jones is a diddicoy: born to a Romany mother and a gadjo father, she was left in the care of her caravan’s wise woman, Drina, after the death of her mother Eira during childbirth. Her apprenticeship under the drabarni should have kept her safe – and might have, under other circumstances. But the chieftain’s son, Silas, has set his sights on Bethan. Silas is spoiled, entitled, and cruel; a dangerous powderkeg of toxic masculinity and male privilege that his father Wen (himself a recovering teenage bully) lacks the fortitude to extinguish.

So it’s no surprise when Silas’s sexual harassment and stalking of Bethan escalates to rape. Silas and his four cronies ambush Bethan and her would-be beau, Martyn, on the way home from market. The assault leaves Bethan physically and psychologically scarred – and desperate to save Martyn, who’s left for dead after the attack. With the help of Gran and her dark magic, Bethan just might be able to resurrect Martyn, while exacting revenge on her assailants too. She has three days to collect a finger, an eye, a nose, a tooth, and an ear from the five boys. What becomes of them after the harvest is entirely up to Bethan.

I was super-excited when I first heard of The Hollow Girl. Lately I’m really into rape revenge stories; as I said in my review of A Guide for Murdered Children, if done right, rape revenge stories can provide a satisfying outlet/alternative to real life, where rape is more likely to be excused and minimized than punished and condemned. Throw in the supernatural twist and diverse cast of characters, and I’m sold.

(More below the fold…)