Book Review: The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (2019)

Friday, October 4th, 2019

Rare is the book that actually merits a comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale.

five out of five stars

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

“In the county, everything they take away from us is a tiny death. But not here . . .” She spreads her arms out, taking in a deep breath. “The grace year is ours. This is the one place we can be free. There’s no more tempering our feelings, no more swallowing our pride. Here we can be whatever we want. And if we let it all out,” she says, her eyes welling up, her features softening, “we won’t have to feel those things anymore. We won’t have to feel at all.”

“In the county, there’s nothing more dangerous than a woman who speaks her mind. That’s what happened to Eve, you know, why we were cast out from heaven. We’re dangerous creatures. Full of devil charms. If given the opportunity, we will use our magic to lure men to sin, to evil, to destruction.” My eyes are getting heavy, too heavy to roll in a dramatic fashion. “That’s why they send us here.”

“To rid yourself of your magic,” he says.

“No,” I whisper as I drift off to sleep. “To break us.”

I’ve started and stopped, cut and pasted this review so many times over the last few weeks that I’ve lost count. The truth is that The Grace Year left me speechless and, as with all of my favorite books, I’m afraid that nothing I might write will do it justice. This is the kind of book that merits a twenty-page thesis, not a 500-word review. (Though, let’s be honest, precious few of my reviews clock in at less than 1,000 words.)

You can gather the basics from the synopsis. Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Tierney James, lives in a culture that hates and fears women. It’s believed that young women possess a powerful, dark magic; paradoxically, they’re also considered men’s inferiors. For the good of society, young women are banished from Garner County for the entirety of their sixteenth year.

The goal during the “Grace Year” is twofold: to purge the magic from their bodies so that they can return home pure and ready to be married – and to return home, period. Their wild and wicked magic; the harsh wilderness; and the poachers who aim to kill them and sell their bewitched body parts on the black market: all stand between the girls and survival.

The Grace Year follows Tierney and her cohorts as they claw, fight, manipulate, and straight up slay their way through 365 days of exile. Along the way, Tierney calls on her specialized knowledge – her dad is a doctor who always wanted a son, and thus “spoiled” his middle daughter by teaching her useful life skills – to try and change the system from the inside. She dreams of a young woman who carries within her the spark of revolution. She can only hope that her visions are more prophecy, less the random firing of neurons.

The story is told in four main parts, each corresponding to one season in Tierney’s Grace Year: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. There aren’t chapters to divvy things up further (at least there wasn’t in the ARC), which makes each section feel L-O-N-G (in a good way!). Whereas some reviewers complained about this format, I loved it: it gives the readers a sense of the slow passage of time as the Grace Year girls experience it, the weight of days differentiated from one another only by violence and death.

Usually I scoff when books are blurbed as “The Handmaid’s Tale meets XYZ,” but I think the comparison is more than warranted here: The Grace Year is The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, with a dash of The Hunger Games meets Bridezillas for extra-crunchy complexity. There’s so much to unpack and dissect here.

In The Grace Year, Kim Liggett has created a semi-fictional world that could exist at (nearly) any time or place in history. The lack of modern technology – there are references to lithographs and gas lamps, and a distinct absence of electronics – hints at the past. Perhaps Garner County is an isolated community in 1800s America? Yet, without a detailed backstory of how Tierney’s community came to be, she and her ilk could just as easily live in some future dystopia, a society rebuilt from the ashes of a pandemic or world war. Or they could inhabit another ‘verse altogether. I love that the setting is open to interpretation, because it prevents us from dismissing Garner County as something from our past: a result of primitive and outdated beliefs that we have since moved beyond.

News flash: misogyny and homophobia (and racism, classism, ableism, etc.) are still alive and well. Just read the damn news, mkay.

Again just from the synopsis, it’s glaringly obvious that Tierney’s is a strictly religious and patriarchal society marked by rigid gender roles…but this summary hardly does it justice. Think: the fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Or Women Talking, inspired by the very real mass rapes that took place in Manitoba County, a Bolivian Mennonite settlement.

In Garner County, women face myriad restrictions, including but not limited to the following:

– Women are branded with their father’s sigil at birth. They are quite literally owned by their fathers, until the time they are bartered and traded to would-be husbands. Needless to say, they have no say in who they marry.

– Young women who go unclaimed have three options open to them: they can become maids, field laborers, or prostitutes in the outskirts.

– Married women are required to perform their “wifely duties”: “Legs spread, arms flat, eyes to God.” In other words, wives are raped on the regular.

– Though it’s not stated outright, it’s safe to assume that birth control and contraception are outlawed, at least for married women. (Married) women are not allowed to determine how many children they bear, if any.

– It’s considered blasphemous to pray for a baby girl (because we’re worthless, see?).

– Women are only schooled until the age of ten.

– “All the women in Garner County have to wear their hair the same way, pulled back from the face, plaited down the back. In doing so, the men believe, the women won’t be able to hide anything from them—a snide expression, a wandering eye, or a flash of magic. White ribbons for the young girls, red for the grace year girls, and black for the wives. Innocence. Blood. Death.”

– “We’re forbidden from cutting our own hair, but if a husband sees fit, he can punish his wife by cutting off her braid.”

– “We’re not allowed to pray in silence, for fear that we’ll use it to hide our magic.”

– “The women of the county aren’t allowed to hum—the men think it’s a way we can hide magic spells.”

– Adult women cannot wear hoods or other protection against the elements: “After their grace year, their faces needed to be free and clear to make sure they weren’t hiding their magic. The wives scarcely went outdoors during those months.”

– “In the county, bathing with flowers is a sin, a perversion, punishable by whip.”

– “The women aren’t allowed to own pets in the county. We are the pets.”

– “The women aren’t allowed to congregate outside of sanctioned holidays.”

– If a girl does not return from the Grace year – either alive or in bottles – her female family members will be punished by banishment.

Some of these rules are universal to what you’d expect to see in a religious patriarchy: anything to keep women voiceless, segregated, and compliant. In a word, powerless. Others feel like loving throwbacks to The Handmaid’s Tale: for example, the scene where Tierney defiantly bathes with a flower brings to mind Offred, secreting away a pat of butter to moisturize her dry and purely functional (to Gilead) body.

One detail that jumps out at me is how the girls and women are pitted against each other, so that they exist in a perpetual state of competition rather than cooperation. Similar to what you’d see in FLDS communities, there’s a sizable gender imbalance in Garner County; created not by casting young men out, as is the polygamous Mormon way, but by drafting lower-class men as Guards, denying them wives, and then castrating them to prevent unauthorized pregnancies. (This is one obvious deviation from The Handmaid’s Tale, where lower-class men like Nick are at least allowed the hope that they may one day merit a Wife.)

Thus, there are more eligible wives than husbands – and as the position of wife is the “best” a young woman of Garner County can hope for (the gilded cage), women are pitted against each other. As if this isn’t offensive enough, the veil ceremony takes place immediately before the potential brides leave for their Grace Year. Picture it: you’re a scared sixteen-year-old girl who was just sentenced to a life of hard field labor; the only thing standing between an early, sun-baked death and a relatively cushy life as a wife and mother is a scrap of fabric. You’re alone and unsupervised, for the first time in your life; your body coursing with magic. What now?

Garner County has effectively incentivized murder – hence The Hunger Games meets Bridezillas. Not that state-sanctioned murder should come as a surprise: the death penalty is alive and well. See also: the poachers. In truth, not all of the Grace Year girls are meant to return home: not when they are sent into the wilderness with inadequate housing and provisions, and certainly not when they state sanctions poaching. Women are nothing if not expendable.

Magic is also a common theme but, as Tierney so astutely observes, men only seem to discover evidence of magic when it is convenient for them: “Like when Mrs. Pinter’s husband died, Mr. Coffey suddenly accused his wife of twenty-five years of secretly harboring her magic and levitating in her sleep. Mrs. Coffey was as meek and mild as they come—hardly the levitating sort—but she was cast out. No questions asked. And surprise, surprise, Mr. Coffey married Mrs. Pinter the following day.”

Women are so thoroughly indoctrinated that they question themselves whenever they have an impertinent thought or experience a flash of anger: “And I wonder if this is the magic taking over. Is this how it starts—the slip of the tongue? A loss of respect? Is this how I become a monster the men whisper of? I turn and run up the stairs before I do something I regret.”

Spoiler alert: magic isn’t real. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that magic, as it’s defined in Garner County, is not mysterious or supernatural in nature. Rather, magic is code for women’s anger. Magic is when a women speaks her mind and demands equal treatment. Magic is women working together to overthrow the patriarchy and create a new, more equitable society in which they are valued and respected. Magic is a tiny red flower. Magic is revolution.

(Here, I’m reminded of another book: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly:

“Ask yourself, why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all of our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult. By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’ we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.”)

It’s no wonder the men fear it.

Of course, not everyone is hip to the true nature of women’s magic, and it’s enthralling to see how this plays out in the little community formed by the Grace Year girls. I love how Liggett devises a very reasonable, if not mundane, explanation for the manifestation of the girls’ magical powers. And the power dynamics that arise out of this are pretty shrewd and insightful, with plenty of real-world consequences. This is how cult leaders are made. Or 45th presidents.

There’s so much more I want to rave about: The way that Liggett uses Hans to eviscerate the Nice Guy ™ trope. The kinship between women and animals, and the vegan feminist ethic that might arise from recognizing and honoring our similarities. The sheer, raw power (might I say “magic”?) of sisterhood. The seed of revolution that blossoms here.

The Grace Year may not take place in 2019 America, yet its lessons are painfully relevant today.

My only complaint – and it is not a minor one – is the complete absence of race from the narrative. Only a few of the girls are described in great physical detail; those that are all appear to be white. Do no women of color live in Garner County? If not, why not? Perhaps darker skinned women do exist, but simply are not valued as Wives in this white nationalist patriarchy. If this is the case, we’d expect to find them laboring in the fields, serving the white nuclear families, and bearing the brunt of toxic masculinity as sex workers in the outskirts. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, this is an egregiously weak spot in an otherwise powerful and engaging story.

(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: Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy edited by Mindy McGinnis, Demitria Lunetta, and Kate Karyus Quinn (2019)

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

four out of five stars

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

I found out that there was much knowledge that Chira had kept from me. The women of the village knew that a man was necessary for procreation; they just did not see his value for anything else.

(“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta)

Most women didn’t smile. Those that would usually kept walking, a little faster than before. But this one stood directly in front of them, a tremendous grin on her face as though nothing pleased her more. The men felt triumphant.

Except several moments passed and she was still standing there, smiling wider and wider. One of the men coughed. The other smiled back, weakly.

“You need something else, hon?”

She said nothing. Her smile kept growing. Grotesque now, her lips stretched as far as they could go, teeth shining in the morning sun.

(“Smile” by Emilee Martell)

It may look like we are scared. Like we are running. But we are not. I am not. Not anymore.

(“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn)

The second I saw Mindy McGinnis’s name on this book, I hit “request” without knowing anything else about it. As it turns out, I got extra lucky, because feminist horror stories? Are my peanut butter, jam, and jelly. Incidentally, Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy (that title! gives me goosebumps!) started its life as a Kickstarter campaign – the funding of which made the world just a wee bit richer.

This anthology is every bit as awesome as it sounds. Inspired by, uh, let’s just say “events” (current, past, and future), the women who populate these stories have had enough: of the cat-calling, non-consensual sharing of nude pics, and bullying. Of sexual harassment and assault. Of being gaslighted, dismissed, silenced, and ignored. Of being told to smile, or not; to laugh, or not. Of being mistreated because of their gender in a supposedly equal world. And they’re fixing for revenge. Let’s do some vicarious living, shall we? Bonus points if some of this badassery spills out into the “real” world.

So, listen. Did I love some stories more than others? Sure, but that’s an anthology for you. There was really only one story I didn’t much care for; the rest are entertaining at worst, downright life changing at best. If you do nothing else, read it for editor Kate Karyus Quinn’s “The Change,” which needs to be a summer blockbuster like yesterday.

“Vagina Dentata” by Mindy McGinnis – ?/5

A woman walks into a plastic surgeon’s office (one of maaaany) and requests dental implants in her vag. It’s an exciting concept, but at barely a page long, the story ends before it even begins. This made me extra-sad seeing as McGinnis is one of my favorites, an insta-read, and I would have wanted more even if the story was 1000 pages long.

“You Wake With Him Beside You” by Cori McCarthy – 4/5

An unexpected and cutting poem about escaping one unhealthy relationship only to become trapped in another: “you wonder about the Titanic, was it so bad? / you’re drunk on melancholy, and it’s not even eight AM.” I think we’ve all been there, yeah?

“The Weight of Iron” by Amanda Sun – 3.5/5

Accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death as a sacrifice for “seducing” the innkeeper (read: being sexually assaulted by the innkeeper), Galen finds redemption, understanding, and revenge in the most unlikely of places – her would-be executioner. This story gets a little weird, but the ending is lovely and delicious.

“What She Left Behind” by E.R. Griffin – 4/5

In 1976, a young woman named Erin Wilcox vanishes from her bedroom; the only clue, a faux diamond earring discarded in the dirt below her window. Forty-two years later, her ghost reaches out to the home’s newest resident, a girl named Mel who understands Erin’s trauma all too well. I think my favorite part of this story is the multitude of baddies – or rather, how Griffin guts the Nice Guy ™ trope.

“After the Foxes Have Their Say” by Tracie Martin – ?/5 WTF happened

There’s a prison in the desert. A Warden who takes a wife who takes off with a caravan of orphans, on account of they’re girls and she doesn’t like how the men folk are eyeing them. And then there’s a daughter. Honestly, I have no idea what this story is about, though the imagery of your heart waltzing around in someone else’s rib cage will strike a chord with anyone who’s loved and lost.

“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta – 5/5

When Dr. Janet Sayre’s colleague, Dr. Peter Harvey, disappears while studying an isolated South American tribe, she travels into the Amazon rainforest in search of him. Here, she encounters the Ayhua, a community made up exclusively of women:

The women of this small village have developed a society completely devoid of male influence. Women provide everything for themselves and take the responsibilities that other native tribes have delegated to men, including hunting, protection, and all leadership roles. They have remained undiscovered and untouched from modern ideas and ideals. They live their entire lives within a twenty-mile radius of their birthplace, and they seem to exhibit no curiosity about the outside world. They are exceptional among all other cultures and present us with a unique opportunity to study what has in the past only been a hypothetical: What path would a society take if it were women, and not men, who ruled the world?

Though there are many children present – children who are mothered communally – Sayre and her companion, a linguist named Cassie, cannot figure out how the women are becoming pregnant. Nor do they know what becomes of the male babies. As she becomes closer to the women who have so generously welcomed them into their home – chieftess/medicine woman Chira in particular – Sayre must decide to what lengths she’ll go in order to protect her adopted family.

This story a) is bonkers; b) has the potential to become a racist, imperialist mess; c) is handled with care; and d) would make an amazing horror film, but only in the hands of screenwriters and directors and producers who would nurture it with an equal amount of care. This is easily one of my favorite stories in the book, and the length makes me feel like Golilocks discovering that perfectly sized bed.

“@Theguardians1792” by Jenna Lehne – 4/5

Kind of like The Chain, but swap out the land lines for twitter and kidnapped children for humiliated/injured/murdered misogynists.

“Gravity” by Kyrie McCauley – 5/5

All of the girls in the narrator’s family are cursed:

We bear the curse of levity. Laughter. Humor and mirth. But we cannot stop it, so even when things go wrong, a feeling of joy surges over us, like a wave obliterating a sand castle. One crest of foaming water, and our pain is erased from the world forever. That is how our sadness feels. Temporary. Gone before it ever reaches the surface. Also, we float.

She has to wear weights to keep her tethered to the earth, and the only time she can connect with her negative emotions is when she’s submerged in a large body of water. Her sweet, unassuming demeanor is a curse, but also a defense mechanism, meant to camouflage her from predators (nothing to see here), i.e. men. But her best friend Odette is the only one she cares about.

“Gravity” is a beautiful, surreal F/F romance story that “feels like braids coming undone.” I’m counting down the days until the release of McCauley’s upcoming debut novel, If These Wings Could Fly.

“The Guardrail Disappears” by Melody Simpson – 3.5/5

This is your standard Law & Order: SVU episode wherein a young woman realizes that she’s been kidnapped and raised by a stranger – but in a not-so-distant future, complete with autonomous vehicles.

“Good Sister, Bad Sister” by Azzurra Nox – 3/5

“Good Sister, Bad Sister” is a like your classic YA werewolf story, only the protagonist is a young Muslim woman whose mother is pressuring her to wear a hijab, and instead of using her newfound powers to dominate the basketball court and woo her crush, Dilay gets revenge on the dude who assaulted her older sister Sanem. I really dig the idea, but the writing feels a bit clumsy in places.

“Vigilante Lane” by S. E. Green – 4/5

The protagonist of this story is a close cousin of Alex Craft, she of Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. But with a little more gore.

“We Have But Lingered Here” by Liz Coley – 4/5

In which a nonbinary fight choreographer named Jules drafts the recently summoned spirits of Shakespeare’s plays to help her slay a demon – namely, her abusive father. This is a great story on its own, but I REALLY wanted to see the fallout.

“The Whispers” by Lindsey Klingele – 5/5

Inspired by the Suffragettes, the young women of Little Falls have run amok: refusing perfectly good marriage proposals; announcing their intentions to remain single; laughing and cavorting in public; and just generally flouting decency and societal norms. And so the men of the town devise a modest solution: cut out their voice boxes so that they need not be heard. It’s no wonder that, before long, the Falls will run red with blood. This is another gem that needs to grace the big screen, shut up and take my money please!

“Smile” by Emilee Martell – 4/5

This story is best summed up by that one Broad City “smile” gif + the movie Teeth. File alongside “Vagina Dentata” as a story that’s freaking amazing, but entirely too short for civility.

Also, while we’re talking gifs, I went searching in my blogging folder for “betty,” to find the cover image for this book. A Betty White gif also popped up and now I cannot think of Betty Bites Back without also thinking of this.

You’re welcome.

“Potluck” by Kamerhe Lane – 4.5/5

A story of a wake, told by the foods prepared for it. Or, perhaps more accurately, by the female hands that made the food.

“To Mary,” someone says. Or maybe they all say. Hard to tell. “She’s free.”

Very weird and experimental but, ultimately, fierce AF.

“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn – 5/5 holy shit

This story, y’all. WOW. What a note to end on.

A little bit Children of Men, a little bit Wilder Girls, “The Change” takes place in a near-future dystopia in which the next generation of young women, upon reaching puberty, sprout spikes and scales and quills and wings and fangs. Like the levity in “Gravity,” these biological weapons are defense mechanisms that women can use against their most dangerous predators: men. Only Mother Nature’s attempt to level the playing field backfires, and women become regulated, restricted, hunted.

Except. When our unnamed narrator gets her period, nothing happens: “I changed, but nothing changed.” As news of her existence spreads and she and Mother are beset by men who want her to bear their children, to make more of her – sweet, docile, unarmed women – they go into hiding. But they cannot outrun Adam’s Soldiers (“To be a member / they removed the same rib given to Eve.”) … but maybe that’s not a bad thing? Only by confronting the patriarchy does Eve’s daughter discover her true power.

Side note: I would love for Betty White to play Daughter’s ill-fated driver in the movie adaptation of this, for reasons.

(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: After the Flood by Kassandra Montag (2019)

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

A promising premise that does not deliver.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape, kidnapping, human trafficking, suicide, and drug use.)

This is how the water takes us.

DNF at 76%.

Thirty-something Myra lives in a future that could one day very well be our own. Flooding fueled by climate change gradually claimed the coasts before she was born; and, when she just a young woman, the Hundred Year flood reached her doorstep – the plains of Nebraska – sweeping her mother away in a tidal wave. The family – her migrant husband, Jacob; daughter Row; and Grandfather – retreated to the second floor of the house, as Grandfather raced against time to build them a boat on which to navigate this terrifying new world. But before he could finish, Jacob fled with a neighbor, taking Row with him…and leaving a pregnant Myra behind.

It’s been seven years since Row was kidnapped. Without Grandfather and his boat, Bird, Myra would not have survived. Grandfather is gone, though, having passed mercifully in his sleep; and if she and her younger daughter are to survive, Myra has reached the dispiriting conclusion that she must abandon her search for Row. However, a chance encounter with a raider suggests that Row may not only be alive, but in imminent danger: held captive on a colony in Greenland and at risk of being sent to a breeding ship (it’s exactly what it sounds like).

Bird is too small to make such as a treacherous passing – but the Sedna, which comes to their aid, is just perfect. Can Myra convince its inhabitants to make the journey? Should she? Is it okay to sacrifice their lives for that of their daughter? To sacrifice Pearl for Row?

If this sounds like Mad Max: Fury Road, but with too much water instead of not enough, then you understand my initial excitement. I devoured the first 25% or so of the book; the early world building is promising:

We still called oceans by their former names, but it was really one giant ocean now, littered with pieces of land like crumbs fallen from the sky.

The remnants of humanity either live in crowded slums wedged into the sides of what used to be mountain ranges, but are now more like islands; the rest risk weather, starvation, dehydration, and pirate-raiders (the descendants of private military outfits, natch) at sea. Human trafficking is prevalent, as is colonizing, now with the biological warfare!

Sadly, After the Flood breaks down like this: 40% pointless whining about ethical dilemmas (Myra’s gonna Myra, am I right?), 30% boat talk, 10% cringy sex scenes, and maybe, generously, 20% intriguing world building and poetic prose about the natural world.

The characters are either unlikable or not fully fleshed out (or both) – and when I say “unlikable,” I don’t mean in that love to hate ’em, Gone Girl kind of way. Unlikable characters can be super-entertaining, but this is not the case here. Myra is unrelentingly irritating; her internal conflicts are dull and repetitive, and the umbrage she takes at discovering that other people also have their own, sometimes hidden agendas would be laughable if it wasn’t so annoyingly self-absorbed and hypocritical. (Pot, meet kettle.) She flies into a rage with Daniel even though her deceptions are arguably worse; he’s just floating along in the wake of destruction she’s creating in her quest to rescue Row.

Daniel is wholly uninteresting, and Pearl is more of a brat than is reasonable in this world; idk how she could act like that and survive for so long. And for all her whining about how Myrna doesn’t listen to her…didn’t they just spend the better part of a decade trapped on a small boat together, with only each other (and, for a brief period, one other person) for company?

Abran, the captive of the Sedna, is not believable as a leader at all. He’s a bossy, short-tempered alcoholic without the stones to make the hard decisions. I can’t see anyone following him from one Grateful Dead concert to the next, let alone across the vast, empty ocean. Montag forces him into a love triangle with Daniel and Myrna and the whole thing is just yawn.

It hurts to see what could have been an engaging and prescient story go down like this, but it is what it is. Honestly, I’m puzzled at all the glowing early reviews. Were we reading the same book?

(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: Life of the Party: Poems by Olivia Gatwood (2019)

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Law & Order: SVU meets the Button Poetry YouTube channel

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.)

If you have a son, how will you love him?
She is pacing the living room,
while the Thanksgiving Day Parade
plays behind her, a montage of inflated
cartoon bodies, floating slow
down 6th Avenue, smiles
painted onto their faces.

I consider not responding.
I consider explaining that I can love him and not trust him. I consider saying that I won’t
love him at all. Just to scare her. Instead, I say,

If I am ever murdered, like,
body found in a ditch, mouth
stuffed with dirt, stocking
around my neck, identified
by my toenails, please don’t go
looking for a guilty woman.

(“My Grandmother Asks Why I Don’t Trust Men”)

16. Laughter is not about humor,
it is about acknowledging a shared joy.
Laughter is about bonding.

EXAMPLE: WHEN I HEAR MEN LAUGHING,
I DO NOT ENTER THE ROOM.
I CRAWL HOME IN THE DARK.

(“Mans/Laughter”)

Aileen, I wish I could’ve taken you there.
It’s too late now. I wish you hadn’t hurt all those people.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know you hate it when I say that,
what I meant was that I wish all those people hadn’t hurt you.

(“Aileen Wuornos Isn’t My Hero”)

In the Author’s Note, Gatwood writes at length about her obsession with true crime shows, and the resulting – if paradoxical – feelings of fear and control they instilled in her:

I want to believe that the motivation behind most true crime is to bring to light the epidemic of women’s murder worldwide, to use nonfiction storytelling as a method of illuminating a clear pattern. But I don’t believe that. If that were true, it wouldn’t focus on crimes committed by random strangers, and instead would reveal the much more common perpetrators: men whom these women knew and often loved. If true crime were truly mission-oriented, it would focus on the cases that are not explicitly perverse and shocking, the ones that are familiar, fast, and happen at home. If true crime sought to confront the reality of violence against women, it would not rely so heavily on fear-mongering narratives of cisgender white girls falling victim to men of color.

Life of the Party: Poems is a reaction to these shows, and the culture that spawned them. The same culture that taught her to fear men, and her own body. These poems are about crimes true and fictionalized; about violence against women, in all its forms: physical, sexual, psychological; violences so conspicuous that they are impossible to ignore, as well as the “smaller” insults called microaggressions. Gatwood identifies and names these things, embodies them in her verse, gives them life in her words – all so that she may eviscerate them with the same.

Gatwood’s poems are at at once stirring and despondent; beautiful and cutting (not that the two are mutually exclusive!); fierce and feminist AF. Life of the Party is both a memoir and a cultural history; some of the loveliest and most heartbreaking poems are those which incorporate actual headlines from real-life cases: “Murder of a Little Beauty” (JonBenet Ramsey), “Body Count: 13” (the West Mesa murders). Aileen Wuornos is present in so many of these verses, even when she is just passing through, like a visitor in the night.

There are odes to the women of Long Island (“when I show them the knife I carry in my purse, tell me it’s not big enough”), bitchface (“resting bitch face, they call you but there is nothing restful about you, no”), unpaid electricity bills, and a lover’s left hand. Woven throughout the named poems is an untitled, serialized piece about Gatwood’s babysitter, the cool older girl who, by book’s end, either overdosed – or was killed by her abuser, depending on your POV.

Yet, as bleak and depressing as many of these poems are/can be, Life of the Party ends on hopeful notes: “All of the Missing Girls are Hanging Out Without Us,” having a grand old time (surprise!) and, “In the Future, I Love the Nighttime,” thanks to the virus that did away with all the violent-minded men in the world. (Turns out the apocalypse is just peachy!)

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

Book Review: The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Like, are we even human?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil (2019)

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

This DNF hurt like h*ck.

two out of five stars

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

After the death of her grandmother Loretta, seventeen-year-old Xochi finds herself in San Francisco, alone, on the run, and down to her last few bucks. And then she somewhat serendipitously has a platonic meet-cute with Pallas, a precocious twelve-year-old who also just so happens to be the heir to a rock royalty family. Faster than you can say “content warning,” Xochi is installed in their storybook Victorian mansion as Pal’s governess. In an attempt to cheer Pallas up one evening, the pair accidentally conjure two demons in Pal’s claw-foot bathtub – demons who trace a path of destruction through Xochi’s troubled past.

I really thought I’d love All of Us with Wings. I mean, it’s an #OwnVoices rape revenge story with LGBTQ elements, ferchrissakes! And “Gilman Street,” Ruiz Keil’s contribution to the YA romance anthology Color Outside the Lines, is a thing of punk rock beauty and wonder.

Sadly, Wings lacks the magic and energy of “Gilman Street.” The writing feels choppy and uneven, and the story is veeeerrry slooooow to get started. By the time I DNF’ed at the 59% mark, Xochi’s demon children had only committed one murder, and the only being consciously aware of their presence is Peasblossom the cat. (In theory, I love that Ruiz Keil humanizes the cat by giving him a voice, but here the multiple perspectives really don’t add anything to the story.)

What we do get is a shit ton of Xochi lusting after Pal’s dad Leviticus, who is eleven years her senior (and whose only notable personality trait seems to be that he’s a rock star). Actually, that’s not so much the problem as is Lev’s lusting after Xochi – and then acting on said lust, even though he knows it’s wrong for multiple reasons. There are some gross, rape culture dynamics going on here (adult man/teenage girl; employer/employee; 1%/impoverished high school dropout), which are only exacerbated by the fact that I don’t know whether Ruiz Keil means for us to be rooting for them as a couple.

Like, it’s understandable that Xochi has complicated relationships with older men considering her past experiences, but Lev’s actions are simply inexcusable. In all fairness, it’s possible that the demon spawn will target him later in the story, I just couldn’t bring myself to read that far.

Anyway, it pains me to give this book so few stars, especially since I seem to be in the minority (serious case of fomo over here), but it is what it is.

(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: This Land is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations, and Other Self-Made States by Andy Warner & Sofie Louise Dam (2019)

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

I want to go where the vegan lesbians are.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual violence against women and children.)

A community founded in upstate New York in 1848 and based on a radical reimagining of society, marriage and child rearing…

…ended up being one of the world’s largest purveyors of cutlery and tableware.

Written by Andy Warner and illustrated by Sofie Louise Dam, This Land is My Land highlights thirty self-made or experimental communities, loosely falling into one of the following categories:
1 – Intentional communities: “Groups of people who chose to radically remake their social structures.”
2 – Micronations: “Brief histories of the tiny, unrecognized nations of the world.”
3 – Failed utopias: “The bigger the experiment, the harder it falls.”
4 – Visionary environments: “Stories of wonderful and bizarre places where individuals make their visions reality.”
5 – Strange dreams: “Proposals, plans, and schemes, never brought to pass.”

Before visions of radical utopias start swimming through your head (they sure did mine), know that the places featured here range from large-scale art projects created by a single individual (Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in India; Ra Paulette’s Caves in New Mexico; Nevada’s Thunder Mountain Monument); to large, sprawling – if unusual – homes, again built for a single person or family (Freedom Cove, off the coast of Vancouver; Arizona Mystery Castle); to honest-to-goodness intentional communities and communes – one of them even traveling (The Van Dykes).

Among my favorites are the communities and nations created by people seeking to escape oppression and persecution. Chief among these is Libertatia, a city-state established in a bay in Madagascar by a French pirate and a Dominican priest in the 1600s. The crew of the Victoire made a habit of attacking slaving ships, freeing the kidnapped human cargo, and then splitting the bounty equally between all. Newly freed slaves were welcome to join the crew if they desired. Libertatia became their permanent, democratic, anti-authoritarian settlement. At least, if you believe the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates; there is no physical evidence of the colony’s existence today. (I want to believe.)

Sadly, many of these larger communities were either established as tax havens (libertarians seem to be especially egregious offenders here) or as a means for the founders (men, always) to rape and traffic women and children. (You’ll never look at Oneida flatware the same way again. And I was rooting for you up until the child rape, Noyes.) I really would have loved to have seen more positive examples, but there you go. People suck more than they don’t.

One cool thing: of those sites still in existence, many are open to tourists. The Arizona Mystery Castle seems like a pretty rad vacation destination (but not in the summer, obvs).

(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: Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2019)

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

A horrifying, based-on-a-true-story addition to the growing body of #MeToo literature.

five out of five stars

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

We won’t have to leave the people we love? says Neitje. Greta points out that the women could bring loved ones with them. Others question the practicality of this, and Ona mentions, gently, that several of the people we love are people we also fear.

Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not harm another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year-old child.

Mariche can contain herself no longer. She accuses Ona of being a dreamer. We are women without a voice, Ona states calmly. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams— so of course we are dreamers.

Between 2005 and 2009, a group of nine men raped hundreds of women, girls, and children in an isolated Bolivian Mennonite settlement called Manitoba Colony. In many cases, the men – fellow believers and members of the community – were related to the victims, who were their sisters, cousins, aunts, nieces, etc. Using belladonna procured from a veterinarian in a neighboring Mennonite colony, the men blew the sedative through doors and windows, incapacitating entire households, and then spent the night assaulting their victims, alone or in groups. Victims would wake up sore and bruised, sometimes with dirt, blood, and semen staining their sheets, or with grass in their hair. Many of the victims had no memory of the assault, while others recalled the night’s events in fragments and flashes.

Though many of the women and children were reluctant to recount their experiences (the children, especially, lacked words with which to describe what had been done to them), the sisters – Mennonites refer to all members of the community as “sisters” and “brothers” – began to whisper amongst themselves. Word spread, as it always does. The leaders of Manitoba Colony – men, them all – dismissed the women’s experiences as “wild female imagination,” or punishment wrought down by God or Satan for unnamed sins. The perpetrators were given otherworldly origins: they were demons and ghosts, whose manifestations for which the women were ultimately responsible. Or the women were simply lying, either to cover up adultery or for attention.

The rape ring was finally uncovered when two men were caught trying to break into a neighbor’s home in June of 2009. They gave up a few of their friends, and so on, until nine men – between the ages of 19 and 43 – were implicated. The trial took place in 2011; the rapists were sentenced to 25 years apiece, while the veterinarian who supplied the drug got 12 years. Officially, 130 victims were identified during the trial, but the number is likely much higher. The case shone a light on domestic violence and sexual assault in conservative, insulated Mennonite colonies. Indeed, in a follow-up visit to Manitoba Colony for Vice in 2013, journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky discovered evidence that the mass rapes are still happening. (Google “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia” to see the report, as well as a two-part documentary available on YouTube.)

The fact that the case even went to trial is remarkable in itself. While Mennonites, like all religious groups, have various factions and adherents ranging from liberal to more conservative, the Manitoba Colony is on the extreme end of the spectrum. Mennonites have their origins in 16th century Netherlands; due to religious persecution, its converts spread around the globe over the intervening centuries. Named after the Canadian province they fled in the early 1900s, the Manitoba Colony eventually settled in Bolivia thanks to an agreement with the country, that they would be largely autonomous and free to govern themselves. In terms of law enforcement, except in cases of murder, the Manitobans are free to handle crime as they see fit.

Manitoba leadership only turned the rapists over to the Bolivian government for their own safety: they were afraid that, if the men remained in the colony, they would be killed by the victims’ male relatives. With no police force or judicial system, local ministers “investigate” and mete out punishment for wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, crimes of this nature largely go unpunished and tend to reoccur.

Enter Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, which the author somewhat cheekily describes as “both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.” (Burn.) In this reimagining of events, the rapists were indeed turned over to the Bolivian government (in this case, it was because of Salome with a scythe, vs. men with pitchforks, which I love). However, the colony’s remaining men, having had a change of heart, have traveled to the nearest city to post bail for their brothers. (This plot hole is my only issue with the story: why bring the accused back to await the trail date when they were sent away for their own safety? Is it because they recanted their confessions?)

The women have two days before they return, rapists in tow. Two days to decide what their response should be.

They have three options, as they see it:

1. Do nothing.
2. Stay and fight.
3. Leave.

And so eight women climb into a disused hay loft for a surreptitious meeting/debate. Eight women, and one man to record the minutes – because women, only schooled to the age of twelve, are not taught to read or write. Luckily, the man is sympathetic to their plight, and a bit of a rebel/outcast himself. A group of sisters who have already thrown their caps into the do-nothing camp? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong; Women Talking is not heavy on action. While I’d argue that it is suspenseful, the tension is understated: what will the women do to defend themselves, if anything?

There’s a lot of talking in this book: as another reviewer noted, it’s right there in the title. And probably this isn’t everybody’s thing. But I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. And, when it was over, I spent a few more hours reading about the case online. It’s horrifying, not just in the sheer scope of abuse, but in the bizarre stories used to explain it away. (Rape apologism on LSD.) Perhaps most horrifying is how completely the women were – are – trapped by circumstance, as becomes evident as the narrative unfolds.

Not only are the women illiterate (by design), thus unable to read a map; they have no idea where they live in relation to the outside world. Their colony is remote and they have only horses and buggies for travel. They speak only Low German in a Latin American country. Leaving is difficult, while fighting arguably goes against their pacifist beliefs. But staying and continuing to endure the abuse? Being forced under threat of excommunication to forgive their rapists? Unthinkable.

What is their duty to God? To the patriarchs of their colony? To their community? To their faith? To their children? To themselves?

As I devoured the book, I found myself wondering just how much of it is true, and what is merely artistic embellishment? As it turns out, most of the more outrageous details are fact. The youngest victim was a three-year-old toddler (though it’s unclear if she actually contracted an STD, as Miep did in the book). The women were denied counseling by the colony elders, on the reasoning that, if they were unconscious and unaware during the attacks, what harm could it have done? (In fact, Low German-speaking counselors volunteered to visit the colony and work with survivors, free of cost; colony leaders turned them away without so much as mentioning it to the women.) The women were “encouraged” to forgive their attackers; if they failed to do so, they received a personal visit from Bishop Neurdorf, “Manitoba’s highest authority.”

An especially appalling detail, not mentioned by Toews: Old Mennonite women are not allowed to testify (nor vote, hold office, etc.). At the trial, the victims’ male relatives had to offer testimony on their behalf. Women were not allowed to speak of the violence inflicted on them – not even at the trial of their oppressors.

So as bad as Women Talking is, I have to believe that the reality is so very much worse. Especially since the hayloft meeting – the most hopeful part of the book – is a flight of the female imagination, so to speak.

Also, Toews spent the first eighteen years of her life in a Mennonite community, so I’ve got to trust that she knows that of which she writes.

While it’s tempting to blame the mass rapes on the Mennonite religion – and, indeed, the patriarchal power structure, fear of outsiders, and physical and linguistic isolation of the colony certainly contributed to the sheer scope and longevity of the crimes – rape is … everywhere. As I write this review, a NYT piece just broke a scandal involving the systemic rape of nuns by priests, who then forced their victims to abort the resulting pregnancies (just proving that their opposition to abortion is less about babies and more about power over and control of female bodies). There’s even a great moment when Mejal “not all men”s the proceedings – to which Ona replies: “Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

Anywhere that women (or girls, or boys, or LGBTQ people, or the disabled, or POC, etc.) are dehumanized, objectified, and othered; anywhere that one group is given total or near-total power over others; anywhere there is inequality and certain segments of the population are marginalized, discriminated against, and disbelieved, there will be rape. Whether it’s an isolated Mennonite colony in eastern Bolivia, or a college dorm room in Columbus, Ohio. In the office of a powerful Hollywood producer or the Oval Office.

The question becomes, what are we – you and I – going to do about it?

There’s nowhere to flee, and “nothing” has been the status quo for far too long.

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

Book Review: The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One (Women Are Some Kind of Magic #3) by Amanda Lovelace (2019)

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Feels like déjà vu.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape, as well as depression and self-injurious behaviors.)

when i tell you i’m still waiting for my hogwarts letter, what i mean to say is i never meant to be here for so long.

– forever wandering lost & wandless.

you are sad now.
you are not sad forever.

this is me
pressing
my finger
to the sand,

delicately
drawing
your name
there,

& then
stepping back
so i can
watch

you
as you’re
finally
carried away.

– goodbye.

The third and final poetry collection in Amanda Lovelace’s Women Are Some Kind of Magic series, The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One engages with many of the same subjects and themes as The Princess Saves Herself in This One and The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One: rape and sexual abuse, interpersonal violence, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, mental health, and sexism and misogyny. The result is both biting and beautiful, if a little repetitive: it feels like we’ve been down this road before.

To be fair, my expectations might be to blame: with the book’s fairy tale-esque title, I was hoping for more retellings in this collection. Maybe in the vein of “Small Yellow Cottage On The Shore,” Lovelace’s contribution to the [Dis]connected anthology. Especially nautical-themed poems featuring mermaids … and perhaps a narwhal or two! But the mermaid imagery is kept to a minimum, and there aren’t really any reimagined fairy tales or fables to be found.

Yet, in the afterward, Lovelace describes The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One as the denouement in a series meant to help her come to terms with her experiences of abuse and violence, and perhaps commune with other survivors and potential survivors. I’m not entirely sure she hit the mark with each book – because, again, they kind of all blur together for me, rather than representing separate and distinct pieces of a larger whole – but, clearly, my expectations going in were way off the mark.

One way in which The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One deviates from its predecessors is by featuring pieces by guest contributors in the final section of the book, which is a nice change of pace. If you’ve read [Dis]connected, you’ll recognize some of the names right off the bat; if not, you might just discover a few new poets to check out.

(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 Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing by DaMaris B. Hill (2019)

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

“How many ways did you write women? How many ways did you right women?”

three out of five stars

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

The afflicted pray for healing—just as hungry people pray for bread, but when has God ever sent bread? In my recollection of the scriptures, God has always sent a woman.

bound

verb

simple past tense and past participle of bind.

adjective

tied; in bonds: a bound prisoner.

made fast as if by a band or bond: She is bound to her family.

secured within a cover, as a book.

under a legal or moral obligation: He is bound by the terms of the contract.

destined; sure; certain: It is bound to happen.

determined or resolved: He is bound to go.

Pathology . constipated.

Mathematics . (of a vector) having a specified initial point as well as magnitude and direction.

held with another element, substance, or material in chemical or physical union.

(of a linguistic form) occurring only in combination with other forms, as most affixes.

From Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, Ida B. Wells to Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones to Assata Shakur, A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is DaMaris B. Hill’s “love letter to women who have been denied their humanity.”

In its most obvious sense, these women are bound in a very real, tangible way: those shackled by the chains of slavery, or imprisoned in jail (often, as we’ll see, for defending themselves against physical abuse and sexual assault). But to be bound can also be a positive thing, an expression of love: to be bound to one’s ancestors, connected to one’s friends and family, accountable to one’s community. Here, Hill celebrates women who have been bound in both respects, sometimes simultaneously.

Poetry is a deeply personal and intimate form of communion, and it’s pretty hit-or-miss for me. I know what I like, even if I have no idea why I like it. And, sadly, as much as I was looking forward to A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing (I mean, THAT COVER!), most of the poems just didn’t do it for me.

First, the pros: Hill introduced me to a number of badass women I’d never heard of before, and whom I’d love to learn more about. I love the concept of the collection, and the way it’s laid out, with photos, biographies, and poems inspired by the subjects.

But the cons: I just had a ton of trouble getting into the poems themselves. Likewise, the short biographies of the women featured often seem incomplete, and are sometimes downright confusing. The most obvious example to come to mind is Joan Little, who is listed as born in 1953 with an “unknown” date of death. Wikipedia lists her as still alive, so…that’s weird. At the very least, it requires further explanation, right?

Poetry is hardly in my wheelhouse, though, and judging from the other reviews, I’m in the minority here, so don’t let my experiences dissuade you. Roxane Gay blurbed it, so.

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

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

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

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

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: [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!)