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

Monday, December 5th, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of it is funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Yesternight, Cat Winters (2016)

Friday, October 14th, 2016

Supernatural horror + timeless misogyny = a compelling creepshow.

four out of five stars

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

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

—George Santayana, “Sonnet V,” 1896

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

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

A female mathematical genius.

A Victorian female mathematical genius.

What an absolutely delicious idea.

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

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

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

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Book Review: ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker (2016)

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Belongs in high school libraries everywhere.

five out of five stars

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

Non-Natives thus position themselves, either wittingly or unwittingly, as being the true experts about Indians and their histories—and it happens at all levels of society, from the uneducated all the way up to those with advanced college degrees, and even in the halls of Congress. […]

The result is the perpetual erasure of Indians from the US political and cultural landscape. In short, for five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.

Imagining huge fields of gold, which did not exist, Columbus instituted what later became known as the encomienda system, large estates run on forced labor for the purposes of extracting gold. Las Casas reported that when mining quotas were not met by the Indians excavating the gold, their hands were cut off and they bled to death. When they attempted to flee, they were hunted down with dogs and killed. So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field.

He [King George] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

—Declaration of Independence

— 4.5 stars —

Native Americans should be honored to have sports teams named after them.

The Indians lost the war, why can’t they move on already?

Indian casinos make everyone rich.

Whether your ancestors were indigenous to North America or not, no doubt you’re familiar with at least a few of these myths about Native Americans. Actually, that’s an understatement, given that our culture – right down to its founding documents – is steeped in such half-truths, contested theories, and outright lies. They’re taught in our high school history books (Columbus discovered America; the convoluted and decontextualized myth of Thanksgiving), trotted out for celebrations (Native American mascots; cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes), and have been used to strip Native tribes of their lands, power, and self-determination (“real” Indians live on reservations/meet blood quantum requirements/belong to a tribe/adhere to certain spiritual practices).

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

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Lost and the Found, Cat Clark (2016)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

On Children Lost and Found – and Overlooked and Forgotten

four out of five stars

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

Chances are, you have seen her. The photo of blond-haired, gap-toothed, polka-dot-dressed, teddy bear–cradling Laurel Logan has surely been printed in almost every newspaper in the world (probably even the Uzbekistan Times, now that I think about it). […]

I was also in the original photo: four years old, cute in the way that all four-year-olds are, but nothing special. Not like her. Frizzy brown hair, beady little eyes, hand-me-down clothes. I was playing in a sandbox in the background, slightly out of focus. That’s how it’s been my whole life: in the background, slightly out of focus. You hardly ever see that version of the photo—the one where I haven’t been cropped out.

I try to put myself in her shoes. Coming back to your family after all that time. You’d want things to be the same as when you left, wouldn’t you? But a lot can change in thirteen years. Your mother can wither away to nothingness, and your dad can get together with a lovely Frenchman, and your little sister can stop building sand castles and start building a wall around herself instead.

For as long as she can remember, seventeen-year-old Faith Logan has lived in her older sister’s shadow. When they were younger, Laurel was everything Faith was not: friendly, outgoing, and beautiful. Whereas Faith inherited their parents’ plain Jane, mousey looks – complete with frizzy brown hair and beady eyes – the adopted Laurel practically shined with her golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Laurel was the leader and Faith, her mostly-content follower. That is, until the day that Laurel was kidnapped from their front yard, lured away by a stranger promising ice cream cones.

In the intervening thirteen years, Laurel has overshadowed Faith in a much more tragic and morbid way. Their mother Olivia suffers from chronic depression, a melancholy broken only by the single-minded determination to find her missing daughter. Father John is more or less absent from his remaining daughter’s life; his new boyfriend Michel seems to do a better job of parenting Faith than the two combined. Unwilling to be perpetually cast as “Little Laurel Logan’s” sad and less interesting younger sister, Faith avoids publicity as assiduously as Olivia courts it: both to fund the never ending search for Laurel, and to keep her case alive in the public’s mind. Faith can count her friends on one hand, as too many of her peers seem to want to get close to her so they can be nearer tragedy. Rubberneckers and paparazzi vultures: these are the creatures she’s built up armor against.

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

Monday, September 19th, 2016

There aren’t enough stars in the universe.

five out of five stars

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Conjoined, Jen Sookfong Lee (2016)

Friday, September 16th, 2016

“I come from a family of psychopaths.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and child abuse. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to be as vague as possible.)

She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. […]

Ginny picked up the receiver. She might as well call. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that someone would understand.

It was easy to say My childhood was normal. It was the sort of thing people say when they want to deflect attention, or when it was the most polite way to explain that you grew up with privilege, that your past wasn’t dotted with evictions and coupons and beatings from a father who could never keep a job. It was what Jessica always said, even though she knew this statement couldn’t possibly be true for anyone.

Here are three things you should know about The Conjoined:

1. The book’s Little Red Riding Hood /The Handmaid’s Tale– inspired cover bears little relation to the story.

2. There are no conjoined twins in this book.

3. It’s still a pretty good read anyway, unsatisfying ending excluded.

About a month after losing her mother Donna to cancer, twenty-eight-year-old Jessica Campbell is helping her father Gerry sort through the detritus of their decades-long marriage when they make a truly horrifying discovery. Amid Ziplock bags stuffed with frostbitten bison meat, Gerry finds the bodies of two (very human) girls stashed in his wife’s basement freezers. (I own two chest freezers, and the roomier models are most definitely large enough to accommodate the body of a teenage girl. Don’t worry; you’ll only find homegrown apples and cases of Daiya cheese in my freezers.) The police are summoned straightaway, reopening an investigation into an eighteen-year-old mystery: whatever happened to Jamie and Casey Cheng?

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Book Review: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Jessica Luther (2016)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

A Fan’s Take on the Intersection of Rape Culture, Racism, and Capitalism in College Football

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence against women, obviously.)

So I am not what you’d call a sports fan. Occasionally I enjoy playing baseball, basketball, or tennis for funsies or fitness, but that’s about the extent of it. I ran out of fucks to give as a spectator when my youngest brother aged out of Little League.

Jessica Luther, on the other hand, “was born with garnet and gold blood.” Her parents graduated from Florida State University; she spent her autumns rooting for the Seminoles religiously; and, when it came time to go off to college, she only applied to one school. Once at FSU, she had her ass planted firmly in the bleachers for every home game, rain or shine, humidity and frost be damned:

I learned early on how to be a fan. There are rules and rituals the fans of a sports team follow and do, a kind of collective performance before and during games that show the love for our school and team. The playbook for fans consists of memorizing chants, wearing the right colors, painting our faces, and always singing along whenever you hear the school’s fight song. The most important play, though, is the one where you give your team your love and devotion, and you trust in the players and coaches even when they play badly and even if you have to ignore what they do when they are off the field and out of uniform. This, the fan playbook prescribes, is what good fans do. I used to be a really good FSU fan.

That is, until the 2012 rape allegations against Jameis Winston forced her to confront some of the more problematic aspects of the sport she so loves.

Let me stop right here and say that it’s not that you have to be a fan of something in order to earn the right to critique its more problematic aspects; far from it. But the particularities of fan identity vis–à–vis sports – Luther cites studies which show that many fans’ self-esteem is linked to their team’s performance – certainly encourage suspicion and hostility towards outsiders, as do structural barriers against women in sports, not to mention larger cultural narratives surrounding rape and violence against women. To the football fans in the audience, Luther wants you to know that she’s one of you, and her interrogation of that which you hold most dear comes from a place of love: both for victims/survivors, and for the sport itself. The wake up call is coming from inside the house, okay.

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Book Review: A Song to Take the World Apart, Zan Romanoff (2016)

Monday, September 12th, 2016

A book about first loves, female power, and consent (spoiler alert: there is none in love spells).

three out of five stars

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

No one remembers when it was that our ancestors first found their way out of the sea. It seems now that all human life might have begun there, and that makes sense to me: that the womb of the world is water and salt. But I am speaking more specifically about a kind of ancestor that not everyone on this earth shares. And of course that makes sense to me too. How could a world so vast produce only one kind of human being?

Lorelei didn’t know whether she liked the boy or the guitar more.

— 3.5 stars —

Lorelei Felson is a second-generation German immigrant – although, with her long, blonde hair, wispy figure, and perfect English, she’s really just another pretty face in LA. Her family – mother Petra, father Henry, and Oma Silke – came to the United States eighteen years ago, when Petra was just seventeen and already pregnant with the twins, Lorelei’s older brothers Nik and Jens. Lorelei always assumed that Petra fled from shame – of being an unwed teenage mother in a small coastal town – yet details are difficult to come by in their stern, quiet household. The true circumstances of their exile are much weirder and more mythical than Lorelei could ever imagine – and they’re all bound up in her grandmother’s longstanding prohibition on singing.

Despite the oddness of it, Lorelei never questioned Oma’s decree; it was just another rule she was raised to follow, like eat your broccoli or be home by curfew. And so Lorelei’s voice remained silent – or at least shackled – until two fateful events converged to change her world forever: Lorelei fell hard for Chris Paulson, a charming senior and the lead singer for The Trouble; and Oma passed away after suffering a massive stroke. Suddenly Lorelei’s soul is filled with a volatile mix of raw, aching grief and crazy, careless first love that all but demands a musical release.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016)

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Harrowing and heartbreaking — and brimming with humanity.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including slavery and rape, and offensive language.)

Cora couldn’t pay attention. The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

RAN AWAY
from her legal but not rightful master fifteen months past,
a slave girl called CORA;
of ordinary height and dark brown complexion;
has a star-shape mark on her temple from an injury;
possessed of a spirited nature and devious method.
Possibly answering to the name BESSIE.
Last seen in Indiana among the outlaws of John Valentine Farm.
She has stopped running.
Reward remains unclaimed.
SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.
December 23

Sixteen-year-old Cora was born on the Randall plantation in Georgia, just like her mother before her. Mabel’s mother, Ajarry, was the first of their line to set foot on American soil. She was kidnapped, separated from her family, and enslaved when she was just a girl. Twice she tried to commit suicide on the long voyage across the Atlantic, to no avail. She married three times and birthed five children; Mabel was the only one to survive into adulthood. Mabel had a little more luck in her escape attempt: when Cora was ten or eleven, she ran away, never to return.

The first time Caesar asked Cora to run away with him, she refused. Three weeks later, she said yes. In the interim, Cora had snapped; just for a second, throwing her body over that of a young boy named Chester to shield him from punishment. A beating with a cane, for the crime of bumping into his owner’s brother, thus spilling a drop of wine on his shirtsleeve. She’d landed on Terrance Randall’s radar; Terrance, who was now poised to assume control of his brother James’s half of the plantation. Terrance, the crueler and more sadistic of the Randall boys.

“She had not been his and now she was his. Or she had always been his and just now knew it.”

So Caesar and Cora make a break for it, with a little help from the famed Underground Railroad. Only here, Whitehead reimagines the UR as an honest-to-goodness, wood and steel train; one that travels through tunnels carved into the rock by black and brown hands. A railroad that runs up and down the East Coast, on an intermittent schedule, with stops closing and rerouting as needed.

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Book Review: The Girl Before, Rena Olsen (2016)

Monday, August 8th, 2016

A harrowing (if atypical) tale of human trafficking.

four out of five stars

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

If what I’ve been told is true, if I was taken from a loving family, what does that mean for the girls I raised? Were these girls all taken as well? Glen had to know. There’s no way that I’ve been able to work it out in my mind that he didn’t. I want to talk to him, to ask him why, but part of me is terrified of the answer. Terrified to know the truth, because if he knew, if he orchestrated all of it, then what does that make me? What did he make me?

Alt title: “The Deprogramming of Diana McKinley.”

The Girl Before begins with a bang and a whimper as federal agents raid the headquarters of a human trafficking ring in the Rocky Mountains. Among the girls and women rescued is Clara Lawson (real name Diana McKinley), who was abducted from a park near her home when she was just six years old.

Like all of the other children kidnapped by Papa G and Mama Mae, Clara was told that her parents no longer wanted her; had given or sold her to the Lawsons to raise; and would eventually be placed with a family who loved and needed her more than hers. The brainwashing begins immediately, and is reinforced with strict discipline, an emphasis on total obedience, and copious physical abuse. Strict gender segregation is maintained at all ages (after all, can’t have the boys “sullying” the merchandise), with boys trained to be bodyguards, manual laborers, or Papa G’s own personal militia, and girls groomed as “companions.” A high-end brothel, Mama teaches her girls etiquette, reading, writing, proper speech, and foreign languages in order to appeal to wealthy buyers. Some clients even choose “their” girl in advance, with special instructions as to their education.

Clara is one such girl, having been promised to Mr. Q – a man easily thirty years her senior – at the age of twelve. The only thing standing between her and a life as a sex slave is Glen Lawson, Jr. – Papa G and Mama Mae’s only son and the heir to their operation. He and Clara fall in love and, with a little perseverance, a whole lot of nerve, and a bit of Machiavellian maneuvering, manage to stay together, despite the odds. But theirs is a bargain with the devil: Papa G agrees to let Glen buy Clara, but only if they stay and take over the business when he retires. And so Clara becomes both victim and victimizer, as she trains girls the way Mama trained her (albeit with a much gentler, more compassionate hand).

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Book Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan (2016)

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

A story about apocalypses, both personal and communal.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and transmisogyny.)

—Are you staring right at the sun? Stella asks.
—I’m staring right under it.
—You’ll go blind.
—No, I won’t. I was taught how to by the sunlight pilgrims, they’re from the islands farthest north. You can drink light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, when there is a total absence of it, you will glow and glow and glow. I do, she says.
—You glow?
—Like a fucking angel, she says.

She’s not worried about breasts and she doesn’t want rid of her penis, small as it is, not if it means getting an operation anyway. She just wants smooth skin and her girl voice and to leave wolf prints in the snow each morning.

It is funny how he always thought she was a hero when he was a little boy, but he had no idea exactly how much that was true.

The Sunlight Pilgrims isn’t quite what I expected. Usually when I say this about a book, it’s with at least a hint of disappointment. Not so in this case! The Sunlight Pilgrims may not be the book I wanted, but it’s exactly the book I needed.

To me, the word “caravan” evokes action, movement, journeys (preferably epic ones). The synopsis brought to mind a group of daring travelers, weaving through the mountainous countryside, trying in vain to stay ahead of the harsh winter (and, presumably, the violence, looting, riots, starvation, poverty, etc. that are sure to follow). I guess I overlooked the word “park,” not realizing that caravans are to the UK what trailers are to the US: mostly stationary homes. Thus, what we get is a story that’s a little less Mad Max and a little more mundane: a small, remote town in the Scottish Highlands preparing for the worst winter in two hundred years. Perilous, yes, but minus the action and adventure I expected.

Likewise, this isn’t necessarily the apocalypse. Set a mere four years in the future, conditions are dire, to be sure: climate change and melting ice caps have led to a a global cooling in temperatures. The Thames is overflowing (and then frozen solid); an iceberg nicknamed Boo is expected to make contact with the Scottish coast; and experts predict that temperatures in some regions will drop as low as -50 degrees. Many people will die of starvation or will freeze to death. Blackouts are common; internet connections are down. Rioting, looting, protests, and violence are commonplace. Things are very, very bad. But is it the end of the world? Maybe, maybe not.

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Book Review: All Is Not Forgotten, Wendy Walker (2016)

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

Mesmerizing — and also a little maddening!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC though NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

I was a child with a box of matches.

It seems so easy, doesn’t it? To just erase the past. But now you know better.

Jilted by some jerk named Doug, fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer flees from the party he’d invited her to – only to cross paths with a predator. Jenny is assaulted and raped in the woods surrounding her classmate’s house. A few of her fellow party-goers hear Jenny’s cries and rush to her aid, but not until the hour-long attack has ended, and the perpetrator escaped.

Upon her arrival at the hospital, the doctors immediately administer a sedative so that they can perform an exam and then surgery. With her parents’ consent, they also subject Jenny to a controversial treatment to erase her memories of the trauma. A combination of morphine and Benzatral, the treatment is meant to induce limited anterograde amnesia in patients: preventing short-term memories from being filed away in long-term storage. (While this does feel a little science fiction-y, according to the author’s note, the premise is based on emerging research, most notably on veterans suffering from PTSD.)

While the treatment initially appears successful – inasmuch as Jenny has no memories of the rape – Jenny’s mental state slowly begins to unravel. She suffers from anxiety and insomnia; she begins to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs; and, eight months later, she attempts suicide.

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Book Review: The Wolf Road, Beth Lewis (2016)

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

A thrilling plot + a scrappy antihero + a familiar-yet-not setting = a novel that belongs on the top of your TBR pile!

five out of five stars

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

“Change” was one a’ them words I weren’t too friendly with. Nana told me I had to change when she caught me skinning a rabbit. Man in Ridgeway once told me I’d never get a husband the way I was. Only person never to tell me to change was Kreagar, and that’s because, way he saw it, I was already just the same as him.

Memories ain’t no one’s friend. They show you all the good things you had, all the good things you lost, and don’t let you forget all the bad shit in between.

I kept chewing. No matter what was about to happen, I’d eat as much as I could afore shots fired.

When Elka was seven years old, a freak storm destroyed her two-room shack in the forest beyond Ridgeway. She survived, but was hopelessly lost: the thunderhead deposited Elka – and the table she was clinging to – deep into the Thick Woods. After much wandering, she found a shack even smaller than her nana’s – one with strips of jerky curing on the porch. Starving, Elka swiped some meat, causing the owner of the shack to give chase. Eventually she’d come to think of this man as Trapper, then daddy – for he ultimately took Elka in and raised her as his own, teaching her the ways of the forest: hunting, tracking, trapping, skinning, curing. He showed Elka how to survive in the wild, though she learned little of the human world (“BeeCee”) beyond the trees.

During a rare trip into Dalston, a chance encounter with The Law – in the form of cold-as-ice Magistrate Jennifer Lyon – upends seventeen-year-old Elka’s world yet again: Kreagar Hallet, the man she knows as Trapper, is wanted for the murders of eight women and one child. Her home destroyed – metaphorically and literally burned to the ground by the redcoats – Elka decides to travel north to Halveston (seven hundred miles, give or take!) in search of her parents. They left Elka with her maternal grandmother when she was just a baby so they could find their riches in gold.

Yet Kreagar isn’t willing to let Elka go – and neither is Magistrate Lyon: the former is convinced that Elka dropped the dime on him; the latter, that Elka was involved in the murders. As she makes the treacherous journey north, Elka must evade capture, by enemies both known and not. Bloodthirsty, misogynistic Satanists; human traffickers; lakes made poisonous by nuclear bombs; garden-variety trolls and creepers; cannibals; and – perhaps most alarmingly – human attachments: all stand between Elka and her long-lost parents. Yet with her friends Wolf and Penelope by her side, Elka stands a fighting chance.

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Book Review: The Gilda Stories: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition, Jewelle Gomez (2016)

Friday, June 17th, 2016

A subversive and exhilarating read!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

“Why do you say others may kill and we must not?”

“Some are said to live through the energy of fear. That is their sustenance more than sharing. The truth is we hunger for connection to life, but it needn’t be through horror or destruction. Those are just the easiest links to evoke. Once learned, this lesson mustn’t be forgotten. To ignore it, to wallow in death as the white man has done, can only bring bitterness.”

My love is the blood that enriches this ground.
The sun is a star denied you and me.
But you are the life I’ve searched for and found
And the moon is our half of the dream.

That she hit him with his own whip seemed to startle him more than the pain.

The Girl is just nine when her mother passes away – of the flu, contracted from one of the white women she was caring for in the main house. Scared that she’ll be sold off like her father, she runs away, getting as far as the state line that separates Mississippi from Louisiana before being discovered by a bounty hunter. Gilda finds the Girl in her cellar, shaking and covered in blood – and with the corpse of her would-be rapist at her feet.

As with many girls before her, Gilda takes the Girl in, offering her sanctuary in her saloon/brothel. But Gilda and her lover/business partner, Bird, take a special interest in this girl, teaching her how to read and write in multiple languages; how to grow her own food and run a business; and, eventually, in the ways of their kind. Gilda is a three hundred-year-old vampire, you see, and her days walking this earth are numbered. Tired of the war, hatred, and inequality that surrounds her, Gilda yearns for her “true death,” and hopes to turn the Girl so that Bird will not be left alone in her absence.

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Book Review: The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

Monday, June 13th, 2016

A book so shrewd and insightful, it’s sometimes painful to read.

five out of five stars

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

When I’d first tried to tell Dan, on the night of a brownout in Venice that summoned a candlelit, apocalyptic intimacy, he had burst out laughing. Mistaking the hush in my voice for the drop of hilarity. Even after I convinced Dan I was telling the truth, he talked about the ranch with that same parodic goof. Like a horror movie with bad special effects, the boom microphone dipping into the frame and tinting the butchery into comedy. And it was a relief to exaggerate my distance, neatening my involvement into the orderly package of anecdote.

It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperbacks with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach. The couple of lines that did mention me were buried in an out-of-print book by a former poet, and he’d gotten my name wrong and hadn’t made any connection to my grandmother. The same poet also claimed that the CIA was producing porn films starring a drugged Marilyn Monroe, films sold to politicians and foreign heads of state.

In my teens and early twenties, I was what you’d call a true crime buff. I downed scintillating mass market paperbacks by the dozen: Deep Cover, Serpico, Wiseguy, The Stranger Beside Me, Chasing the Devil, The Devil in the White City, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Under the Banner of Heaven – you name it. For a time I fantasized about studying forensic psychology. My favorite stories were those that centered on cults: the indoctrination into bizarre religious beliefs, the charismatic (yet obviously slimy and possibly sociopathic) leader, the epically tragic ending. Naturally, my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was well-loved; and, in college, I was lucky enough to write a paper on Jonestown for a sociology course.

My point being: Emma Cline’s The Girls was an instant must-read for me. A novel based on the Manson Family? Give it to me now!

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Book Review: The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle (2015)

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Superb idea, so-so execution…

three out of five stars

(Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. Years ago my mother tried to lock us all up, pad the hard edges of things with foam and gauze, cover us in layers of sweaters and gloves, ban sharp objects and open flames. We camped out together in the living room for eight days, until the carefully ordered takeout food—delivered on the doorstep and furtively retrieved by my mother, who hadn’t thought how she would cook meals without the help of our gas oven—gave us all food poisoning and we spent the next twenty-four hours in the hospital. Now every autumn we stock up on bandages and painkillers; we buckle up, we batten down. We never leave the house without at least three protective layers. We’re afraid of the accident season. We’re afraid of how easily accidents turn into tragedies. We have had too many of those already.

So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season,
To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,
To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,
One more drink for the watery road.

— 3.5 stars —

I can’t remember the last time I had such mixed feelings about a novel.

On the one hand, the story’s premise – every October the Morris-Fagan family is beset by a series of seemingly random accidents, from cuts and bruises to more serious calamities, like car accidents and drownings – is fabulous. The invention of a so-called “accident season” is creative and compelling and provides so many potential avenues of exploration. Are the accidents merely coincidence? Bad luck given meaning by a family who sees what it wants to see? (We humans have a way of forming patterns out of randomness.) A self-fulfilling prophecy? (The worst.) Or perhaps the accidents are the work of a sinister force, either supernatural or more worldly? (Not all monsters are nonhuman, you know.)

The plot gets even weirder than the synopsis hints at with the introduction of Elsie, a plain Jane, mousey girl who mysteriously appears in all of Cara’s photographs – even those taken on a family vacation on the Mediterranean. As the accident season of her junior year draws to a close, the narrator Cara; her older sister Alice; their ex-step-brother Sam; and Cara’s best friend Bea scramble to find Elsie, who’s suddenly gone missing from school and whose presence/absence seems somehow connected to the family’s ill fortunes.

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