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

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Review: Nightlights, Lorena Alvarez (2017)

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Lorena Alvarez’s Artwork Positively Shines!

five out of five stars

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

Atoms are the smallest building blocks of matter. We are not able to see them with the naked eye … but everything that surrounds up is made of atoms. The stars … our bodies … the entire universe. They combine in millions of ways to create all the things we see and touch … and all the things we haven’t seen yet.

— 4.5 stars —

Every night when she closes her eyes, shiny little bubbles (stars? bursts of light and energy and joy?) appear over Sandy’s bed. When she catches them, she’s transported to another place: one filled with vibrant colors; giant, wide-eyed creatures; and funky plants of every shade and hue. In the morning, she fills her room with drawings of these other worlds (occasionally neglecting her homework to do so. Oops!)

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One day Sandy meets a mysterious new girl in the schoolyard: tale, pale to the point of translucence, with light purple hair. (Surely the nuns would have something to say about that?) Morfie is at first a welcome distraction; whereas the other kids think Sandy’s kind of weird, Morfie fawns over her artwork. But things take a sinister turn when Morfie begins to visit Sandy at inopportune times, and a nefarious, razor-toothed demon-child haunts Sandy’s dream-world.

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This sounds maybe a little scarier than it actually is. While Lorena Alvarez’s illustrations do pack a bit of a bite, they’re also lovely and whimsical and full of color and life. The target audience for Nightlights is ages nine and up, but adults are sure to be won over by the artwork. Some of the pages are suitable for framing, okay.

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As for the moral of the story, I’m not entirely sure I got it. In Morfie, I think there’s a message about following your passion because you love it, and not for the praise and awards and external feedback you hope to get from others. Staying true to yourself, because yours is the opinion that counts. It’s also important to strike a balance between work and play, responsibilities and extracurricular activities, science and the arts. And if you know why things are, it only makes them more wondrous.

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I also love the diversity here: from the students to the parents to the nuns/teachers, there are girls and women of all skin tones, shapes, and sizes. Lorena Alvarez was born in Bogotá, and the story definitely feels like it could be set in Columbia.

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

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! See my review for more.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

Book Review: The Beast Is an Animal, Peternelle van Arsdale (2017)

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Dark and beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, miscarriage, and misogyny.)

It would have been better not to have any babies at all than to give birth to two girls. Some even said it was an act of spite on the mother’s part. Only a truly disobedient woman would do such a thing.

She couldn’t get away from the monster. She was the monster.

— 3.5 stars —

Once upon a time, in a village near the forest in the land of Byd, two babies were born. They came into the world a mere two minutes apart, after their mother had labored for days. They were girls in a world that considered female children useless and unlucky; identical twins in a land ruled by superstition and mistrust. Mirror twins, at that: each a reflection of her sister, her other half.

Mindful of their neighbors’ intolerance, the woman and her husband kept the children at home, hidden from prying eyes. At least as long as they were able. This grew increasingly necessary, as the village was wracked by drought and famine, year after year. But one fateful day a visitor selling eggs caught sight of three-year-old Angelica and Benedicta; and by nightfall, an angry mob had gathered outside the family’s door. Determined to be a witch and the offspring of her coupling with the Beast, respectively, the mother and her twins were banished to the forest upon threat of death.

The girls grew wild and feral while their mother withered and faded away. Eventually they became orphans, alone save for each other – and the bitterness eating away at their hearts. The resulting hole could only be filled with the fear and hatred of others; of people like the ones who created them.

Once upon another time, also in the village of Gwenith, there lived a precocious seven-year-old girl whose brain wandered at night. One fateful evening her feet and legs followed. Though Alys’s parents cautioned her to never go out at night, lest she encounter the much-feared soul eaters – or, worse still, their master, The Beast – she disobeyed. By morning, every adult in Gwenith would be dead. Killed by the soul eaters, who Alys encountered in the pastures during her midnight stroll. She failed to sound the alarm. She was as bad as the soul eaters. She killed them all.

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

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

THEN

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

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

NOW

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

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Book Review: The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak (2017)

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Heck no to the plot twist.

three out of five stars

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

A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.

Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

(Synopsis via Goodreads)

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Mini-Review: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker (2017)

Monday, February 13th, 2017

“It’s mostly about machine tits”

four out of five stars

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

This is for all the grown women out there
Whose countries hate them and their brothers
Who carry knives in their purses down the street
Maybe they will not get out alive
Maybe they will turn into air or news or brown flower petals
There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé:
Lavender, education, becoming other people,
The fucking sky

(“Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé)”)

I don’t read a ton of poetry, since it mostly tends to go over my head. There are the rare exceptions, of course: stories written in verse, and the occasional feminist title; see, e.g. The Princess Saves Herself in this One. But mostly I shy away from it, since it makes me feel … not the sharpest tool in the shed.

That said, between the title and the cover, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé proved pretty much impossible to pass up. While I’m sure I missed out on many of the cultural references – I’m white, and this is a collection of poetry about black womanhood – and didn’t pick up all the varied and more veiled messages that Parker was putting down, I enjoyed it all the same. I read it cover-to-cover three times in two days, and with each successive reading, discovered something new. Parker’s poetry sparkles and shines and cuts more deeply, the more time you spend with it.

It’s hard to play favorites, since each piece has at least one or two especially memorable lines. (To wit: “At school they learned that Black people happened.”) But among the poems that really stood out to me are Hottentot Venus; Beyoncé On The Line for Gaga; Afro; These Are Dangerous Times, Man; RoboBeyoncé; 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl; The Gospel According to Her; The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife; White Beyoncé; What Beyoncé Won’t Say on a Shrink’s Couch; It’s Getting Hot In Here So Take Off All Your Clothes; The Book of Revelation; 99 Problems; and the titular Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé).

There are forty-two poems total, twenty-five of which have previously been published elsewhere. For those keeping count at home, thirteen have Beyoncé in the title. The Beyoncé/Lady Gaga mashups are fun, if only because I enjoy imagining them hanging together – or swapping bodies in a Freaky Friday twist.

I feel like I should say more but idk how to read poetry, let alone review it. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is a fierce, funny, and subversive collection of poetry. You don’t need to be a member of the Bey Hive to love it (but it sure doesn’t hurt). It’s earned a permanent spot on my Kindle so I can return to it as needed over the next four to eight (please dog no) years.

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Mini-Review: The Land of Nod, Robert Louis Stevenson & Robert Hunter (2017)

Friday, February 10th, 2017

An Illustrated Version of the Robert Louis Stevenson Poem

four out of five stars

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

The Land of Nod
By Robert Louis Stevenson

From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.

All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.

The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.

Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.

— 3.5 stars —

Robert Hunter’s The Land of Nod is an illustrated children’s book based on the Robert Louis Stevenson poem of the same name; the poem is produced verbatim, and coupled with illustrations to help bring the text to life.

The art is simple yet whimsical, with a dream-like quality. Hunter uses quite a bit of blues and pinks, which is reminiscent of twilight, I guess, but doesn’t always do the poem’s psychedelic potential justice. The palette just feels a little flat for my taste.

Despite the ominous reference to “frightening sights,” the art is very tame and totally suitable for children of all ages.

I especially appreciated the landscape for “Both things to eat and things to see,” which shows a pig happily blowing on a horned instrument in the dreamer’s band, while the leader foists a giant raspberry in the air.

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Pigs are friends, not food! Or BAMF tuba prodigies. Either or.

(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: Wintersong, S. Jae-Jones (2017)

Monday, February 6th, 2017

“Such sensuous enjoyment.”

four out of five stars

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

I surveyed my kingdom. Chaos. Cruelty. Abandon. I had always been holding back. Always been restrained. I wanted to be bigger, brighter, better; I wanted to be capricious, malicious, sly. Until now, I had not known the intoxicating sweetness of attention. In the world above, it had always been Käthe or Josef who captivated people’s eyes and hearts—Käthe with her beauty, Josef with his talent. I was forgotten, overlooked, ignored—the plain, drab, practical, talentless sister. But here in the Underground, I was the sun around which their world spun, the axis around which their maelstrom twirled. Liesl the girl had been dull, drab, and obedient; Elisabeth the woman was a queen.

“I may be just a maiden, mein Herr,” I whispered. “But I am a brave maiden.”

When Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is claimed by the Goblin King and kidnapped to the Underground, it’s up to Liesl to rescue her. After all, it’s Liesl and her mother who keep the family together and the inn running. Plain, drab, boring Liesl, who lacks Käthe’s voluptuous beauty, or her brother Josef’s virtuosity with the violin. Liesl, who composes her wild and untamed music only under the cloak of night; the music Josef polishes and performs to accolades, but for which Liesl seeks neither praise nor recognition. Like legions of unremarkable girls before her, Liesl labors in the background, her accomplishments usurped or denigrated by the men around her, depending on the circumstances.

Yet the Goblin King – Der Erlkönig, Lord of Mischief – sees Liesl for who she truly is: a unique talent, full of beauty and grace. A soul brimming with passion and wonder – and, yes, even anger and lust. A worthy opponent. The girl with whom he once sang and danced in Goblin Grove, all those years ago. The girl who forgot him – and her promise to him – once she traded in their silly childhood games for a mop and bucket and likely spinsterhood.

Liesl descends into the Underground on a sacrifice of sheet music, only to find that her mission to rescue Käthe is just the opening round of her game with Der Erlkönig. Once a mortal man, the Goblin King sacrificed his soul to bring peace to the world above. Now he is forever confined to the Underground, where he rules over the goblins and fae who once wreaked havoc on earth. But in order to turn the seasons, he requires a spark. Passion. A wife. Yet Der Erlkönig’s brave maidens do not survive long in the Underground – and, should Liesl succeed in freeing Käthe, he will need a replacement if spring is to come.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, Patricia Hruby Powell & Shadra Strickland (2017)

Monday, January 30th, 2017

“Tell the Court I love my wife”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program, as well as an e-ARC through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism and an allusion to rape.)

MILDRED

Richard once said,
“It could be worse, Bean.
If you was the white one
and I was the colored one,
people saw us together?
They’d lynch me.
We can do this.”

RICHARD

After waiting another year –
more like fourteen months –
they lost that case.
Is that four now?
They called for another.

They lawyers sure are excited
for losing.

As its 50th anniversary approaches, the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia is receiving some extra attention: from the recently released film starring Ruth Negga (forever my Annie Cresta!) and Joel Edgerton (titled simply Loving), to a mention on the ABC sitcom Blackish, and now a “documentary novel” written by Patricia Hruby Powell, with illustrations by Shadra Strickland.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Loving vs. Virginia struck down the state’s anti-miscegenation statute (the Racial Integrity Act of 1924) – and, by extension, similar statutes that existed in twenty-five other states – which prohibited whites from marrying outside their race. Interestingly, no such restrictions existed for non-whites, which is part of what led to the law’s downfall: The Lovings’ lawyers argued that the emphasis on maintaining the racial purity of whites (but not nonwhites) presupposed the superiority of the “white race,” in clear violation of the 14th Amendment.

In Loving vs. Virginia, Hruby Powell tells the story of Mildred and Richard’s historic fight, from the genesis of their relationship to their victory in the Supreme Court on June 12, 1967 (a day that’s now remembered as Loving Day). The couple grew up together in Central Point, Virginia; their rural neighborhood was home to people of all colors: black, white, Native American, and multiracial. (Mildred herself was light-skinned, with both African and Native American ancestry.) They socialized, shared potluck dinners, and helped each other with farm work. Despite the state’s law against it, interracial relationships were not unheard of.

Millie and Richard started dating in 1955, and two years later they had their first child, Sidney Clay. When Mildred found herself pregnant for the second time, the couple decided to get married – in nearby Washington, D.C. Just five weeks later, they were arrested in the dead of night. Sheriff Garnett Brooks and two deputies stormed into the couple’s bedroom in the Jeter house and demanded of Richard, “Who’s that woman you’re sleeping with?” When Mildred replied that she was his wife, Brooks shot back, “Not here, she ain’t.”

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

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

A difficult yet necessary read.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The You I’ve Never Known, Ellen Hopkins (2017)

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

A complex, nuanced, and heart-rending coming-of-age story.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, rape, and racist/sexist/homophobic language.)

Home
Four letters,
one silent. A single syllable
pregnant with meaning.

I’m getting married. That should have an exclamation mark, shouldn’t it? I guess a small part of me is excited to leave my current existence behind in favor of something brand-new. But the closer I get to the appointed time, the more I think I might’ve made an awful mistake.

My childhood is a jigsaw puzzle,
with chewed and misplaced
pieces. I’ve always known that.
What I didn’t realize
is that even if every correct piece
was fitted perfectly into place,
the resulting picture would’ve been
interpretive art.

When she was just a toddler, Ariel’s father Mark kidnapped her. Of course, she doesn’t know this – yet. Raised on a steady diet of her father’s lies, Ariel thinks her mother Jenny ran off and abandoned the family to be with another woman. The duo has spent the last decade and half moving from town to town, state to state, mooching off her father’s latest conquests when possible, shoplifting and sleeping in the car when not.

After years of bouncing around, Ariel and Mark have finally settled in Sonora, California – which is to say, they’ve managed to stay in one place for a whopping fifteen months. Ariel was able to attend a whole year of high school uninterrupted, joined the basketball team, and even made two friends: teammates and fellow “freaks” Monica and Syrah. Mark’s in a somewhat stable relationship with a woman named Zelda, and things are looking … good. That is, if you don’t look too hard.

Mark is … a piece of work. Actually, that’s an understatement: the man’s a full-on sociopath. Kidnapping isn’t the worst of his offenses. He’s emotionally and physically abusive, treats his daughter like a possession, and demands total obedience at all costs. He has a laundry list of rules that Ariel must follow; some, like leaving her shoes at the front door and not bringing any stray animals home, go to his rigid nature, while others only make sense when Ariel discovers the truth about herself. Unlike other parents, Mark isn’t keen on the idea of letting his seventeen-year-old daughter get a driver’s license (never mind a car!) or a part-time job, even though both would make his life infinitely easier. Nor is he thrilled when she saves the life of local VIP girl Hillary Grantham, thus attracting the attention of the media.

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

Friday, January 20th, 2017

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Imprisoned: Drawings from Nazi Concentration Camps, Arturo Benvenuti (2017)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

#Resist

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, as well as an electronic ARC on Edelweiss.)

Humanity continues to kill, to massacre, to persecute, with increased ruthlessness. Before eyes that are increasingly indifferent, passive. When not complicit. There’s no pity for the elderly, for women, for children. There’s no pity for anyone anymore. Man is wolf to man, today as much as – and more than – yesterday.

The older generations seem to have learned very little; the new ones don’t seem to want to learn any more. Wars continue to sow slaughter. Behind the barbed wire of new concentration camps, it has gone one; humanity has gone on being suppressed.

Most of all, this book aims to be – attempts to be – a contribution to the just “revolt” on behalf of those who feel like they can’t, in spite of everything, resign themselves to a monstrous, terrifying reality. Those who believe they must still and always “resist.”

– Arturo Benvenuti, “Without Words”

Born in 1923, Arturo Benvenuti – poet, painter, researcher, accountant, and banker – was just a young man during World War II. Yet his lack of civil engagement haunted him for decades, and the feelings of guilt and powerlessness – reflected in his poetry – eventually proved the impetus for the KZ Project.

In September of 1979, at the age of fifty-six, Arturo and his wife Marucci loaded up their camper and began what would become a lifelong journey: traveling throughout Europe, visiting former Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz, Terezín, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald), and meeting with as many survivors and veterans as he could. He also combed through local history museums, public libraries, and public archives, trying to piece together “visual testimonies” of the camps.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: History Is All You Left Me, Adam Silvera (2017)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

“history is how we get to keep him.”

four out of five stars

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

You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.

I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.

We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.

Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.

We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.

To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.

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Book Review: The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, Veronica Chambers, ed. (2017)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A bittersweet love letter to the outgoing FLOTUS.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and misogyny.)

Barack and Michelle Obama served this country for two terms as President and First Lady of the United States of America. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man—with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle. Michelle! That name now carries a whole world of meaning. And a whole world of memory. And a whole world of a magic.

(“Preface,” Ava Duvernay)

Thank you, Michelle, for showing a generation of women, including me and my daughter, what it means to dwell in possibility.

(“Acknowledgements,” Veronica Chambers)

For all of my adult life – the entire time I’ve been paying attention to politics, really – I’ve vastly preferred our president’s wives over their husbands: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and now Michelle Obama. (The same will probably hold true of Melania, but it’s an impossibly low bar, okay.) No matter their political allegiances, the FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) tend to be a least a shade more progressive than their men, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom. Not that they’re allowed to voice these views: American prefers its First Ladies be seen, not heard, functioning as little more than their husbands’ appendages or cheerleaders. “Stepford Wives-in-Chief,” Tiffany Dufu puts it. Remember how viciously then-FLOTUS Hillary was shot down for daring to advance health care reform?

Michelle Obama is in a league of her own, though. Like many Americans, I was captivated with her from Day 1. I loved that she refused to play the role of the bland, devoted wife; a blank canvas onto which Americans/voters could project their versions of ideal femininity. She spoke of Barack like he was a regular guy, rather than an up-and-coming rockstar politician. Yet it was evident that these two crazy kids were deeply in love. She (and her family) was a lightning rod for every bit of racist and sexist excrement the right could throw at her, yet Michelle handled it with grace and finesse. We watched as Lady O. – and her style – evolved from first to second term; she went from high-power lawyer to high-fashion mom, as described by Tanisha C. Ford (“She Slays”). She had fun, was comfortable in her skin, and was perfectly imperfect.

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Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden (2017)

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

four out of five stars

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

“What happened?” she asked.

“My fish are gone! Some durak from the village must have come and …”

But Vasya was not listening. She had run to the very brink of the river.

“It’s not yours!” she shouted. “Give it back!” Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. “Now!” she yelled. “Catch your own fish!” A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward. Instinctively, she clutched it, and turned a grin on her brother.

“A prophecy then, sea-maiden.”

“Why do you call me that?” she whispered.

The bannik drifted up to the bench beside her. His beard was the curling steam. “Because you have your great-grandfather’s eyes. Now hear me. You will ride to where earth meets sky. You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit. You will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, weep for a nightingale, and die by your own choosing.”

Marina, thought Pyotr. You left me this mad girl, and I love her well. She is braver and wilder than any of my sons. But what good is that in a woman? I swore I’d keep her safe, but how can I save her from herself?

Vasilisa Petrovna is born to a lord and a princess, on the edge of the Russian wilderness, many centuries ago. She comes on the tail of the first howling winds of November, and her mother Marina leaves the earth shortly thereafter. Vasya is raised by her four older siblings – Kolya, Sasha, Olga, and Alyosha – and her mother’s aging nurse, Dunya. And, to a lesser extent, her father Pyotr Vladimirovich: every time Pyotr looks into the face of his screeching child, he sees the ghost of his dead wife. So mostly he avoids dealing with her too much.

With time, Vasya grows wild and bold, just like Marina intended. She can see creatures that others cannot, the chyerty of the old religion: The domovoi, household-spirits who guard the home; the vodianoy in the river and the twig-man in the trees; the vazila, who are one with the horses; the rusalka, the polevik, and the dvornik. Vasya feeds them with bread and friendship; she fortifies their strength and, in return, they teach her their secrets: how to talk to animals, swim like a fish, and climb trees like no human child should be able to.

Marina’s mother, you see, had the gift of second sight. While Marina had only a little of her mother’s gifts, she knew that Vasya would have even more. Much more. A prophecy told her as much. Yet in a Rus’ caught between the old religion and Christianity, Vasya’s neighbors whisper that she’s a witch who cavorts with demons. The arrival of Father Konstantin only deepens the rift between worlds, as do the snow, fire, and famine that follow swiftly on his heels. Though she just wants to keep her family and her village safe, Vasya will soon find herself caught in the middle of a struggle between two ancient forces.

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Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

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

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

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Book Review: Love and First Sight, Josh Sundquist (2017)

Friday, January 6th, 2017

Not as bad as I’d feared – but not as good as I’d hoped.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

A door swings open, dinging a bell. I recognize the next sound: the deliberate but controlled steps, treading gently, as if she’s trying not to leave footprints. I’ve never seen a footprint, of course, but my understanding is that the harder you press, the more of an impression you leave behind.

Sixteen-year-old Will Porter has attended boarding schools and summer camps for blind and visually impaired kids his whole life – but now it’s time to go mainstream. Will wants to finish out his high school career in his hometown of Toano, Kansas – even if it’s over the vociferous objections of his over-stressed helicopter mom. Unfortunately, Will’s first day in public school is a bit of a disaster: he gropes a random girl in the stairwell, makes a fellow classmate cry, and plops down on yet another student’s lap in the caf.

But Will quickly finds his niche in Toano High School. He takes a shining to journalism, where the teacher – Mrs. Everbrook – treats him like every other student. He partners up with and eventually befriends Cecily, whose knack for photography complements Will’s way with words. He falls in with Nick, Ion, and Whitford who, along with Cecily, represent the entirety of Toano High’s academic quiz team. Will even convinces Cecily to try out for the morning announcer cohosting gig, despite her obvious – and inexplicable – reluctance.

And then, just a few months into the semester, Will’s mom drops a bombshell in his lap. At the hospital where his father works, there’s an experimental surgery to “cure” blindness that’s accepting applicants. The operation is a two-stage process: a retinal stem cell transplant, followed by a corneal transplant within two weeks. Even if it’s successful, the surgery comes with a whole bunch of risks: Will’s body could reject the new corneas, while the immunosuppressant drugs will leave him susceptible to common illnesses such as the flu. If the new eyes “take,” Will will have to rewire his brain to properly perceive and process all the unfamiliar, overwhelming visual input. It’s not as simple as waking up and being able to see; rather, Will will have to learn how to perform this new task that his eyes and brain have never done before.

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Mini-Review: The Killer in Me, Margot Harrison (2016)

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Meh.

three out of five stars

Seventeen-year-old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She’s intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims’ bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of a desert.

Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf—the deserts of New Mexico.

But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she’s had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain: Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief?

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

DNF at 64%.

Honestly, I just found this book underwhelming. Perhaps my boredom was mainly due to the curse of misplaced expectations: I pictured an antihero in the vein of Alex Craft, but what we get is an indecisive, somewhat timid, and blandly average teenage girl. You know, except for the serial killer whose mind she shares when dreaming.

Making matters worse is the introduction of Nina’s childhood friend/teenage drug dealer, Warren. The story is told from their alternating perspectives, even though Warren really doesn’t add much to the narrative. He has even less of a personality than Nina, and there’s absolutely zero chemistry between the two (though I assume they hook up by the end of the book).

He’s also the one who tries to rationalize Nina’s visions, leading to scene after tedious scene of self-doubt. This also gives rise to some weird plot stuff; for example, even though there’s never been any question in Nina’s mind that her connection to Dylan only goes one way, she sets up a series of tests to see if she can trick him into acknowledging her existence. Like, why though? They…don’t prove anything?

Anyway, the book isn’t terrible; I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough about anyone to finish it. I think if you shaved 100 pages off you’d have a much more tense and compelling psychological thriller.

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

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Book Review: They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Wesley Lowery (2016)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

A crucial look at the birth of the Movement for Black Lives.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and violence.)

It wasn’t until hours later that our arrest began to sink in. I’d arrived in Ferguson two days earlier thinking I’d be there for just a couple of days. I’d write a feature or two, and then I’d go back to DC and to writing about politics. But as I paced the carpeted floor of my hotel room in downtown St. Louis that night, it became clear that I wasn’t escaping Ferguson anytime soon.

Resident after resident had told more stories of being profiled, of feeling harassed. These protests, they insisted, were not just about Mike Brown. What was clear, from the first day, was that residents of Ferguson, and all who had traveled there to join them, had no trust in, and virtually no relationship with, the police. The police, in turn, seemed to exhibit next to no humanity toward the pained residents they were charged with protecting.

Ferguson would birth a movement and set the nation on a course for a still-ongoing public hearing on race that stretched far past the killing of unarmed residents—from daily policing to Confederate imagery to respectability politics to cultural appropriation. The social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” and with cell phone and body camera video shining new light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong. Even if Mike Brown’s own questionable choices sealed his fate, did Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland all deserve to die?

Journalist Wesley Lowery had just moved from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post when the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson rocked Ferguson, Missouri – and then the world. Though he had his heart set on covering politics, Lowery was quickly dispatched to Ferguson, where his arrest just two days into the protests drew national attention. Along with Ryan Reilly from the Huffington Post, Lowery was escorted out of a local McDonald’s where he’d been working; despite the officers’ smug attitudes (“Oh, you’ll be charged with a whole lot of things.”), Lowery spent just twenty minutes in a Ferguson holding cell before being released.

What began as a short business trip snowballed into Lowery’s new beat, covering law enforcement and justice. Once Lowery and his colleagues started paying attention, they found cases of police brutality, excessive force, and corruption cropping up all over the country. Some weeks, the young reporter barely had time to catch his breath in between assignments, so frequent are police shootings. (According to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police fatally shoot roughly 1,000 civilians per year. Local police departments are not required to record these numbers, nor is there a federal database to track them.) Lowery and his team would eventually win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their coverage of police shootings.

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