Book Review: Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu (2019)

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

A sweet, character-driven fantasy story.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for intended parallels to homophobic violence, child abuse, and homelessness in the LGBTQ community.)

A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Teenager Nova Huang has a pretty full life: an apprentice witch, she’s employed part-time at the family magic shop-slash-bookstore, Black Cat Books, and also does plenty of volunteer work in her New England community. Though her parents are literal ghosts, having died in a tragic accident when Nova was a child, her Nanas take good care of her (and, being a witch and all, she gets to visit with the ‘rents on special occasions). There’s also her bestie Tat; the two might not always see eye-to-eye – Tat’s a scientist-in-training who has precious little patience for the inexplicable nature of magic – but they make it work.

When Nova ventures into the woods surrounding their town – recently bedeviled by spooky green lights and a seemingly rabid wild horse – she’s unexpectedly reminded of what’s been missing. There she stumbles upon her childhood friend Tam Lang, battling the creature solo. Tam and their family just up and left one day, no warning or explanation. Turns out that Tam’s a werewolf, their step-father is in cahoots with a devil-worshiping cult, and Tam’s werewolf magic might be the end of us all.

That is, unless Nova, Tam, Tat, and the Nanas can harness the magic of family and sisterhood to thwart their plans. And maybe even save a demon in the process? (WHAAAAAT!)

Mooncakes is a super-sweet graphic novel that’s brimming with heart, humor, and some pretty awesome characters. Tam is nonbinary, in case it wasn’t already apparent, and Tam and Nova make an adorable couple.

The Nanas are great (though I couldn’t tell if both are Nova’s biological grandmothers, i.e., both maternal and paternal, or if they are a F/F couple), and so is Tat, especially the playful back-and-forth she has with her extended/adopted witch family.

The plot is serviceable, I guess, though not terribly suspenseful; if I had to, I’d describe Mooncakes as more of a character-driven story. The rest just feels like an excuse to bring Nova and Tam together, which is why I’m giving it three stars instead of four.

That said, I do quite love the little plot twist with the horse demon. Down with the kyriarchy!

I also really appreciate what the artists are trying to do vis-à-vis Tam’s homelessness; though it’s given a supernatural cause in this story, Tam’s plight does parallel and draw attention to the increased risk of homelessness faced by LGBTQ youths.

(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: Little Weirds by Jenny Slate (2019)

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

This book is emotional murder.

four out of five stars

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

I was born in the stacks in the Columbia University Library. I was born in shin-guards on a soccer field on a chilly little Saturday morning in the 1980s and I was too scared to even feel the sting of the ball on the inside of my shoe. I was born during tennis. I was born as a backyard swimming pool and my twin sister is an orange Popsicle and my mother is a bowl of pickles and my father is a hamburger.

(“I Was Born: The List”)

I think, Well, I am so sensitive and I am very fragile but so is everything else, and living with a dangerous amount of sensitivity is sort of what I have to do sometimes, and it is so very much better than living with no gusto at all. And I’d rather live with a tender heart, because that is the key to feeling the beat of all of the other hearts.

(“Kinship”)

There was a time before Patriarchy.

We have a better origin story and it is not widely spoken about but it is the truth.

(“The Code of Hammurabi”)

Y’all. I can’t even tell you how much I wanted to review Little Weirds using nothing but Mona-Lisa Saperstein gifs. Alas, Jenny Slate is nothing like Jean Ralphio’s sister from the same mister, and most of said gifs are totes wrong for this review. But I have to get them out of my system, so. Let’s just dive right in, shall we?

(Note to self: It’s about time for your annual Parks & Rec rewatch. Your emotions are in serious need of fortification.)

Prior to discovering Little Weirds on Edelweiss (at which point I legit let out a little squeal and did a happy happy butt dance on my office chair), my knowledge about actor/comedian Jenny Slate could be summed up thusly: 1) she portrayed Mona-Lisa Saperstein with brilliance and aplomb on one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, Parks & Recreation (for reals, I even dedicated a whole VeganMoFo to it!); 2) she dated everyone’s favorite Chris (Evans, duh!); she’s Jewish; and 4) she’s been at the receiving end of some really gross antisemitism, on account of nos 1-3, i.e., being a Jewish lady who played a Jewish lady and also dated literal Captain America while Jewish, and also because our country is a dumpster fire of white nationalism and toxic masculinity.

I started to type “But I digress…,” and then it hit me that this isn’t a digression at all; Slate does touch upon some of these issues, however tangentially, in Little Weirds. But mostly the subject matter is so very much stranger, ethereal, and curious than this. In a word, weird.

As the synopsis promises, inside this book you will find: The smell of honeysuckle; heartbreak; a French-kissing rabbit; a haunted house; Death; a vagina singing sad old songs; young geraniums in an ancient castle; Birth; a dog who appears in dreams as a spiritual guide; divorce; electromagnetic energy fields; emotional horniness; and the ghost of a sea captain.

You can also look forward to: gossip; an old dog who flits in and out of each essay like a specter, or a faithful friend; a tragic accident involving a deer and a tennis court; emotional emptiness; metaphors galore; whimsy and sorrow; a cage match between optimism and cynicism; aliens; alienation; letters; prophecies, or maybe wishes; being mansplained to death; terminology from the 1920s (“peepers”! I love it!); and a pit (oh, how I want for this to be a throwback to Parks & Rec!).

Basically, I cannot think of a book with a more perfectly fitting title than Little Weirds. This quirky collection of essays is simply enchanting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and – before you even know what’s happening – you’ll find yourself delving into some deep and scary, long-hidden and even liberating places. Some of these essays are prescient AF, and sneakily so. Like, ending this collection with “I Died: Bronze Tree,” followed by “Dog Paw,” is emotional murder.

I died and I have to move on soon, but I will always be so glad for the life I had with you. The fact is that it is incredibly hard to RIP and I’m just not sure I can get it done. Because what will I be now? I know that we will have new life with new forms and that we won’t be able to love each other like we did the last time. Maybe I am going to be a banana and you will be a car. It just won’t work. I know that. And I’m not one to beg for the impossible, especially as a banana, but I can’t seem to stop reacting to the enormity of the final end of us, sweetheart.

I feel personally attacked.

Little Weirds is the kind of book best devoured in small bites. You’ll find yourself offering the book a permanent, cozy home by your bedside; lovingly bookmarking certain chapters, so that you can return to them after an especially excruciating day, or perhaps those nights when you foresee a challenging week ahead. Kind of like the literary equivalent of keeping Parks & Rec (and The Office, Schitt’s Creek, and The Good Place) on your Netflix list even though you’ve watched them a dozen times by now.

In short, you should give Jenny Slate all your money please.

I did it! I worked a Mona-Lisa gif in organically!

(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: Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri (2019)

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

“Who knew why straight people did anything, really.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism, homophobia, and transphobia.)

You and I, we’re twenty feet and more than a hundred years apart.

(“the shape of my name”)

It is easy for him to imagine the worst things. Trying to see exactly what’s in front of him is harder. A plastic container full of living fruit. The streetlight shining through the window. The dangling thread of wool on his suit, the shiny black buttons. His cheap apartment, his silent and spectral roommate, the letter confirming his academic suspension, his infatuation with someone who switches out their gender like it’s an attractive but itchy sweater, his mother’s disappointment, his dwindling savings.

And the one thing he can’t see, can’t imagine: his future. That’s the monster, really, that’s lurking at the corner of this painting.

(“a silly love story”)

Maybe it’s my pitiful lack of imagination, or perhaps it’s just because I’ve written so damn many of these, but I always have the most trouble titling a review. It’s not uncommon for me to just pluck a choice quote from the book I’m reviewing. Here, though? The title pretty much chose itself.

Homesick: Stories is such a gloriously and unapologetically queer collection of short fiction. And it doesn’t feel gimmicky or purposefully overdone, either: the LBGTQ elements are organic, authentic, and fit seamlessly with the content of the stories. Like, they just are. And why not? The author is “queer and nonbinary/transgender” (and “One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which was pretty cool.”).

The writing here is exquisite and magical; every word and turn of phrase feels like it was conjured from the ‘verse using spells and potions. The stories could mostly be described as speculative fiction, with a liberal seasoning of fantasy and scifi throughout. Many of the tales have a surreal, dreamlike quality to them that will throw you for a loop – or twenty.

They didn’t all do it for me – them’s the breaks with anthologies – but even the “worst” of the bunch was entertaining and held my full attention. Really my main complaint, in the event that there is one, is that some of the stories either end abruptly or without a satisfactory conclusion. That said, “the shape of my name” and “before we disperse like star stuff” alone make Homesick a must read.

“a silly love story” – 4/5

There is a poltergeist living in Jeremy’s closet, unspooling the stitching on his ancient suit and stinking everything up with the smell of apricots and dust. There is also a bigender person named Merion haunting his heart, threatening to either break or cultivate it. This is a surprisingly sweet and tender story, and the monster is absolutely not what you expect it to be. (Hint: it’s a thousand times scarier than a mildly annoying ghost.)

“Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” – 3/5

I got Jane Doe, with Madelyn coming in a close second.

“dead air” – 4/5

Nita’s sociologically influenced art project/”ethnography of the people I fuck” goes off the rails when she falls in love with one of her subjects, a girl named Maddie. Maddie is haunted by her small town past, and before long those ghosts will devour Nita too. “dead air” is creepy and atmospheric, and has a kind of Blair Witch vibe, told as it is via a series of interview transcripts. I just wish I knew wtf was going on (!).

“she hides” – 3/5

After Anjana’s aging parents move into a nursing home, she’s tasked with cleaning out their house. In an otherworldly mirroring of her mom’s deteriorating mental state, the house begins to shrink before Anjana’s eyes. So she takes refuge in the hiding place of her childhood: her parents’ oversized bedroom bureau. “she hides” is beautifully told, yet it didn’t quite do it for me.

“let down, set free” – 3/5

In a letter addressed to her ex-husband, the narrator recounts how she left her old life behind: saddled atop a floating alien tree. An invasive species the government has instructed its citizens to burn, natch.

“the shape of my name” – 5/5 amazing

Originally published as a short story on Tor.com in 2015, “the shape of my name” is one of my favorites of the bunch. Heron was born in the 1950s and assigned female at birth. His mom knew that he’d one day make the transition to male and choose his own name. Not because she’s particularly insightful or progressive when it comes to gender roles and identity, but rather because her family has a time machine and she’s seen the future. Perhaps this is why she chose to live and die in self-exile in the future, abandoning Heron and his father in the present.

I’m sure you were lonely, waiting for me to grow up so you could travel again. You were exiled when you married Dad in 1947, in that feverish period just after the war. It must have been so romantic at first. I’ve seen the letters he wrote during the years he courted you. You’d grown up seeing his name written next to yours, with the date that you’d marry him. When did you start feeling trapped, I wonder? You were caught in a weird net of fate and love and the future and the past. You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.

“the shape of my name” is a magical, innovative, and aching scifi story that weaves time travel with trans issues in a way that’s simply breathtaking. It’s really just a thing of beauty and wonder, particularly in the words Cipri chooses to describe each year in the narrator’s experience. Every jump, every era, has its own distinct feeling and flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.

“not an ocean, but the sea” – 3/5

A middle-aged cleaning woman named Nadia finds an ocean hidden under her clients’ couch. At just a few pages, this is the shortest of the short stories. No less magical, but I want more!

“presque vu” – 4/5

Everyone in this unnamed town is haunted by something. Clay coughs up keys, usually while fast asleep at night. His neighbor Mari receives vintage postcards. Her boyfriend Finn wakes up with unspooled cassette tapes tangled in his hair. Clay’s ex-lover Joe gets phone calls from a ghost. And the entire community is plagued by wraiths, ethereal creatures who fly overhead and emit radioactive-esque glowing lights. Supposedly “unwinding” a wraith will rid its abuser of their haunting. Cue: some really vile and uncomfortable ugliness.

A lovely and brutal story, “presque vu” ended just a little too abruptly for my tastes.

“before we disperse like star stuff” – 5/5

Two years ago, the discovery of an intelligent nonhuman species – Megalictis ossicarminis, who lived three and a half million years ago, looked like a cross between river otters and wolverines, and were capable of using tools and written language – brought three friends together. There’s Damian Flores, an activist who left academia to pen a popular science book about his discovery; Min-ji Hong, PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Chicago and Damian’s close friend since their high school days at Camp Transcendent; and Ray Walker, a biology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas and Damian’s ex-lover.

Reunited for a documentary the Smithsonian network is shooting, the estranged friends try to work through the aftermath of their fame: Damian’s selling out (and Damian and Ray’s subsequent breakup), Min’s theft of the oracle bones, and the potential reinterment of the ossicarminis’s remains.

While “a long-extinct species of intelligent weasels” is both fascinating and ultimately what sold me on this collection, “before we disperse like star stuff” is as much about relationships as anything: romantic, platonic, societal. It’s about what we owe each other, including our ancestors and neighbors.

(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: Color outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna (2019)

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

“We won tonight because we saved what we love.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism, misogyny, and ableism.)

I swarm the stage with the other girls and here is Lourdes, jumping up and down like a circus girl on a pogo stick. She grabs my hand and I jump with her, the mess of our kiss less important than this moment when a tiny powerful woman stands, feet spread wide, and the crowd of boys parts for the shining raging mass of girls.

“GIRLS TO THE FRONT!” she yells again, and she is pure magic.

(“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil)

“Shiva,” he said quietly, “it was one conversation. It doesn’t mean I’ve been programmed.”

What if he doesn’t want to figure shit out?

“Of course you have. We all have. You just don’t notice because the program has been meticulously designed to benefit you.”

(“Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by Sangu Mandanna)

Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera are two authors on my (relatively short) insta-read list, making Color outside the Lines a no-brainer for me. Though I was emotionally devastated (!) that Adam Silvera’s story was not included in an early ARC of the book, some of the other stories made up for it (okay, almost). In my experience, anthologies tend to be uneven; and, while Color outside the Lines is no exception, I’m happy to report that each story is mildly entertaining at worst.

The overarching theme of the collection is YA fiction about interracial relationships, both opposite-sex and LGBTQ. Some of the stories are contemporary fiction, as I expected, but there’s a nice mix of historical fiction and fantasy as well. There are some happily ever afters here, while other endings will reduce you to a puddle of tears. A few are…frustratingly ambiguous. (To Elsie Chapman’s “The Boy Is,” I say: WHY NOT HAVE THEM BOTH?!? Like for real though, they both sound delightful, and it’s just toasted cheese and a donut, yo!)

Anna-Marie McLemore’s “Turn the Sky to Petals” is achingly beautiful and magical; no surprise there! “Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by editor Sangu Mandanna is as charming as it is brief; I’m really looking forward to reading more from her (The Lost Girl just jumped up a few spots on my TBR list).

Speaking of new-to-me-authors, Michelle Ruiz Keil’s “Gilman Street” is a freaking revelation. Set in 1980s California, and boasting a rad punk vibe, I can only hope “Gilman Street” is just a little taste of what we’re in store for with All of Us with Wings, Ruiz Keil’s upcoming debut novel. Having just been ghosted by her friend Kelly (for her sleazy BF Ben and his racist friends), Tam skips school and heads down to Berkley, where a chance encounter with a badass drummer named Lourdes changes the course of Tam’s life for the better. Spoiler alert: there will be Bikini Kill.

I also quite loved “Giving Up the Ghost” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas. In this world, kids are gifted Ghost Mentors at the age of nine, to help guide them through adolescence – and life, if they so choose. (A Ghost Mentor is mandatory only until one’s seventeenth birthday, at which time you may opt to have it removed.) Whereas his parents got a Buddhist monk and a cobbler from Mumbai, Sanjiv got stuck with Ching, a bloodthirsty pirate from the nineteenth century. Her advice, among other things? To re-introduce himself to his childhood crush Addy thusly: “Hi, do you remember me? I’m Sanji and we used to try and glue our hands together in preschool so we wouldn’t be separated at the end of the day—wanna bang?” The story’s structure is a countdown to Sanjiv’s birthday. Cue: dramatic tension.

Samira Ahmed’s period piece “The Agony of a Heart’s Wish”, featuring two star-crossed lovers – both victims of British colonialism, circa 1919 – will shred your heart to pieces. Ditto: Lydia Kang’s “Yuna and the Wall,” though in a much happier and more hopeful kind of way. Oh, and Lori M. Lee’s “Starlight and Moondust”? 110% as ethereal as the title would have you believe.

Color outside the Lines is a really fantastic collection, in both concept and execution, and even if romance isn’t normally your thing.

“Turn the Sky to Petals” by Anna-Marie McLemore – 4/5
“What We Love” by Lauren Gibaldi – 3/5
“Giving Up the Ghost” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas – 5/5
“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney – 3/5
“Starlight and Moondust” by Lori M. Lee – 4/5
“Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by Sangu Mandanna – 4/5
“The Agony of a Heart’s Wish” by Samira Ahmed – 5/5
“The Coward’s Guide to Falling in Love” by Caroline Tung Richmond – 3/5
“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim – 4/5
“Faithfull” by Karuna Riazi – 4/5
“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil – 5/5
“The Boy Is” by Elsie Chapman – 3/5
“Sandwiched in Between” by Eric Smith – 3/5
“Yuna and the Wall” by Lydia Kang – 5/5

TK from Danielle Paige and Adam Silvera

(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: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden (2019)

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Daidi’s bells! What a weird, wickedly funny, and ultimately empathetic ride.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for slavery, mass murder, rape, and animal abuse. This review contains some general spoilers about the world building – so please skip it if you want to read the book with fresh eyes.)

“She?” I ask, eyes wide. Never in all my dizzy dreams had I thought that our beast was something other than a thing, an animate object, a sustainer of life. The idea intrigues me. Scares me some, too.

We are careful, taking only what the other offers, knowing that a connection like this is deeper than either of us can fully comprehend. He reads poetry to my spleen. I tell fairy tales to his bile ducts. The inside of his navel is a vast, unexplored desert. He lounges upon the cushion of my lips. His desires rise, and I pretend not to notice, diving right into the pool of tears caught in the corner of his eye. I don’t make a single splash. And while I swim laps, he hikes across the boundless expanse of my molars, and then I’m climbing up his chest hairs.

We’re curious, playful. Adventuresome. The landscapes of our bodies like the foreign world we orbit. Is this how the beasts communicate with one another? A life without secrets? Becoming intimately familiar with everyone you touch?

“All throughout our history, we sing of two kinds of women … those born into power and those who disrupt power. I intend on being the latter.”

Excavation, extinction, exodus: these are the phases that define humanity’s existence hundreds (thousands?) of years in the future.

Forced to flee a dying earth, humans took to the skies, eking out a rugged existence; searching, in vain, for a habitable planet. Instead, they found the Zenzee: enormous, tentacled animals whose rough hides and bodily secretions allow them to soar through space, as if it was water. Social creatures through and through, they travel in great herds, communicating through touch and flashing lights. Humans being, well, human, we did what we do best: attacked, dominated, conquered, oppressed. Captured, consumed, culled. In short, we made the Zenzee our ships; our homes.

When a new beast is taken, a contingent of workers is sent ahead to make its barely-living zombie carcass habitable (excavation). Its hide is harvested for leather; its flora reshaped into fields; its parasites, harvested for food. Bones are reshaped to provide infrastructure. Every part of the beast is twisted, bent and broken to serve out needs. And what of humanity? We reshape ourselves into parasites.

And we are greedy ones, at that: beasts with a natural lifespan of thousands of years, we deplete within a decade (extinction). Then we simply repeat the cycle again, killing and abandoning one animal after the next (exodus).

So it has been for roughly six hundred and fifty years. But the newest ruler – a young woman named Seske (or Matriling Kaleig; Seske Ashad Nedeema Orshidi Midikoen Ugodon Niosoke Kaleigh if you’re feeling especially stuffy) – is poised to change things. She’s not the only renegade on the ship, though: also working to effect change is Adalla, Seske’s childhood bestie (and soul mate), a lowly beastworker who Seske was forced to shun once she reached marriageable age; Sekse’s betrothed, a man named Doka; and Wheytt, one of the few male Accountacy Guards.

I almost passed on Escaping Exodus. As an ethical vegan (read: vegan for animal rights reasons), the thought of plunging into a make believe world where animals are routinely and brutally oppressed in such a way … let’s just say, it’s not my idea of relaxing escapism. But I also love interrogating pop culture from an animal rights perspective, so there you go. And, y’all, I am so glad I made the leap. Escaping Exodus is a wildly inventive, wickedly funny, twisty turny science fiction story that, at its core, has a giant bleeding heart (both literally and metaphorically). This book is brimming with compassion and examples of humanity at its best.

Escaping Exodus is told from the alternating perspectives of Seske and Adalla, as each girl hovers on the precipice of adulthood. For Seske, this means taking a wife or husband – the first of eight. You see, in order to keep the ship’s population in check, family units are strictly regulated:

“Matris Tendasha made the Rule of Tens that helped to counteract the population explosion after the Great Mending. Ten fingers.” Pai opens his hands and wriggles his long, slender fingers, patinaed with the deepest shade of orange. “Ten persons in the family unit. Three men, six women, and a child shared between them all. Ten for Tendasha.”

Seske’s is a matriarchal monarchy, and she’s next in line to rule after Matris, one of her six mothers, passes away. As such, her choice of mate is especially important (read: political, calculating, stifling). Yet Seske’s position – her very existence – is but a fluke of nature. Seske was the second child conceived in her family unit, but arrived four months early, thus beating Sisterkin by a hair. By all rights, Seske’s younger sister (“sister” being a slur in this culture), deemed so unimportant that she’s not even granted a name, should be the next ruler. Paradoxically, and by a mere technicality, she should have been killed upon birth, and fed back to the ship. But Matris’s weakness may prove to be Seske’s downfall, as Sisterkin plots against her in the background (I said this was a twisty turner thriller, did I not?).

Meanwhile, a natural talent for sensing the rhythms of the beast’s heart scores Adalla a coveted promotion to caring for the creature’s heart. But life comes at you fast, as Adalla wryly observes, and her grief at losing Seske quickly spirals out of control, eventually landing her in the slums of the boneworkers. Vapors aren’t the only thing whispering through the working class; before she can say “Daidi’s bells!,” Adalla is fomenting her own kind of revolution.

What’s interesting is how each woman arrives at the realization that their society is corrupt, built on the broken backs and brutalized bodies of others, rotting from within. Early in the story, when she’s off getting into mischief as plucky heroines are wont to do, Seske accidentally stumbles upon the womb of “their beast” – and it is not empty. The beast that Matris has chosen for them is pregnant, and the fetus is draining precious resources, further taxing the Zenzee’s already injured body … and hastening another exodus. The workers are trying in vain to kill the fetus. And this is when the young Zenzee reaches out to Seske for help.

Through her interactions with the fetus – and, later, an adult Zenzee – Seske comes to accept that which she already knows, if only subconsciously: the Zenzee are sentient animals. They are capable of feeling pain and suffering; of experiencing joy and happiness. They form bonds and love their children, their mates, their friends. And they are forced to sit back and watch as we capture and colonize their loved ones. Because of the intimate way in which they communicate, they feel their loved ones’ pain as acutely as if it was their own. Their lives predate human existence; yet, as we continue to deplete their herd, they likely will not survive humanity. What gives us the right to put our survival above their own?

Adalla, for her part, comes to epiphany along two parallel roads. Caring for her heart, cutting away murmurs, learning to anticipate an arrhythmic beat: Adalla forms an intimate connection with the beast, which eventually results in her humanizing their would-be vessel. The beast transitions from an “it” to a “her”; a something to a someone. From there, it’s just a short hop to accepting that the animal has her own thoughts, feelings, and desires – not the least of which is the will to live.

The second road reveals yet another crack in the foundation of Adalla’s society. The grisette – colloquially known as a “bucket waif,” for the mindless, repetitive job she performs – assigned to Adalla looks achingly familiar. After some digging, Adalla discovers an especially nasty open secret: in order to excavate a beast as quickly as possible, slave laborers are grown in vats – and then destroyed when their services are no longer needed. (Dissolved into fertilizer for the ship, in an especially grisly scene.) Skilled beastworkers and their husbands are paid a handsome sum to “donate” their eggs and sperm. In a society where siblings are unheard of, Adalla’s “brood sister” is destined to become plant food.

So while the world Drayden imagines here is rife with suffering and oppression, there is hope: in Seske, in Adalla, and in the world they want to rebuild on the ashes of the old one. But complications about, as they always do, and Escaping Exodus has some pretty jarring twists late in the game. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the ending; we certainly didn’t land where I expected. But it’s an ending that’s replete with hope, trust, and empathy, and that’s good enough for me.

I also thought it a bold choice to make Seske’s society a matriarchy. It’s not unusual to think (hope?) that a society ruled by women would be a kinder, more peaceful and equitable one. Yet interrogate this idea further and you’ll see that it rests on some gender essentialist bullshit. As a whole, women are not naturally more compassionate or nurturing than men; rather, these are the traits that society fosters in women. Women can be just as brutal, selfish, and hateful as men. Why wouldn’t Seske’s culture be marked by stark class differences, poverty, inequality, slavery, sexism, and other forms of oppression, when women are in charge … yet still place a premium on stereotypically masculine traits?

Even more interesting, imho, is how Seske’s ship came to adopt a matriarchy. As we discover at the end of the book, hers is but one of seven surviving ships from Earth, each having evolved along separate lines, developing its own unique culture, rule of governance, etc. How did women seize control of her ship? And why are the citizens predominantly (or exclusively) Black? How did b influence a, if at all? I am dying for a prequel!

Social justice and animal friendly plot lines aside, Escaping Exodus is a just a damn good book. The world building is simply breathtaking; crafting a sky-faring creature into a ship is hella inspired (if heartbreaking), and the descriptions of the ship’s interior are fascinating. Seske’s encounters with the Zenzee – arguably more humane than us – are marvelous. These are some of the most beautiful and bizarre passages I’ve ever encountered. Really mind-bending stuff. Think: Octavia E. Butler.

And Drayden’s sense of humor? Truly gross-out wicked. I mean, talk about your body horror! Between Seske tricking her new groom Doka into deflowering a gel puppet, and Seske expelling a Zenzee fetus from her vag, there are plenty of WTF moments that will either make you hysterical-laugh, or else chuck the book across the room in disgust. It’s not for everyone, okay.

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

Book Review: The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes & DJ Kirkland (2019)

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Surprisingly fun for a comic book about racism and the KKK.

four out of five stars

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

When teenager Tom Token is accepted into the historically all-white boarding school St. Ivory Academy as part of its “Magical Minority Initiative,” he’s understandably skeptical. Sure, the facilities are state of the art, and the education can’t be beat, but at what cost? His melanin-challenged classmates assail him with aggressions both micro and – in the case of the Headmaster’s rich jock son Bryce – physical. Tom’s pet bird, Jim the crow, is even injured in the crossfire (though happily not beyond magical repair).

But race relations at St. Ivory are far worse than Tom could imagine (or maybe not: the Headmaster’s robe bears a suspicious resemblance to a KKK hood). When he receives an anonymous tip that he’s not the first black mage to walk St. Ivory’s halls, Tom embarks on a journey to find out what happened to his predecessors. With the help of the ghosts of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and do-gooder fellow classmate/student liaison Lindsay Whitehorn, can Tom get justice for the other black mages sacrificed to keep St. Ivory afloat – or will he, too, be fed to the racist machine?

The synopsis describes The Black Mage as “The School for Good and Evil meets Dread Nation,” but I got a ton of Harry Potter vibes. I half expected Barnes to swap the race of one of the more minor characters halfway through the narrative, a la Lavender Brown. It just feels right, given Barnes’s sense of humor (and I mean that in the most awesome way possible).

Some readers will undoubtedly describe the book’s racial politics as heavy-handed – and the references are pretty numerous and not terribly subtle – but I think it’s done in a clever and engaging way: rather cheeky with a “I said what I said” kind of energy. The comic is remarkably fun for a book about racial violence, which I suspect is the point: disarm your audience with charming artwork, plucky sidekicks, and a plethora of pop culture references so that they absorb the message before they can say “Riddikulus!”.

(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: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (2019)

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

An important story, but not without its failings.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobic violence, including gay conversion therapy and sexual harassment/assault, and suicide.)

Like Orpheus, I’m going to hell and I’m looking to save the girl I love. Because Orpheus? She’s a girl. A girl who likes girls.

For as long as Raya can remember, it’s just been her and her grandmother. Gram’s husband died in a car accident when she was twenty-seven, leaving her to raise their two-year-old daughter Calli on her own. Calli got pregnant her senior year of high school and ran off to become an actress three years later; Raya hasn’t heard from her since. Raya’s only glimpse of her mom is on tv, where she plays the goddess Aphrodite on daytime soaps. She and Gram are alone together, lonely planets hurtling down parallel orbits of abandonment, each defined by the same absence, the same loss.

Making matters worse is the fact that Raya has to hide her true self: from Grammy, from her friends and classmates, from church, from the small town she begrudgingly calls home. It’s 2004 in Pieria, Texas, and Raya is gay: a girl who likes girls. And this is a time and place where teenagers like her often disappear without a trace.

When Raya and her best (and only) friend Sarah are outed by a (violently homophobic and misogynist) classmate, they’re sent to a gay conversion camp called Friendly Saviors, where things quickly go from bad to worse. At best, the prisoners undergo grueling physical labor, humiliating talk “therapy,” and milder forms of physical torture; at worse, they are drugged and electrocuted into compliance.

Orpheus Girl is not for the faint of heart, and comes with some strong trigger warnings. This is a tragic queer story tempered by a tentatively hopeful ending. Our heroes manage to persevere, though they do not emerge from hell unscathed.

As much as I want to see more shiny happy stories starring queer characters, I suppose you could argue that there’s still a need for the sad and horrifying narratives, to shine a light on the many atrocities happening in there here and now. (And yes, while there has been a state-by-state legislative push again gay conversion therapy, as of this writing gay conversion therapy on minors has been banned in just 18 states, as well as DC and Puerto Rico. According to studies by the UCLA Williams Institute, more than 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to gay conversion therapy, with an estimated 80,000 kids at risk in the future.)

I’m always on the lookout for good books, of any genre, with LGBTQ protagonists, and Orpheus Girl caught my eye both because of the author’s young age, as well as her background in poetry. While the narrative is compelling, Orpheus Girl feels like a debut novel, and not in a good way. There were so many little details that distracted from my enjoyment of the book. To name just one example: Raya is able to lift Hyde’s truck keys on the first try, even though she has zero background in pickpocketing or general thievery. Nor does she possess nerves of steel: when she later manages to steal said truck, she immediately flips it 180 degrees, while still within earshot of the camp. So, yeah, I’m not buying it.

Additionally, the characters lack depth and nuance: aside from their fashion sense, Raya are Sarah aren’t really distinguishable from one another, and Raya’s primary personality trait seems to be “orphan.”

But the thing that bugged me the most is how compressed the timeline is: just three days after she’s sent to prison (I can’t in good conscience call it a camp, let’s be real), Raya’s worried that Grammy has already married her new suitor and moved on. When I say “new,” I mean as in they literally just started dating weeks before Raya was outed. And then we find out, a month later at most, that she totally did! I don’t know about you, but it takes me three months to hang a new poster. WHO MOVES THAT FAST.

Orpheus Girl is an important story, for sure, but if you’re looking for a book that confronts the horrors of gay conversion therapy, you can probably do better. Just off the top of my head, I’d recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

(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: Full Throttle: Stories by Joe Hill (2019)

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

A bit of a mixed bag, but there are a few unforgettable stories in here.

four out of five stars

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

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

(“Wolverton Station”)

“I can think of worse ways to go than with a good book in my hand. Especially if it was one I had no right to ever read, because it wasn’t going to be published until after I was dead.”

(“Late Returns”)

“If there’s one thing prettier than a sunset,” Iris says, “it’s seeing little shits cry.”

(“All I Care About Is You”)

I am consistently bewitched by Joe Hill’s writing, though I have a strong preference for his long-form fiction: The Fireman is lit, NOS4A2 and its companion graphic novel, The Wraith, are the stuff of deliciously horrifying nightmares, and Horns is probably one of my all-time favorite books. (I say “probably” because there’s some stiff competition out there, and my top ten list is dominated by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Philip Pullman. But top twenty-five, maybe? The Treehouse of the Mind still gives me chills.)

His short stories are a little more hit or miss for me – although, even at his “worst,” Hill’s writing is still entertaining enough. Full Throttle is no exception: of the thirteen stories here (some originally released as Kindle Singles, others all-new), a handful are kind of meh, one or two contain some major disappointments, and a few are so impossibly shiny that I’d recommend the book on their merits alone (“Late Returns,” I’m looking at you). Even the intro, which I’m just as likely to skip, is sweet and sentimental and brimming with insight, and you will find yourself devouring the notes and salivating for more.

“Throttle” with Stephen King – 3/5

After a drug deal gone horribly wrong, a motorcycle gang is cornered and run down on Route 6 by a mysterious tanker truck, adding a little extra truth to their motto (“THE TRIBE – LIVE ON THE ROAD, DIE ON THE ROAD”). Perhaps fittingly for this King-Hill collab, father-son drama ensues. This story has a pretty strong King vibe to it, and is enjoyable enough, though not necessarily memorable.

“Dark Carousel” – 4/5

It’s August 1994, and a group of semi-delinquent teens are having one last hurrah at the Cape Maggie Pier in Maine. This being a Joe Hill tale, everything goes sideways when they disrespect an enchanted (cursed?) carousel, the denizens of which come alive at night. Pro tip: keep an eye out for the Charlie Manx/Christmasland reference, which makes this story a little more delightfully macabre and adds to the world building like whoah.

“Wolverton Station” – 3.5/5

I read this story when it was first published as a Kindle Single and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. An evil, bloodsucking corporate type is unperturbed when a wolf steps onto his train; after all, protestors have hounded (hardy har har!) him throughout his London tour to promote the first Jimi Coffee store in the UK. But the massacre in the next car over rather gives him pause (paws!). A fun story, but yet again I found myself craving a bloodier, more definitive ending.

“By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” – 3.5/5

This Nessie-inspired story (with shades of a middle-grade version of “The Body”) also started out as a Kindle Single. I didn’t really love it two years ago, and I don’t think my feelings have changed much since then. A young girl named Gail and her friend Joel discover the body of a dead pliosaur washed up on the shore of Lake Champlain. Given that she’s got a wild imagination, it’s never quite clear if Gail is a trustworthy narrator, which makes for a rather unsatisfying story. I found myself wanting to read more about the malfunctioning but well-meaning robot child Gail from the story’s earliest pages, tbh. But, still: DINOSAURS!

“Faun” – 3/5

This story about one percenters who pay to hunt fantastical creatures in another dimension – accessible via an unassuming little door, located in the attic of a musty farmhouse in Rumford, Maine, but four times a year – showed a ton of animal-friendly promise. Big game hunting, am I right? And while it is indeed fun to watch fauns, whurls, whizzles, orcs, and ogres hunt the hunters (though more gore would have been both nice and well-deserved), the ending is deeply unsatisfying. Fallows’s “breath of kings” quest plays into self-serving, speciesist tropes about how nonhuman animals willingly “sacrifice” themselves for us, whether to be food or trophies or research subjects. Hard pass, bro.

“Late Returns” – 5/5 f’in amazing

If you pick up Full Throttle for just one story, let “Late Returns” be it. Adrift after the loss of his parents and his job as a long-haul trucker in one (very long!) day, John Davies falls into a part-time job driving the local library’s Bookmobile while returning a copy of his late mother’s last loan, Another Marvelous Thing. During his travels, ye ole Bookmobile sometimes slips into other times, giving ghosts the gift of one last good read before their souls pass on to wherever it is that they go. “Late Returns” is a love letter to book nerds, a salve for the grieving heart. Bittersweet, magical, and filled with compassion, it’s a story that’s woven itself into my own cobbled-together atheist approximation of a religion: something warm and comforting to hold onto.

I mean, damned if the bit about Harry Potter doesn’t make you bawl your eyes out.

“All I Care About Is You” – 5/5

Set some time in the 22nd century (maybe), a down-on-her-luck Iris Ballard celebrates her sixteenth birthday on top of the Spoke – not with her friends, but with a Clockwork boy named Chip who she’s rented for the hour. This story is lovely…until it isn’t. I loved the world building – the stuff about Murdergame is fascinating, and the reflections on being a professional victim, astute – but I don’t know how to feel about the twist. It seems appropriate, but bleak AF.

“Thumbprint” – 3.5/5

Another Kindle Single, this one about Abu Ghraib. Mallory Grennan has been home for eight months, staying in her childhood home, hers now that her father has passed. She lives a pretty unassuming life, tending bar and working out. She’s left the war behind…or she had, until the thumbprints start showing up: in her mailbox, under her door, on the windshield of her car. Someone is stalking her, and she’s ready to confess. A not-so-subtle commentary on the inefficacy and inhumanity of torture.

“The Devil on the Staircase” – 3/5

The son of an Italian bricklayer discovers the stairs to hell. Spoiler alert: the devil is him. This is perhaps the most experimental story in the book, and I didn’t really take to the formatting.

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” – 4/5

Held captive by her family on the road trip from (literal) hell, a teenager tweets her own demise, at the hands of demented zombie carnival owners. “Twittering” is fun and snarky and crafty and I’d love to see Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone take on it.

“Mums” – 3/5

Jack is thirteen when his mother dies, supposedly in a tragic, alcohol-fueled accident. “Supposedly” because Mrs. McCourt was married to a gun-crazy, conspiracy-theorist Separatist from whom she’d tried to flee just months before. Though Mom was a large part of Jack’s world – whittled down to Mom, Dad, cousin Connor, and his wife Beth, all of which take turns homeschooling him – he swallows his father’s lies and forgets her easily enough. That is, until he buys a package of seeds from a wizened old street vendor, and the resulting Mums resurrect his mother, in a manner of speaking.

This would be a pretty cool revenge story if not for Jack’s paranoia. Also, can we put the brakes on the violent schizophrenic stereotype? It’s tired, played out, and only further marginalizes people with mental health issues.

“In the Tall Grass” with Stephen King – 3/5

There’s something monstrous and alien in the Kansas grass! And…that’s kind of it. The film adaptation is in production, so that should be interesting.

“You Are Released” – 5/5

This story answers the question, what would it feel like to be cruising at 37,000 feet when World War III breaks out?

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

Book Review: Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams (2019)

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

My feelings are all over the place on this one.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and drug use.)

shame is an instrument of oppression.

The first time Erin Williams was raped, she was sixteen years old. Her assailant was a guy named John, the older cousin of a friend who dragged her away from a beach party and into a neighboring yard. She was drunk, and it would be decades before she had another sexual encounter – consensual, forced, or in the so-called “gray area” between – while sober.

Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame is a graphic memoir that follows Erin during a typical weekday commute: wake up, get ready for work, walk the dog, take the train to work, put in a day, hustle home. During this time, we witness the dozens of microaggressions that are part of existing while female in a public space. She also reflects on her sexual history, which includes both regrettable drunken hookups with random dudes as well as a string of sexual assaults and rapes. We also follow Erin through her struggles with alcoholism and her decision to become a mother, thus reclaiming her body in a sense.

The result is mixed at best. Some parts worked for me, while others didn’t. Her thoughts on mansplaining, the acrobatics we as a society do to excuse away the boorish behavior of powerful men, the dehumanization and objectification of women, male power and privilege – these are all things I can get behind. However, she kind of lost me when she started talking about “gray areas,” and about her own (alcohol-induced) culpability in her own assaults (or regrettable hookups, or whatever she chooses to call them).

To wit: the chart on page 258 that seemingly ranks sexual assaults from the typical stranger in the alley boogeyman (“murder,” “coma,” “head injury,” “other injury,” “stranger”) to supposedly less clear instances of…I don’t even know what (“please just let me finish,” “it won’t happen again,” “I already said I was sorry”). As if that’s not bad enough, the headline reads, “We’re rarely all victim. For a long time, I thought rape was sex. Where, exactly, do you draw the line?”

I can tell you with 1000% certainty: at absolutely none of these points. None of these scenarios = “the line.” Everything Williams has described here constitutes rape, and in none of these cases do the people on the receiving end share any responsibility for what some human piece of trash chose to do to them. Period. Full stop.

Honestly, the whole thing is appallingly reminiscent of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment of 2013. I can’t even with this.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m getting incredible frustrated and worked up, all over again, just writing this review. Williams’s observations elsewhere are generally pretty insightful, which is why I’m having so much trouble wrapping my head around the victim blaming. Perhaps she’s still grappling with internalized shame and self-blame, or maybe I’m just misreading her commentary? Yet we live in a society that so openly and unabashedly hates women, including rape survivors, that it behooves her to get it right. Like crystal clear, you absolutely cannot misinterpret my point right. Sadly, this is not it.

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

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

Friday, October 4th, 2019

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Women are only schooled until the age of ten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s no wonder the men fear it.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (2019)

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

A Sapphic coming out story, told in verse.

three out of five stars

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

Oh, honey.
If you think being normal is a win,
then I have done my job wrong.

Do you think you are?
Gay, I mean?
Lesbionic?

It’s the first day of seventh grade, and Tam and Kate are registering for classes when they spot each other across the gym. On the surface, the girls – soon to be known to each other as Redwood and Ponytail – couldn’t be more different. Tam is happy goofing around with her best friend Levi (as short as she is tall), scoring points on the volleyball team, and hanging out with her super-supportive mom and elderly lesbian neighbors, Frankie and Roxy. And with her aspirations to be the captain of the cheer squad – not to mention the all-around smartest, most respected girl at school – Kate is all but guaranteed to follow in her high-strung, perfectionist mom’s footsteps.

Yet they form a fast and unlikely friendship that soon blossoms into something more. Will everyone be as cool with it as Tam’s hippie mom? Can Kate find a way to break free of her mom’s overbearing shadow? Will her cheerleader friends still love Kate if she’s “lesbionic” – and more comfortable dancing around as the school’s mascot than leading them in a routine? And just what is going on with Tam’s bestie Levi and Kate’s sister Jill?

I love a good novel in verse, and am always in the mood for a F/F love story, so it was inevitable that I take Redwood and Ponytail for a spin. Overall I enjoyed it, though some of the poems were a little too simplistic and rhyme-y for my taste. I’m well above the book’s target audience of ten and up, though, so grain of salt.

Perhaps more germane: there’s a scene where character z outs character y without any sort of real blowback or consequence, which is problematic as heck. PEOPLE, DO NOT DO THIS, EVEN IF YOU’RE HURT OR YOUR INTENTIONS ARE GOOD. Seriously, not a great example to set for the 10+ crowd.

On the plus side, Holt introduced me to the term “lesbionic,” so there’s that.

(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: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke & Laura Silverman (2019)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

I don’t love every story – but the ones I love, I love HARD.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for mental health issues, including eating disorders and social anxiety; bullying; and discussions of homophobia.)

I’ll probably never know what a space station careening through the atmosphere looks like, because I wasn’t looking up anymore. I was looking at him and smiling, and he was smiling back at me, and his braces were gleaming like starlight, and he whispered, “Shehecheyanu,” and I leaned forward, and I pressed my lips against his stars.

(“Indoor Kids” by Alex London)

I wish I’d had the experience, the wisdom then to tell him: To me, Jewish is knowing that you can’t be asked to have pride in one part of your identity and then be told to have shame about another part. Whoever asks you to do that is wrong. To be proud as a Jew is to be proud of everything you are.

(“The Hold” by David Levithan)

My chewing sounds like applause.

(“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz)

As you can certainly gleam (yes, I meant to say “gleam, with an m,” in deference to both this anthology’s overall shininess as well as the opening story; don’t @ me; and yes, that last was a hat tip to editor Katherine Locke’s highly enjoyable contribution, “Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero”; you can @ me on that one as you wish, because I have FEELINGS) from the title, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories is a collection of short stories written by Jewish authors, primarily for a Jewish, YA audience. Most are of the contemporary/realistic fiction persuasion, but there’s a little bit of fantasy and memoir sprinkled throughout.

I LOVE that this book exists – especially in this time and place in history – and it pains me equally to say that I didn’t fall in love with every single story. Them’s usually the breaks with anthologies, though. That said, I would recommend It’s a Whole Spiel on the basis of David Levithan’s essay alone. (In my notes I just wrote “wow”.)

I’ll admit, I wasn’t into “The Hold” at first. Whereas the rest of the pieces take the form of a more traditional short fiction story, “The Hold” is more of a nonfiction story without a clear structure, at least at the outset. But as the narrative begins to take shape, and Levithan recounts coming out as a young Jewish boy, in like with another boy from his temple who would later run away, vanishing without a goodbye, you know you’re being gifted with something special.

Our time together became a good dream, possibly the best dream. I never forgot it, but I remembered it less and less, as other dreams joined in. I’ve written about him hundreds of times, and I haven’t written about him at all until now.

This is the first thing I’ve read by David Levithan, but it won’t be my last.

“Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke is also a real treat, especially for self-professed nerds who prefer virtual spaces to “real” ones. (“I’m not tagging you, but you know who you are.”) Awkward in person, but a master with the written word, Gabe spends much of his free time writing fan fic for the website Milk & Honey, “a whole site dedicated to reimagining every canon character as Jewish” (and trying to figure out how to parlay his hobby into a winning college application). Little does he know that Yael, the owner of the site on whom he’s been crushing hard, is someone he knows in meat space – and that a shared love of the X-Men reimagined as the Maccabees might just give him/them a second chance.

Also amazing is “Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz. Like many of the stories in these here pages, “Neilah” centers around the theme of not being “Jewish enough,” of suffering from imposter syndrome, and ties this disconnect to the MC’s eating disorder. When she was dating her ex, a “good” Gentile boy who showered her not with love, but backhanded compliments or outright criticism, she shrank up and tried to fold into herself, to disappear. To be less: less loud, less big, less Jewish. But a new relationship with a devout Jewish girl named Mira is about to change all that. It’s an inspired analogy with an inspiring ending.

I really enjoyed editor Laura Silverman’s story, “Be Brave and All,” in which protagonist Naomi, dragged to the national JZY convention by her best friend Rachel, conquers her anxiety to stand up for something she believes in (gun control, which nicely ties this story to current events).

Many of the MCs in these stories are embarking on journeys in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical, whether meeting their new boyfriend’s family for the first time (during an earthquake! argh!), traveling to Israel on a Birthright trip, or attending a Jewish summer camp or convention. These tales are at their most satisfying when the protagonist experiences growth – but, weirdly, this is not always the case. (“El Al 328” by Dana Schwartz is just straight-up demoralizing. The ending felt like my life and was sad and uncomfortable AF.)

“Indoor Kids” by Alex London also deserves a shout-out, both for its nerdy space program backdrop, and its adorable M/M romance. And that writing! It takes a special talent to make braces seem so magical.

“Indoor Kids” by Alex London – 4/5
“Two Truths and an Oy” by Dahlia Adler – 3/5
“The Hold” by David Levithan – 5/5 wow
“Aftershocks” by Rachel Lynn Solomon – 3/5
“Good Shabbos” by Goldy Moldavsky – 2/5 did not care for the abundance of footnotes
“Jewbacca” by Lance Rubin – 3/5
“El Al 328” by Dana Schwartz – 1/5 ugh?
“Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke – 5/5 amazing
“He Who Revives the Dead” by Elie Lichtschein – 3/5
“Be Brave and All” by Laura Silverman – 5/5
“Neilah” by Hannah Moskowitz – 5/5
“Find the River” by Matthue Roth – 2/5
“Ajshara” By Adi Alsaid – 2.5/5
“Twelve Frames” by Nova Ren Suma – 3/5

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

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

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

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

(“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta)

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

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

“You need something else, hon?”

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

(“Smile” by Emilee Martell)

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

(“The Change” by Kate Karyus Quinn)

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

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

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

“Vagina Dentata” by Mindy McGinnis – ?/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shadows” by Demitria Lunetta – 5/5

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

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

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

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

“@Theguardians1792” by Jenna Lehne – 4/5

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

“Gravity” by Kyrie McCauley – 5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vigilante Lane” by S. E. Green – 4/5

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

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

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

“The Whispers” by Lindsey Klingele – 5/5

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

“Smile” by Emilee Martell – 4/5

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

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

You’re welcome.

“Potluck” by Kamerhe Lane – 4.5/5

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

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

Very weird and experimental but, ultimately, fierce AF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan (2019)

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

“What would Kathleen Hanna do?”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for depictions of misogyny, racism, and homophobia.)

I knew what the Riot Grrrl ideals were: Support girls around you. Don’t be jealous of other girls. Avoid competition with them. Being loud and crying in public were valid ways of being a girl. Being a girl didn’t mean being weak or bad. Claiming your sexuality, no matter what that meant to you, was a good thing. And the revolution was open to anyone.

You can tell a lot about a person from how they act during group projects.

The year is 1992, and Athena and Helen Graves are about to start their sophomore and freshman years at St. Ann’s Regional Diocesan Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s not that they come from a particularly religious home; their mom is an ultra-liberal Classics professor in Eugene, Oregon (soon to be NYC), and while their dad did attend a Jesuit school, he cares more about the social justice side of Roman Catholicisms than, say, slut shaming and lower taxes. But St. Ann’s – aka “the School that Suburban White Flight Built” – is arguably “better” than the local high school, so there you go.

Whereas Helen, with her wholesome good looks and active membership in the school’s pro-life club, fits right in at St. Ann’s, Athena and her bestie Melissa are more like unicorns: purple-haired, sparkly-maned, Riot Grrrl unicorns. Melissa sticks right the heck out, and it’s not just because she’s one of a handful of students of color (half-Cajun, half-Vietnamese, a rumor once circulated that “she was the daughter of a Vietnamese prostitute and an American G.I. who was then sold to her current parents for fifty dollars”). She’s an unapologetic feminist who’s vocal about her political beliefs…and to call them “unpopular” at St. Ann’s is the understatement of the year. Over the summer, when Operation Rescue descended upon Baton Rouge as part of its “Summer of Purpose” (fictional as far as I can tell, but firmly rooted in actual historical events), Melissa volunteered as a clinic escort. Athena is a little more low-key about her politics, but she tries to live by Riot Grrrl ideals.

A few weeks into the school year, Helen becomes the latest victim of St. Ann’s rumor mill. Supposedly she slept with an unabashedly racist MAGA prototype over the summer, became pregnant, and (*gasp*) had an abortion – with the help of Athena and Melissa, of course. Athena’s pretty sure she can trace this lie back to its source: Leah Sullivan, captain of the cheerleading squad, and girlfriend of her other BFF (well maybe scratch that second “F”), QB Sean Mitchell. Like all of Leah’s best lies, this one both plays to people’s preexisting prejudices, and contains a kernel of truth. It’s also designed to take all three of them down, especially considering the school’s strict pro-life policy. Never mind that Athena and Helen were both visiting their mom in Eugene all summer.

Even though she abhors Helen’s holier than though, extra-judgey politics, Athena wants to protect her sister. How can they – and the unexpected allies they eventually find at St. Ann’s – do this without leaning into the stigma surrounding abortion? Without sinking to Leah’s level? Without getting expelled from school?

Rebel Girls has a lot going on, and I loved like 97% of it. The ’90s setting – which makes this historical fiction, I guess, but having graduated in ’96, that term feels like a punch to the left boob – is rad and evokes all sorts of bittersweet nostalgic feels. (Even as I took umbrage to Athena’s dismissal of Prince as too middle grade, or Nirvana as too popular. Great things are great no matter how many people recognize their greatness!) Listening to Athena bemoan her lack of access to Bikini Kill cassettes, on the other hand, felt so adorably quaint and reaffirmed my appreciate for the internet, Facebook be damned. At times it felt like Keenan went a little heavy on the “What would Kathleen Hanna do?” notes, but those feels were few and far between.

Athena’s emphasis on taking the high road proved a little harder to swallow. It reminded me of Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” moment at the DNC…which was hecka inspiring, but has never really worked out for the left. I’m not saying you resort to slut shaming and misogyny to fight slut shaming and misogyny, but maybe rethink your blanket aversion to rolling around in dirt, especially if said dirt isn’t mired in any isms.

All the characters are well fleshed out – even villain Leah, whose possible motivations Keenan explores in detail. The relationship between Athena and Helen is complex and fraught, and it’s interesting to watch how it changes and evolves thanks to their involvement in the “Gang of Five.” Even though they attend a Catholic school, the teachers and staff are not caricatures, uniform in opinion; there’s a lot of nuance there as well. I especially loved Sister Catharine (no surprise there!). I also appreciated how Keenan couched this personal drama in historical political events; the girls’ protests become a flashpoint for a larger debate about abortion restrictions in Louisiana.

The subplots are all engaging too; in addition to abortion and sexism, Keenan addresses racism and homophobia as well.

Rebel Girls is a solid addition to the growing body of abortion fiction, not to mention nostalgic ’90s narratives.

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

Book Review: The Avant-Guards, Volume 1 by Carly Usdin & Noah Hayes (2019)

Friday, September 6th, 2019

*heart-eyes emoji*

five out of five stars

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

After losing her basketball scholarship at state, Charlie Bravo (yes, she’s heard that one before) is a new transfer at the Georgia O’Keeffe College of Arts and Subtle Dramatics (“where everything is open to interpretation!”). Even though she’s vowed to steer clear of team sports, her stubbornness is no match for Olivia, an adorably plucky overachiever who managed to build a women’s basketball league, herself, from scratch. The only thing standing in Liv’s way is Charlie, by which I mean that the Avant-Guards are short just one player, and Liv has decided that Charlie is that woman.

It doesn’t hurt that Charlie is H-O-T and Liv would like nothing more than to mash their faces together in a very non-platonic way.

Sports are not normally my thing, but I do love a) intrepid heroines; b) storylines that celebrate female friendship and elevate it over rivalry; c) worlds populated by diverse peoples, especially when some of them are queer women of color; d) f/f romances; and e) black girl magic. The Avant-Guards has all of the above, in spades, as well as hoop-shooting, curvaceous witches; an on-campus coven; a pretty sexy nonbinary character named Jay; and bucket of rainbow confetti.

This is the sweetest, most adorable and wholesome book I’ve read in quite some time, and I mean that in the best way possible. The Avant-Guards is literally brimming with heart emojis. And the art is just perfect, cute and so very complementary to the story and characters. (You might say it’s an, erm, slam dunk.) Every. Single. Panel. saw me ooh-ing, ahh-ing, and sqee-ing in delight. (And, save for the doggos, I am not the squee-ing type.)

And this was all before the impromptu dog adoption event at half-time in the inaugural game! If I wasn’t already I goner by then.

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

Book Review: After the Flood by Kassandra Montag (2019)

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

A promising premise that does not deliver.

two out of five stars

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

This is how the water takes us.

DNF at 76%.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Stay by Lewis Trondheim & Hubert Chevillard (2019)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

A story about grief and loss that’s curiously devoid of emotion.

two out of five stars

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

Fabienne and her fiancé Roland are on the first day of a week-long vacation abroad when he’s killed in a freak accident – decapitated (and rather cleanly, mind you) by an errant metal sign on a windy day. (I know.) In a haze of denial and trauma, Fabienne decides to continue on with the meticulously planned itinerary Roland made for them, rather than accompany his body back home. She blows off his brother Alan and misses the funeral. She goes to the beach, dines alone, and gazes apathetically at happy couples and celebrating families.

At some point this clearly not quite right tourist catches the eye of a local shop owner, the eccentric but mostly kind-hearted Paco. (I say mostly because he tosses a jar of his own pee on a loud-mouthed but obviously neglected dog, so there’s that.) He tries to cheer her up with homemade meals and picnics, but is almost painfully slow on the uptake: even though he collects scrapbooks of unusual deaths, it isn’t until he spots a text on her cell phone that he puts two and two together.

Fabienne blows Paco off, and then they make up. Eventually Fabienne seems to achieve some sort of inner peace or resolution; she finishes the vacation and heads home.

And…that’s it.

As a new-ish widow myself, my interest in this comic book is self evident. It also seemed like a delightfully weird story. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel any sort of emotional connection to Fabienne. The story is flat, detached, dispassionate. There are no feels to be felt. Everything – or rather nothing – happens, and that’s that.

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

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

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Law & Order: SVU meets the Button Poetry YouTube channel

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(“Mans/Laughter”)

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

(“Aileen Wuornos Isn’t My Hero”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Sparrowhawk (Sparrowhawk #1-5) by Delilah S. Dawson & Matias Basla (2019)

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

It’s an exaggerated shoulder shrug from me…

three out of five stars

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

Artemisia – “Art” for short – is the illegitimate daughter of a British Naval Captain and one of the indigenous women he colonized and enslaved. After her birth, Captain Grey kidnapped Artemisia and brought her back to his home in Victorian England, where she was begrudgingly “accepted” into the family. (As a servant, natch.) When Art’s half-sister Elizabeth is killed just before she’s to be wed to a Duke, thus snatching the Greys from the jaws of poverty, Mrs. Grey insists that Artemisia be auctioned off in Elizabeth’s place. It’s either agree to her stepmom’s demands, or see her younger sister Caroline given to a seventy-year-old Baronet. It’s kind of like Cinderella, except mom doesn’t give a shit about her biological daughters, either.

And then Artemisia’s problems go from bad to worse when she’s pulled into another realm by none other than the Faerie Queen herself. In turn, the Queen assumes Artemisia’s visage, with the intent of conquering earth. The only way that Art can get back to her world is by killing Faerie creatures to grow her own power and glamor. Can she slay the beast by becoming one herself? Does she even want to save earth, when her one good memory of it has been stripped away?

The “teen Victorian fairy fight club” descriptor is what really piqued my interest, but the actual story falls way short of this. Some of the finer plot points, like Warren’s relationship to Art, the significance of the flower, and just which memory Crispin traded Art for, are hecka confusing. I’m still not 100% sure I know what was going on there. The action only half kept my interest, at best. While there are quite a few fight scenes, the match-ups are uneven and so the battles are over before they even begin. (Fight Club? More like Rambo.)

Honestly, the only redeeming things are a) the artwork, which is moody and gorgeous and b) the ending, which is just deliciously perfect in a Twilight Zone kind of way.

(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: No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant (2019)

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Starts slowly, builds into something real, and then ends abruptly and with no resolution.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and racism.)

Raised in Portland, Oregon, cartoonist Hazel Newlevant was homeschooled by their* parents (for hippie reasons, not religious ones), resulting in a somewhat sheltered childhood. When they were seventeen, they got a summer job removing English ivy and other invasive plants from the local parks and forests. The youth “No Ivy League” project immersed Newlevant in the high school experience they’d been missing (or slimmed down, summer vaca version of it, anyway). This is Newlevant’s memoir, in graphic novel format, of these formative months.

As Newlevant works alongside at-risk youths, most of them black and brown, Newlevant becomes increasingly aware of their own privilege – and, by extension, that of all the home-schooling families that make up their social circle. (The scene where Newlevant asks a friend if he knows any black home schoolers is a light bulb moment.) After a co-worker’s inappropriate comments to Newlevant result in his dismissal – never mind a similar incident, directed at a black girl, which went unpunished – Newlevant begins the long and never ending process of unpacking their own privilege.

No Ivy League carries the promise of a powerful narrative of allyship, but it never quite reaches its potential. Perhaps this is because I read an early ARC, which I suspect wasn’t 100% finished. When some of the panels started lapsing into rough sketches instead of polished illustrations, I initially thought it intentional, as if to convey mental distress. Yet the last few pages are obviously not done, and the story ends rather abruptly, without any real resolution.

Newlevant’s parents’ admission that their decision to homeschool was a direct response to integration isn’t really followed up on; like, was there ever a confrontation or discussion about it? Likewise, the parallel video contest and #HomeschoolingSoWhite plot lines seemed certain to converge – like, maybe Newlevant uses the win of the former to help educate, protest, or raise awareness of the latter – but nope. Everything just kind of…trails off.

On the plus side: there’s some vegan rep, so yay for that!

* Newlevant’s preferred pronouns are they/them.

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