Book Review: Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs, Robert Trachtenberg (2016)

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Cheesecake Galore!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

If I could give this book ten stars, I’d still complain that ten isn’t enough, that the rating scale is rigged and/or incapable of handling a title of this magnitude. Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs IS THAT GOOD.

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I mean, just take a gander at that cover. Will Arnett! In fishnets! And black combat boots! Squeezed into a slinky dress and splayed on a swanky couch, looking all emo! Like some random dude just mansplained how the backlash against Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot is really about authenticity and faithfulness to the source material, not sexism and misogyny, you silly girl you! Or maybe it was some diatribe about Gamergate and journalistic integrity. It doesn’t really matter, because he stopped listening several drinks ago. Mind: blown, but in the worst way possible.

Red-Blooded American Male is a collection of photographer/filmmaker Robert Trachtenberg’s (mostly) celebrity photography, from 1994 to the present day. There are actors, singers, athletes, entrepreneurs, chefs, models – even a few children, paired with the occasional woman and/or dog. (Meryl Streep arm wrestling Tommy Lee Jones is a definite keeper.) I was only familiar with, like, half of them; many I’d never heard of. Some none of us will have; for example, little Caleb Ivison, whose mom traded some editing work for Trachtenberg for a photo shoot of her kids. Anyway, consider my interest sufficiently piqued. (This only applies to the 18-and-over crowd, obvs.)

Spoiler alert: not all of Trachtenberg’s subjects are American. (I’m down with bending the rules for some of the guys, but Justin Bieber? Really? Throw in a Ryan Reynolds doing his Deadpool shtick and maybe we’ll call it even.)

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The photos are uniformly stunning, with a mix of black-and-white and full-color images. At 10″x13″, the book is nice and big, and so are the photos; each one occupies at least a full page, with some spanning two. Each image deftly captures the personality of its subject, with a fun and eclectic mix of tongue-in-cheek sexy/cheesecake; goofy and playful; sophisticated and classy; dark and moody (Jimmy Fallon legit looks ready to jump; someone make sure he’s okay, yes?); and straight-up bananarama bonkers.

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Many of the photos are accompanied by a brief description of how the shoot went down; these tend to be super-funny and greatly enhanced my appreciation of the artwork. See, e.g., Janes Van Der Beek’s “Tush,” “More Tush,” and “Even More Tush”; or how Bryan Fuller’s nighttime routine is meant to “restor[e] sensations first felt in the womb.” I found myself nursing an intense sense of disappointment when a photo – especially a favorite, or of an actor or celebrity I fancy – went un-commented upon. But I guess the way to look at it is, maybe these stories were meh and would have turned us off, so better to omit them altogether?

My favorites include Judd Apatow, with his cheeseburger baby bump;

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a fierce Jimmy Kimmel cosplaying as Daenerys Targaryen; Bryan Fuller, with his moisturizing gloves and dog pile;

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Bryan Cranston being moody AF; the recreation of Herb Ritts’s iconic 1989 naked supermodel huddle, done with the cast of Jackass; Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, from way back when they were on Comedy Central, naturally; the morning after Bob Saget’s drug-fueled romp with a furry; Kevin Hart being pulled along the beach by a Great Dane/small pony;

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the acid trip-like John Leguizamo montage; and Denis Leary feeding a…barnyard full of Chihuahuas?

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I don’t know what’s going on there, but I want in. (I’m a crazy dog lady, can you tell?)

Oh, and Jeff Garlin on the treadmill in the middle of the forest? Strangely endearing, if only because I could imagine Murray Goldberg doing something stubbornly nonsensical like that. (Dear ABC, please publish his attempt at scrapbooking on the internets. TIA!)

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner sharing an embrace is hecka sweet, though I found myself wishing it was Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian Mckellen. Those two are my OTP of elderly white guys.

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Okay, so they’re all kind of awesome. YOU NEED THIS BOOK. Get it, now! Then go buy a copy for your elderly grandmother / recently divorced mom / college aged, still-figuring-himself-out younger brother / amateur photographer aunt. Basically anyone and everyone, male or female, gay or straight, genderqueer or pansexual. It’s silly, it’s sexy, and it’s even a little subversive. David Bowie would be right at home here.

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

Audiobook Review: Afterward, Jennifer Mathieu (2016)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

A surprisingly gentle story about trauma, recovery – and finding support in the most unexpected of places.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape/childhood sexual abuse.)

Caroline

Maybe it’s Jason McGinty’s weed or my own desperate, clawing attempt to try to do something to help Dylan, but I get an idea. The beginning of one, anyway. Something hazy and weird and probably screwed up.

Ethan

Groovy notices the brush in my hand and flips over, squirming in excitement. His tail even wags. I’d have to be a pretty big asshole not to brush this dog right now.

Eleven-year-old Ethan Jorgenson is out riding his bike one warm Texas afternoon when a car runs him off the road. Before he can even process what’s happening, Ethan finds himself crammed on the floor of a truck, surrounded by cigarette butts and Snickers wrappers, a gun pressed to his head. For the next four years, Ethan is held captive by a middle-aged man named Martin Gulliver.

Though Ethan’s abduction is big news in Dove Lake, the police have zero leads to go on. That is, until Marty snatches another boy, eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson, meant to be Ethan’s “replacement.” Shortly before he went missing, Dylan’s neighbor noticed the boy walking around outside, alone – which is unusual, since Dylan has low-functioning autism and never goes out unsupervised. Around the same time, she spotted an unfamiliar black pickup truck with severe damage to the rear bumper. The police traced the vehicle to Marty’s workplace in Houston, a hundred miles away; when they approached him, he slipped out the back of the restaurant and shot himself in the head. When they searched Gulliver’s apartment, they were shocked to find not one, but two missing boys: Dylan and Ethan.

This story is about what happens afterward: the slow and painful recovery that comes after an unimaginable trauma.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book, Mel Elliott (2016)

Friday, December 16th, 2016

A little on the plain side.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

Like many ’80s kids, my first encounter with David Bowie was the 1986 film Labyrinth. Along with Heathers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I devoured it over and over on a loop; one year, I even dressed as Jareth for Halloween. (Or tried to, anyway. My makeup game wasn’t exactly on point.) Whereas the vast majority of my childhood favorites haven’t held up so well over the years, Labyrinth is one of the notable exceptions.

As I grew older, I also became immersed in Bowie’s music, thanks to my dad. It wasn’t until I became an adult, though, that I began to fully appreciate Bowie’s influence on pop culture, whether by challenging gender norms, offering a more fluid vision of sexuality, or confronting racism in the music industry. Bowie’s death at the beginning of the year is just one of many catastrophes that would make 2016 one of the worst years in recent memory.

Mel Elliott’s David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book celebrates Bowie’s life, in all its weird glam glory. Though I’m not totally sold on the adult coloring book phenomenon – who’s got the time? – I decided to give it a try because, hey, David Bowie!

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While I love the idea, the execution is rather so-so. Each layout features a scene from Bowie’s life on the right, accompanied by a brief summary on the left. So far so good, except: the lettering on the text is quite large and hollowed out, so that you can color it in. While this works for maybe one layout or two, the design starts to feel repetitive after awhile. Additionally, there’s very rarely a background design – either on the text-side or the portrait-side – giving the book a rather plain and un-Bowie-like feel.

I would’ve liked to have seen more variation in the presentation of the text; for example, using a regular, solid, twelve-point font in some areas would have allowed the author to go into greater biographical detail. Or just expand on the artwork. Coloring in block letters gets pretty boring after awhile. Compared to previous coloring books I’ve tried, this one’s definitely on the simple and uncomplicated side.

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As for the retrospective, I’d assumed that it would focus primarily on Bowie’s music – but this is mostly overshadowed by his fashion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it really just depends on your expectations and preferences.

Bottom line: the overall design isn’t really my bag, but that doesn’t mean that other Bowie fans won’t like it.

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

DNF Review: Kill the Next One, Frederico Axat (2016)

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Not for me.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Obvious trigger warning for suicide and other forms of violence, including animal abuse.)

Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently. He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.

DNF at 58%.

Recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, thirty-seven-year-old Ted McKay has decided to end things on his own terms. He plans his suicide meticulously: he draws up a will, settles his affairs, and sends his wife Holly to her parents’ home in Florida for the week, begging out at the last minute “for work.” He locks his office door and leaves a note on the outside, so that his daughters Cindy and Nadine won’t accidentally barge in and be the ones to discover his corpse.

He’s poised to pull the trigger when an insistent knocking upends his resolve. It’s a smarmy-looking lawyer named Justin Lynch who – somehow, improbably – knows what Ted’s about to do. He doesn’t aim to talk Ted out if it, but rather has a better way. And so Ted’s recruited into a sort of suicide daisy chain. The price of admission? Assassinate one Edward Blaine, a well-known d-bag who murdered his girlfriend, but got off “on a technicality.” (Really the forensic team bungled the job, but you say tomato….) Then Ted just has to kill a fellow suicidal member, and it’s his turn. With his death disguised as a hit or perhaps a robbery gone wrong, Holly and the girls are spared the pain of knowing that Ted chose to kill himself. It’s a win-win!

Only not so much, since things aren’t exactly what they seem.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, Ben Clanton (2016)

Monday, December 12th, 2016

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Come for the narwhals, stay for the under-the-sea waffle parties.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Good thing that waffle is a kung fu master!

Every time I pick up Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, I picture Season Eight Leslie Knope reading it to her triplets before bed.

I mean, there are waffles! With a strawberry sidekick! Fighting robots! And they also know how to party!

null

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I’m 99.9998% certain that Narwhal the narwhal is Leslie Knope’s daemon in an alternate universe. (That pinprick of doubt? Stems from the shocking lack of waffle toppings. Like, where’s the whipped cream? The chocolate sauce? The gorram sprinkles?!)

So, like, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of a graphic novel for kids. As it turns out, it feels a lot like a picture book, but with panels like a comic book. It’s definitely meant for younger readers, but that’s okay! Adults can still enjoy it too. It’s silly and weird, but also hecka cute and kind of a fun distraction. And don’t we all deserve a little escapism after the dumpster fire that has been 2016?

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The book’s comprised of five short stories that follow a narwhal named Narwhal who’s found himself in strange waters. He befriends a perplexed little jellyfish; forms his own pod, with the help of shark, blowfish, and octopus; shares his favorite book (don’t get the pages wet!); throws a super-awesome party; and celebrates all things waffle-related.

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In summary:

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(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: Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal, Tanya Carroll Richardson (2016)

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Probably fair to categorize this grief journal as “nondenominational Christian with a New Age vibe.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads.)

In a little over three years, I lost four rescue dogs (out of seven) and a grandmother (just two!). Needless to say, this decade is not getting off to the greatest start. When I saw a copy of Tanya Carroll Richardson’s Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal up for grabs on Goodreads, I threw my name in the hat. I’m addicted to guided journals, and this one seemed especially timely for me. Even though it’s clearly meant for humans, I thought that maybe – with a few tweaks and a generous amount of creative interpretation – I could adapt it for use it for my forever dog/soul mate/daemon Kaylee.

Forever in My Heart is very thorough and detailed, which I didn’t entirely expect; so many of the guided journals I’ve tried are vague bordering on terse. Each page is packed with several (between two and four) prompts; some sentences have multiple fill-in-the-blanks, so it’s hard to give an accurate count. You’re provided with a few lines to answer; the exact number kind of depends on the nature of the prompt.

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A few of my favorite prompts:

– A funny memory of you I recently laughed about with someone
– I think of you especially during this time of day because
– I had this really crazy, silly dream about you since you passed on
– Your passing inspired me to make some positive changes in my life, like
– A book I read or a TV show I saw since you died that reminded me of you
– My favorite way you used to show me you love me

The journal is a good size, 8 3/4″ x 5 3/4″. Anything smaller and it can be difficult to write in. (Think: the thick, mass market paperback-sized design preferred by PotterStyle.) The lines are maybe a tick larger than college ruled; big enough to work with, but not large enough that they waste space. The paper isn’t super-thick, but it’s substantial enough that a standard ballpoint pen isn’t likely to bleed through.

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The journal is a little more religious than I anticipated, given the book’s synopsis on Goodreads. I think it’d be fair to call it nondenominational Christian with a New Age vibe; there are lots of references to heaven, prayer, spirits, and angels. I’m an atheist, so this isn’t really my jam, but I’m used to overlooking and compartmentalizing. Books on death and dying tend to have some degree of religiosity built in, so.

Even so, this one really gave me a workout: There’s a whole chapter called “You are forever in my heart…but you are also in Heaven, and I am trusting that’s where you’re meant to be.” Contrast this with the previous chapter, “You are forever in my heart…and that’s why I can still feel you here with me,” which I vastly prefer. (Also, all the angel talk? Totally caught me off guard.)

More bothersome is that some of the prompts sound an awful lot like the well-meaning but insensitive platitudes so often directed at the recently bereaved: “She’s in a better place.” “At least he isn’t suffering anymore.” “She’s with God in Heaven now.” All the mindless sayings that minimize, dismiss, and erase the pain, grief, and loss you’re all but drowning under. (A better opening? “Tell me about him.” Listen, don’t lecture.)

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Overall I think the journal’s okay; it’s not what I would have chosen for myself, if I’d been shopping around for one, but it’s not the worst. More religious folks will probably warm up to it more than I did. Probably not the best choice for a beloved nonhuman friend, but I’m gonna make it work.

(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 Supergirls: Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines (Revised and Updated), Mike Madrid (2016)

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Wonder Woman for President

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC through Edelweiss and a finished copy through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

After The Supergirls came out, something interesting happened. I got emails from readers who had no idea that there had been female superheroes in the 1960s, much less in the 1940s.

This is a difficult book for me to review. I’m rather new to the world of comic books, having only gotten into them in the past five years or so. With the exception of Brian Azzarello’s New 52 Wonder Woman, I’ve mostly avoided the long-running superhero titles; the sheer volume is just overwhelming! Like, where to start?

(Incidentally, The Supergirls has convinced me to avoid anything not published in this millennium – again with the exception of Wonder Woman, or at least Wonder Woman as written by William Moulton Marston. The early stuff is almost comically sexist and not worth my time. Well, except for the occasionally bizarro plotline, like when Supergirl falls for her horse Comet. Tina Belcher would approve.)

Instead I mostly gravitate toward more recently created series (Saga, Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, Monstress) and those based on stories I know and love from other mediums (Firefly/Serenity, Orphan Black, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen King’s The Stand and The Dark Tower; I’m damn near jumping out of my skin waiting for Octavia Butler’s Kindred!). My knowledge of most superheroes and villains stems primarily from the big and little screen adaptations; Fox’s animated X-Men series is a childhood favorite.

That said, from my neophyte perspective, The Supergirls seems thorough, meticulously researched, and well-thought out. Madrid’s writing is fun and engaging, though The Supergirls is best digested in small bites: the scope of the topic can be overwhelming at times.

(More below the fold…)

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

Monday, December 5th, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Night Voyage: A Magical Adventure and Coloring Book, Daria Song (2016)

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

A Whimsical & Kindhearted Premise, Coupled With Intricate & Stunning Artwork

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Blogging for Books.)

This is only the second adult coloring book I’ve owned, and I had no idea what to expect from a book billed as an “adventure and coloring book.” As it turns out, The Night Voyage is primarily a coloring book, but with several pages of introductory text to provide some background to the story and fuel your imagination.

It’s the eve of the little girl’s birthday, but sadly she will spend it alone (save for her cat, Phoebe): mom and dad will be away on a business trip. But they left her a huge stack of presents to unwrap, almost by way of apology. Feeling understandably lonely, she fantasizes about sharing her gifts with other kids her age, meeting new people and maybe even making a few friends in the process. Before she knows it, she’s drifted off. That night, with the help of her toy train set (now life-sized), a flock of paper cranes, and her trusty friend Phoebe, the little girl goes on a night voyage, making her daydreams a reality. (Spoiler alert: she wakes up to a giant stack of pancakes. Mom and dad either never left, or just completed the ‘verse’s shortest business trip ever.)

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Daria Song’s artwork is sumptuous: whimsical and imaginative, and packed with lots of surreal and fun scenes. The drawings are intricate and highly detailed; most likely you’d categorize this as an intermediate to advanced coloring book. There are quite a few tiny little lines and shapes, and a steady hand is a must for some of the scenes.

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The book is a near-perfect 10″x10″ square, and many of the drawings stretch across two pages, lending them an even grander air.

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There’s even a Visual Index at the end – each layout has a name – as well as a cut-out greeting card that you can decorate yourself. I also love the few blank frames scattered throughout the book; you can either sketch in your own favorite people, or cut a photo to fit and paste it in there.

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The pages are thick and sturdy; you’d really have to use some elbow grease to press through to the other side. The paperback book comes with a dust jacket (look underneath! there’s printing on both sides!), and the naked cover is quite lovely on its own.

The Night Voyage would make a wonderful Secret Santa gift or stocking stuffer, especially for book lovers: You’ve got to love a coloring book that features drawings of book piles inside!

(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: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, Lauren Beukes (2016)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

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

a is for algebra

“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.

“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.

And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”

She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.

(“Alegbra”)

Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.

(“Unaccounted”)

Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.

(“Slipping”)

I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)

Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.

The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Santa’s First Vegan Christmas, Robin Raven & Kara Maria Schunk (2016)

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Have yourself a caring little Christmas / Let your heart be full.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: The author sent me a free e-book in exchange for an honest review.)

Okay, I won’t even try to play. This book legit made me cry.

Dana is spirited little reindeer calf, living free in the Arctic tundra. It’s the night before Christmas, and she and her friends are racing and dancing and frolicking in the snow and ice, having a grand old time. Their celebrations are oh-so-rudely interrupted by the thundering of sleigh bells. It’s Santa, and he’s come to recruit a new reindeer for the team. He sets his sights on sprightly Dana, and no wonder: she’s positively bursting with joy and energy.

But dear old Santa is about to get schooled. Dana balks at the harness Santa tries to throw on her, instead giving him a lesson in kindness, compassion, and respect for all beings.

Santa, look. I know you meant no harm.
You’re just going along with the cultural norm.
But horses pulling carriages, reindeers pulling sleighs?
It’s all got to end. And I mean starting today!

Worry not, young ones! Christmas isn’t doomed, but transformed. Dana agrees to help Santa, but as an equal. They deliver toys to all the world’s boys and girls, but during their annual merry-making spree, Santa and Dana also free captive fishes, birds, and horses; deliver farmed cows, pigs, and chickens to sanctuaries; and break the chains that doom countless backyard dogs to isolated and lonely existences. In a lovely show of solidarity, Santa and Dana also help those humans in need, delivering food to the hungry and cash monies to the impoverished. (It’s a temporary fix, sure, but maybe save Murray Bookchin and The Shock Doctrine for the high school years?)

Santa’s First Vegan Christmas is a must-read holiday story for vegans of all ages. I’m 38 and childfree and, like I said, I was positively bawling by story’s end. Parents are sure to love its message of equality, not to mention the fresh rhymes and consistent ethics. It’s hard to know what to expect of vegan-friendly books – after all, there are as many reasons to go vegan as there are vegans! – but Santa’s First Vegan Christmas checks all the right boxes. Farmed animals, working animals, companion animals, human animals – the inherent worth of all creatures is celebrated. Robin Raven even drops the s-word (as in sentience, silly!).

Robin Raven’s lovely and uplifting story is complemented wonderfully by Kara Maria Schunk’s illustrations. The colors aren’t limited to the traditional holiday palette of green, white, and red, but rather feature a shock of bright oranges, deep purples, and sky blues. The bold mix brings to mind the various images of the Aurora Borealis I’ve marveled at over the years. (And no wonder, given the setting.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of it is funny.

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Review: Labyrinth: One classic film, fifty-five sonnets, Anne Corrigan (2016)

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

The Nostalgia is Strong with This One

five out of five stars

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

Perhaps, in childhood, you a movie saw;
the title of said film, ‘twas Labyrinth.
It told of maiden and companions four,
and featured a beguiling goblin king.
Now thirty years have passed since its release –
in stature has its reputation grown;
so much, that this enchanting fantasy
is to another generation known.
This tale (the most-beloved of my life)
I ventured to encapsulate in verse,
a true love’s labour; sonnets fifty-five,
which now you, gentle reader, may rehearse,
commemorating film in poetry –
humbly, ‘tis dedicated to Bowie.

— 4.5 stars —

So apparently the ’80s are making a comeback? As a child of the ’80s, this mostly boggles my mind; between the aesthetics (leg warmers, snap bracelets, hair bands) and the politics (Reagan; Wall Street), there isn’t a whole lot to wax nostalgic about. But while Aquanet and Hammer pants were indeed awful, there is one beacon shining through the gaudy geometric patterns: 80s movies.

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Breakfast Club. The Goonies. E.T. Back to the Future. Pretty in Pink. Adventures in Babysitting. Gremlins. Heathers. The Last Unicorn. The Princess Bride. And, of course, Labyrinth.

I watched that movie on a loop. David Bowie. Jareth, the Goblin King. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to dance with him,* or be him. Probably a little bit of both? I dressed up as Jareth one Halloween, though thankfully there is no photographic record of this. My makeup game has never exactly been what you’d call on point. Anyway.

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I nearly fell out of my seat when I saw that someone had written a sonnet – a whole book of them! – inspired by Labyrinth. I figured it could either be really freaking great, or a total disaster. I was leaning toward the latter, actually, since poetry isn’t normally my thing. I want to like it but, more often than not, I come away with the distinct impression that it mostly just went over my head. Happily, this is not that type of poetry.

Anne Corrigan had me at the prologue. I think the exact moment she captured my heart was with the last line, wherein she dedicates the book to the late David Bowie (hallowed be thy name). And it only gets better from there.

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Corrigan’s is a faithful retelling of Labyrinth in a Shakespeare-lite sonnet form. I say “lite” because it’s much more accessible than Shakespeare – and dare I say more fun, too? Though it’s been years since I watched the film (note to self: must rectify this immediately), her sonnets instantly transported me back there: to the Bog of Eternal Stench; the tunnels underneath the labyrinth; and the castle at its heart. I remembered how much I loved Ludo and his bossy little dog-friend, Sir Didymus, keeper of the bridge. Toby, I’m still undecided on. (Crying babies aren’t any more my bag than they were thirty years ago.)

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Is this Good Poetry? I have no idea. But it’s fun, heartfelt, and guaranteed to tickle the fangirl in you. It’s the bee’s knees, the owl’s howl, Hoggle’s goggle.

Bundle it with: the 30th Anniversary edition of Labyrinth; a Jareth, Hoggle, Sarah with Worm & Ludo Funko! Pop set; and the David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book to make a pretty rad gift pack for yourself or a Bowieligious friend.

* I was eight, okay. Give me a break!

(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: Heartless, Marissa Meyer (2016)

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Whimsical and tragic, an inspired origin story for the Queen of Hearts.

five out of five stars

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

She would be queen, and queens … queens did not open bakeries with their best friends. Queens did not gossip with half-invisible cats. Queens did not have dreams of yellow-eyed boys and wake up with lemon trees over their beds.

The Fox folded her hands and recited,
One to be a murderer, the other to be martyred,
One to be a monarch, the other to go mad.

Was he mad already? She couldn’t help inspecting him, newly speculative and curious. He didn’t seem mad. No more mad than anyone else she knew. No more mad than she was herself. They were all a little mad, if one was to be forthright.

Lady Catherine Pinkerton is in love … with baked goods.

The kitchen is her sanctuary: a refuge from a hyper-critical, socially ambitious mother; a meek father; and all the expectations that come with her social status – learning embroidery, attending balls, hanging out with the haughty best friend she can hardly stand. There’s nothing she enjoys more than dusting powdered sugar on a recently cooled lemon tart, or kneading bread dough until she’s ready to drop. She loves eating sweets, and sharing them with others: what quicker way to a stranger’s heart than through her stomach?

Cath dreams of opening a bakery with her best friend/family servant (one of several), Mary Anne. Mr. Caterpillar the cobbler is set to retire, leaving his storefront vacant, and its busy location would make the perfect home for SWEETS AND TARTS: THE MOST WONDROUS BAKERY IN ALL OF HEARTS.

Though her dream is almost adorable in its simplicity, the obstacles that stand in Cath’s way are anything but. As the only daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, Cath is its sole heir. Baking is considered unladylike – at least for ladies belonging to the royal class – and besides, she’s expected to marry and have children. In fact, her scheming mother has one particularly illustrious suitor in mind: the King of Hearts. He’s a nice enough guy, but fifteen years Cath’s senior, rather silly and daft – and baby-crazy, to boot.

The arrival of the King’s new Joker – on the night he’s set to propose to Cath, nonetheless – only complicates matters further. A mysterious man who makes the impossible possible, with eyes the “color of sunflowers and butterscotch and lemons hanging heavy on their boughs” and dark, curly hair, Jest is the man of Cath’s dreams. Literally: she was chasing him the night her dreams grew a lemon tree over her bed. The very same tree that bore the lemons she used to make the tarts she baked for her King/future husband. (Maybe.) Oh, what a fantastic mess!

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Book Review: Blood For Blood (Wolf By Wolf #2), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Now this is how you end a series!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including scenes of war. This review contains spoilers for WOLF BY WOLF, the first book in the series.)

The world heard it. People of all stations, colors, creeds . . . Aryan mothers and fathers with broods of blond children, a balding shisha merchant in Cairo, an oily-faced adolescent in Rome. Many stared at the screen—mouths slack, stunned eyes—trying to process what had happened. Others who watched understood. This was the signal they’d been waiting for. One—a frizzy-haired Polish woman by the name of Henryka—even smiled at her television, whispering, “That’s my girl,” before she stood and got to work.

“Monsters cut children open and call it progress. Monsters murder entire groups of people without blinking, but get upset when they have to wash human ash from their garden strawberries. Monsters are the ones who watch other people do these things and do nothing to stop it. You and I are not monsters. If anything, we’re miracles.”

Yael almost rolled up her sleeve there and then, almost pointed to the loping lines of Aaron-Klaus’s wolf, almost told Luka everything she was. But Luka was playing with his father’s dog tag again. And Yael found herself wondering if Kradschützen troops had rolled through this very village, letting their motorcycles idle as the SS made it a pile of bones. She wondered if Luka had any idea how their pasts tangled and tore at each other’s throats.

When last we saw concentration camp survivor/skinshifter/member of the resistance/trained assassin Yael, she had just shot Adolf Hitler. Or rather, the man she believed to be Adolf Hitler. Before he died, the Führer’s doppelgänger revealed his true face; flashes cycled through so quickly that only Yael was able to process and make sense of them.

This not-Hitler was, like her, a product of Experiment Eighty-Five: Dr. Engel Geyer’s attempt to make Jews and other ethnic “undesirables” more Aryan in appearance. The experiments succeeded, and then some: with changes in Yael’s skin and eye color came the ability to change her appearance, drastically and at will. In a delicious twist of fate, Yael employed this newfound skill to escape from the camp – and, eventually, masquerade as Victor Adele Wolf, enter the 1956 Axis Tour, and get close enough to Hitler to shoot him three times at point-blank range. Or so she thought.

Though she didn’t win the race – thwarted as she was by Luka Löwe, 1954’s Victor and the boy Adele betrayed to win in 1955 – Yael still scored an invitation to the Ball, thanks to lovesick Luka. Yael ripped his heart out and waltzed all over it at the end of Wolf by Wolf – not because she doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but perhaps precisely because she does, and nothing good can come of it. And so Yael is cruel to be kind, dumping Luka in the harshest of terms before gunning down not-Hitler. Only this doesn’t save Luka from becoming embroiled in her mess; quite the contrary. The guy who brought Hitler’s assassin to the ball? Well, the Gestapo’s going to want to have a word or two with him, and Luka knows it. So when Yael runs, Luka follows.

Luka isn’t the only boy Yael left behind. There’s also Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin, who Yael bound, gagged, and abandoned in his room at the Palace. Now he’s fallen into the Gestapo’s hands. Though Yael revealed her true identity before shooting Hitler, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other to the Reich. They need a scapegoat, and it’s going to be Adele and the Wolfe family. That is, unless Felix can gain Yael’s trust and infiltrate and betray the resistance.

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Mini-Review: Iron to Iron (Wolf By Wolf #1.5), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

“Iron called to iron, and there was always something more.”

five out of five stars

Once upon a different time, there was a boy who raced through a kingdom of death. He wore a brown jacket where all others were black, and it was said that his face could snare the hearts of ten thousand German maidens at first sight. His own heart? Hidden behind layers of leather and sneer and steel. Untouchable.

Until it wasn’t.

— 4.5 stars —

Set a year before the events of Wolf By Wolf, this novella takes us back to the infamous 1955 Axis Tour: when a sixteen-year-old fräulein named Adele Wolfe, masquerading as her twin brother Felix, materialized from seemingly nowhere to take the Iron Cross. To do so, she not only beat out top contenders Luka Löwe and Tsuda Katsuo – who won the cross in 1953 and 1954, respectively – but circumvented the Führer’s ban on female competitors. The risk paid off: Hitler was so smitten with his newest Victor that he requested a dance with her at the Victor’s Ball. (This proximity, of course, inspired the resistance’s plan to steal Adele’s identity and enter its own racer/assassin in her place in 1956. But I digress.)

To win a grueling, 20,780 kilometer, cross-continent race, a girl’s got to break a few hearts. Iron to Iron follows the competition from Luka’s perspective, from his temporary alliance with the silent and secretive Wolfe boy to his burgeoning romance with Adele Wolfe – and his eventual, inevitable betrayal on the final leg of the tour.

Graudin does an excellent job of adding depth to Luka’s character, softening his harder edges, and establishing his mindset (REVENGE!) when we meet him in Wolf By Wolf. Perhaps more importantly, she satisfies our curiosity about What Happened Between Luka and Adele in the previous year’s race. The betrayal is marginally worse than I expected – a little more violent and sudden – and, while my heart ached for Luka, I couldn’t help but side with Adele.

After all, Luka said it himself: “He didn’t need to win. Not the way this girl did.” Impress your abusive, impossible-to-please father – or escape a life spent popping out babies to feed to Hitler’s empire? It’s kind of a no-brainer. And yet, instead of handing the Iron Cross over to his new love, Luka offered to help her win…next year.

Asking women to sublimate or defer their goals for the good of men? How very 1955. Luka didn’t give her any choice, really.

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Book Review: Snow White: A Graphic Novel, Matt Phelan (2016)

Monday, November 14th, 2016

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Dark and gritty; a unique spin on the original Snow White tale.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, Candlewick.)

My name is Snow White, but my mother didn’t call me that to be funny.
She would say that the snow covers everything and makes the entire world beautiful.

* tick * tick * tick * KILL

I love a good fairy tale retelling, and this one is truly unique. Set in 1920s New York City, Matt Phelan’s Snow White is a gritty comic book adaptation with a decidedly noir spin.

Samantha White is just a child when her mother dies; the two are traipsing through a city landscape blanketed with snow when Mom doubles over coughing. On her kerchief are specks of blood. The year is 1918, and little Snow White is about to lose her mother to the “Spanish Flu.”

Fast-forward ten years. The widower Mr. White, a wealthy stockbroker, is instantly smitten with the newest It Girl, the star of Broadway, the Queen of Follies. They wed, Snow White is shipped off to boarding school, and the family somehow – magically – survives the stock market crash of 1929, which leaves so many of their peers destitute. Everything is okay-ish; that is, until our wicked stepmother receives ominous messages from her husband’s stock market ticker. Before long, Samantha’s father is dead and she’s on the run.

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From the glamour of Broadway to the shanties of Hooverville, Phelan makes excellent use of the setting. Much of the artwork is rendered in shades of black, white, and tan, accentuating the story’s gritty atmosphere and noir influence. Little pops of color, particularly red – the bright, spotty blood on Mom’s handkerchief; the blush on Snow’s cheeks; the drugged apple she accepts from an elderly sidewalk vendor – call attention to important panels and props. The artwork has a rough quality, much like the streets Snow wanders when she is cast out of her childhood home.

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Like the artwork, the dialogue is rather minimalist; yet if you are familiar with the story (and what American isn’t?), you should have no trouble following along. All of the various components – setting, plot, atmosphere, illustrations, and dialogue – work in harmony to deliver a Snow White that’s darker and more firmly rooted in reality than the original. The huntsman is a hired gun; the seven “dwarfs,” a group of homeless street kids. Yet there’s a touch of magical realism in the form of the Queen, linking this tale to its predecessors.

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Book Review: Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch (2016)

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Fell a little short of my expectations.

three out of five stars

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

She heard a wag in the audience say, “It’s a chimpanzee in a dress!”

Someone shouted, “Loup garou!” She laughed. Her eyes twinkled, her smile was genuine. Now that she was on, she didn’t feel so bad. I’m looking at you, she thought. You are looking at me. And you’re paying.

Funny. After all this time he could still get lost in looking, just looking at her. Marie didn’t have that. Her face, though hairy enough, was completely human. With Julia, you did wonder.

Julia Pastrana was a singer/dancer/musician/actress/all-around performer who lived in the 19th century. The details of her early life are sketchy. An indigenous Mexican born in a small village in the state of Sinaloa in 1834, Julia was raised in the household of Pedro Sanchez, who briefly served as the governor of Sinaloa. Here she was trained as a mezzo soprano and dancer, and also became fluent in Spanish, English, and French, in addition to her native Cáhita. In 1854, she was sold to Francisco Sepúlveda, a customs official in Mazatlán, and was brought to America, where she toured under the management of J.W. Beach and Theodore Lent. She and Lent eloped not long after, and they toured Europe together. Their first baby was born in Moscow in March 1860, but lived only three days. Julia died five days later of “postpartum complications.”

Julia was born with a rare genetic condition called generalized hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, which caused thick black hair to grow all over her body, as well as severe gingival hyperplasia, which resulted in an overdeveloped jaw and thickened lips and gums. She was variously billed as a “Bear Woman”; a human-ape hybrid; and the offspring of an orangutan and a human.

After Julia’s death, Lent arranged to have his wife and son’s bodies preserved by Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. He displayed the mummies in a glass cabinet and toured with their remains for years. Lent found another woman with features similar to Julia’s and remarried. He reinvented Mrs. Theodore Lent: Version 2.0 as Zenora Pastrana, sister of the late Julia Pastrana, and added her to the tour. The show made him a wealthy man. He may or may not have been committed to an asylum in Russia, where he died in 1884.

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Book Review: Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, Bailey Poland (2016)

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

“THE PERSONAL COMPUTER IS THE POLITICAL COMPUTER”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, harassment, and death and rape threats.)

When dealing with things like cybersexist abuse, it cannot be said often enough that there is no way to solve a problem without understanding it.

[I]t is worth noting that nearly every technological advancement throughout history has been seen as too liberating for women— and therefore dangerous.

Like many women who dare to voice an opinion online, Bailey Poland has first-hand experience with cyber-harassment and abuse. She typically gets a few dozen abusive tweets every night; when she briefly became the latest target of Gamergate, that number jumped to several hundred. She monitors the Twitter profiles and Facebook pages of past harassers on the daily, looking for signs that another wave of abuse is imminent. She and her activist friends have a sort of informal arrangement, where they tip each other off to possible threats. Dealing with the daily onslaught of abuse is tedious, demoralizing, and exhausting – and that’s kind of the point, from the harasser’s perspective.

One particularly dedicated misogynist harassed Poland for over a year, periodically sending her rape and death threats via Twitter. She finally decided to file a police report – and was lucky enough to get an officer who took her concerns seriously and was reasonably knowledgeable about the internet. (Either one is rare, but both together? Like an invisible pink unicorn!) Even so, nothing came of it; the department couldn’t even be bothered to keep Poland updated on its progress. And this represents a best-case scenario: the vast majority of victims don’t even get this far.

But Poland didn’t stop there: rather, she decided to make online harassment and abuse the topic of her first book. In Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, Poland explores the odious and often scary landscape of cybersexism. This encompasses not just the most egregious abuses: death and rape threats, doxxing and swatting, Gamergate and MRAs (and, now, the alt-right), but also more subtle forms of sexism and sexist microaggressions, such as mansplaining, talking over women, and dominating conversations. Even the very design of the internet – with its anything goes, Wild West type attitude – ignores women’s experiences and prioritizes men’s “freedom of speech” and self-expression over that of women and other marginalized groups.

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Book Review: Little Nothing, Marisa Silver (2016)

Monday, November 7th, 2016

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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