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

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

THEN

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

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

NOW

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

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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.

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Book Review: Summerlong, Peter S. Beagle (2016)

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

But that ending!

three out of five stars

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

He could never have distinguished the rescued young orca of a week before from the rest of the pod, but there was no mistaking the slender figure poised on the slanting bluff that had long since been Joanna’s daffodil bed, before a tremor had sliced it in two. Lioness Lazos was standing there, not at all like a witch, arms raised to order tides and powers to her bidding, but as calmly as the great dorsals themselves: greeting, perhaps, but never commanding, even seeming at one point to wave them diffidently away. And still the orcas danced for her.

I can count the number of childhood favorites that have managed to hold up over time on one hand, and The Last Unicorn is of them. (The book and the animated film, which is a double rarity.) Up until Summerlong, it was also my only experience with Peter S. Beagle. I own several of his titles – The Innkeeper’s Song, The Line Between, Mirror Kingdoms; accumulated at garage and library sales, mostly – but so far they’ve been languishing in the middle of a ginormous TBR pile.

Summerlong is quite evocative of The Last Unicorn, yet still its own beast. It has the same quirky charm and dreamlike quality, but also feels much more adult. (Thanks in no small part to the older protagonists and copious – yet tasteful – sex scenes.) While the story does boast some wonderful elements – not the least of which is Beagle’s distinctive, fanciful writing – overall it fell a little short of my expectations. Which is perhaps a bit unfair: bound up as it is in all sorts of childhood feels and ’80s nostalgia, The Last Unicorn is maybe not the best (or most objective) reference point.

The story begins in February, with the arrival of a beautiful and mysterious stranger on Gardner Island. Lioness Lazos quickly and seamlessly integrates herself into island life, stumbling into a waitressing job at the Skyliner Diner – which is where Abe Aronson and his longtime girlfriend Joanna Delvecchio find her. Before the bill’s been settled, they have offered to let Lioness stay in Abe’s garage, rent-free. Being in close proximity to Lioness does that to a person: makes them take leave of their senses, and gladly so. She is, in a word, enchanting.

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Book Review: The 100 Year Miracle: A Novel, Ashley Ream (2016)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you…

four out of five stars

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

It did things to people, this miracle. Strange and not wholly wonderful things.

“Do you know what it’s like to be terrified of a shower?” Harry asked. Rachel did know. Unfamiliar showers sometimes had abrupt changes in temperature, which hurt her back terribly, but she did not say this to Harry, who had continued talking without her. […]

Most people, Rachel knew, didn’t want you to talk about your pain, not unless it was temporary like a twisted ankle or hitting your thumb with a hammer. If you did not hold up your end of the bargain and get better, things fell apart quickly. People would avoid you. It was easier to keep hidden, and she felt sorry for Harry because he could not hide.

Every hundred years, the Artemia lucis – tiny, eight millimeter long arthropods – come alive. They hatch from ancient eggs and spend the next six days mating, or trying to, before laying the next generation of eggs and dying. During the nighttime, they emit a neon green glow, turning the whole of Olloo’et Bay – their only known habitat – into a wondrous light show. The phenomenon is known as The 100 Year Miracle.

Yet, despite the colloquialism, few people are aware of the insects’ more miraculous properties. The (fictional) Olloo’et – southern Northwest Coast peoples who resided on (the fictional) Olloo’et Island until they were forcibly relocated in the 1920s – believed the (fictional) Artemia lucis sacred. During their infrequent periods of activity, the Olloo’et men partook in a ceremony: accompanied by a shaman and tribal leader, the men spent six days and nights drinking the bay’s water (complete with insects), which had hallucinogenic effects. The men reported having visions, slipped into trances, experienced great physical pleasure – and even claimed that the bugs cured their physical illnesses. Occasionally someone died; “usually by walking out into the water and never coming back.”

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Book Review: Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante (2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

The Tribulations of Adolescence: A Character Study

three out of five stars

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

Anna Franklin has never really fit in. A native of Sunnyvale, California, Anna was perhaps the least “sunny” kid in her subdivision. Socially awkward and unsure, she usually watched from the sidelines while the neighborhood children played tag. Her parents meant well, but failed to pay Anna enough attention, absorbed as they were – are – in their own interests: she, a pianist; he, an amateur scientist.

When Anna turns sixteen, things go from bad to worse as she’s caught in the bleak, gloomy grip of depression – or melancholia, in Anna’s parlance. Nothing can seem to shake its hold on her: not a psychiatrist (who Anna dislikes), not drugs (which Anna tosses), not her parents’ well-intentioned encouragements. Until, one night – in an effort to rekindle mother-daughter rituals of old – Anna’s mom institutes mandatory bedtime reading. Her first choice? The Bible. Not for any religious purposes, mind you – Anna’s parents are both atheists – but because it’s the basis for so much subsequent literature.

Yet something (read: the promise of death, violence, and retribution) in Revelations speaks to Anna. She discovers that she is “passionately in love with death.” Anna begins to have dreams – and then waking visions – of a red heifer. Anna’s overnight religious mania coincides with the arrival of the Goldschmidts, a weird family that seems mostly disengaged from the world (or at least Anna’s small slice of it). When Lars invites Anna to his church, she finds a ready and receptive outlet for her newly discovered fundamentalist fervor.

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Book Review: In Wilderness: A Novel, Diane Thomas (2015)

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

A Twisted Anti-Romance Set Against an Unspoiled Forest Wilderness

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Trigger warning for rape, suicide, and racist and sexist language. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Dr. Third Opinion sighs. He leans back in his creaky chair, stares past her into some middle distance to her left. “A hundred, hundred-twenty years ago, we used to tell patients like you, patients we had no hope of curing, to go west, move to the country, take the Grand Tour of Europe. Anything. A change of scene. After all this time, we can’t do any better.”

“Were they healed? The ones who went away?” Hates her voice’s horrid, hopeful whine.

He shrugs. “Who knows? I doubt most of their physicians ever heard from them again.”

Katherine Clopton had a blessed life: A loving husband, a nice house in Atlanta, a much-loved baby on the way, and a lucrative job at an advertising agency (even if she was forced to pass her creative work off as Tim’s. This was the “good ole days” of Mad Men, after all.) And then she lost it seemingly overnight. As quickly as a city pesticide truck could sweep through her neighborhood, Kate’s health took a nosedive; she suffered a miscarriage; and Tim up and left her.

Almost four years have passed, yet Kate’s not over any of it: her health problems least of all. What started out as migraines – crippling but not fatal – has snowballed into a mysterious constellation of symptoms: nausea, weakness, non-localized pain, lethargy, and forgetfulness. Her body is failing to assimilate food, her doctors say; she’s slowly starving. Given just six months to live, Kate impulsively purchases a rustic cabin in the Atlanta wilderness, sight unseen. Within weeks she’s sold her share in the ad agency, vacated her suburban home, and headed into the woods to die.

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Mini-Review: “Last Woman On Earth,” C.V. Hunt (2013)

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Perfectly Grim & Melancholic

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for suicide and allusions to rape.)

“Last Woman On Earth” opens in a most unusual way: that is, with a brief primer on hanging techniques. The narrator is, as far as she can tell, the last woman on earth, and it’s a burden she’s long since tired of shouldering. She aims to kill herself, but not after enjoying one last sunrise and sunset from high atop the Seattle Space Needle.

In this distant future, the apocalypse arrives on the back of science: after generations of “pump[ing] their bodies full of contraceptives,” women’s reproductive systems have evolved into a state of persistent infertility. The declining birth rate affords men yet another excuse to exploit women – women’s bodies being the means of production, the very stuff of life – and women once again become the hunted. Kidnapping, rape, and human trafficking are at best overlooked in the name of saving the latest endangered species – us. So it’s no surprise when, during her final suicide trek to the West Coast, the narrator turns away from the only human she spots on the road – a man. It’s perilous to be a dwindling natural resource, after all.

For such a short story, “Last Woman On Earth” packs quite a punch. My only complaint? The author’s use of “rape” to denote something that is not rape (environmental degradation) – an especially egregious affront considering the theme of the story.

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