Tag Archives: book reviews

institutional silencing

Reviews: We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper and Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

I’m grateful to have received an eARC of Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close via Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing in exchange for an honest review! (Because the ARC archived before I finished reading I also picked up a final copy from my library to complete the read, so my review comes from a mix of both the early and published editions; I have checked the final copy for accuracy of all quotations included below.)

In the wake of the #metoo movement, there’s been a definite trend in literature toward exposing long-running abuses, often but not limited to powerful white men taking advantage of women they are meant to be helping in some way, and ensuring their silence with gaslighting and/or direct threats. At this point, most of us know these abuses of power have been taking place across all sorts of institutions that are meant to protect and nurture women (and others), but it is still shocking to stumble upon cases that reveal how deep these issues run, and how deeply they still impact the world today.

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence

So I thought I knew what I was getting into when I picked up Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close; it’s a true crime / investigative journalism / memoir account of the infamous murder of a young woman at Harvard in 1969, an account of which has been kept alive by archeology students on campus for decades. But We Keep the Dead Close is so much more than the piecing together of a long-unsolved tragedy- it is a thorough look at pervasive sexism, gatekeeping and patriarchal self-preservation in a prestigious university (and specifically, its archeology department). This is the story of how one young woman’s terrible fate was left to rumor and speculation, which achieved something quite different than justice.

“The very things that made me love Harvard- its seductiveness, its limitlessness- also made it a very convincing villain. Harvard felt omnipotent.”

CWs: sexism, rape, murder, gatekeeping

We Keep the Dead Close opens on two timelines: one in which Jane Britton fails to attend an important exam in 1969 and is subsequently found dead in her apartment, and one near present-day as another Harvard student, Becky Cooper, hears a version of the unsolved mystery that’s been passed down from student to student for years. What fuels the story’s longevity and sparks Cooper’s interest is the fact that the man implicated in the story was not only never arrested but actually still working at the school. Before long, Cooper begins a deep dive into Jane’s life and death, the shoddy police investigation, and Harvard’s insular archeology department.

Of course a cast of suspects, many involved with Harvard archeology, begin to appear, each as convincing a criminal as the last- at least for a chapter or two. Cooper’s skill in painting a plausible picture of guilt without dehumanizing anyone or falling into the trap of sensationalism is remarkable. Instead of attempting to capitalize on shady characters for plot twists, Cooper uses each possible culprit as a jumping-off point for a closer examination of Britton’s story; she examines not only the suspects but those who believe in the suspects’ guilt, and how each version of the narrative serves its audience. In this way, Cooper manages not only to assemble a mystery but to highlight its deeper cultural context.

“…Jane’s story, one about a girl disappeared by her adviser, was still so alive in the community because it was an exaggerated, horror-movie version of a narrative that was all too common.”

I predict some readers who pick up We Keep the Dead Close as a juicy crime drama might be disappointed. Even though Britton’s story has all the shocking and surprising elements of a compelling mystery, it is much longer than the surprisingly simple answer to her death really requires and its pacing is slowed by supplemental Harvard history, the gritty details of archeological digs, and the effects of rampant sexism (with nods to racism and intersectionality as well) across the board. It’s all incredibly well done and every aspect compels, but someone expecting a fast-paced whodunnit may find their expectations misaligned with what Cooper has to offer. Where this book excels is not so much in unveiling scandalous details (though it has those) but in examining the machinations of the story itself. Here we discover how Britton’s fate has become a sort of mythology- taken on a life of its own as a way for Harvard students to warn each other about professors who seem to operate above the rules, the department’s tendency to protect itself (and the privileged white men at its helm) at any cost, and the stubborn tradition of patriarchy woven into Harvard’s very marrow. The murder mystery is only a vehicle Cooper uses (with utmost humanity, not even sparing her own research efforts from criticism) to examine greater flaws in elite academia.

“I had been reassuring myself that I was doing the right thing by telling Jane’s story, but I, too, had been propagating the things we preferred to believe. I was wrong- we were wrong.”

Photographs and visuals (nothing gory) add an extra dose of reality to the tale and help the reader keep track of the main players, while statistics and anecdotes drive the book’s feminist points home. Archeological digs lend the story an air of adventure, and Cooper’s style of unearthing facts and using them to build a story about the past feels particularly apt in relation to Britton’s area of study. I wouldn’t change a thing, and recommend this book highly.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. While I can see some readers potentially finding the many layers to this mystery a bit superfluous to what they were looking for, the depth of information and exploration really worked to tip We Keep the Dead Close toward top-tier reading for me.

Inspired by the exceptional experience I had with Cooper’s book, I decided to keep following the thread and picked up Lacy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing.

Notes on a Silencing

In this memoir, Crawford recounts her experiences at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, including a sexual assault against her and the boarding school’s shocking efforts not only to cover it up but to place Crawford in the path of further harm. In this account she details the assault and the messy aftermath, but also gives fantastic coverage of boarding school life for those of us who aren’t in the know, and takes the time to interrogate the language surrounding sexual assault- all in all, it’s revelatory, informative, and so sharply written that the CWs (rape [of a minor], sexual assault [of a minor], sexism, gaslighting, silencing, gatekeeping) are really the only potential deterrents.

“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who- some of them- had never even been in a room with me. They still never have.”

This is another case full of shocking facts and astonishing twists, and yet once again we see a slower pace that’s driven not by the crimes but in this case by Crawford’s day-to-day life. She spends three years at St. Paul’s, and uses much of that timeline as a way to show the reader an insider view of the elite boarding experience, warts and all. The narration skips around somewhat (though each chapter is labeled with the year and Crawford’s status at school to ground the reader in time), with the event of her assault acting as a lens through which she reflects upon everything. The assault, which took place on campus at the hands of two older students (legal adults), occurred in 1990, and despite Crawford’s own statements about working hard to forget that night, the intervening years and the insight they’ve given to her show clearly in every passage.

“The story of what happened would have attached to me, the high school sophomore out of bed in the small hours. Even there- do I write the story of what happened or the story of what he did? Trying again: the story of what he did would have attached to me, the high school sophomore out of bed in the small hours, like a cursed baton he’d passed to me on the stairs while my parents and his wife and his children and my brother slept.”

Of course, as for many women, Crawford’s experience with sexual assault and harassment was not a one-time event, and thanks to her school, it was not something she saw legal justice for. It’s a devastating story, and one of the most heartbreaking parts of it for me was seeing her parents seem to lose interest once they learned Crawford had been sexually active outside of the assault case. Looking at her story, there are so many places like this where the unsympathetic listener could (and did, given some of the bullying she faced) make excuses for what happened to her, but Crawford sees these traps and deftly sidesteps to leave the blame where it rightfully lies, and it’s a damn shame to see her parents failing to jump that hurdle. Though she doesn’t speak against them outright in this book, it’s a complicated relationship that wasn’t always helpful for Crawford, and can be difficult to read about. There are some happy moments within these pages, but I think it’s worth being aware of how bleak the book can be as well; the unflinching honesty may have been the hardest part of the read for me, but it is also what impressed me most. Few memoirs (at least, in my limited experience) achieve this level of self-sacrifice and -awareness. It’s truly a powerful book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I thought aside from the age of the protagonist this book might feel a little redundant, having just read all about Harvard and having picked up #metoo material in the past, but Crawford’s storytelling and skill with language drew me right in and truly set this account apart.

Both of these are books that I think will appeal more to female readers in general, although I would also say that books like these should be required reading for every parent who sends their child to a prestigious school- high school or college- and most of the students as well. I’ve complained a lot in my adult years about my small town public school education, and I’ve been embarrassed about not even applying to ivy leagues, but now… I wonder how these institutions can survive with this sort of information readily available to the public. And I know a sizeable portion of those who attend such schools are the rich and privileged who will benefit from this sort of patriarchal harm and thus may not mind so much that these schools have such a legacy. But I hope going forward that enough people will care about making sure educational spaces- especially where children are involved- are safe for students, so that we will start seeing positive changes. It is evidently a widespread problem. Chessy Prout, coauthor of I Have the Right To, also writes about her experience with sexual assault at St. Paul’s, which occurred in 2014. That’s only seven years ago guys, and her assault wasn’t an isolated event but part of a larger game.

Fiction has taken up the theme as well, showing further readers just how easy and often adults employed by a prestigious school can get away with preying on their students: we have examples such as Elizabeth Russell’s stunning My Dark Vanessa, which takes place at a New England boarding school and beyond, providing a nuanced commentary on survivor response to trauma; Susan Choi’s brilliant Trust Exercise, a high school exploration of teen misperception and trauma that follows survivors into adulthood, and even Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, a Yale-centered fantasy novel which doesn’t focus primarily on sexual assault but does comment on the exclusionary gatekeeping of the prestigious institution (which Bardugo attended herself)- honoring its wealthy and privileged few while treating outsiders essentially as disposable. Even Brandon Taylor’s Real Life speaks to institutional silencing in its own way, highlighting the ways racism can bar students of color from receiving a fair education even while their white peers, mentors, and advisors deny that any such obstacle exists, or at least their own roles in it.

If it’s #metoo stories you’re interested in moreso than the warped educational institutions of America, you shouldn’t miss Chanel Miller’s incredible memoir, Know My Name, in which her own attempted assault on Standford’s campus leads to a legal battle that seems to favor her attacker from the start. Additionally, though I haven’t read these yet, there are She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow, both surrounding the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a prominent American film producer and now convicted sex offender. Speaking of film, #metoo story seekers may also be interested in documentaries like Netflix’s Athlete A, in which USA Olympic gymnasts speak out against national team doctor Larry Nassar who abused young girls and women under the guise of medical treatment for decades.

Clearly, this is a problem that affects so many in so many different settings; the magnitude of it is staggering, and the silencing on top of the assaults makes it all the more horrendous.

“‘…your piece is one of hundreds of pieces. This goes back to the nineteen-forties. I don’t even see the end of this investigation.'” -Notes on a Silencing

But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. We seem to be entering an era where it is no longer difficult to find stories of women speaking out against abuses perpetrated by men in positions of power, and as hard as it can be to think about how deeply affecting these situations can be for all survivors, and how very many of those there are, it is also glorious to witness this page being turned. To see the fear falling away, to seeing predators start to be held accountable, to see the previously unacknowledged truths of our society brought to light. It’s an honor to hear these stories, to bear witness, and to be an ear for voices that have been kept quiet for far too long. And that is why I keep reading and recommending books about sexual assault and abuse of power, no matter how painful they may be. Awareness is the first step. Change, I hope, will be the second.

If you have further recommendations for me and other readers interested in this topic, please feel free to list them below.

The Literary Elephant

cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit

As usual, I’ve kicked off my reading year mostly with titles I already owned, mainly releases from the year before that I just hadn’t quite gotten around to. But shiny new books are too exciting to resist for long, so I’ve got a couple of 2021 releases to review now!

Outlawed

First up is Anna North’s Outlawed, a January publication that reinvents history. Set in the 1890s west, the US has been torn apart and rebuilt as something new in the wake of the Great Flu, which decimated the population enough to inspire a total societal fixation on reproduction. Women are valued only for their ability to bear children- many children. Ada, our MC, is in her late teens when she faces trouble: she’s been married for a year, tried a second partner in desperation, but her womb remains empty. She joins a convent to escape being hung as a witch, discovers that there’s a whole community of barren women just trying to survive, and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang to reclaim some of what’s been lost to her and to others marginalized by a zealous society with its cornerstone in bigotry.

Outlawed is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t think it really has anything new to say and yet it has been the most fun read I’ve picked up so far this year. The writing isn’t anything flashy- I marked only three quotations, and all of them were chosen for their ability to capture the story’s essence in various ways, not on the basis of remarkable wording. The format is straightforward, chronological with a single first person narrator in a book that would probably have been served better with a wider range of perspectives- North apparently wants to deliver these characters’ backstories and rationalizations, but doing so through one primary MC means that Ada asks a lot of nosy questions and the reader gets to roll their eyes as her companions just… tell her whatever she wants to know. But there’s such a playful tone to it all that I found it to be an utterly addictive read nonetheless. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that spins out a theme in a mildly ridiculous way and just has fun delivering its messages, which are good one even if you’ve heard them before. Not for content, but my experience with Outlawed had a lot in common with my experience of My Sister, the Serial Killer; I loved them both for being theatrical, entertaining, a bit absurd.

It takes two chapters to get past the character introduction and plot setup, but then we’re thrown into a world of women and non-binary characters dressed up like men, running heists and getting into trouble and helping each other out again. The cast is lovable and diverse; I had a slight reservation at first about barrenness being highlighted as The Ultimate Persecuted Thing when there’s still racism and homophobia active in this world as well, but in the end I think North does a fair job of highlighting one issue without belittling others. There are squabbles and particular alliances among the outlaws, but the complicated dynamics between them all adds to the strength and appeal of this diverse found family.

“‘It’s a way of holding us up,’ Elzy said. ‘It’s how the Kid reminds us who we are.’ / ‘And who are we?’ / We heard hoofbeats in the distance. / The Kid appeared at the lip of the gulch then, nose and mouth already covered by a scarf of purple silk. Elzy smilied at me, then removed a checked bandanna from her pocket. / ‘Didn’t you hear?’ she asked. ‘We’re kings.'”

Other slight hangups for me included the brevity of the world building and a glossing over of morality. In the case of the former, small details are scattered throughout the book, leaving the politics of this setting feeling half-finished; we get small hints about the Great Flu and the Independent Townships that formed after America fell and the sheriffs who police them, but it’s bare bones- only enough to understand the logistics of the plot. As for the latter complaint, North delivers here a band of outlaws who are fully willing to kill any man who gets in their way, and there’s very little personal reckoning over this state of affairs. Of course the entire Hole in the Wall Gang has been cast out and persecuted, but it seems there should be a distinction made between recognizing harm from society as a whole and taking individual lives. Especially for a group with prices on their heads who are endeavoring to create a safe haven, I expected some deeper examination into the decision to murder, but instead its taken largely as a matter of course. The whole book, perhaps, could have been served well by an extra 50-100 pages in order to tease things out properly. That I never wanted the book to end probably serves as an indicator that I found it lacking in some ways even while the story engrossed me.

For all my little quibbles, I loved picking this book up every time I had a chance to read, was shocked at some of the twists, and heartbroken over a particular death. Outlawed has great energy. I was invested. I had a good time.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I could see myself potentially bumping this down to 4 in time, as it wasn’t a flawless read, but I was completely hooked all the way through and sad to reach the final page. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Echo Wife

Next is Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, which is a February 16 release- I received an eARC via Netgalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. All of my thoughts and reactions come from the advance edition of this book.

This plot follows a renowned woman scientist who learns her husband is having an affair- with a clone he built from his wife’s research, programmed to be docile and accommodating in all of the ways Evelyn is not. At first Evelyn cuts her losses and keeps her distance, but soon the clone has as much reason to hate the man as Evelyn, and the two women bond over an attempt to cover up his murder.

I was under the impression that this book would be a fast-paced, plotty sci-fi, perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, but instead found it to be fairly slow and introspective. Part of what makes it drag is the narration’s tendency to over-explain, pausing each scene to tell the reader outright what each gesture, expression, and comment means, leaving nothing for the reader to decipher or interpret. The careful detailing of minutiae makes it easy to see which direction the book is going at almost every turn, before it gets there. It takes a full quarter of the book for the plot to progress beyond what’s stated directly in the synopsis, and each new piece of information (the affair! the clone! the murder! *gasp*) is presented as a plot twist even though it’s all setup, primarily, for what is in actuality a very character-driven story in which one woman grapples with who she is and who she could have been under other circumstances and who she could never have been at all- as well as an inquiry into that which makes us human.

I mostly agreed with and appreciated the book’s feminist commentary but didn’t feel it pushed any boundaries- that some women desire to reproduce, others do not, and both choices are valid is not new to me, nor is the narrative of a man taking advantage of a smart/successful woman in a quest to secure his own power both personally and professionally, though they’re nice points to see made in mainstream lit and I know there will be other readers newer to the nuances of both who will likely find these themes more exciting than I did.

Ultimately this story just wasn’t quite as punchy and innovative as I expected, though I did enjoy the focus on morality, on personality, on what (if anything) differentiates a human from a highly successful clone. The writing style never managed to win me over, though it’s competent enough and clearly shows that Gailey has put some effort into the science. To be honest most of the scientific details meant nothing to me without much of a background in the field myself, and thus some suspension of disbelief was required, but having them in the story did lend a sense of authenticity to Evelyn’s lab and increase my willingness to follow Gailey through that setting. In the end I’d say this is sci-fi for fans of books like Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife and/or Helen Philips’s The Need, both lighter on the actual science and heavier on feminist and woman-centered commentary; I’d recommend it to readers who like attention to detail and no questions left unanswered. Those who already know they like Gailey’s writing will probably fare well here, too.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, my expectations from the synopsis got in the way of fully enjoying what is actually presented here, and I suspect that in the end Gailey’s writing style is just not for me. This was my first time reading their work and I won’t rule out an exciting premise in the future convincing me to give them another go, but I don’t plant to read further for now.

Are either of these books on your radar for 2021?

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: A Lucky Man, Transcendent Kingdom, and Memorial

My final reviews of the year! This will have me all caught up, aside from my two current reads, which I’m still hoping to finish before the new year and talk more about in January (they’re Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party). My favorite reads of the year should be up tomorrow, or, worst case scenario, the first of January. Today I’ve got Jamel Brinkley’s 2019 National Book Award shortlistee, the short story collection A Lucky Man, as well as two recent contemporary/literary releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and Bryan Washington’s Memorial.

A Lucky Man

In A Lucky Man, Brinkley presents a collection of short stories featuring Black sons of various ages who endure complicated or severed relationships with their fathers. The stories are not mutually exclusive but they don’t share any connections beyond exploring the generational ramifications of antiblack racism in America.

“‘I got an agitated soul,’ he said. ‘Most of us do, I think. Not from no conspiracy or nothing. Just from being black and alive.'”

Though the collection as a whole is a nuanced look at the affects of racism on the relationships of Black men and their children, this isn’t a book to turn to for punchy, quotable statements about race. The writing is accomplished and thorough, but the book’s messages are primarily apparent through character dynamics, behaviors over time, and the overall volume of Black fathers here who have been pushed out of their sons’ lives in one way or another; it’s what can be read between the lines that is most impressive about this work. It’s one of the most thoughtful and cohesive collections I’ve ever read; every piece stands strong on its own, though looking at them all together is what best brings out their meaning. There were only two stories out of nine that I personally found a little less gripping, but they all belong equally to the whole.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection went far with lit awards last year, and I think it deserves a wider readership than it seems to have. It’s quiet and sad, but there’s undeniable skill here that makes each piece of the set engaging in its own right. Brinkley is an author to watch.

And as a bonus, I think it’s very much to the author’s credit that I was particularly attuned to the difficult relationships between Black men and their children in my next two reads, as well; A Lucky Man clarified this particular facet of family life in America for me in a very effective way.

Transcendent Kingdom

In Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is a neuroscientist running behavioral experiments on mice in the hopes of better understanding what has befallen her family; her brother died young in the grip of addiction, and afterward her mother succumbed to a debilitating depression that has, years later, suddenly returned.

“It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”

There’s little plot here; Gifty goes back and forth between the lab where she works with the mice, and her home, where she tends to her unresponsive mother. The beauty of the novel comes through Gifty’s internal grappling with her family history and her struggle to strike a balance between her relationships with science and religion. This is another very quiet book, and it’s hard to explain the charm that comes through in Gifty’s voice, but rest assured that this is a must-read. It’s rich in social commentary but it’s also captivatingly specific; not too detailed to be alienating to those of us unscientifically-minded readers, but just detailed enough to bring another layer of texture to this story and make it feel lived-in and real.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is such a different reading experience from Gyasi’s historical and expansive Homegoing, but no less brilliant for the change of pace. I really hope we’re going to see this title up for a lit prize or two in 2021, but there’s no need to wait for it to appear on the lists to pick it up- you won’t regret it!

Memorial

In Memorial, Mike is flying to Osaka to aid his dying father, leaving his visiting mother to wait for his return in the apartment he shares with his boyfriend, Ben. Mike and Ben’s relationship has been a little rocky lately, but neither of them are strangers to complicated relationships and they’re all still trying to figure out how they fit together, or whether they should bother trying to fit together at all.

“And how did everything come to such a turning point between us? Quietly, I guess. The big moments are never big when they’re actually fucking happening.”

Memorial is a quick read packed with (unpunctuated) dialogue and a steady stream of brief anecdotes that drive the story forward and backward simultaneously. The narrative is not quite linear, but Washington is clear about sequences of events and the easy pace helps hold everything together and keep the story moving. Though little happens aside from personal reckonings, it’s a sharp book that digs into the ups and downs of multi-cultural life in the modern world (Ben is a Black American, Mike is Japanese American, and both are gay; they live together in Houston, Texas in a eclectic neighborhood halfway between low-income and up-and-coming).

It’s essentially a character study in two parts, a relationship study, if you will. I thought a little more could’ve been done with the men’s professions and sense of home, and I thought a few less expletives might have served the book just as well, but ultimately it’s a compelling representation of marginalized America; I’m not an own voices reader/reviewer, but I thought the depictions of gay, multi-cultural, polyamorous men were thoughtful and realistically messy. It’s the sort of book you don’t mind going on and on even whhen nothing is really happening because the characters are magnetic enough in themselves.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed this novel more than Lot, though I do think that Washington’s story collection has strengths of its own that are maybe not as well-realized here- the broad exploration of setting/community, for example. But I am partial to longer form fiction and appreciated the greater depth of character Memorial had to offer; I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Washington’s work going forward.

Are any of these titles on your radar?

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Butterfly Garden and The Deep

I’ve been trying to read some horror for an upcoming spotlight post; reading horror while getting ready for Christmas is a new vibe for me but… I like it. Is there such a category as Christmas horror? I may want to try this again in the future. This year I read Dot Hutchison’s The Butterfly Garden and Alma Katsu’s The Deep (not to be confused with River Solomon’s The Deep, which has been getting a lot of attention this year); both fell a little short for me but were highly readable and put me back in the spooky spirit!

The Butterfly Garden  (The Collector, #1)

In The Butterfly Garden, a pair of FBI agents questions a young woman, the leader of a group of kidnapped girls who have recently been freed. Most of the surviving victims are recovering in the hospital, just down the hall from their captor, but none of them will tell their names or stories until they’ve spoken to this woman; this difficulty, along with the fact that she seems to have been instrumental in the escape effort, leaves the FBI suspicious of the nature of her involvement. They need her version of events- but she’ll tell it on her own terms.

I typically prefer going into everything I read as cold as possible, but I would not recommend that approach here unless you’re sure you can handle difficult subject matter. It can be a very intense read if you don’t know what to expect. CWs for kidnapping, captivity, rape (ages 16-21 and, on one occasion, 12), physical violence, gun violence, parental neglect, suicide (mentioned, not on page), suicide ideation, murder, and death.

There’s a bit of a mystery to the plot, but it’s weak; the real driving force of the novel is the journey through a psychologically traumatic experience and the commentary on sexism and crimes against women that it generates. Hutchison turns a light on the deep affects of physical and mental trauma and the danger of trying to choose neutrality; the horror here is the ease with which a man can get away with hurting women for his own pleasure, and the devastation left in his wake even for those who break free.

“I think a trauma doesn’t stop just because you’ve been rescued.”

It’s an incredibly dark book, a quick read despite the slow pace (the woman being questioned is circuitous in her answers) and the low-stakes mystery (the woman does not seem concerned about her fate, and in any case she and the reader both know early on that the girls are no longer captive and that the men involved are injured or dead). I can see that Hutchison is trying to add suspense and foreshadowing to the story by structuring it in a dual past-present way, but the format doesn’t quite achieve the tension or intrigue, in my opinion. The past, the story of captivity, is consistently the more gripping part of the timeline. The present exchanges between the FBI agents and our main character (she has three names, all significant to the story in their own way, so I’ll leave those discoveries to the reader) feel stiff and inauthentic; the possibility that she is a person warranting suspicion seems like an afterthought, a tactical formality to keep the reader believing that a big reveal is coming, though when it does arrive it is disappointing and farfetched.

Despite this clumsiness though, I was hooked- The Butterfly Garden is very much about the horror of the journey rather than reaching a shocking destination. Hutchison challenges sensationalism of trauma here rather than playing into it, and some of the commentary involved is much more widely applicable- emphasizing the harm in a stance of neutrality when someone is actively being hurt, for example. It’s meant to be an uncomfortable read, but the book is not devoid of hope and justice in the face of great pain.

“The trouble with sociopaths, really, is that you never know where they draw their boundaries.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my stylistic/structural quibbles, I was suitably horrified. Some suspension of disbelief is required, but points must be awarded for the compelling read. I’m not sure I’ll be continuing this series (I believe there are 4 books total) but this first volume works well enough as a standalone that even if I stop here I’m leaving satisfied, and with a deeper understanding of psychological trauma.

The Deep

In The Deep, Annie is a nurse aboard the HMHS Britannic in 1916, tending to wounded WWI soldiers. Among the patients she finds a familiar face, a first-class passenger she served as stewardess four years earlier, aboard the RMS Titanic. Seeing him again, and navigating Titanic’s very similar sister ship, throws Annie into memories of that fateful voyage- the possible haunting, the odd behaviors of the first-class passengers, the shockingly cold water after the collision. Worryingly, some of that history seems to be repeating on Britannic– can Annie figure out who the ghost was and what it wants before it is too late?

“For all that was said about the Titanic, how superior it was, how well designed, how glorious and noble- as though it were a person, with a person’s traits- it would do nothing to save them. The Titanic was indifferent to the humans crawling on its decks and would willingly sacrifice them to the sea.”

I picked up The Deep mostly because I’ve had a long history of interest in all things Titanic– my birthday is April 15, and one of the most interesting things to have happened (historically) on that day is the sinking of Titanic. There’s also just something so captivatingly tragic about the opulence of the ship and the extremity of the disaster, as I’m sure many others can attest to. I’m mentioning my personal interest level because I think it’s relevant to my experience here; because I am fairly knowledgeable about the ship and its passengers, I found the fictionalization of real persons and the atmosphere on the ship most intriguing, and the ghost plot attempting to expand on the tragedy much less so. Someone with different interest levels might have a very different experience, though Katsu’s focus on characterization at the expense of the supernatural element is, I think, going to make this a disappointing read for anyone craving a ghost story.

My biggest issue with this book is that I picked it up expecting adult horror, and instead found historical fiction with some light mystery and supernatural elements, all of it very PG-13. Actually, I expect this book will go over better with a YA audience, many of the characters are barely into adulthood and every aspect of the story is very surface-level. There are a few mentions of a malevolent dubheasa, but aside from calling her a beautiful sea monster we get nothing of the lore and know nothing more about this magical creature than one particular character’s connection to it. The “haunting” facet of the tale is presented so benignly that to call this a ghost story would be misleading. Very few of the events and details surrounding Titanic‘s demise actually make it into the story, so this isn’t a good way to learn any genuine history, either. There are some hints toward commentary on early 20th century madness, sexism, occultism, class divides, and poverty, but they’re mere suggestions rather than statements of any significance.

“Was she hysterical? What did that mean- female hysteria? Was it different from when men got upset, yelled and stomped and slammed things about, like her father when he was at his worst? Maybe she was more like her father than she wanted to think.”

Or maybe… this would have been a good chance for Annie to realize that female hysteria is a bogus diagnosis invented for men’s convenience.

In the end, none of the darkness or complexity I was expecting based on the premise actually appears here; The Deep is an iceberg glimpsed through dense fog, dreamlike, with no sharp edges. But even so, I had no difficulty turning pages, I found myself curious about the characters, and I loved being aboard Titanic and Britannic for a few hours. It’s not a bad setup and quite easy to follow even as it skips between years and perspectives; I think the right reader could find a story to love here with its aura of tragedy and fraught relationships. I, however, am not that reader.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. In the end I think the highlight was finding a mention in the acknowledgements of a Titanic book I haven’t read yet, the autobiography of a real woman who survived both Titanic and Britannic. This wasn’t a bad read and it doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong, it just… doesn’t quite deliver what it says on the jacket; don’t be fooled by the Josh Malerman blurb on the cover, The Deep is not a thriller.

Do you read horror around the holidays? Any recommendations?

The Literary Elephant

Review: Between the World and Me and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

A couple of recent nonfiction reads for today’s reviews! I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me for a bit of nonfiction in November, a much-anticipated experience after I read Coates’s The Water Dancer earlier this year. Next was Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a true crime book covering the mystery of the Golden State Killer. Both are excellent pieces of writing, and great for readers who (like me) generally prefer fiction and can struggle to reach for nonfiction.

Between the World and Me

In Between the World and Me, a father writes about his experience with racism in America in an open letter to his teenage son. It is an exploration of why things are the way they are, Coates’s own learning process, and his hopes and fears for his son’s future.

All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket.”

This is a very short but very powerful book; between the second-person address, Coates’s recounting of his own education (social and beyond), and the raw honesty involved in telling difficult truths to someone beloved and innocent, it feels intimate and revelatory. It’s not written for a white audience to find anything favorable or relatable in these pages, but I think that makes it all the more important a piece for included and excluded audiences alike. Coates’s writing is persuasive and astute, and I imagine it being a very affective experience for readers from all walks of life. I certainly found it emotional.

One choice that particularly struck me (as a non-Black reader) was that Coates never calls the villains of this story ‘white people.’ he says, ‘people who want to be white,’ ‘people who call themselves white,’ ‘people who think they are white,’ etc. Even that small adjustment in how people are named is thought-provoking, shifting the way we see societal power balances and the motivations behind that hierarchy. It makes a statement about those to whom race- particularly whiteness- is important. More significant perhaps than the color of someone’s (white) skin is the desire of that person to claim it, and why. Here we can find the persistent root of racism. All this from something that’s not said directly, which I think speaks to how much Coates accomplishes when he is direct.

“Perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.”

There’s plenty more to this story: Coates’s struggle with education, brushes with police, danger on the streets, unjust deaths… These may sound like topics you’re expecting in any book speaking on racism, but even at five years old already, this is still a book that adds new angles to the conversation, no matter how many antiracist books you may have picked up in recent months. It is not a guidebook like Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist, though Between the World and Me is a call to arms in its own way. It is a plea, a warning, and a lament.

The cover of my copy includes a succinct blurb from Toni Morrison: ‘This is required reading.’ If my recommendation isn’t enough, Morrison’s certainly should be.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I won’t lie, I struggled with Coates’s fiction this summer. It felt a little too flowery, too forced, too…fictional. But his ideas are absolutely noteworthy, and he really shines when he’s just speaking his mind. His nonfiction is not to be missed.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara recounts years of sleuthing over a cold case in California. Known as the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and (thanks to McNamara), the Golden State Killer, one man committed hundreds of crimes (burglary, rape, and escalating to brutal murder) across California in the era before internet searches, suspect profiling, and even the national DNA database. With a glut of evidence that couldn’t be taken farther at the time, McNamara uses the new super tool of the World Wide Web to chase down a notorious criminal who terrorized many but wasn’t caught until just after the publication of this book.

“The unidentified murderer is always twisting a doorknob behind a door that never opens. But his power evaporates when we know him. We learn his banal secrets. We watch as he’s led, shackled and sweaty, into a brightly lit courtroom as someone seated several feet higher peers down unsmiling, raps a gavel, and speaks, at long last, every syllable of his birth name.”

McNamara had no personal connection to the Golden State Killer, his victims, or those who survived his attacks, and yet this was a case that would not let her go. As McNamara (and those close to her investigation who helped piece the remaining chapters together after her death) lays out these crimes and her experience with chasing them, the reader can easily see why: this is a criminal of such coldness and cruelty that it’s all but impossible to turn away once you know he’s there. But with incredible tact, McNamara describes the victims and the crimes in a way that does not sensationalize or glorify this serial killer. Despite these events beginning in the 70’s, despite the Golden State Killer having been inactive from ’86 onward, these are people you ache for, and a story to fear, even in 2020. It can be a difficult book to read at night, but just as difficult to set aside, unfinished, until daylight returns. McNamara’s investigation and her writing are both incredibly detailed, clearly the products of unfathomable hours of gruesome work. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark paints the atmosphere of widespread fear that reigned in these years, shows the humanity of those killed, and holds accountable the one person tying it all together.

“There’s always the question of what to call an unknown perpetrator in police reports. The choice is often ‘the suspect,’ occasionally ‘the offender,’ or sometimes simply ‘the man.’ Whoever wrote the Danville reports elected to use a term that was stark and unambiguous in its charge, its tone of reproach as if a finger were pointing from the very page. The term affected me the moment I read it. It became my private shorthand for the EAR, the simple term I returned to when I lay awake at three a.m cycling through a hoarder’s collection of murky half clues and indistinct facial features. I admired the plainness of its unblinking claim. The responsible.”

I wouldn’t have thought this book would work so well for me. Between the truly tragic death of the writer halfway through the project (McNamara’s dogged interest and considerate commentary is a large part of the draw here), the patchworking of the rest of the story from her notes, even the format of the book in (if I understand correctly) the order in which these crimes were attributed to the Golden State Killer and investigated by McNamara rather than the chronological order in which they occurred (thus leaving the book to leapfrog somewhat chaotically between locations and years), it seems like it shouldn’t work as a whole. It is a testament to McNamara’s skill and heartfelt narration, and the level to which her friends and family worked to honor her and her work, that it does in fact all pull together in the end.

Of course, the infamous public announcement of the GSK falling on an evening when the book’s remaining key players were all gathered for a launch event when they learned the name of the perpetrator doesn’t hurt. He was sentenced earlier in 2020 (in case we needed any more reminders that there are still good and just things happening even in this hell year). It’s astonishing to go from reading Gillian Flynn’s valiant attempt in the introduction to argue that the killer’s name doesn’t matter, from there to read McNamara’s personal experience with the chase, her final direct address to the unknown killer, her husband’s afterward in her honor explaining the tragedy of her untimely death and the piecing together of her work, and then bang! an extra afterward announcing that the killer has indeed been caught!

If it had happened in a work of fiction, it would have been unbelievable. But none of this is to make light of McNamara’s admirable, dogged pursuance of a guilty man, her tireless efforts to keep this case in public awareness and assist police efforts when possible, and her impeccable ability to write about such grisly subject matter with consideration for those real people hurt by these crimes. These are the reasons that for any true crime aficionado or narrative nonfiction fan, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not to be missed.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was completely hooked. I was completely horrified. I was completely charmed by McNamara’s dedication to closing this case in any way possible. It’s truly a loss to the worlds of journalism and nonfiction (and just the world in general) that she’s gone.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Girl Made of Stars and Everything Leads to You

My catch-up YA Spotlight post is imminent; to put myself in the right frame of mind to talk all things YA, I’ve been picking up a few books from that age range recently. Today’s topics: sexual assault and the importance of believing victims in Ashley Herring Blake’s Girl Made of Stars, and Hollywood filmography in the sapphic Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. Both of these are contemporary books with a hint of romance involving LGBTQ+ characters, and a focus on family.

In Girl Made of Stars, we follow Mara, one half of a set of twins. She and her brother Owen and their friends are seniors in high school when the unthinkable happens: Owen’s girlfriend accuses him of rape. This puts Mara in a particularly difficult situation, as her family expects her to believe and support Owen; the thought of him committing an act of violence is incongruous. But so is the thought of his girlfriend, a close friend of Mara’s, lying about something so serious. Coloring matters further is the fact that Mara herself is a survivor of sexual assault, though she’s not yet told anyone about the incident. And in the midst of it all, things have gotten complicated in Mara’s recent breakup with her girlfriend/best friend.

“Because here, under the empty sky, he is just my brother. My twin who would never hurt me, whom I could never imagine hurting anyone. In between passes and dribbles [with the basketball], I find myself watching him, looking for signs that he’s not that lying boy from our family meeting earlier. Or that I imagined it all, conjured up some twin sense because I felt us slipping away, the him and me I’ve always known and counted on. Maybe that fear- that I never really knew him at all- was stronger than anything else.”

This is such an incredible, thoughtful portrayal of sexual violence against teenaged girls. Herring Blake acknowledges the immediate and long-lasting trauma of sexual assault, even in a case where pressing charges is up to the state attorney rather than the victim, even when the attacker wears a condom, even when initially the girl said yes, and only changed her mind late in the encounter. Through all of these details and more, the author gives a nuanced look into the way sexual violation can alter a person and turn a community unfairly against them. She highlights the dangers in failing to believe a victim who reports sexual assault. And she does it all in a way that’s appropriate and approachable for young readers.

It’s a compelling story (even as an adult) with productive dialogue and great character dynamics- on top of the commentary around sexual assault, Herring Blake also provides a wonderful example (with the help of a bisexual protagonist and her non-binary best friend) of how to accept and help those who are exploring their gender and sexuality.

The plot is not exactly action-packed, mostly revolving around small scenes that bring this cast of characters in and out of each other’s orbits as they work through this fraught situation, but nevertheless it’s a captivating story in which every small detail holds the reader’s attention. I’d call this a must-read for teens; it doesn’t shy away from showing how deeply girls can be hurt, but it is also tinged with hope. Ours may be an imperfect world where shitty things happen, but there are people who believe those who speak up. There are friends to be had. There are ways of coping. There are ways to mend. The ending may not be fairy tale perfect, but by the time this book closes these characters have found ways to be comfortable again and find a path forward- and the reader can have hope for the same, and advocate for those who need help getting there. There are two pages of resources for assault survivors in the back of the book as well, for anyone who needs them.

“What else is there for any girl to do, when everyone but her can just forget everything like a random bad dream?

My only complaint is that Mara and Owen’s storytelling tradition anchored around the stars- particularly Gemini, as it’s the sign for twins- felt a bit infantile. To be fair, it’s a tradition that started in their youth and Herring Blake uses it well to advance her themes, but this was the only part of the book that felt too simplistic, the symbolism completely transparent, the stories they tell an obvious crutch to avoid certain direct conversations. It seems like lazy writing, though I can understand something like this being a helpful mechanism for communication in real life.

One final point: the synopsis of the book mentions a ‘trauma from Mara’s own past,’ but I didn’t realize when I picked the book up that Mara had also been sexually assaulted. I think Herring Blake handles Mara’s history deftly and allows the incident to shine further light on how pervasive and damaging this sort of violence is, but coming across that thread unexpectedly also left me wondering how the story might have read if Mara had not been assaulted herself. Would she have understood the other girl’s pain so easily, or would this conflict have been an eye-opening experience giving context to Mara’s own work on the school’s feminist newspaper?

To some extent, I wonder if Mara’s sympathy is born from the source of her own personal pain; this would have been a very different book if the accusation against Owen were Mara’s first brush with sexual assault, and that story might have been more relatable to the teenage reader who hasn’t been subjected to such violence and wishes to find an entrance point to understanding. As is, Girl Made of Stars is a work of support for those who have experienced sexual assault and an argument that this is a prevalent problem. Both very worthy angles, to be sure, and I’m not unhappy with the route Herring Blake has chosen. I wish there had been a possibility of having it both ways, perhaps with an additional perspective in the narration, because I think seeing a case like this from a character farther outside of it (like Mara’s best friend, for instance, suportive from the sidelines) would have made a stronger case for allyship and the importance of trusting survivors even when one doesn’t have their own firsthand experience. But of course reading from the perspective of someone with firsthand experience is sympathy-inducing in itself, and I do think Girl Made of Stars is incredibly powerful as it stands.

CW: rape, sexual assault of a minor, physical violence (slapping), homophobia (mostly indirect)

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is exactly my brand of YA, dishing out heavy themes in a captivating way and teaching me about an experience that I haven’t had, that real people deal with it every day. The messages may not have been new to me, but they are important, and delivered here with admirable nuance and intriguing characters to make it all feel fresh. Well worth the read at any age, and one I’d highly recommend to anyone who likes their YA on the hard-hitting side.

In Everything Leads to You, Emi is an eighteen year-old just-graduated intern designing sets for movies in sunny LA. It’s the last summer before college, when her best friend will be leaving for an out-of-state school, and they want to make the most of it. Luckily, two things happen: they land great jobs on a new movie they both love instantly, and they stumble upon a letter from a recently-deceased celeb addressed to a daughter the public didn’t know existed. While trying to track her down, they find Ava, a troubled girl their own age who needs a couple of friends and a project of her own. They aren’t necessarily looking for love, but this is LA! These are the movies!

“People talk about coming out as though it’s this big one-time event. But really, most people have to come out over and over and over to basically every person they meet. I’m only eighteen and already it exhausts me.”

This is a perfectly sweet story of girls being their wonderful talented imperfect yearning selves, making art and falling in love. It didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped, but I’m not the type of reader who is particularly won over by glamor and riches and everything going right. There is simply… no conflict here. Everything just goes up and up and up. I know there are readers who like this type of glitzy escapism, and there is some tension. There are difficult pasts, relationships ended, the prospect of big changes ahead. So it’s not complete gold-coated soullessness, but too soft to fit my tastes.

The book does include some brief commentary on race, poverty, bad parenting, and the difficulty of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in a society that’s still largely unaccepting. But these are flashes of commentary only, and on the whole I’d say this story is a lot like Gilmore Girls, where there may be some real struggle and heartbreak but ultimately there’s always the rich parents/grandparents to fall back on for the low cost of admitting you could use some help. Emi has a great family, a great job, a great best friend, a cool brother who’ll lend a totally superfluous apartment at no cost instead of making bank renting it, solid college and career plans, and plenty of people around her willing to compliment her efforts. The best friend seems equally well off. Ava has seen the rougher side of the tracks, but lo and behold she’s just come into a fortune and all the answers to her mysterious family history, so she’s ready to start turning things around.

It’s obvious the girls like each other too much for anything to stand in their way, and that whatever happens next they’re going to be okay. Emi’s privilege is called out by the characters around her, so she’s not unbearably ignorant. There’s really nothing wrong with the story and it’s always nice to see girl characters working hard and winning things and falling in love, so I hope others will have better luck here. Those who are more interested in celebrities and film and reading about art (other than writing) may find this book a better fit. Those are not my interests and so I was just…not hooked.

CW: Drug overdose, minors consuming alcohol, poor parenting (making the child feel unwelcome in the family home, telling them it’s not okay to be gay, placing conditions on parental love)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I know Nina LaCour is still a popular YA contemporary author these days (Everything Leads to You was published in 2014 but she has several more recent titles with great ratings and reviews) so I may try again at some point, but I suspect her style may not be for me.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Fire Starters and Call Down the Hawk

I’m approaching the end of the Women’s Prize Squad longlist! I have one title left to read, Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. I am finally next up in the library queue but it is unclear whether my turn will come up before the end of the year, so I’ll likely be wrapping up this longlist in 2021. But in the meantime, I do have some thoughts on two more titles I read recently from our alternate prize list: Jan Carson’s modern Troubles novel, The Fire Starters, and Maggie Stiefvater’s YA dream-quest Call Down the Hawk. Both involve their own brand of magic.

In The Fire Starters, Belfast is burning. A dangerous tradition of cathartic but destructive fires in July have been legally banned- or, at least, shrunk to an infuriatingly reasonable size. Citizens rebel, under the instruction of the anonymous Fire Starter, who fans the flames of simmering anger and unrest by goading them into a summer-long fire fest. One man sweats over the likelihood that his secretive adult son is the mastermind behind the Tall Fires. Another man fears the day his infant daughter will begin to speak, believing her mother to have been an actual siren. To the backdrop of a parched, smoke-filled, and still traumatized post-Troubles Belfast, these two men grapple with parental love against the safeguarding of their homes and city.

“No one wants to be the first stone-caster. No one wants to be last. The trick is to raise your voice at exactly the same moment as everyone else. In this, and other matters, the politicians are not unlike teenage children.”

This is a stunning novel merging magic, fatherhood, and the long shadow of trauma upon a community. It’s comical and sharp, reflecting on the ways that the violence and subversiveness of the Troubles have, instead of fading away, melded into everyday life. Belfast presents as a character in its own right- the tension ruling its streets irresistibly palpable. Carson’s political and emotional commentary is astute and memorable, but the magical element turns what could be a dauntingly heavy read into something playful, evocative, and immediately gripping. I found it impossible to put down.

“In the city centre the pavements are the same gunmetal grey as the sky, as the shop windows, as the lake quickly forming outside the markets. Everywhere is grey and sliding. People are pale pink thumbprints smudging behind the rain. Most stay indoors, only leaving the house when strictly necessary: work, groceries, elderly relatives, who may require anchoring down.

I think it’s best to discover these fraught characters and their blazing summer for oneself, but rest assured that the two alternating perspectives and Belfast’s fate dovetail quite nicely. The magical element serves to further the themes of violence and its consequences, the way monumental events are, in time, absorbed into the minutiae of regular city life. And for those who like their literary fiction more on the realistic side, never fear- while the magic is unavoidable in this story, it’s also cloaked in an uncertainty that ties back to the book’s themes: is the infant really a dangerous siren? Or is her father’s fear the result of ingrained paranoia and mistrust? Only the reader can decide.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I adored this book. I found it immensely readable, but also full of staying power; the best combination. I think it’ll appeal most to those already interested in Troubles books- fans of Anna Burns’s Milkman might fare particularly well here, though the styles are very different. This book really should have the wider reach of the two, being far less difficult overall, but it seems woefully unread… If you need further convincing, let me direct you to Rachel’s stellar review, which was all it took for me!

In Call Down the Hawk, Ronan Lynch is adrift. His boyfriend is hours away, where Ronan can’t go. His brothers have their own lives, and Ronan can’t stay with them for long either- it’s not safe for him to dream away from his secluded childhood home; when he dreams, Ronan tends to bring things back to the waking world with him; sometimes he brings back things that he doesn’t want to. Now that Ronan is eighteen and alone, he needs a project to occupy his time and utilize his unique skill. Luckily, he finds it, in the mysterious voice of a faceless but powerful stranger and a quest to save a notorious art forger. Meanwhile, an army of visionaries decides to rid the world of dreamers in the name of saving the world.

First off, be warned: though Call Down the Hawk is the first book in a trilogy, it’s a spinoff following Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books. I do think you can start with this volume if you want to, though most of these characters and the magical dreams will have more context for those who’ve started at the very beginning. The plot is entirely new here, but Call Down the Hawk builds off of previous characterization and world-building.

I did read and enjoy all four books of the Raven Cycle a few years ago, but was not sure these books would still align with my reading taste (and also was not particularly interested in the dreaming aspect of that original series) and so I wasn’t initially planning to pick up this trilogy. In the end, I’m glad I did. Stiefvater’s writing just works for me. She’s great with details, and with making unexpected connections and comparisons. Every now and then there’s a line that doesn’t quite land for me, but on the whole I’m always entertained and surprised by her writing at the sentence level, something I appreciate, especially in YA. (Though it is worth noting that Call Down the Hawk lands at the upper edge of YA, with most of its characters 18 or slightly above.)

Speaking of characters: these are great. It’s a delight to follow Ronan and Adam’s relationship (though unfortunately they’re not together much on-page), to see the three wildly different Lynch brothers interact, to discover the quirks and mysteries of the dreamers. The art forger is a kickass woman with dark skin and six identical copies of herself also walking the world and turning forgery into an art of self-expression. There’s something in each to relate to, and some great commentary throughout the book on individuality, self-identity, and strength.

“He would not let this world kill him slowly.

He deserved a place here, too.

He woke.”

The plot is what didn’t quite work for me. In theory, a magical mystery that walks the line between reality and imagination, especially once you involve sightings of dead persons, paintings of dubious legality, a team of self-appointed assassins, and seven people who all look exactly the same, should’ve been a win. But there are two things that turned me off here. One, as I feared, was the dream element. I’m picky about how magic operates in fiction, and the dreams here are enough of an obstacle to these characters that it almost fell into place, but there are a few places in the story where the dream magic feels like a narrative crutch, a get-out-of-jail free card where it’s not quite earned. But I expected that going in, so it didn’t bother me too much. What did was the deliberate withholding of information for the sake of ~mystery.~ There are at least three characters here who refuse to tell each other (or the reader) what they know, in order to advance the plot when Stiefvater is ready for it. The book limps along as these characters in the know drop crumbs to those who need them- it feels artificial and frustrating to be fed a story in pieces when the characters clearly know more than they’re letting on. Telling the reader that they’re secretive or powerful people is not sufficient excuse, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, I love all of these people (except Bryde, but we’ll table that for now) and their slow-burn relationships, their loyalty. I love the unique and interesting skill sets, the constant threat of danger, the magical black market, the art, the themes. I wished the presentation had been a little less forced, but I was hooked regardless.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I suspect that if more information had been provided up front instead of making the reader wait for it, a single novel might have been enough space for the story this trilogy is telling, and that length might have made it a tighter tale all around. But there is plenty to like here and I’m invested now, so I will be continuing the series, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to Raven Cycle fans.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Body Lies and My Name is Monster

Getting back to catch-up reviews! My last pending reviews from October are two titles from the Women’s Prize Squad list: literary thriller The Body Lies by Jo Baker, and dystopian My Name is Monster by Katie Hale.

In The Body Lies, a woman is attacked by a stranger near her home; she tries to move past the incident, but eventually applies for a job in a remote English village in order to escape, soon finding herself a university teacher instructing on novel writing. Her husband refuses to make the move with her, and so they share their small son back and forth; she loves the boy, but aside from the added responsibility of his presence she feels ultimately alone at the cottage outside her new village. This proves to be a dangerous spot as one of her students who knows the area well and seems preoccupied with death begins incorporating her into his writing.

“And I was struggling with my own question of whether there was a way to write female without writing body, and whether there was a way to be female without being reduced to body…”

This is a brilliant book. The opening incident in which the MC is threatened, sexually harrassed, and even physically attacked by a jogger on the street provides a tense hook to tide the reader over through the slower plot setup that follows and also introduces the book’s main commentary- the dangerous ways in which men act as though they are entitled to female bodies. Eventually this theme narrows in on men writing women as objects or even personal possessions, but before it reaches that more bookish point we see broader examples of sexism in everyday life. The bulk of the story actually takes place a few years after the initial street attack, which emphasizes the longevity of even a “lucky” case where the woman walks away alive, fully clothed, and largely intact.

From here we follow our (appropriately) unnamed narrator as she tries to put her life back together, which is further complicated by her husband’s lack of understanding in the face of her trauma, and her new employers piling a ridiculous amount of extraneous work onto her shoulders straight off. The story is littered with small encounters in which the MC is ignored, taken advantage of, or made uncomfortable by the men around her, but at first these present as merely the stresses of ordinary life; our narrator is determined to rise above, and takes it all in stride despite the personal toll. It’s a steady build of friction.

Where things begin to go off the rails in earnest is when one of the grad students stops writing about his dead girlfriend to fixate instead on his teacher. After pressuring her to attend a holiday party, his writing project abruptly changes direction to reflect what he presents as a budding romance between himself and the narrator. I don’t want to say more and give away Baker’s incredible plotting and circling of the sexism theme and the fine line between life and fiction, but rest assured that the creepiness and suspense ratchet up from uncomfortable attentions to an expertly paced life-or-death fever pitch.

I am not her, I wanted to tell someone, but there was no one I could tell. I am not his idea of me.”

It’s a quick read, smart but not too heavy, and my only complaints are a few too many stories-within-the-story and a frustratingly direct explanation in the final chapters as to what has happened and why. It is likely that our narrator is not a reliable source of information at this point, the only saving grace for the jarring info dump after two hundred pages of graceful subtlety.

CW: rape, murder, physical violence, sexism

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Despite my couple of quibbles, I thought this was a wonderfully tense and well-crafted book, perfectly suited to my taste. If you enjoy books like My Sister, the Serial Killer, I’d highly recommend picking this one up!

In My Name is Monster, civilization as we know it has come to a crashing halt in the wake of war, climate change, and a plague-like Sickness. A woman who calls herself Monster seems to be the sole survivor, thanks to a penchant for solitude and the fact that she was able to wait out the worst of it in an Antarctic vault. But she can’t stay there forever, and so sails to Scotland to revisit the ruined pieces of her old life and start anew with anything that’s left. Much to her surprise, among the wreckage she finds a young girl.

“I never understood the idea of total absence. I thought there must always be something. The alternative was too big to comprehend. Now there is nothing. It is vast. I sleep. I wake. I sleep.”

“Now that I have found her, I cannot let her leave me. Now that I know I am not alone, I do not think I can be alone again.”

My Name is Monster is a beautiful post-apocalyptic rendering that does a number of things well, though it didn’t quite work for me as a whole. Part of the reason for that, I must admit up front, comes down to my picking this title up so soon after Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, another futuristic dystopian with a heavy focus on nature and motherhood.

The story is divided into halves, both titled ‘Monster’ because this is the name both characters use in the period through which we follow them, though the older Monster fashions herself as Mother when she meets the young girl, whom she then gives her own name. This is one of many nods toward Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; ruminations on alienation and loneliness further the parallels, as do Mother’s attempts to ‘create’ Monster as a small copy of herself.

Mother considers herself a survivor and merciless solitude as the key to staying alive; when she finds Monster, a feral young girl who seems to remember nothing of life before the world’s collapse, Mother shapes her daughter after herself, cultivating specific values, routines, and skills that she thinks helped ward off death for herself. But in the second half of the book, we follow the young Monster as she navigates her teen years and, as children are wont to do, gradually realizes that she is separate from Mother, that no matter how similarly they live, their personalities, ideals, and experiences differ. This is the main source of conflict once the reader can be fairly certain of the women’s survival.

It’s a detailed book full of small tensions and existential questions, with some playful riffs on wording sure to please readers who delight in language for the words’ sake:

“They’re long, these days. Long and empty, and they prickle at me like wearing too many blankets. My skin is always hot and itching. I start to understand why waiting has the word weight in it, because it’s heavy, the long time of nothing happening. It takes a lot of effort to move, as if my arms and legs are made of blocks of wood too fat to lift. I wait. I weight.”

The downside, for me, was multifaceted. First, I am exhausted with motherhood themes at this point, through no fault of this book. Additionally, this is a meandering story with little plot, which made this a slow and somewhat directionless read for me. Perhaps most crucially, I never felt properly invested in the suspense of survival. Theoretically the reader should care about the potential end of all humanity, but in practice the rest of humanity is effectively out of this picture, leaving us with only two characters’ thoughts and feelings to consider; the spotlight is on their personal relationship rather than their obligations toward humanity at large, including preservation of the species. This lowers the stakes, in a way. But all of these complaints, I think, come down to my personal taste and expectations not quite jiving with what Hale does provide here very admirably; another reader, I think, may have an entirely different experience. I suspect this will be a hit-or-miss book for many.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think Hale’s writing shows a lot of promise and her ideas are intriguing, but I struggled with this story. Perhaps it’s a case of right-book-wrong-time; I may have had better luck under other circumstances. Even so, I was able to appreciate some of the individual pieces, at least.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Only Plane in the Sky and The Beauty in Breaking

I couldn’t let November pass without mentioning some nonfiction! To that effect, here are a couple of reviews for recent(ish) nonfic reads that I’d highly recommend: Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, and Michele Harper’s The Beauty in Breaking, a medical memoir.

In The Only Plane in the Sky, Graff collects the voices of hundreds of Americans who survived, witnessed, or were in some way touched by the events of the World Trade Center towers falling on September 11, 2001. Each of these people speak about their experiences, typically in just a few words or a few sentences. The book covers New York City, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvanian crash sight, the pertinent planes, and key governmental locations. It’s largely chronological, though the chapters collect related topics to give precedence to narrative. Additional content includes brief logistical paragraphs written by Graff, as well as phone call and cockpit transcripts, speeches, and numerous photographs, some in grayscale and many in color.

“I also recall him saying, ‘Look, nobody’s coming. Nobody is coming for us. Any of the firemen or rescue people who are tasked at getting people out of the building- they are dead. If they were in the street, they are dead. If they were in the buildings, they are dead. Nobody is coming to get us. We have to get out on our own.'”

I was only seven on 9/11 and the adults in my life at that time chose mostly to hide what was going on from me and the other children around me, so I knew that people were shocked but I didn’t fully understand why for several years. Perhaps because of that late start to the topic, perhaps because from the rural Midwest New York felt to my small self as far away as Mars, my interest in 9/11 has always been more of a concern about human mortality in extreme situations than about fear over terrorism. And that, I think, was a great way to approach this book. There are some details about the political response and the gradual realization of al-Qaeda’s involvement, but at heart this is a book full of ordinary people who lived through a shocking day.

“As you’re running, you’re looking over your shoulder- you could feel some of the shrapnel flying by. I saw a cop in front of me fall. I figured he got hit with a piece of shrapnel. I reached down and picked him up by his gun belt, because he was going to get trampled. I said to him, ‘You all right? Where did you get hit?’ He said, ‘No, I dropped my pen.’ It goes to show you how people’s minds go- here he is running for his life and he bent down to pick up a pen that he dropped.”

There are harrowing details here, so certainly go into this one when you’re best equipped to encounter them. I had to take it very slow because I picked the book up at a time when I was dealing with another source of stress, but it was worth every minute. With the exception of some of the phone and plane transcripts, every speaker in this book is someone who survived, and the sheer number of them makes The Only Plane in the Sky more of a collective look at human resilience than any sort of close character study meant to play on the reader’s emotions. It’s grim, but there’s nothing manipulative about this book. Everything is compiled with such care and consideration; even the photos avoid sensationalism and gore.

Best of all, Graff manages to collect and convey a story both wide in scope and incredibly detailed. Every facet of the day seems to be covered here in some way; I can’t think of any aspect of 9/11 that I’ve ever heard discussed in real life that isn’t touched on by this book, and while it would’ve been unrealistic to fit every survivor into these pages it’s clear that each passage has been chosen specifically and thoughtfully. 9/11 experiences may be each unique unto themselves, but our responses to that day, as Graff and his collected speakers demonstrate, is much more universal. This is a book meant to connect everyone who watched the towers collapse, in person or on television, or heard about it afterward.

“We survive, we do our daily things, but you’re always a part of 9/11.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is a stunning and emotional read that both captures a historical moment and speaks to the human condition in a way that I think will appeal to a great many readers, perhaps even many who don’t think themselves particularly interested in 9/11 itself. To be honest I had a much stronger response to this book than I did while actually visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum earlier this year, and it’s the sort of book that I’ll easily be recommending and gifting this holiday season even to friends and family who aren’t regular readers. It’s just that good.

The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir

In The Beauty in Breaking, Dr. Michele Harper shares her experience as a Black emergency room physician trying to find the best way to help herself and others. Throughout her life and medical work, she sees a lot of people who are broken, including herself, but turns to reflection and meditation to make meaning of the cracks and infuse purpose into her life and career.

“True happiness only and always comes from within. In these and countless other ways, there is no gain without loss. Then- there it is! First in the descent and then in the emergence from this dark night of the soul lies true integration. True caring, indeed, true living, comes from being able to hold peace and love for oneself, and from sharing that unwavering, unconditional love, knowing that all life depends on this.”

In some ways, reading The Beauty in Breaking feels a lot like watching a season of Grey’s Anatomy. Harper mentions altering names and details to protect patient privacy, but within these bounds she presents cases to the reader, tows us along through administering their care, and uses each instance as a chance to examine some underlying social issue, be it reasoning through someone’s surprising behavior or criticizing a systemic flaw. Through these pages she examines America’s continuing struggle with racism, her own history with abuse, and the ways that the hospitals she works at both help and fail their employees and patients.

It’s a compelling read that touches on some important subjects- for instance, Harper uses her time at a VA hospital to comment on the unjust treatment of women and particularly women of color in America’s military, as well as the country’s failure to make veteran hospitals places of prestige that prioritize- above all else- healing those who’ve served. Another particularly impactful chapter involves a Black man brought in by white police officers who insist that he be subjected to medical tests that he does not consent to; Harper informs the officers that this is illegal, to which her white trainee responds by going behind Harper’s back to involve the hospital’s legal team instead of clarifying the matter with her, the senior staff member, directly.

” ‘Michele,’ he said. ‘You know every time I try to make a change at this institution, I just can’t. I’m always blocked. You didn’t get the position. I’m sorry to say it. You’re qualified. I just can’t ever seem to get a black person or woman promoted here. That’s why they always leave! I’m so sorry, Michele. They’ve decided that even though you were the only applicant, and a super-qualified one at that, they’re just going to leave the position open. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll hang in here with me anyway.’ / His words hung sadly between us. He had spoken with the heavy heart of a longtime liberal white man who would shake my hand, smile, close the door behind me, and then sit back down in his comfortable, secure chair. His effort was complete. His part was done. I was the one left to live with the limitations of bigotry. I was the one left to get up and fight.”

It’s dramatic, but it’s also packed with meaningful commentary; the only downside is that the book didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. Each chapter is well-crafted and engaging, but the overarching theme is limited and somewhat hard to spot without being told by Harper what to look for. Individually, the chapters each carry their own messages, and feel like they could be read in any order, though they purport to chronicle a journey of learning and growth. Many of these chapters feel like jumping-off points for deeper commentary, though Harper chooses instead to move on to the next subject. We get only snippets of her life beyond the hospital; rather than spending time with secondary characters to understand her relationships with them, we are only told what has happened with them and how she feels about those events. Fair choices one and all, but together they leave the book feeling rather unfocused, some of its potential acuity lost in the attempt to cover too much all at once.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Ultimately, I think it’s clear that Harper’s training is in medicine, not writing- and that’s perfectly fine. She’s clearly got talent in both areas and is absolutely the doctor I’d want to meet in an emergency room, but I wasn’t quite sold on her authorship despite loving her intent and case-by-case delivery of patient encounters. The narrative delivery could’ve used some polishing, but I’d certainly still recommend this title to anyone interested in the topic because Harper’s experience is well worth acknowledging.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Sisters and The Poet X

Next up in catch-up reviews are two titles I picked up in late September: Daisy Johnson’s spooky 2020 release: Sisters, and Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut for young adults, the award-winning contemporary The Poet X. These books have little in common aside from my reading them back to back; I suppose both main characters are sisters, both are teenage girls, and both narratives focus on careful use of language in one way or another. And I loved both books, which means this is also a nice break from all of my 3-star reviews of late!

In Sisters, we follow two girls and their mother moving to an old family property near the sea after an incident at the girls’ school in Oxford. September and July, less than a year apart in age, share a bond so incredibly close that even their mother, their only remaining parent, cannot find space for herself in their relationship. The two girls, both teens, have a history of playing dangerous games, and in the course of this story we see just how far out of control they’ve spun.

“It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.”

With characters that are obviously keeping secrets and antagonizing each other from the start and the atmospheric old house they’re returning to after many years, there are some excellent gothic and horror elements to this book that make it a creepy read even before anything of note is happening. The family has known abuse in the past, and even the close and loyal bond between the two sisters is expanded upon to feel less like a relationship of mutual love (though there is some) and more like barely-contained manipulation and violence. The girls behave like twins, though they do not look alike, and the exploration of their connection and the family history before we learn what happened at the school does well to hold the reader’s interest.

“It was only when September was around that color returned and I could experience pain or smell the lunch cooking in the school kitchens. She tethered me. Not to the world but to her.”

The plot itself is rather scant, and slow to start. The reader knows right away that something has happened at school, that there’s another layer to the story that we’re not immediately privy to, and that somehow this will come to a head as tensions rise in the secluded house. Johnson drops small clues and a big red herring, all the while slowly expanding our awareness of this family so that it doesn’t quite feel like a waiting game though we are certainly expecting a big reveal. Is it the most original twist? Perhaps not, but it’s one I particularly like, and one I guessed incorrectly, which made it land particularly well for me when the truth did hit. Johnson’s writing is so admirably graceful and calculated, and there’s some appealing commentary here on sisterhood, revenge and guilt, abuse and independence, so that I think even a reader who guesses where the plot is headed would find something to appreciate. That said, it’s really best to go into Sisters knowing as little as possible, and so I’ll leave you here, with a simple recommendation to pick this one up if literary horror sounds like your style.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was struggling somewhat with reading when I picked this one up, so what might have ordinarily been a 4-star read for me just felt utterly perfect at the time. I will definitely remember this one fondly and am eager to pick up whatever Johnson publishes next. I’ve already enjoyed both of her previous works, Fen (short stories), and Everything Under (a fabulist Greek retelling that earned Johnson the title of youngest author ever shortlisted for the Booker), so Johnson is quickly becoming a favorite for me!

In The Poet X, Xiomara is half of a set of Dominican American twins living in Harlem. She does her best to listen to her parents and stay out of trouble, but this is no easy task with a mother so strict. When she’s prodded into confirmation class, it seems no one will give her a straight answer about why it seems like God doesn’t pay attention to girls like her, and why men staring at her body is considered the fault of her “sinful” behavior. The one place she can be open and share all of her thoughts is in her journal, where she hones her poetry; but this talent too is seen as an unholy distraction.

Told in verse (though not the stuffy rhyming sort, so don’t run yet if you’re already thinking poetry isn’t your taste!), The Poet X is basically everything I want in a YA novel: there’s the adorable bloom of first love, emotional conflict as a teen grapples with how far to follow her parents and where to give her own self room to grow, and meaningful commentary: in this case touching on what it means to be Dominican in America.

Half of the conflict here revolves around religion; I imagine this could be a little challenging for some Christian readers to sit with, but ultimately I think it’s handled well and the questions it raises about how Christianity doesn’t always seem to accept certain people as they are, are probably worth thinking about even (especially) for staunch believers who might initially reject criticism. Xiomara’s questioning of God and religion are based in the unfair ways she is treated, and that does deserve an honest answer; she isn’t blindly denouncing her faith, just trying to figure out why the role she’s told to fill isn’t one that seems to fit.

“Just seems as I got older/ I began to really see / the way that church / treats a girl like me differently. / Sometimes it feels / all I’m worth is under my skirt / and not between my ears. / Sometimes I feel / that turning the other cheek / could get someone like my brother killed. / Sometimes I feel my life would be easier / if I didn’t feel like such a debt / to a God / that don’t really seem / to be out here checking for me.”

The other half of the novel’s conflict has to do with Xiomara’s personal relationships. She’s met this cute boy she likes, but she’s not allowed to date. Her brother is keeping a major secret, one her parents will have just as much trouble accepting as Xiomara’s prospective boyfriend. There’s a teacher Xiomara admires at school who runs a poetry club, but Xiomara doesn’t feel free to pursue it. Most of these problems stem from her mother’s unwillingness to bend her plans for her children, though Xiomara knows that her mother’s strictness came as a product of her Domincan upbringing and her own past unhappiness- she wants the best for her children, and after all she’s been through she doesn’t want them to let her down either. Motives on both sides are clear and organic, and all of the emotion feels very real and raw.

“I will never / let anyone / see my full heart / and destroy it.”

Xiomara is ordinary, and she’s brave. She’s strong, and she’s broken. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and isn’t that what makes for the best YA protagonists? This girl has something to say, and once she begins to speak it’s hard not to listen. The Poet X is a captivating and inspiring story that both wears you down and lifts you up; I learned about an experience different from my own, but I also found pieces to relate to, and I think with the book’s focus on words, language, and finding one’s voice, almost anyone who loves books (and probably some who don’t) will grow and find a place to belong in this book as well. It’s a quick, impactful, and intelligent read that’s easy to recommend to just about everyone.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured this book. Parts of it hurt, parts of it made me smile, all of it was completely effective. I now understand the hype around Acevedo’s work, and I’ll surely be reading more of it.

The Literary Elephant