Tag Archives: lgbtq+

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

murder and magic in Mexico

Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanada Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes

I wanted to read more translations this year, and starting out with a gutpunch like this has been both validation of that goal and further encouragement. Melchor’s first novel to appear in the English language and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Hurricane Season brings a whole lot to the table.

In the novel, the witch of La Matosa is dead. Evidence on the body points toward murder, prompting an investigation that reveals at every turn another layer of violence and trauma. The desperation of marginalized people in this small and unforgiving community breeds a self-perpetuating cycle of pain received and pain dealt- in this case, culminating in the untimely death of a social outcast who is, nonetheless, one of their own.

Trigger warnings are needed here for basically everything, from homophobia to bestiality to drug abuse to corporal punishment. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in this book. This is not a feel-good tale in any way, instead cloaked in horror and tragedy at every turn. But it is short- just over 200 pages- and if you can stomach the content, it’s well worth the read.

Divided into eight chapters that each bring a new perspective related in some way to the witch’s demise, the entire book is written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style with sentences that go on and on and paragraphs that seem never to end. But the first chapter, just two pages long, gives the reader an easy introduction to the style and proves just how effectively Melchor (and Hughes) can pull the reader into this tale; it’s fast paced and sharp, the run-ons coming across not as a slog to wade through but rather as a headfirst pitch down a steep slope, a motion that once started cannot be stopped until the inevitable crash at the bottom. Here’s a passage I liked, to give you a better feel for the narrative voice than I could ever possibly articulate:

“The fucking cat didn’t move an inch when Brando raised a leg as if to kick him; it didn’t even bat an eyelid, although from its closed mouth came a vicious hiss that made Brando step back and glance over at the table for another knife. And just then the lights in the kitchen and all over the house went out, and it dawned on Brando that this furious creature, this beast hissing in the darkness was the devil himself, the devil incarnate, the devil who’d been following him all those years, the devil who had finally come to carry him to hell, and he understood too that if he didn’t run, if he didn’t escape from the house that very instant he’d be trapped with that grim beast in the darkness forever, and he leaped toward the door, pulled aside the bar, and pushed with all his might, falling flat on his face on the hard ground in the yard with the demon still growling in his ears.”

There’s an air of mystery to it all as the narrative unearths the witch’s fate a kernel at a time from each of the tangential characters, but this is not a whodunnit. Rather, the community’s tendency toward superstition (evidenced in the quote above) and the novel’s very balanced use of rumor and magic both as a cultural tradition and a mechanism for social critique is what fans the flame of mysteriousness here and drives the story forward. The village really does seem to see the witch and her plants and potions as a source of magic- it is not entirely metaphor, though the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable that typically drives such superstitions is also at the root of other issues explored here- sexism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness. It all comes together to perfect effect, the setting intricately intertwined with these characters and the plot that plays out between them.

It’s masterfully done, each character as interesting as the last and none of them what you’d first assume; Melchor has an impressive talent for laying her characters out first as others see them, then peeling back the veil of bias to provide a fuller view. The narrative circles the witch’s death by opening each new perspective in medias res, circling through their pertinent backstory before coming back to the witch. For such a clever, convoluted structure it’s shockingly easy to follow the flow, and hard to put down at any point- this is a book best read in as few sittings as possible, and because it is so layered, I imagine it would make for great rereads as well. I know I’ll certainly want to pick it up again.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Hurricane Season felt to me simultaneously like a window to another world and a mirror through which I can glimpse a few dark truths that hit closer to home, all packed into one small package of searing prose. This is exactly how I wanted to start my reading year.

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

Review: The Death of Vivek Oji

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is one of my all-time favorite books. I also adored their recent YA offering, Pet (although Callum’s review highlights some very valid criticisms that I think are worth noting!). And so Emezi’s adult 2020 release, The Death of Vivek Oji, was one of my most highly anticipated reads of the year. I am happy to report that just like the rest of their work, this title is well worth the read!

In the novel, Vivek Oji is dead. His mother found the body, naked, skull dented in, left outside her front door. She is, of course, distraught, but it’s not only grief over the loss that nags at her- who would bring Vivek home, but take his clothes and pendant? She asks everyone that she knows in Vivek’s life in an effort to solve the mystery of what happened and why. Eventually she begins to see that she and her husband didn’t know their child as well as they thought, and this is another source of grief.

“You can chase the truth, but who could avoid the moment of hesitation when you wonder if you really want what you’ve been asking for?”

I’ve been uncertain how to talk about this book ever since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I’ve heard it described as a backwards mystery- starting with Vivek’s death and walking back through what happened to cause it- but I don’t think that gives the reader the right expectations and isn’t a very accurate description of the book as a whole, even if it does line up with Vivek’s mother’s experience. Hers is not the only perspective this narrative follows. In fact I don’t think The Death of Vivek Oji wants to be a mystery at all; the danger that Vivek is in is stated explicitly, well before the halfway point, and woven in between his friends’ and family’s reactions to his death are flashbacks to Vivek’s young life, pointing the reader in the right direction. Though it’s true we don’t know the specifics until the end, we know enough that none of the revelations come as any sort of surprise when they are finally out in the open.

But I don’t think this is a flaw necessarily, just a misrepresentation. Flimsy mystery aside, the novel is a beautiful contemporary commentary on self-identity, sexuality, and the social difficulties surrounding gender nonconformity- specifically in Nigeria, in this case, though certain elements of Vivek’s experience seem more universal. Many of the main characters are LGBTQ+; we see a f/f relationship and a m/m one, and at least one non-binary character. Emezi brings them all to bright, joyful life, without painting them as perfect, without failing to acknowledge their struggles and pain. It’s a delight to read about these people even under repeated reminders that this tale is also a tragedy.

“Some people can’t see softness without wanting to hurt it.”

There were only two things I would’ve changed in this book, and both have to do with wanting more length to the story, which I think ultimately speaks well toward what content is present. First, though I loved the time I spent with these characters, I did think most of them came across as simplistic, with very little personality beyond being open- or close-minded about gender and sexuality. I would’ve loved spending more page time with them all in order to see deeper complexities revealed. Similarly, there’s an atmosphere of unrest in the Nigerian setting, with riots breaking out in the streets and a fear of violence simmering underneath every public outing. This is described well enough for the book’s plot and commentary to make sense, but for the reader who doesn’t know enough about Nigeria off the top of their head (like me) some further explanation of the sociopolitical situation (even if it is fictionalized to fit Vivek’s story) would have been helpful. In both of these cases I felt that something was missing from the book, though neither was a significant enough lack to take away from Emezi’s excellent themes of the pain and pleasure in self-discovery.

“I know what they say about men who allow other men to penetrate them. Ugly things; ugly words. Calling them women, as if that’s supposed to be ugly, too.”

The Death of Vivek Oji has far more commercial appeal and less of a literary feel than Emezi’s debut (Freshwater), but I think this is to its credit. It’s the sort of book everyone should pick up, and its accessibility (as well as the short length) makes it easy to recommend.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I started out with slightly wrong expectations for this story and ultimately wished it had given me just a little more detail, but on the whole I loved the time I spent with it. This is a book I’ll love rereading and can see myself recommending loudly and often. I’ll absolutely be reading whatever Emezi publishes next.

The Literary Elephant

Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch up on posts or blog hopping before my job got real busy; I’m already in sporadic attendance mode for the rest of fall. I will still be responding to comments and catching up on blog hopping *eventually* and I do have a few posts in the queue, but please excuse me for basically falling off the face of the internet for the next few weeks, and know that as always I’m still very grateful for your likes and comments and look forward to interacting more as soon as I can!

Between work and my killer reading slump, this particular review has been a long time coming, but the book was a pleasure to read so I’ve been hoping to do it justice despite the delay. I picked up C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold as part of my Booker longlist reading; unfortunately since finishing it, this title has missed a spot on the shortlist, which I think is a shame. If you’ve been curious about this one at all, I highly recommend still picking it up regardless!

In the novel, Lucy recounts her experience as the child of a gold prospector / coal miner in mid-1800s America. It’s a dying era throughout Lucy’s childhood, and her family struggles greatly to find work and survive. Complicating an already difficult career choice, they also face extreme prejudice as an immigrant family- Lucy’s ma was born in China and arrived in America as an adult; Lucy’s ba looks like his wife, but he was adopted in America as a baby and knows nothing of the land across the sea that Ma longs for. The lack of gold and the rough conditions around the mines make life difficult for all of them, but this is only the beginning for Lucy and her younger sibling, Sam, when they suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone.

“Point is, there’s always been gold in these hills. You just had to believe.”

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a poignant tale that takes a period often romanticized (or at least white-washed) in Western lit and reveals its dark corners, without tarnishing in the process the simple dreams of prospectors like Ba, who have a love for the natural land and want to see the prettiness the world has to offer without destroying the earth in the process. From her parents Lucy learns both a respect for the land and an abhorrence for the mining lifestyle. Zhang manages to provide the gleam of gold that one expects from a prospecting trail while also uncovering the poverty and hardship faced by those who move west and west and west again, trying to find any patch of earth that hasn’t already been picked clean and ruined by the growing hand of industry. The family’s status as immigrants also gives the story a fresh angle that will appeal to readers who don’t usually go for Westerns; there’s plenty of social commentary to be found here, a pushback against those who have been able to do whatever they please from positions of unjust power.

“What moves in the heads of these people each time they look at us and size us up, what makes them decide on one day to call us chink and the next day to let us pass, and some days to offer charity? I don’t rightly know, Lucy girl. Never figured it out.”

In addition to providing a very moving story, the book also sports an interesting structure. It is divided into four sections, the years presented unchronologically. But more intriguing is the way Zhang plays with reader expectations, especially when it comes to character. With Lucy as our main narrator, we meet most characters through her eyes, in the thick of things. As things progress, the reader is often surprised by central facts that Zhang has hidden only to reveal later when they have greatest impact. For example, the gender and sexual identity of Lucy’s sibling is presented very cleverly, warning the reader early on not to make hasty assumptions about anyone. And yet, even after learning this lesson once, it is easy to be surprised again and again as Zhang reveals more about Lucy, her family, and her acquaintances. It’s a bold and necessary reminder that people aren’t always as they seem, and that beneath their appearance lies someone’s complex, personal history.

“In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers. Finds no gold. She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.”

My only complaint comes from a single section of the book, where Ba comes to Lucy in a dream to explain his side of things, posthumously (this is not a spoiler, Ba’s death is in the synopsis and occurs very early in the book). Though Ba’s backstory is just as incredible as the rest, it is the only part of the book that we don’t see directly through Lucy’s perspective, and the fact that his voice comes to her in a dream to fill in the blanks is a writing tactic that always feels forced and inorganic to me. It’s possible there is a cultural aspect to this section that is lost on me (there is indeed a focus on burial rights that Ma has impressed upon her children from her own homeland, and Ba’s burial is delayed as they try to fulfill these requirements) and if so I can’t criticize the intent, I can only remark on the way that it read for me, a non own voices reader. Furthermore, this section asks the reader to sympathize with a character who has previously been presented as a hard and unbending man, willing to hurt and manipulate those around him; the sympathy feels unearned, no matter how well Ba’s past matches up with his personality.

Others may also feel frustrated over the vague ending. The book ends mid-sentence as Lucy decides what she wants for her future; I must admit to rereading the last couple of pages a time or two to see whether I could puzzle out the meaning, but it remains nebulous for me. If you have an idea of what direction is meant by the ending please leave your theories in the comments! But I find the longer I sit with it, the less I mind not having this final answer. It means enough for Lucy to want something after the horrors she’s been through, and leaving her desire open-ended feels indicative of the sort of wide open dreaming that drove her family to chase gold and an elusive happiness for so many years, though the one thing that seems certain with the final sentence is that Lucy will not be returning to a life of prospecting.

Despite these two small hiccups, I relished Zhang’s sharp writing, her skill with metaphor and her ability to twist the knife at just the right moment to drive this narrative straight into the reader’s heart. This is a fierce story of sibling love and loyalty, the trials faced by an immigrant family, and a fraught chapter of history for many who’ve previously gone unheard. It’s an impressive work by an impressive new writer, one I’ll certainly want to read more from in the future.

CW: racism, child labor, rape, forced prostitution, children orphaned and/or abandoned, near starvation, mass murder (by fire), infant death, parent death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my reading slump, which hit while I was finishing this book last month, I loved the writing and the narrative every time I picked this story up, and my slowness with reading and reviewing it should not be taken as a lack of appreciation for any part of this narrative. It would’ve made a great addition to this year’s Booker shortlist and I think will be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was one of my most productive reads so far this year: it was a 20 in ’20 title, a follow-up to Machado’s memoir In the Dream House which I read earlier this year, a June TBR book that I didn’t get around to on time, an own-unread book on my shelf for over a year, and I got to cross it off all of these (arbitrary) lists by doing a buddy read with Donna @ Donna’s Reading Chair! The stories in this collection are so bizarre that we had plenty to talk about. We’ve decided to wrap this up book club style with some questions we picked up from this very helpful post, which I’ll answer after saying a little about the book.

herbodyandotherpartiesIn Her Body and Other Parties, eight collected stories feature LGBTQ+ characters, psychological horrors, sci-fi/fantasy/fabulist elements, and female traumas of a wide variety. The stories are visceral, provocative, imaginative, and eerie. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I want to briefly touch on each of the stories, and for fun I’ll rank them in order of my personal favoritism:

“Especially Heinous” –  this story lays out every episode of Law and Order: SVU, using a sequential episodic format to highlight different points and implications from the popular TV series while also telling a wider story of the effects of the investigations on the main characters’ lives. I haven’t ever watched L&O:SVU so I can’t speak about any creative liberties taken, but I can say you don’t need to know the show to enjoy the story.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), two years before this book was published I took a class at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where Machado did her MFA, in which I was assigned to write a story that used and/or was inspired by a list from pop culture; I used Grey’s Anatomy episode titles. The assignment came from a TA who was a grad student in the writing program. I’m not positive Machado was there yet at the time, but it’s interesting (to me at least) that we might have received similar assignments, or at least spoken to the same person about this idea, wherever it originally came from. It’s a small world after all.

“Inventory” – this is a list of the protagonist’s lovers, which takes a sinister turn as illness sweeps the nation, affecting her every encounter. I was not prepared for the timeliness of this story, but loved it. (Has everyone been writing about pandemics all along??) This one is tricky, in that I can see it a new way every time it crosses my mind; the meaning of the story could be that human existence is lesser without human contact, or that contact is inextricable from danger, or perhaps there’s even a deeper metaphor in which the illness is a stand-in for something else about these sexual encounters that is driving the protagonist slowly but steadily out of society- promiscuity as alienation? Lots to ponder, and I don’t think I’ve uncovered it all yet.

“The Husband Stitch” – the main relationship here feels more realistic than it does healthy so it took me a while to get into this one, but I was constantly wondering about the mysterious green ribbon the protagonist wears and the reveal did not disappoint! This story depicts ways in which women are threatened by those who want to or feel entitled to own them, and the dangers that come from policing women’s rights and autonomy.

“The Resident” – a writer secures a spot on a secluded retreat to work on her novel, but doesn’t get along well with the other artists. Not much goes on here, but I loved the atmosphere and generally enjoy stories about writing, so I had a good time with it.

“Eight Bites” – a woman who loves food but is taught to hate her food-loving body undergoes a surgery that makes it impossible for her to eat more than eight bites at a time. To gain the image she wants, she must lose part of herself. The themes are straightforward here, but I loved the fabulist element; it’s a little creepy, but also made me laugh out loud.

“Real Women Have Bodies” – in this story, women literally cease to exist when their bodies stop matching societal norms. They vanish and are gone. I think there’s more to unpick about female desires and expectations that I haven’t fully unraveled yet with this one.

“Difficult at Parties” – a man and woman with a strained relationship are working through something that they won’t talk about. I had a lot of unanswered questions with this one, but Donna and I assumed that the man has abused the woman in some physical way and this story is the aftermath, as they attempt to reconcile. I may have struggled here mostly out of a desire to not see them reconcile.

“Mothers” – two women have a biological child just as their romance fails, largely due to abuse within the relationship. The concepts were more exciting for me than the execution with this one.

 

On to the questions!

1) The synopsis of the book describes it as a collection of “startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” Such violence can be intentional, self-inflicted, unrealized, or without any identifiable culprit. Which of these types of violence do you personally find more frightening?

I think each type is disturbing in its own way, but for me unrealized violence and violence without an identifiable culprit is most frightening because in those cases it’s unknown/unexplained while it’s happening. Intentional and self-inflicted violence feels more tragic and sometimes infuriating to me (as with intentional violence) rather than scary.

2) Would you be more likely to recommend this book to a certain gender? Why?

No. I’d recommend it to different genders for different reasons though- I think women are more likely to find details to relate to personally in these pages, but anyone else would be able to use these horrors as a way to learn about experiences they may not be living themselves; being able to understand each other’s perspectives is important!

3) Were there any specific times you personally felt unsettled, creeped out, or genuinely frightened?

Genuinely frightened, no. I did feel unsettled by some of these stories, mostly as a result of the concepts and their real-world applications rather than by the otherworldly aspects themselves; Machado’s themes and ideas are grounded in real traumas and concerns that women face, so while her sci-fi elements didn’t terrify me directly I think they do help give a face/name to real concerns, and bring those to life in the process.

4) Do you think the final order of the published stories is a strong one, or would you have rearranged them? How would changing the order of the stories have changed your reading experience of the collection?

Donna and I actually talked about this one a bit already, and we both would’ve liked the first and last stories to be switched! Personally I really like a strong ending because that can make the reader (read: me) forget about (or at least be more willing to overlook) earlier complaints, whereas a weak ending can emphasize them, no matter how strong the start. The first story as is (“The Husband Stitch”) really ends with a bang and I think it would’ve made a great final piece; perhaps I wouldn’t have been hooked on the collection quite as quickly with a more nebulous story (“Difficult at Parties”) to start it out, but I’m more open to having a lot of unanswered questions in the beginning than the end. Otherwise the stories feel disconnected enough that I don’t think meaning would change much for me with any shuffling; my favorites and least favorites were well mixed so that I was excited to start each new piece and didn’t have any large chunks of the book that didn’t work for me at all.

5) The main characters of these stories trend toward passivity- strange things happen to them, outside of their control, while the few choices they do make are either glossed over or portrayed with a weighted inevitability which suggests there was no real choice to begin with. Do you think this style was effective?

Yes, for the points this book had to make, I think the passivity fits. Generally I do want  to read characters who have and exercise agency, but here I think Machado serves her stories well by conveying that trauma makes its visits unprovoked; to exist in this world as a woman is to be constantly wary of what will happen to you, with the sense that there’s little that can be done to stop it from happening. The passivity of these characters lends them a sort of innocence that makes the horrors they face that much more frustrating. The inevitability of suffering is one of the greatest frights on display here, I think. Furthermore, the lack of agency means that most of these characters don’t have a lot of personality, which makes them easier to project oneself upon and to see as the everywoman rather than a specific, fictional person to be read and then forgotten.

6) Did you ever find yourself irritated or bored, and if so, why?

There was one story that bored me: “Mothers.” This story had a couple of great ideas at its core: the possibility of two women having a biological child of their own, and the exploration of abuse in a same-sex relationship. The latter I found interesting because I had already read Machado’s In the Dream House and so could see how some of her own experience was manifesting in this fiction. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m just not very interested in reading about motherhood, and so little happens in this story that I was not hooked on the plot the way I was by the premise. But this was one of the shortest stories of the set, so the boredom was short lived. The two longest pieces, “Especially Heinous” and “The Resident,” were actually among my favorites, so most of the book really did seem to fly by for me.

7) What is your opinion on the author’s depiction of sex throughout the collection?

To be honest I was a bit taken aback at first by how frequently sex comes into these stories; there are a lot of lovers, and Her Body and Other Parties is a book that embraces physical details. Once I knew what to expect though I liked that Machado was so open about it. Many women are shamed for their bodies and what they do with them, so it’s a relief to see celebrations of the physical in fiction. Here’s one ironic (and nsfw) quote I really liked from “Inventory:”

“She wanted cock and I obliged. Afterward, she traced the indents in my skin from the harness, and confessed to me that no one was having any luck developing a vaccine. ‘But the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact,’ she said. ‘If people would just stay apart-‘ She grew silent.”

Gender =/= sex, but I do want to add that I liked that Machado didn’t set this book up with a simple “women are victims, men are villains” dichotomy. I thought her representations of men and women were very human and appropriately flawed all around, which is remarkable considering how large a role gender plays in highlighting “the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” The problem lies primarily in power imbalances, not a war between genders. It can seem that way because it is often men who hold disproportionate power, but this is not always the case (as in abusive same-sex relationships, for example). Machado digs into the nuances.

8) In “Especially Heinous” the doppelgänger Henson tells the following story to the DA: “The sixty-fifth story is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.” Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is such a popular show, given that it concerns itself specifically with “sexually based offenses” which “are considered especially heinous?”

I have a few thoughts about this. The first is simply that humans are fascinated by what humans do. It isn’t only sexually based offenses that grab the attention- we like true crime, murder mysteries, sensational headlines. Anything gruesome. Maybe “like” is the wrong word, but there seems to be a morbid draw to understanding the extremes of humanity. Perhaps as a way to feel relief for those of us who don’t experience it, and perhaps as a way to feel less alone for those of us who do. That’s the optimistic answer. The pessimistic answer (these are not mutually exclusive) is that women are often objectified by society and art- I think there’s a disgusting interest in female pain, or the pain of any vulnerable person, for the enjoyment of those who don’t have similar trauma to compare it to. This, I wish we could put a stop to.

9) Did you like this book? Did you find it beautiful? Is there a difference between your answers?

Yes, yes, and apparently not. I can see how someone might find it beautiful while not enjoying it, because there are some painful topics here. Personally I appreciate books that leave me a little broken. Maybe I shouldn’t “like” that, but I won’t apologize for it either. Machado’s a strong writer and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next!

“It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right… It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.”

If you’ve read this book or have any thoughts on the discussion points raised through the questions here, feel free to weigh in below, and be sure to check out Donna’s review and answers as well, which I’ll link again here in case you missed it at the top! We had some different opinions on this one. If you’re into thrillers, romance, and/or adult contemporary she reads a lot from those genres and is fun to follow! 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection was nominated for so very many literary prizes, and I will absolutely be reading Machado’s next publication, whatever it may be. I’ll enjoy a reread of these stories at some point for sure as well!

As a final note, I’d also highly recommend Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen to anyone who particularly enjoys Her Body and Other Parties; Fen is also a somewhat magical and horrifying account of female experiences that I think will appeal to much the same audience. If you’re getting impatient waiting for Machado’s next book, give Johnson’s a go!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lot (+ We Need to Talk About BOTM)

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including this remarkable short story collection you may have missed last year! Today I’m talking about Bryan Washington’s Lot.

lotIn this story collection, each piece is a snapshot of a time and place in modern Houston. Many of the stories follow one young man through his teens and early adulthood as he struggles to find his way through family and relationship strife, a changing (gentrifying) neighborhood, and prejudice against his identity as a biracial (Black and Latino) gay man. In some cases, all of these opposing forces combine. Other stories woven in between are not directly related to the main character’s life, but showcase others facing similar challenges within the same community.

This is a fantastic book to read this month, both for LGBTQ+ Pride and in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. I would, however, recommend it mainly to an adult audience, and perhaps not to anyone searching for basic education about racism or LGBTQ+ issues, just because the points that Lot has to make are largely revealed between the lines rather than explicitly stated and explained. (One example that has stuck with me is when a “whiteboy” gives our MC a new name because he can’t pronounce his real one- the MC does not react or share with the reader why this is Bad, so it’s up to the reader to pick up on this one-sentence insult.) It’s a book that’s not especially geared toward the white gaze. However, if you’re looking for subtler commentary on life in minority groups in America, you may appreciate with Lot has to offer.

“Money issues aside, leaving the neighborhood meant leaving the shop. Which meant leaving Ma. Leaving her broke and alone. […] Ma’s daughter had left her. Her son had left her. Her husband had left her. So I couldn’t leave her.”

This is a collection about characters, but it’s also a deep dive into a place- Houston. The stories are very grounded in that setting, but in many ways the city feels like it could be any place in America, and I really would be surprised if there aren’t similar undervalued communities in every metropolitan area. That is part of Lot’s magic- it manages to be very specific while also hinting at a much larger scope.

In a similar way, it shows particular experiences of non-white queer life, and while these characters are presented as unique and are given plenty of specific detail, they also indicate some generalities that seem more universal- the incidents of prejudice, the struggle to stay out of poverty and receive appropriate aid, the lack of fair treatment and opportunities driving down-on-their-luck and overlooked people into questionable professions like drug sales. Washington zooms in individuals and elaborates on their life stories, but if the reader takes a step back from single trees and examines the collection as a whole they’ll see an entire forest laid out, full of people caught in the systematic oppression we’ve been hearing so much about lately. It’s a stunning balance.

“Some days are just bad, he said. Some people live their whole lives and not a single good thing happens to them. / I told him those were just the rules. He should follow them unless he had something new to say.”

Though these are all separate stories and most would stand alone well, it’s best to read them all together as parts of a whole. About half of them follow the same family via the same narrator and are presented in chronological order. The last story references characters and plot points from previous, seemingly unrelated, stories. A couple of the pieces particularly impressed me from the set (the very last story, “Elgin,” was my favorite!), but on the whole I found each story immersive and interesting, with something to add to the overall narrative. There wasn’t a single story I disliked. The only point of dissatisfaction I had with the set was based on personal taste- these are slice-of-life stories, where I tend to prefer short stories that are a little… punchier? I love short stories full of drama and emotion. Instead, Lot is a slow-burn that chips at the reader’s heart a piece at a time and works to build a larger story than any one piece encompasses on its own, which is an effect I adore in character-driven novels but find harder to navigate in short story collections, where the reader must “start over” again and again with each new piece. To be fair, I think Lot would’ve suffered as a novel and its strength lies in its interlocking structure, it just requires a different sort of patience than I was expecting.

At the sentence level, the writing style here reminded me of Junot Diaz’s, in terms of pacing and flow. As for content, Washington gives the sort of cultural glimpse I’d hoped to find in Diaz’s writing and instead found lacking (in the one story of his that I read). I’ve never been to Jamaica, Guatemala, Mexico (or any other country outside of the US, unfortunately) but I loved the way Washington brought little pieces of their culture into the story through food, language, and behavior. Lot’s narration feels insightful, effortless, and easy to get caught up in. Washington’s is a fresh voice with plenty to say, and he says it well.

“People think about things all the time, he said. All people fucking do is think. But really, he said, you do things or you don’t.”

(DO sign petitions! Donate! Speak up against racism! The time for thinking without acting has passed.)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In my effort to amplify Black stories by reading and reviewing more of them, I just want to throw a reminder in here that I rate on the scale Goodreads suggests, based on my own enjoyment of the novel, not on the merit of the book nor in any reflection of the author’s ability or person. They might not all be 5-star favorites for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out! I think Lot‘s a great book and I’m glad I read it. I wouldn’t be averse to reading further from Washington in the future- and he does have a new release coming soon!

 

 

Before I sign off here, I want to say a little about what’s going on with Book of the Month Club, since I got Lot through their service. I’ve been a BOTM member since 2017, and I think the basic idea they’re operating on is a good one- offering a selection of hardcover new release books every month that members get to choose from, for only $10-$15.

But the current issue is that while protests were going on worldwide at the start of June, BOTM was promoting their June line-up, and conspicuously silent about the business’s stance on Black Lives Matter / current events. Finally, over the weekend, they posted on Instagram (their main social media outlet) an image featuring two non-fiction books by Black authors available through their site. On this post (which I’m not linking because the original text has been changed since), they received a lot of backlash in the comments for the fact that those two books were never main monthly selections for BOTM but farther down the site only as add-ons. A small gathering of six books on “antiracist learning” has been the only acknowledgment on the site of the recent protests. Further criticism included the fact that BOTM has included only 3 (out of 30) main selections this year by Black authors. Their selections are predominantly white, with an average of only one book (out of five) per month from an author who is not Caucasian. The majority of their judges, bookbassadors, and affiliates are also white. These facts, combined with the fact that the post came only after a fraught week of protests while BOTM promoted their own content, and the fact that their post of recommended reading offered no commitment from the company to work against racism in any way, drew a lot of ire.

In the midst of these complaints, at least one (Black) bookstagrammer announced publicly that her dissenting comments on the post had been deleted, and her account had been blocked from engaging with BOTM. Much of the Bookstagram/BOTM community is now calling for BOTM to issue an apology to this commentor, whose reasonable concerns were erased. Silencing a Black woman questioning the company’s committment to diversity and its current stance on BLM is… extremely low behavior on BOTM’s part, to put it mildly. I’m hoping there was some sort of accident or malfunction, that this happened only to one person, and that BOTM will share why it happened and commit to not doing anything like it in the future.

The reason I’m staying with BOTM for now despite their iffy (at best) response to current concerns of racism, is because after this debacle they released a stronger statement: it’s a general apology, a list of specific ways they’re planning to help fight racism with their platform and assets, and a confirmation that they stand with Black Lives Matter. The tone of their post and the comments seem to me genuinely apologetic and sincerely intent on doing better in the future. I’m glad they’ve been called out for questionable behavior and practices, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the way they’ve handled this yet, but I do think BOTM is in a great position to affect a positive change in the reading community (they have a HUGE influence in the US, even as they lose followers over this) and if they follow through with the list of goals they’ve posted it sounds like they’ll become a company I’ll be happier supporting. I’d love to see this major subscription service bringing diverse books to shelves across America (they’re only open to US readers at present) and supporting lesser-known authors who could benefit from the attention. While it is important to call out and challenge incidents of racism and put your money where it can best help those in need, I think it is also worth giving people/businesses a chance to learn and improve, and to support those willing to make that effort. I think it’s also important that when these companies send out their surveys to assess customer satisfaction someone is still there to advocate for positive change.

I’m sharing all of this here because I’ve pictured one of their books above, and don’t want you to imagine that I’m blindly ignoring what’s going on or in support of silencing Black voices in any way. I sincerely hope BOTM will become a better (more diverse and inclusive) service going forward, and if not, I will certainly be ending my membership.

That’s where I stand on that.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Red at the Bone

And so begins my 2020 Women’s Prize longlist journey! I’m getting a late start and suddenly have plenty of titles to choose from, so I went with one of the shortest books on the list to pick up some momentum, and one I thought I had a good chance of enjoying. Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone proved a great place to start!

redattheboneIn the novel, Melody has just turned sixteen and her family is hosting a coming-of-age ceremony in her honor. It’s a long-standing tradition, but Melody’s mother’s party was canceled as a result of her teen pregnancy, so this is the first ceremony of its kind in two generations. As her parents and grandparents attend this party, they reflect on Melody’s life, on their own pasts, and the ways their relationships have evolved to lead them all to this point. Later, we see what becomes of each of them after the party.

This is not a character study so much as a family study. Each member has a unique experience within this frame, but they all play a role in shaping each other. Woodson gives the reader a glimpse not quite at a collection of individuals, but at two approaches to motherhood and the daughters they raise; at two approaches to fatherhood and the challenges they face; at the actions of children and parents and their far-reaching consequences. In the end, though Melody helps hold the generations of her family together, this is not, in the end, Melody’s story. If any character stands more in the spotlight and sends more ripples through the lives of her family I would argue that it’s actually Melody’s mother at the heart of this novel, though even she is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Through her though, we see perhaps the most interesting facet of the novel: an exploration of what makes a good or bad parent, and how confining societal expectations can be, especially for young women.

“Was that cruel? To be the child’s mother but even at nineteen have this gut sense she’d done all she could for her? She had given her life. Nursed the child all through junior and senior years of high school- running home at lunchtime to stuff food into her own mouth and her boob into the baby’s. Each of them staring at the other in wide-eyed amazement, as though to say, How the hell did you get here? and Are you going to stay?

Red at the Bone is light on plot. The book opens on Melody preparing for her ceremony, and the reader is given a lot of key information right away. We learn that this party is a family (and cultural) tradition, that her mother missed her turn, and why. We learn how Melody feels about her family members and the party. After all of these indicators are offered in the book’s earliest pages, most of the following chapters are told retrospectively, in vignette-like flashbacks to the choices that have led these characters to gather at Melody’s ceremony and behave in the ways that they do. Stories told from the past like this often fail to hold my attention, as knowing where the characters are headed takes a considerable amount of the tension and emotion out of following their journey. Through most of the book, Red at the Bone was no exception to this rule, though it offers some commentary on race and class, identity and societal expectations to hold the reader’s attention.

At first the retrospective structure and thus the book’s failure to surprise had me worried that this story wouldn’t deliver the emotional impact I look for in family sagas. But there’s a shift about halfway through, an exploration of sexual identity I hadn’t been expecting that slides elusive motivations into place. The narrative also eventually moves past Melody’s party to touch on the eventful months and years that follow, and in these moments I thought Red at the Bone really shone. Melody’s party was something the family had been able to prepare for, had been headed toward for sixteen years; but the events that follow it catch the characters off guard, giving them more of a chance to act and react, and demonstrating the ways in which all those years of history have come together. It shifts to a tale of tragedy and perseverance, and of inheritance.

“She felt red at the bone- like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.”

Ultimately I wish the first half had been stronger and I’m not sure this book will leave any long-term impact for me, but it’s such a quick and easy read and in the end I did have a good time with it. I’m not particularly rooting for or against this one making the shortlist, but I’m glad it’s spot on this year’s longlist gave me a reason to pick it up.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It took me a little while to warm up to this one, and through most of the read I expected to settle on a 3-star rating. But in the end I enjoyed reading about each of these characters and seeing where their lives took them. It made me think not just about what struggles people face individually, but at how each of our experiences and actions also inform the lives of others. It’s been a while since I’ve read a good family story, and this one delivered.

Update: I am bumping my rating down to 3 stars. I still think this is a solid read and deserving of its place on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I am finding it more forgettable and less impressive in what it accomplishes, over time. While the amount of thematic exploration packed into so few pages is still my favorite aspect of the book, I do think about 50 more pages for further development of the content introduced at the end would have greatly benefited the book overall.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: Things in Jars, In the Dream House, and The Mercies

Some recent non-Women’s Prize reads (the last you’ll be seeing from me for a while!):

 

One of the February releases I was eager to get my hands on was Jess Kidd’s newest novel: Things in Jars. I picked it up in early March and it took a little work, but I did enjoy this one in the end.

thingsinjarsIn the novel, an Irishwoman living in Victorian London works as a private investigator. Of course this is hardly an appropriate profession for a woman at the time, but Bridie has a medical background, a gentleman’s disguise, and a connection with a policeman that keeps her in business. Her latest case involves a missing child; the young girl and her new nurse have vanished without a trace, and her father does not want to report the kidnapping through official channels. Bridie learns that the child is suspected of being a merrow, a mythological Irish creature in danger of being “collected” and preserved in a jar, a fate befalling scientific oddities of the time. She also learns that the child is not exactly who the father claims her to be. Between the lies and the greedy anatomists, can Bridie rescue the girl in time?

“Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid drags. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’ “

Things in Jars is a genre-bender: I would primarily deem it historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, dips into some science, and contains a few fantasy elements as well. There’s even a hint of romance. In addition, it presents some commentary on sexism and immorality relating to its time period, dealing in themes of scientific progress vs. morality, the divide between wealthy and poor, the truth in and power of folklore. There’s much to enjoy here, and I did actually enjoy most of it. Though it’s hardly a whodunnit, I found the layout of the mystery here particularly effective: alongside Bridie’s search, we are given chapters featuring the kidnappers and their attempt to escape with the unusual child, which means the question the reader is asking of the novel is constantly evolving. There are also flashback chapters woven in, which gradually unveil key moments of Bridie’s past that manage to feel both relevant and well-timed in the larger narrative.

The only aspect I didn’t like- and this was a big hurdle for me to overcome- was the writing style. Kidd employs a very high level of whimsy that I found almost unbearably cloying. In some ways it serves the story well- Bridie is smoking some potentially hallucinogenic drugs, leaving the reader with some uncertainty over whether her ghostly tag-along is present or imagined; the pervasive tone of, well, silliness, makes it easier to roll with some of those more absurd elements, while also softening the horror of others. Kidd isn’t romanticizing this time period, but rather presenting it warts and all to the reader. (If you’re squeamish about historical medical practices enter with caution. Pet lovers should also note that there are a couple of short but grisly scenes where misfortune/abuse to animals is unpleasantly detailed.)

Perhaps it says something about me that I would’ve preferred this book to take a more grave approach to the heavy subject matter it deals with and drop the attempt at lightheartedness, but the constant dramatics really were the only complaint I had about this book. Aside from the pets’ fates, of course.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Kidd is an excellent writer who clearly put a lot of research into this book and is in full command of the language. Though I did appreciate the plot, as well as the themes and commentary worked into it, I really struggled with the writing to the extent that I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to try another of Kidd’s novels. Maybe if I give it some time.

 

Next I reached for my first non-fiction read of the year (yes, it’s been a long time coming), and one of the titles I was most sad not to have picked up in 2019: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, a memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships.

inthedreamhouseIn the book, Machado details meeting a charming woman, becoming her girlfriend, feeling increasingly stifled and unsafe in the relationship, and eventually dealing with the aftermath of psychological and emotional abuse.

“It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.”

Acknowledging that people of the same gender can hurt each other in romantic relationships shouldn’t seem difficult, but Machado uses this book to outline a literary (and actual) history sadly lacking in any evidence of that this is a real phenomenon. She uses inventive structure and imagery to explore the difference between what she wanted from this relationship and what she got, and the resistance she found afterward when trying to tell her story. Each chapter is presented as a facet of the “dream house,” a different side of the relationship that looked like everything the author wanted from the outside but turned out to be something quite different once she found herself stuck inside.

Machado does an incredible job of conveying the mounting sense of tension and fear pervading this particular relationship without actually describing a lot of specific, personal information. In the Dream House is not a sensationalist cry for attention or attempt to shock the reader with horrifying anecdotes- Machado uses her experiences to talk about domestic abuse and queer relationships more broadly. It’s an exploratory work, a narrative meant to open the eyes of nonbelievers and give those who have seen it firsthand a sense of solidarity.

“Dream House as Epiphany / Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”

This is a powerful book that I would recommend to… anyone who’s ever been or will be in a relationship, honestly. I can’t relate personally to much of Machado’s experience, but some of the situations she describes and the commentary she explores surrounding them have made me rethink all sorts of interactions I’ve had in my own life and the ways that society has taught me to view relationships generally. Having read In the Dream House, I feel both more educated about a perspective that doesn’t match mine, and also seen in ways that I didn’t expect to be. (Bonus points for the Iowa City setting,  which I always love to see after spending my own college years there. I think I only missed being there at the same time as Machado by three months!)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5, and I’m not sure if I can explain why it didn’t quite hit that mark for me; I suppose I knew enough about the book going in that it lost its ability to really surprise me in the way that I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings for, which of course isn’t any fault of the book. It’s a brilliant read that I highly recommend and am unlikely to forget.

 

Last but not least, I finished reading Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies earlier this week, and absolutely loved it!

themerciesIn the novel, the Norwegian island Vardo is hit hard by a sudden storm in the early 1600s. The storm kills most of the town’s men, who were out on the sea in their fishing boats when it struck. The women left behind must learn to survive on their own, to find their own food, light their own fires, and carry on in a world where women are not supposed to hold any power. Soon after the storm, a new commissioner is appointed to their area; he believes that such a sudden and devastating storm could not have been a natural occurrence, and makes his home in Vardo to root out the witches to blame. In a divided and changing community, the women soon learn that no one is truly safe.

” ‘You’re no witch.’ / ‘It doesn’t matter what I am, only what they believe I am.’ “

Historical fiction is a genre that doesn’t always work for me- I enjoy learning about events from the past through invented narratives, but I dislike romanticizing, sensationalizing, and sentimentalizing approaches, and so I always go in a bit wary that the tone and style just won’t be to my taste. Much to my pleasant surprise, The Mercies drew me in right away, presented zero cause for disappointment at any point, and held my attention rapt until the end. Though it centers around a famous set of witch trials in Norway at this time, the focus is mainly aimed at the distressed community on Vardo. In the wake of such an impactful storm, life has changed drastically; the women argue over what should be done and how to go about it. Old rifts are wedged wider, new rifts form out of the grief and uncertainty that now (in 1618) defines life on Vardo. Into this fraught setting enters an outsider, a man with a singular goal: to hunt witches. In 2020, of course, we know that “witches” were simply social outcasts who couldn’t prove their innocence in a system designed to fabricate guilt. The author does not attempt to surprise the reader with this familiar revelation, but rather to explore the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible.

As such, Millwood Hargrave supplies the reader with very human, very compelling characters, a setting that’s practically a character in its own right, and a tale brimming with tension and emotion. The women feel both like people of their own time and neighbors you could have today (supposing you lived on a very cold and isolated island). They are strong and flawed, just doing their best to navigate life under the rules they’ve been given (as are we all). There’s a great LGBTQ+ relationship in this story, plenty of tragedy, and village’s worth of determination. I found the writing very immersive and enjoyed every page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and yet even so I was not prepared to love it as much as I did. I believe this is the author’s first adult novel, but I’ll certainly be picking up more of her work in the future, including some of her YA content.

 

If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought! If you haven’t, do any catch your eye?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Red, White and Royal Blue

I can’t let February go by without picking up some romance, and what better choice could I have started with than the highly popular Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, which I was lame enough to miss out on last year? I think this was my first time reading a m/m romance (though I’ve read m/m relationships in other genres), and I highly enjoyed it!

redwhiteandroyalblueIn the novel, US President Ellen Claremont and her two (adult) biracial children live in the White House Residence. Alex, in his last year of undergrad classes and harboring big political dreams of his own, finds himself in an unpleasant situation when he and his nemesis, Prince Henry of Wales, accidentally topple an expensive cake at a royal wedding. Thrown together in a public display of friendship to avoid an international relations nightmare, Alex begins to realize he may have judged Henry too hastily, and the fake friendship soon turns into something very much more.

“His brain is struggling to keep up, running through about five thousand possible ways this could go, imagining himself ten years down the road being frozen out of Congress, plummeting approval ratings, Henry’s name scratched off the line of succession, his mother losing reelection on a swing state’s disapproval of him.”

The narration is third person, though it mainly follows Alex’s life over the course of about a year. The text includes news headlines and articles, lists, text messages, emails, and quotes from private letters of various historical persons as well as the expected straightforward prose. Alex is an interesting character to follow, in the national spotlight just enough to give the reader a bit of White House drama without the politics overshadowing the romance. He has Mexican and American heritage, and is just discovering that he’s bisexual; he knows he needs a bit of luck and a lot of hard work to succeed on a national platform, and his can-do attitude about it is endearing. I would’ve liked all of the characters to have slightly more distinctive personalities, but the fact that they’re uniformly skilled, confident, hopeful, and kind certainly doesn’t hurt.

The romance itself is as cute as one would expect, but what really impressed me was the general positivity permeating this alternate reality. The story is set in a world where a kick-ass democratic woman with Mexican-American children and on her second marriage wins the presidential election in 2016, which results in a gloriously diverse, open-minded cast. One of Alex’s role models is an openly gay Latino Senator; one of his closest friends is the Vice President’s bisexual granddaughter. Alex’s family is open-minded and supportive, and even with his parents’ divorce and high-profile careers (his dad is a Senator as well) everyone mostly gets along and makes time for each other. It’s all wonderfully escapist and wholesome, and I loved the vibe just as much as the queer love story that plays out across this backdrop.

There are a few bumps in the road of course, especially with the love interest being a member of the British monarchy and thus coming from a long line of people to whom acknowledged homosexuality (Henry is gay) is completely unacceptable. Some of his family want him to hide the truth of who he is, and expect him to take up the traditional role of a prince, including marrying a woman and “producing heirs.” He handles it as well as anyone could. But despite the challenges, this is definitely a light-hearted, positive, happy-ending story. It’s empowering and encouraging. If you want to read a male/male romance that isn’t going to break you and shows the good guys winning for once, this is a strong contender.

” ‘I’ve always felt it, in him. There’s this side of him that’s… unknowable.’ He takes a breath. ‘But the thing is, jumping off cliffs is kinda my thing. That’s the choice. I love him, with all that, because of all that. On purpose. I love him on purpose.”

But, after all this praise, it wasn’t quite a perfect read for me. I had a handful of small issues with the story:

  • The enemies-to-lovers arc is a bit too abrupt and flimsy for me. Alex and Henry are never proper enemies, and they figure it out fast.
  • There are a lot of sex scenes, which I don’t mind on principle, but it bothers me that every single encounter between our main characters ends with intercourse, invariably.  It kills the spontaneity and begins to feel formulaic.
  • The political content feels fluffy and idealistic. I think that’s a necessary choice in keeping with the tone of the book, but it detracts slightly from the realistic feel of the narrative.
  • “The media” feels like a single entity rather than a complex web of differing opinions. In the wake of the cake fiasco, all headlines are in agreement. When the fake friendship is advertised, all headlines are in agreement (and somehow no one suspects a cover up?). When Alex and Henry think about what it would mean for their relationship to go public, they assume all headlines will damn their decision. I expected more nuance to reporting and public opinion, especially with Alex’s sister dreaming of a career in journalism.
  • I would’ve liked a little more depth and insight into some of the character dynamics, like: the international friendships, Alex’s sister being the only member of the family disinterested in a political career, the fact that Alex’s parents are kind of inaccessible, etc. I think there was a lot more room for commentary and exploration here than McQuiston ultimately went into.

But in the end, Red, White and Royal Blue walks a fine line between realistic queer romance and pure political escapism, and it went a long way toward cheering me up and making me feel optimistic about the world again. McQuiston writes:

“What I hoped to do, and what I hope I have done with this book by the time you’ve finished it, my dear reader, is to be a spark of joy and hope you needed.”

Under that criteria, it’s a resounding success.

A final note: I’m not gay, bisexual, Latino, British, male, royalty, or political, so I can’t comment on the authenticity of the representation, and I’m not sure how many of those categories McQuiston herself claims, but I thought all characters were handled respectfully.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can’t help nitpicking things in romance novels. But even though I would’ve changed a couple of things, I did absolutely adore this reading experience and 10/10 will be reading McQuiston’s next book. Sadly, it looks like I’ll have to wait until 2021 for that.

 

The Literary Elephant