book reviews

Review: Plain Bad Heroines

Going in, I knew very little about Plain Bad Heroines. After the holidays, and in the thickest part of winter, I was in the mood for something epic and escapist. At more than 600 pages, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines seemed like it might be just what I was looking for.

It was exactly that and more.

It put me in mind of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (one of my all-time favorite novels), with its richly layered mysteries and plot twists, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, due to the fairy tale-esque narration.

There are three narratives driving the story. First, we have the historical storyline concerning a series of odd deaths at a New England boarding school for girls in the early 1900s. Running parallel with that is a modern-day attempt to adapt the tragedy into a horror movie. Meanwhile, the film’s director — clearly a student of auteur theory — has secretly rigged the entire set with hidden cameras and jump scares to incorporate a found-footage element that will blur the line between film and documentary.

As intended, it drives the actors to question their sanity and wonder whether the old boarding school truly is cursed. And if so, was it cursed by the tragedy or had it been hexed long before the school even existed?

Finally, we have the meta narrative, which glues the timelines together with the help of an omniscient, unidentified narrator. The meta narrative weaves in the true story of Mary MacLane, a turn-of-the-century author and feminist whose scandalous 1902 memoir documented her same-sex affairs and is central to the plot.

The use of paratext in the form of footnotes and postscripts further blurs the lines of fact and fiction. I’ve always found footnotes in fiction kind of gimmicky, and, from my days in an MFA program, overdone. But in the postscript, Danforth explains their significance: it’s a nod to the many historical queer narratives that have been lost, destroyed, altered and buried within small-font annotations throughout history. “You can often find us,” she writes, “quite literally, in the margins.”

It adds another layer to an already sad and beautiful tale — a tale perfect for the dark night of winter.

Review: The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club

Doug Henderson has written an anthem for all the geeks and outcasts from the Rust Belt. His wonderful debut novel transported me back to the early 1990s, when me and my friends would haunt Twice-Loved Books and various used record shops in and around Youngstown.

We went to metal shows all over northeast Ohio, so obviously, I related most to Albert, the chaos agent of Cleveland Heights. He works at a record store, listens to death metal and has a wardrobe consisting of black band T-shirts and jeans.

The action begins when he joins an LGBTQ D&D group who meet every Thursday in the back of a comic shop. He is a welcome addition to all members of the party except Ben, the protagonist. Lacking in nerve and self-confidence (as well as a job or apartment), Ben is flustered by Albert’s intrusion.

He complains to Celeste, the dungeon master, “He’s too good looking to play D&D.”

Behind his objections, of course, is an irrepressible and terrifying attraction. The tension between them drives the novel, fueled by Henderson’s sharp prose and humor.

There is so much I love about this book, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Henderson certainly laid the foundation for an epic, with a large ensemble cast, including the gamers, a rival vampire role-playing group and some banker bros (including Mooneyham, a member of the campaign who hasn’t yet come out to his coworkers).

Mooneyham is perhaps the most compelling member of the group. While the others are traditional geeks, Mooneyham is an alpha male with locker-room charisma who hides his inner nerd beneath a power suit. He is annoying, but as the novel progresses he shows depth and vulnerability. He is less open about his sexuality because, as he explains, the others were misfits whose reveal was not a huge surprise. When Mooneyham comes out, it will be a bombshell. It might also derail his career.

Unfortunately, this storyline fizzles into a missed opportunity. Henderson has built up many interesting characters, but the novel’s brevity doesn’t allow their arcs to fully develop.

And while a common (and often justified) critique of cis-het male authors is that they struggle to create well-rounded female characters, this is not exclusive to straight men. The group’s women, Valerie (cis) and Celeste (trans), have a ton of potential that isn’t realized. I wanted their stories to be more significant.

But ultimately, the book is about Ben and Albert, and their journey is portrayed brilliantly. It’s a strong debut, and I look forward to where Henderson takes us next. Personally, I would like a sequel. I love this group of adventurers and want to spend more time in the geek shops of northeast Ohio.

Review: Blood on the Tracks

In this brilliant debut, Barbara Nickless introduces us to marine-turned-railroad cop Sydney Parnell. Haunted by her time in Iraq (literally, as she routinely sees the ghosts of fallen comrades), she absorbs scotch like vitamin water, steals smokes from lazy cops and pops Dexedrine just to stay balanced.

Oh, and she kills a bunch of skinheads along the way.

Yeah, I love this character.

Sleep is about the only thing Sydney doesn’t do in this relentless thriller, and I haven’t even mentioned her loyal sidekick, Clyde, a Belgian Malinois who has a love of cheeseburgers, his own kevlar vest and, like Sydney, crippling PTSD from the war.

At the outset of Blood on the Tracks, a charity worker is murdered and hideously butchered. All evidence suggests that her fiance, a marine disfigured by an IED in Iraq, is the killer, but Sydney isn’t convinced. While the Denver PD considers the case closed, Sydney and Clyde continue to search for answers, even though it may expose war crimes that would ruin all of their lives — and might get Sydney killed.

What follows is a Nietzschean descent into the abyss of war and its aftermath. And as the body count begins to pile up around her, Sydney has no choice but to commit herself fully to the truth, even though that works against her self-interest.

What I also like about Sydney is that she isn’t the type who will only kill in self-defense. War has taught her that, once committed, it’s kill or be killed. When she and Clyde enter the skinhead compound, the orders are to take no prisoners, leave no survivors.

This is a very satisfying book to read in 2021. When Blood on the Tracks was first published, in 2016, hate crimes were on the rise in America. They reached a 16-year high in 2020, followed by a literal siege on the democratic process in early 2021.

Justice has taken a beating the past five years, so yeah, it’s very cathartic when Sydney bashes in a skinhead’s face with a rock.

Nickless incorporates all the great ingredients of a thriller — the flawed hero, antagonistic relationships, and numerous plot twists. My only critique of Blood on the Tracks is that there is one twist too many — an unexpected turn that feels superfluous, but more importantly, is difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel.

However, Nickless lays a deep foundation with long-term story arcs that has me excited for whatever comes next.

I also love that Sydney is not a superstar detective or a prized forensics specialist, as we so often encounter in mystery series. She is a misfit who feels right at home with the outsiders who populate the hobo camps. This makes her essential to the story. To channel my old MFA lingo, it’s the story that only Sydney Parnell could tell, which is what draws the reader into her world.

At least it did for me. I’m looking forward to reading further installments of Sydney and Clyde’s adventures.

Review: My Dark Vanessa

When you find yourself audibly yelling at the characters in a book like you’re watching a horror movie, you know you’re reading something special. My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel from Kate Elizabeth Russell, enrages, amuses, perplexes and ultimately batters the reader into despair.

In this challenging and transgressive masterpiece, Vanessa Wye narrates two timelines of her life: one beginning in 2000, when she goes away to boarding school at age 15 and becomes the target of her English teacher’s advances, and 2017, when said teacher, Jacob Strane, is being investigated for sexually assaulting a different student.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the twisting plot and unsettling behavior, what stands out to me is Russell’s handling of the two voices. It’s challenging enough to believably capture the voice of a teenage character, but to also balance that with a more mature voice that is consistent with that of the child is remarkable.

That Russell pulls it off in her debut novel is astounding.

Practically every page has a line that cut into me on some emotional level, whether it was an insight into the pressures young women face; pervasive pop culture that glamorizes statutory rape; the cruel and humiliating treatment dealt to victims of sexual violence; or a personal reckoning with my own youthful behavior.

The latter is why I feel the #MeToo movement has been such a wake-up call to many men. It brought home not only the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, but also introduced many of us to the broader scope of what it is.

It’s alarming to think of how common the behaviors at the lower end of the sexual violence spectrum were in the 1980s and ’90s — and how many of them, such as leering and catcalling, were expected of young boys as part of our development.

That underlines the importance of My Dark Vanessa. It’s tough to read for both the subject matter and for the way it forces the reader to truly consider how they would react in this situation. It also provides a long-overdue response to Lolita.

Of course, Nabokov’s controversial novel is unavoidable when discussing a book like this, and Russell takes it head on. She writes in the afterward: “I imagined the novel I wished I could have discovered alongside Lolita at fourteen, how it might have felt then to read a book that told her story rather than his.”

Like Russell, I have a complicated relationship with Lolita. It’s one of my favorite novels, but at the same time it is criminally misunderstood. The trope of a “Lolita” as a girl who is sexually aggressive toward older men is a sick distortion.

It speaks volumes about our culture that a novel about raping and kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl has been twisted into a cultural archetype to mean an insatiable teenager who seduces middle-aged men against their will.

That’s exactly why My Dark Vanessa is such an important book.

Even if, like me, you read transgressive fiction quite often, this book will haunt you — not for its salacious content, but for how insidious the sexual violence pervades every interaction in the book. Russell is not aggressive in her return serve of the male gaze. She simply holds a mirror up to it — and what she reflects back is something ugly, something that demands reckoning, that refuses to be ignored.

With Lolita, it is easy to distance oneself from the villain. In My Dark Vanessa, there is no such mercy. No doubt, this is one of the most disturbing and important books I’ve ever read.

Review: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic takes on racism, misogyny and New Imperialism with Gothic symbolism in this highly acclaimed novel.

Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada is a young socialite with diverse and ever-changing interests — anthropology being her most recent obsession. Her traditional family, however, would rather she pursue a husband than a graduate degree.

But when a distressed letter arrives from her newlywed cousin, Catalina, Noemí strikes a deal with her father — he will grant her permission to enroll in graduate school if she serves as the family´s ambassador. While her father fears the shame of a well-publicized divorce (or that Catalina´s mysterious new husband is after the family’s fortune), Noemí is concerned for her cousin´s life. So she travels to the rural mountain village where Catalina lives at her husband’s family estate.

Enter the ominous castle — High Place.

The Doyle family are English expats who had once amassed a fortune in a Mexican silver mine, but whose exploitation of local labor and environmental resources eventually led to financial ruin. The mansion is now crumbling and overrun with mold and fungi. There is spotty electricity, little access to the outside world and seemingly no way to escape.

Extricating Catalina is not as easy as planned. Noemí has no legal recourse to take Catalina away from her husband, even if she fears her life is in danger. With only the help of a few villagers and an unlikely ally within the family, Noemí must take on both the Doyles and an ancient presence that lives within High Place.

For fans of the genre, such as me, the beloved tropes of the remote castle, dead brides, haunted legends and dream visions make for a delightful read on their own.

But Moreno-Garcia understands that the brilliance of Gothic horror lies not merely in the trappings, but in what they represent.

Probably the most obvious symbolism is the dying patriarch of the Doyle family, representing social destabilization and the end of the colonial era. But the paterfamilia has concocted a way to achieve immortality, even if it makes all of them prisoners of High Place.

It would be a horrible, oppressive fate, to waste away in a dilapidated mansion built on a crumbling ideology.

Noemí is the breath of fresh air that just might blow the whole thing down.

Fun read with social commentary and ancient curses. Well worth your time.

Review: The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky

The Broken  Earth Trilogy

N.K. Jemisin

“Just because something is horrible does not make it any less true,” the narrator of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy tells us in the closing pages of her epic tale. This would appear to be the guiding philosophy for the series, which takes an unflinching look at social injustice, environmental destruction and a global economy built on, and reliant upon, exploitation.

Dealing with reality is the only option for Jemisin’s characters, because survivors of a climate apocalypse don’t have the luxury of alternative facts.

Having reviewed the first novel in the series, The Fifth Season, I was going to discuss the second and third installments (The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) separately, but I was so immersed in this world that I finished Sky before I could even begin to write about Gate.

To briefly summarize, the Broken Earth trilogy follows Essun, a mother with special talents who wants to improve a broken world for her young daughter. She lives in a future where Earth has become a barren, inhospitable planet prone to sudden tectonic cataclysms and unpredictable seasons.

When we first meet Essun, her husband has murdered their infant son and kidnapped their daughter, Nassun. This sends Essun on a quest to rescue her only living child. Both Essun and Nassun are “orogenes” — a race of people who can manipulate the earth’s energy to magical effect, such as quelling or generating earthquakes, or creating protective energy shields.

Orogenes are both feared by the majority (known as “stills”) and necessary to the survival of the community. Therefore, orogenes usually live only as long as they are useful, but as Jemisin writes in Gate, “being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.”

This results in brutal treatment and ostracization. Being an orogene in the wrong neighborhood can be fatal, and those with little talent are often killed in their youth. Orogenes with advanced skills are sent to special schools akin to the church-run American Indian boarding schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This injustice is best encapsulated in the following passage:

“They’re afraid because we exist. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing — so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.”

Jemisin’s writing is moving, inspirational and tackles social issues without being didactic. She is also honest. There is no happy ending tacked on in the final pages. There is no ultimate justice.

There is no way to completely fix a broken world, even if Essun can successfully end the catastrophic “seasons.”

But beyond the social commentary is a thrilling tale of perseverance, adventure and familial bonds. The scenery is vivid and well-crafted, and the magical system is revealed with minimal exposition. I found the community-building aspects more engaging than the battle sequences, but there are no weaknesses to Jemisin’s game — evidenced by the fact that each installment in the series won the Hugo Award for Best Novel from 2016-2018.

The Broken Earth trilogy is an engrossing epic, but it is also a scathing indictment of humanity’s pathological reliance on exploitation in order to prosper. Fittingly, these novels emerged at a time of rising nationalism and white supremacist activity. Jemisin offers a concise description of the fear fueling these movements:

“There are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors… Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.”

We have seen the deadly consequences of this in recent years. The Broken Earth trilogy may not prescribe a sure-fire remedy to this struggle, but it is a piercing battle call to keep up the fight.

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents

Octavia E. Butler

This book broke my heart a dozen different ways, many of which were unexpected. I anticipated the gloominess of social and racial injustice and the ugliness of weaponized patriotism.

But in this prophetic 1998 novel, that presaged 2015-2020 America by nearly two decades (in which a demagogue becomes president, campaigning on the slogan, “Make America Great Again”), the gut-punches come from unexpected directions.

There is the heartbreak of destroyed families, both physically (the murder and enslavement of non-Christian and minority communities) and personally (the ideological divide that has pushed loved ones to opposite extremes of the culture war).

There is the heartbreak of those who have been rescued from slavery and trafficking turning against the ones who saved them.

But I think what I find most heartbreaking is the cognitive dissonance that pervades society. In perhaps the most prescient aspect of the novel, when the atrocities committed by the Church of Christian America are exposed, the church’s followers deny the enslavement, rape and execution of the “heathens” within the church’s network of “reeducation camps.”

It is eerily reminiscent of the way revisionists are already trying to distort the facts of the January 6 insurrection, despite an absurd amount of video evidence provided by the perpetrators themselves. It befits a country where the only defense that 40 percent of the population can muster is to shout “fake news” over and over like pull-string talking dolls.

This was honestly one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, and I am a connoisseur of the disturbing. Butler does not shy away from the depressing truth of human nature. She doesn’t try to tack on a happy ending or hint at a brighter future.

She presents humans as they are, not how she’d like them to be. This is a book for truth-seekers, not escapists. Nietzsche rather than Pascal.

The reality is that victory lies not in winning, but in persevering. Victory is speaking the truth when the truth has become criminal, no matter the costs.

If there is any misguided optimism in Parable of the Talents, it is the notion that we can colonize other planets for the betterment of humanity. The protagonist, Olamina, has devised a peaceful philosophy called Earthseed that she hopes to expand to other planets — despite the fact that we can’t even stop destroying our current one.

Though in Butler’s defense, that is a lot more obvious now than it was in the mid-’90s, which was a time of great optimism.

Like the members of Butler’s Church of Christian America, humans will believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence. A beautiful lie will always be more welcome than an ugly truth.

No matter the atrocities committed in their name, having pride in a country’s mythology is always easier than building a country worth being proud of.

Review: The End of Alice

The End of Alice

A.M. Homes

I only recently stumbled upon this excellent novel, but better late than never. I wasn’t familiar with the content, but recognized A.M. Homes from writing the introduction to my copy of Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist.

Anyone qualified for that task knows a thing or two about transgressive literature, and Homes does not disappoint. With The End of Alice, she has written a classic that demands space between Connell’s infamous novel and Lolita.

Like Lolita, we have a tale of pedophilia recounted by a perpetrator (Chappy) who reflects on his crimes from within the criminal justice system. Like Diary, the transgressions are symbolic of American culture and its sins of genocide, racism and slavery. In Connell’s novel, the narrator is a fragile white male, fearful of the changing landscape of 1960s America — and whose crime ostensibly takes place on July 4. In Alice, when the narrator meets the titular 12-year-old girl, she is dressed up as an American Indian.

Each of these novels is told by an unreliable narrator, through court testimony, diary or — in The End of Alice — prison letters. Presenting the POV of the “monster” is what makes them so controversial, but more importantly, so effective. The reader is left on their own to discern what is reality and what is fantasy — and it is a very uncomfortable place to occupy given the subject matter.

The End of Alice adds an interesting wrinkle to the narrative. Alice is off-screen for most of the novel. The main plotline is the correspondence between Chappy and an unnamed 19-year-old female admirer. Through their letters, she reveals that she wants to seduce a 12-year-old boy, and Chappy becomes something like a mentor, giving notes and encouraging her conquest.

Meanwhile, Chappy has a parole hearing coming up. Despite serving a life sentence, he is confident he will be released and even likens the hearing to an appearance on What’s My Line? (an old game show, for younger readers).

When he sits before the parole board, however, his illusions crumble. Throughout the book Chappy has described Alice as the aggressor. While he attempted to quell his desires, she pursued him, sneaking into his cabin at night.

His case file tells a different tale that is disgusting and horrifying, and the fact that he thought the parole hearing was anything more than a formality shows the extent of his mental delusions.

Having these moments of outside clarity helps increase the punch of the unreliable narrator. I liken it to the most powerful moments of Lolita, when Humbert Humbert wonders why Dolores cries herself to sleep at night.

My criticism of this novel is that it is a bit overwritten in places. Chappy’s prose rambles with alliteration and lyrical repetition to the point of distraction. It felt more like the author performing the word play than the character. At times, it reminded me of the readings in my MFA program.

But amid the excessive prose are sentences as sharp as razors. The playful language becomes the set up — to lull the reader before delivering the gut punch. And as Humbert Humbert himself said, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

This was an incredible book and is required reading for any student of transgressive media.

Review: Tender is the Flesh

Tender is the Flesh

Agustina Bazterrica

I have recently developed a preference for Impossible Burgers, a plant-based meat alternative, over ground beef. Reading Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh did not cause me to second-guess this decision.

To be clear, the novel is not simply a polemic about factory farming or a futuristic retelling of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is a deeper critique of the entire global economy, our class structure and a food supply chain designed to minimize consumer guilt.

Tender is the Flesh takes place in a future where a virus has made animal meat lethal to humans. Animals have been eradicated, and for a while, the world went vegan out of necessity.

That didn’t last long. Craving a meat fix, consumers (I use that word intentionally) turned to the only viable meat option remaining: humans. Dubbed the “Transition,” the world’s meat counters were once again stocked with product — now referred to as “special meat.”

Marcos, our protagonist, manages a meat processing plant and is highly regarded in the field. His father had operated a renowned slaughterhouse prior to the virus, but was unable to cope with the Transition. He was “a person of integrity, that is why he went crazy.”

Marcos also struggles with the Transition, but reminds himself that he does it to pay for his father’s care in a nursing home. Marcos is also dealing with the death of his child and the resulting estrangement from his wife.

He copes by detachment:

“He wishes he could anesthetize himself and live without feeling anything. Act automatically, observe, breathe, and nothing more. See everything, understand, and not talk. But the memories are there, they remain with him.”

His attempt at dissociation fails when a supplier, hoping to make nice for a botched order, gifts him with an expensive delivery — a young female “head” who is certified First Generation Pure (FGP), the most prized and costliest grade of “special meat.”

Like all “head,” her vocal chords have been severed so that she can’t complain and when it’s time to slaughter, the butcher won’t be upset by her screaming. Marcos ties her up in the barn while he decides whether he should sell her for a tidy sum, breed her or use her for food. (In a clever bit of world-building, foodies have perfected the technique of butchering “head” piecemeal so that they always have fresh meat available.)

Tender is the Flesh is broken into two parts. The first covers a very compressed timeline where we get to know Marcos, learn of his family tragedies and bear witness to the new method of meat processing. This is gut-churning stuff, even for a hardened horror lover such as myself.

But as hardcore as this first part may be, it is the second half where the book goes to a dark place even I wasn’t expecting.

Throughout part one, Marcos tries to distance himself from the horrors of reality. He’s a vegetarian who is disgusted by the business of human meat processing. He is also troubled by the reliance on euphemisms that legitimize (and dehumanize) the whole business.

In the second half, detachment is no longer an option. The gift of the FGP forces him to reckon with reality. He names her Jasmine, even though that is a crime punishable by death. He cleans her up and moves her into the house.

Once forced to action, Marcos is both a passionate idealist and a ruthless businessman. He connives to protect Jasmine, visits an abandoned zoo and prepares for his father’s death.

This culminates in a gut punch of an ending that is a reminder that being human isn’t the compliment some people want it to be.

Tender is the Flesh is an incredible book that is beautiful, well-written and dark beyond dark. It has one of the bleakest endings of any book I’ve ever read. In other words — I loved it.

And yeah, it makes the Impossible Burgers taste even better.

Review: Grotesque

Natsuo Kirino

Grotesque

This is a book that lives up to its name. Beauty and deformity drip from every page in this transgressive thriller. It put me in mind of Flannery O’Connor, not in the aspect of prose but in the weight of oppression and despair.

There is no escape hatch for either the reader or the characters. The female leads — Yuriko, the monstrous beauty; Kazue, whose determination is greater than her social awareness; and the unnamed narrator, who is Yuriko’s older sister and self-described shadow to her sister’s light — are born into a system built for them to fail. Any path they tread is treacherous.

For Yuriko and Kazue, that path is sex work, though they arrive by different means and with different motivations. Their ends, however, are similar. They are both murdered by a client.

For the narrator, the path is a “sea of hatred” — she develops an armor of malicious wit, bitterness and resignation. She comes to relish the confused reactions people have upon learning that she and Yuriko are sisters.

Grotesque is epic in scope and haunting in execution. As with O’Connor, the writing sticks to the bone and the moral philosophy weighs on the mind long after. I can’t rave enough about this book. This is the second book of Kirino’s I’ve read — the other being the amazing Out — and I look forward to reading more.

As much as I loved Out, I think I love Grotesque more. Recency bias? Maybe, but the books deviate so much from each other in style and perspective that I don’t think that’s it. Out is a page-turner, whereas Grotesque is more like a Russian novel.

The former you can’t put down. The latter crawls under your skin, just the way I like it.