Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao***

GirlsBurnBrighterThanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this review.  This book is for sale to the public now.

This story is billed as one of matchless friendship, and it is that, but the misery and despair are so stark and ever present as to destroy all hope, and this ambivalence is the reason for my slowness and frankly reluctance to review.

Our story is set in India, and our two protagonists are Poornima, whose struggling father runs a small textile factory that makes saris, and Savitha, one of his workers. They become friends and uphold one another through the desperate struggle for survival. Poornima’s mother is gone, and the daughter is not considered beautiful, which makes her dowry an even more essential aspect of her marriage than it would otherwise be. She herself has no desire to marry, particularly not to someone she has never met and that only plans to marry her for the income generated by the union, but her father is genuinely eager to be rid of her—one more mouth to feed—and she is hustled through the ordeal despite her misgivings.

Savitha has vowed to protect and defend her friend, but she is banished and must make a run for it.

The entire story is bleak, stark, and horrible. For those that are unaware of the fate of some women in some Asian countries, this may be worth reading for enlightenment, but for many feminists this is not news. Stories of Indian women being fatally burned or badly disfigured by accidentally-on-purpose kitchen accidents by angry in-laws that expect more of a dowry price than is actually paid have circulated since the 1980s at least. I would have found the story more compelling and less difficult to read if there was some small twinkle of hope somewhere. At the seventy percent mark I decided I couldn’t stand it, but when I skipped to the end, I discovered that at least one protagonist was still alive, which is better than I expected, and so I went back and read the rest of it. It proved to be a small reward for a great deal of horror.

Don’t get me wrong; if there was a way that even one woman in India could somehow be spared because I had read this novel, I’d be all in. But to read news that is both old and terrible to no end—because if the US government were ever to actively assert the rights of women anywhere, which it hasn’t, it sure as hell won’t be under the current administration—seems like a lot of grinding sorrow to no good purpose.

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs that have no knowledge of how women in India are treated, with the caveats above.

The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Not That I Could Tell, by Jessica Strawser****

NotThatIOne year ago today, I reviewed Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You. When I received an invitation to read and review this, her second novel of suspense, I privately wondered whether she had written the same story all over again: missing spouse, missing kids, and is it foul play or a voluntary departure? But although there are many common elements, possibly what will become a signature aspect of her work, I can promise you that this is a very different story. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

Our setting is Yellow Springs, Ohio, and our protagonists are the women of the neighborhood, primarily Izzy, who comes in search of a fresh start after her sister marries the man she had her heart set on, and Clara, a stay-home mom that also recovering from a traumatic past event that is alluded to frequently but whose particulars are withheld till near the story’s climax. And we have Kristen, college administrator and estranged wife of Doctor Paul. All are close neighbors, and these women–along with other women in the neighborhood–form a tight bond.

At the outset I feel as if I’m the wrong reader for this story. It’s all so light and fluffy; I don’t need to know the name of every child in the neighborhood, nor what everyone is wearing. But I also remember that I felt that way at the start of Strawser’s last novel, and I didn’t feel at all that way further into the book, and so I keep reading. Sure enough, the adverbs drop, the wardrobes and cute kiddies fade into the background, and the tone darkens nicely (said the evil book blogger with a sinister smile).

After a lovely fall evening spent bonding with friends around a backyard bonfire, Kristen and the twins have disappeared. The police take a hard look at Paul, who is seeking half of the hefty sum in Kristen’s savings account in the divorce proceedings, but nobody can prove anything. There are no bodies; she may have taken the kiddies and left. Some things are missing that make us think she’s taken off voluntarily, and yet other aspects of her absence send up flags.

Paul, for instance, is a smooth operator, but he isn’t a nice guy.

Strawser weaves a complex, credible plot with a strong feminist subtext, one that tells us there needs to be greater support for victims of domestic violence, and also that for some of us, happy endings are possible without romantic relationships. In addition, it is heartening to see a strong work of fiction that mostly features women characters.

I recommend this novel to women and those that love them, and I look forward to seeing more of Strawser’s feminist fiction in the future.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.

The Bathwater Conspiracy, by Janet Kellough*****

TheBathwaterConFeminists rejoice! Janet Kellough, known for the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, has cut loose with a genre-bending science fiction mystery novel that’s cleverly conceived, brilliantly written, and funny as hell. I was invited to read it free of charge, courtesy of Edge Publishing and the author.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. Women have inherited the Earth, emerging victorious from the Testosterone War, but that was a long time ago. About the only time anyone even thinks about them is in an academic setting, and it wouldn’t even come up now, except that a student from the Men’s Studies field of history has been murdered. Even stranger, the Darmes—the future equivalent of the FBI, perhaps—are hushing it up.

This presents a problem for city police detective Carson MacHenry, who gets the call initially. First she’s told to solve the case; then she’s told not to. And while most of us, in a similar situation, would yield fairly quickly, Carson is disturbed by the skullduggery involved in this whole thing. Who the hell wants a cop to NOT solve a crime, especially a murder? Add to this Carson’s workaholic tendencies since her split with Georgie; home is too damn lonely, and a meaty case like this one is far more alluring than returning to her cat and her empty home.

Given the setting, which is more disorienting than it seems on the surface, it’s helpful that Kellough soft-pedals the invented language and coding that many science fiction and fantasy writers favor, keeping it minimal so that we are not scrambling to catch up with a complex plot.

Carson is assigned a rookie partner, an annoying, punctilious young cop named Susan Nguyen. In order to pursue the investigation she’s been warned away from, Carson sends her hapless partner off on one snipe hunt after another, and from about the halfway mark I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s no way that’s all there is to Nguyen. And of course I am not going to tell you how this aspect plays out, but it’s hilarious.

There are deeper issues lurking beneath the surface here, issues of philosophy and ethics related to genetics, research, and science. In addition, even the most die-hard feminist readers will catch themselves assuming, at some point, that one or more characters are male, even though we have been told everyone is female. Back in the day we called this consciousness raising; you can call it anything you want to now, but it is bound to make you think harder.

At bottom, though, the voice is what makes this a terrific read rather than merely a good one. The wry humor and side bits are so engaging that I was sorry to see the story end.  I laughed out loud more than once.

Those that love strong fiction and lean to the left should get this book. Fans of police procedurals, science fiction, LGTB fiction and above all, smart stories written with great, droll humor have to read it too. It’s for sale now at about the price you’d ordinarily pay for a used book. Go get it.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

Gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

godsinalabamaThis book was just what the doctor ordered. Whenever I find myself steeped in too much important-yet-grim literature, I have a handful of go-to authors that are guaranteed to leave me feeling better about the world. Jackson is one of them. I bought my copy of this book used via Powell’s City of Books, online using the gift certificate they bestow on reviewers from time to time. I recently won another one and have ordered some more books by this writer to brighten the winter to come.

Arlene had vowed never to return to her family in Alabama. Dark things have been done there, and she did some of them herself. Let’s examine, for instance, the murder of Jim Beverly. Arlene promised God that if he let her get out of the state after it occurred, she would never return, and despite her family’s hurt inquiries, she never has. Now things are different, though. A visitor from her hometown has come to her apartment asking about Jim. In addition, Arlene’s boyfriend Burr, who is African-American, has told her that if she won’t introduce him to her people, regardless of what they are like or how they will treat him, he will leave her. And so Arlene is forced to break her vow with the Almighty and head south.

Arlene’s family is unforgettable; Aunt Flo, who raised Arlene after her mother’s breakdown, is one of the finest strong female characters of all time. I have read several books since I read this one, and yet Arlene and Flo are still riding around in my head. That’s what excellent literature does.

As to Jim Beverly and Arlene’s vow, there’s more to all of it than meets the eye, and the ending is so surprising yet so completely believable that I can only roll my eyes in admiration. Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction.

In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende*****

IsabelAllendefall2017Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you already know that Allende is a luminary that owns the literary lane of magical realism, and is renowned for her fictional immigration stories. But it’s her accessibility, the way she spins her tale as though speaking to a good friend, along with her sparkling great humor and feminist spirit that keep me coming back for more. My bookshelves may be crowded, but when I have to clear old books away to make room for new, my Allende shelf is never up for grabs. These are books I will read again, and that’s a thing I don’t do much. In the Midst of Winter is one I read digitally and free, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review, but sooner or later I will have to find a hard copy to complete my shelf.  You will want to read it too.

The narrative shifts between three main characters. Richard Bowmaster is a 60 year old human rights scholar that has recruited 62 year old Lucia Maraz, a lecturer from Chile, to his university. Evelyn Ortega is an undocumented Guatamalan refugee that works as a domestic.  She filches her boss’s Lexus to go buy diapers for her charge on an icy day in Brooklyn and collides with Bowmaster’s car. Bowmaster is a pain the ass, but he nevertheless agrees, by inches, to help Evelyn.  The story shifts between the present day crisis—there’s a body in the trunk of the Lexus, and it’s impossible to call the cops if there’s a chance Evelyn may be deported—and the back stories of all three characters.

Allende never pulls her punches. There’s no realistic way to talk about Guatemala, about the atrocities that people like Evelyn flee, without including violence, and the details here ensure that we won’t forget once the book is done. There’s rape here, and some rape survivors may have to give this one a miss. For everyone else this is a no holds barred must-read. The author deftly alternates the difficult, horrific scenes with lighter material, and this not only makes the book an easier read, it heightens the pace and makes the gritty passages more memorable. There is also less magical realism in this novel than in her others; but make no mistake, Allende’s signature style is here in full force and voice.

The way Bowmaster is developed, inch by inch, into a civilized human being is indeed mesmerizing. Feminist readers will cheer for the way Lucia owns her destiny. Older women aren’t old ladies; they are women first, and nobody drives it home better than this writer.

My favorite moment is that between Marco, Lucia’s Chihuahua, and a moose, a memorable bit of side business.

Undocumented immigrants are a greater part of our national conversation than ever, and so there’s no better time to read Allende. Like all of her work, this book is funny, smart, tender, wrenching at times, and in the end, it tells us that humans are intrinsically good. I came away with a lighter heart and a spring in my step.

You have to read this book, and it will be for sale Tuesday, October 31, 2017.

Doc Doc Zeus, by Thomas Keech***

DocDocZeusThank you to Net Galley, the author, and Real Nice Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This novel was published earlier this month and is for sale now.

Doc Doc Zeus is a tough one to review. There are strengths that drew me at the outset and I thought I was going to love it; unfortunately, the literary aspects and a blind spot or two regarding women and rape have kept me from cheering and promoting the way I expected.

Conceptually, it’s innovative and gutsy. We have Diane, who at 14 has been manipulated by a conservative Christian group and agrees to carry a baby rather than have an abortion.

Diane’s physician is Dr. Zeus, and he is being paid by the church that is housing Diane. Diane is thrilled because she is made to feel heroic, special, for deciding not to end the pregnancy. At age 14, she is right in the throes of the all-about-me stage of adolescence, and this is the strongest part of Diane’s development as a character. Of course, once the baby is born and sent off to live with adoptive parents, Diane is no longer being spoiled and petted, and so she is in a vulnerable place. Her parents are not as available as they might be, so she is isolated, and makes an excellent target for a guy like Zeus.

Zeus is pond scum, a serial rapist, a liar and a thief. He conspires to direct his hospital’s lab business through an intermediary company he owns for no purpose other than to drive up costs and line his own wallet. The guy is so toxic and free of any redeeming qualities that I couldn’t read this story for very long at a time; there are other reasons, too. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Our third main character is Dave, who works for the state’s medical board. Dave is frustrated by the lack of interest on the part of the state in pursuing Zeus legally. Why is this guy allowed to practice? There’s plenty of documentation to show that he should not only be stripped of his license, but be behind bars. Why can’t this happen?

The best part of the book is the opening, not to mention the quirky, engaging title. When we begin, the narratives by Diane and by Zeus make me alternately laugh out loud and groan. It’s dry humor, savagely funny. I want it to stay that way.

Sadly, by the thirty percent mark, I am starting to wonder whether a high profile editor might be needed to assist with the literary aspects of this thing. The last time I saw this sort of problem was also with an author that had a lot of technical expertise and a lengthy, successful career in an area that dovetailed with his novel; Keech is retired from a state attorney general’s office. He has plenty of knowledge regarding state bureaucracy as it applies to physicians, but the elements a novel requires—character development and above all a story arc, with the action and urgency rising around the 75 or 80 percent mark and then falling back toward a conclusion, are simply not present. Our hero, Dave, is trying valiantly to shut Zeus down, but readers won’t engage with the amount of bureaucratic detail here. This area needs to be condensed, and Dave needs development as a character. The setting is nearly absent.

The other problem here is a certain tone-deafness regarding the book’s audience. Potentially, this story could be a rallying cry for women that have experienced rape and for anyone that has been molested as a child or when they were vulnerable. There are so many out there.

But for these readers, this is a hot-stove issue. Less is more. This reviewer has not even been there, and yet the level of detailed sexual predation in this book is painful to me, and unnecessarily so. Chapter after chapter; page after page. Most people that would otherwise champion a novel like this one, won’t finish it because it’s too hard to read. The crime itself should wink in briefly, decisively and memorably, and then the story should be built around it.

I would also change the ending.

To be sure, I am convinced that Keech is on the side of the angels, and I would bet my last dollar that he has seen or heard of a situation similar to the one in this story. I suspect that he’s a good man who is transitioning from his career in state government to a career as a novelist, and trying to use fiction to make a difference. For this reason also, I wanted to be able to promote this book and send out a Twitter storm telling people to read it. I avoided writing this review, because it isn’t the one I had hoped to write.

With a great deal of TLC, this story could be rewritten in a way that would work. The idea is strong, but the execution is lacking. A high profile editor might be very useful here, and if that happens and a rewrite significantly improves this work, I would be willing to reread and review again. But as it stands, I cannot recommend it.

The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

Yo, happy release day! I read this over the winter and blogged it in June; if you missed it the first time, check it out.

Seattle Book Mama

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read…

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