Book Review

55 Slightly Sinister Stories

Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 119
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Racha Mourtada’s 55 Slightly Sinister Stories is touted as “55 Stories. 55 Words Each. No More. No Less.” leaving the reader as to no doubt what they are getting.

Mourtada’s author’s note reveals that book was born of a New Year’s resolution to write one 55 word story each day…which lasted until May 5th (clever girl!)

This quirky little book also features illustrations by Lynn Atme, and each story occupies two pages.

Thoughts

In honor of the sheer discipline it takes to create a complete story in just 55 words (I have been working on my own set of 101 word stories for quite some time) I have decided to give Racha Mourtada’s 55 Slightly Sinister Stories a 55 word review.

An eclectic grouping of romance, death, heartbreak, and even the woes of that all-important first line of a story, Mourtada presents readers with this fun collection. It’s satisfying to be able to complete two or three stories in the time it takes to read the first page of a novel, and the illustrations are delightful.

It’s not as easy it sounds!

Book Review

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Publisher: Quirk Books
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 424
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary

Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires has a title that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It is what it says it is! Set in the 1980s and 1990s Patricia—doctor’s wife, mother to two teenagers, and caregiver to her mother-in-law—is bored to tears with her country-club and pearls lifestyle. Her book club, which should be somewhat of an escape, is just more of the same…rich women posturing by reading pretentious books that they only skim through at best. 

But things get kicked up a notch when some of the ladies defect, and begin their own true crime gathering. Immersed in the world of serial killers, Patricia feels like she may have found a little excitement. That is until a stranger moves into town, some kids go missing, and Patricia and her Southern book club sleuths find themselves facing something a lot more sinister than Dahmer or Bundy. 

Thoughts

I wanted to love this, but ended up just liking it. The title grabbed me right away, and immediately I was thinking Blanche Dubois or any of the Sugarbaker ladies from Designing Women (look it up) or Steel Magnolias with a stake in one hand, and a Mint Julep in the other ready to “y’all” the bloodsucker back to hell where he belonged.

No such luck. While the premise is fabulous, and there were some chuckle-aloud moments, I wanted more camp. I was hoping for more comedy with my horror—but it was less comedy, more drama, and mystery. Hendrix spends some time on Patricia’s feelings of isolation and abandonment when the book club isn’t really feeling up to the detective work she is so eager to engage in. I have to wonder if that was his commentary on how women who may be a little longer in the tooth (get it?) seem to get cast aside if they don’t fit a certain mold, or want just a little more than what they have been given. From their initial defection, I got a little female empowerment at times from this crew of Van Helsings.

Hendrix does turn a few vampire legends upside down (I won’t spoil them here) but they aren’t anything I rebelled against. No one glittered or procreated. Thank goodness. In fact, I rather enjoyed the method in which you have to destroy this particular vampire’s kind. Some reviewers of the book complained about the level of gore (high), but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. Rats eating flesh, people eating flesh. Isn’t that what vampire novels are supposed to include? 

There are a couple elements that Hendrix slays (pun intended) beautifully. He has the art of suspense down. Even though it’s been done numerous times, there is a particular scene where Patricia is in the vampire’s house, and there’s that feeling of will-she-get-caught-or-won’t-she that is well-handled and anxiety inducing. The other element that really worked for me is Hendrix’s atmosphere-building in this novel. You can just feel the Charleston humidity rising up from the pages, and see the Spanish moss dripping from those thick trunked trees. Ah…I could use that Mint Julep right about now. 

If you like a good amount of gore and a few laughs mixed in with a heaping helping of drama, you’ll like this novel. For me, it was enough to generate some interest in Grady Hendrix’s other work, so stay tuned. 

Book Review

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Frida is a sleep-deprived single mom trying desperately to juggle the requirements of work and the needs of her toddler Harriet. On one very bad day she leaves Harriet home alone, just for a little bit, so she can get a coffee and a report from the office. She admits this wasn’t a good idea, but when you’re sleep deprived you do stupid things, and it wasn’t for long. But one bad day is enough to earn her the state’s attention.

The judge offers an ultimatum: lose custody of your child or attend a year-long residential program using the latest scientific techniques to turn bad mothers into sparkling specimens of devotion.

If Frida wants to see Harriet again, she must first prove herself at the school for good mothers.

Thoughts

In Good Mothers, the protagonist of a slice-of-life literary novel finds herself trapped in a bureaucratic panopticon written in the style of Philip K. Dick. The science fictional elements of the story introduce themselves slowly. By the time the android children programmed to feel pain and love in order to be better training tools show up, Frida is too numb to react with much surprise.

I have never before read a book which conveys in such clarity the feeling of living within the self-perpetuating logic of the carceral state.

The American justice system operates on the premise that crime is a failing of the individual whose proper antidote is punishment of the individual for their moral failing (denying systemic problems and those based on material conditions). Criminals are only eligible to re-enter society as citizens when they have “paid for their crimes” and undergone some sort of personal rehabilitation. This insidious reasoning has becomes so endemic in our society that many Americans would define justice as synonymous with punishment for crime.

So when single, working mother Frida fails to meet the exacting standards of motherhood mandated by the state, the solution is for her to be punished and then rehabilitated. That Frida will never be able to meet standards designed for stay-at-home mothers of petite bourgeois families only serves to proves that she is indeed a bad mother.

She has been put into a Sisyphean struggle. Society demands that she work in order to live, but society has also conveniently defined labor traditionally associated with women as not real work deserving of wages. Frida is therefore expected to excel at the labor of motherhood without payment and still work for a living in a profession whose labor is granted material value by society. When she fails to perform perfect motherhood according to these standards, she is punished.

And not merely punished. At the titular school for good mothers, Frida participates in her own humiliation. She repeats over and over the mantra “I am a bad mother but I am learning to be good” as if she were in a 12-step program. She doesn’t have to say it, but if she refuses, her noncompliance will be noted in the file which the judge will use to determine if she can ever see her child again.

Frida’s constant self-abnegation struck a familiar chord with me. To be poor or marginalized in America is to be constantly groveling. The service worker must apologize to the customer who screams at them or else lose their job. The poor student must right essay after essay flogging their personal traumas for the chance at a life-changing scholarship. The parolee is forced to act as their own warden, enforcing on themselves the onerous terms of their semi-freedom on threat of re-imprisonment.

To become an active participant in one’s own subjugation is the ultimate horror of the carceral state.

I won’t spoil how Good Mothers ends, but I will say that the final scenes are neither hopeful nor despairing, and more than worth the horror one must wade through in the preceding pages.

Book Review

What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Publisher: One World
Genre: Science
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

The Flint water crisis is one of the most well-known and tragic public health issues of the 21st century. It has been repeatedly documented and analyzed—representing not only a failure of government but the power and force of citizens. What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City is the story of the Flint water crisis, but also the physician who spoke up. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha describes the story of herself, her research team, and her community as they discovered and exposed the extreme levels of lead in Flint’s tap water.

Thoughts

I don’t usually lean toward nonfiction or biographical novels, perhaps because so much of my year is taken up with nonfiction or educational material for school. However, What the Eyes Don’t See is an amazingly fluid work that intertwines the author’s personal narrative and experience with the factual occurrences during the beginning of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. In this manner, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha not only allows the reader to understand historically what happened, why it happened, and the steps taken to address it, but what the personal effects of the situation caused. By describing her personal story, as well as the community’s account and direct reaction, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha gives a face to the crisis rather than just addressing the blame. It is this mix of emotion and fact that made me love this novel and pushed me to seek out more nonfiction (especially current nonfiction) novels.

Additionally, the detailed account of the crisis from the beginning allowed the reader to understand the steps taken and failures of the government at each stage. I also greatly appreciated the historical references, explanations, and details laid out periodically. The inclusion of background information, which while not necessarily vital to the narrative, provided a deeper understanding of the community and the impact of the situation. After all, What the Eyes Don’t See is less about the actual crisis details and more about the community and individuals who risked a lot to protect their neighbors and speak out against a failure of government. It is truly a great book that offers an increasingly prominent analysis of not only public health in the United States but the priorities of communities versus government.

Book Review

Monster Portraits by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar

Publisher: Rose Metal Press
Genre: Autobiography
Pages: 84
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Monster Portraits is the autobiography of two siblings told through a collection of monsters. Each monster is given a visage through Del Samatar’s intricate illustrations and a voice through the collected snippets of story, lore, and ephemera transcribed by Sofia Samatar. But each portrait also contains a fragmented depiction of the authors. Their own mosaic portrait makes its lair in the margins.

Monster Portraits is as gorgeous as it is challenging. It won’t take you long to finish and once you do, you’ll immediately want to read it again.

Thoughts

I love books of monsters. The Monster Manuals of assorted tabletop roleplaying games, the seventh-century Liber Monstrorum, the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, and now Monster Portraits. As a kid I would pore through illustrated works of fantasy and religion looking for pictures of strange creatures. I made my own monster catalogues in 70-page college-ruled notebooks with pencil drawings to show where the claws and the guns and the wings went.

What compels me most about books of monsters is not first reading them, but rather returning to them later. Monsters draw their strength from how well they compel us to reimagine them again and again. They are representations of our fears, testing grounds for our desires, or metaphors for power beyond our reach. And so the ones we return to are those which are useful for storing bits of ourselves we cannot otherwise find shapes for. In this way, all books of monsters are autobiographical.

Sofia Samatar has been interested in monsters for a long time too. In many ways this book is a continuing conversation of her early short stories on monsters, particularly “Those” and “Ogres of East Africa.” Sympathy for and self-identification with monsters was also a major theme of her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria.

Del Samatar’s illustrations, however, force her writing into a new track. The monsters in this book feel quite distinct from those she usually writes about. Del’s illustrations are exactingly detailed—and so rather than clarifying, Sofia here seeks to obfuscate. Her fragments are interspersed with conjecture and tangent which add a layer of mystery to the precise images. Some of the entries read like prose poems, others like clippings from the history books of a parallel world, others like the start of short stories without endings.  

Book Review

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Publisher: Aladdin
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Jason and Rachel were from our world and lived very ordinary lives until they were sucked into a magical realm known as Lyrian. This world is run by an evil ruler named Maldor. After accidentally discovering a secret that has Maldor hunting after them, Jason and Rachel must set off on a strange quest. There is a word that has been divided into several syllables that, if spoken to Maldor, will kill him. With the help of a blind king named Galloran and several new friends made along the way, Jason and Rachel will do whatever they can to end Maldor’s reign of terror.

However, Maldor has some tricks of his own. Deceitful loyalists, deadly obstacles, sinful temptations, and a dark secret from centuries ago will strive to stifle any attempt to unseat this dark ruler. After all, Lyrian is a world without heroes, and Maldor will do whatever it takes to keep it that way.

Thoughts

The best part of any Brandon Mull book is undeniably his world-building, and Beyonders is no exception. Lyrian is a magical realm unlike any other and is exclusively populated with unique fantasy characters that can’t be seen anywhere else. My two favorite creatures introduced are the displacers—beings who can remove any piece of their body without losing its function—and the seed-people, beings who, when they die, plant a seed found at the base of their neck and grow an entirely new body. These creatures make Lyrian a world that can only be experienced within this series, giving it a unique touch that makes rereading easy. Not only that, but the uniqueness of the people within Lyrian help guide the reader to oppose Maldor, as his destructive need to control Lyrian inherently threatens the world the reader has come to love.

In a similar vein, the character building in this series is also magnificent. Rachel and Jason are charming characters who balance their confusion and fear in the face of this new world with their desire to help their new friends seamlessly. They also have incredible chemistry as a duo and their interactions lead to some of the funniest parts of the series. The people they meet along the way are also unique and well-rounded—there are no throwaway characters in this series. Everyone has fully developed desires, aspirations, and personalities and they all feel integral to the overall narrative. This also aids in the reader’s investment when these characters are in danger or die. There are no meaningless deaths in this book: they all impact the characters and the reader.

The most unique aspect of character building in this series is the redemption arc of a specific character. Not to spoil the series, but there is one character revealed to be a spy for Maldor that eventually joins the heroes. The constant question as to whether they will betray them again is fascinating enough as it is, but it’s the struggle of the character themselves that really makes this story a special one. Brandon Mull doesn’t pull any punches with this character—rather, he fully addresses the difficultly of abandoning what you once believed, the struggle to be honest after deceiving for so long, and the pain of being constantly distrusted and despised even as you try to change. By far, this is the best arc of the series, and it ends perfectly in the third book, and anyone who wishes to write a redemption arc should read this series.

Lastly, this book also has both a great sense of humor and the ability to be serious. The comarderie between the characters leads to hilarious banter that really lets the characters connect on a personal level. Likewise, the book doesn’t shy away from showing the abuses that Maldor perpetrates and the risks that these characters face in opposing him. When characters die, they stay dead, and their loss is felt for the rest of the book. These conflicting energies play off each other perfectly, with the humorous moments showing the beauty of Lyrian and the serious moments showing how much would be lost if Maldor took over completely. The reader feels the risk and the loss along with the characters and is therefore brought along for the ride.

Overall, I adored this series. My favorite aspect of the fantasy genre is that the reader gets to experience a brand new world full of incredible people and places, and Beyonders delivered that in spades. I highly recommend Beyonders to anyone looking for a great fantasy adventure to dive into this year.

Book Review

Twisted Fairy Tales By Maura McHugh

Publisher: B.E.S. Publishing
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 144
Format: Hard Cover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

This Fairy Tale Anthology book is more than just another collection of classic Grimm Brothers’ Fairy tales. Each story contains a dark and dangerous heart that exposes the more fearsome side of these colorful tales. It includes 20 gothic retellings of classics such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, now filled with murder, blood, and a whole lot of macabre. Readers beware, the classics you loved are as twisted as they come, and you may never look at them the same again.

Thoughts

As a lover of classic fairy tales, this book was a nostalgic treat. The beats of the story remain the same overall, with only occasional twists that age up the children’s tales for a more adult audience. Snow White killing her mother, the witch being strangled by Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella also being abused by her father, and the like give the stories a chilling aftereffect. This was helped by the fact that there were several less popular fairy tales included like “The Bone Whistle”, “May and the Elf Knight,” and “Vasilisa’s Fire.” These stories were completely new to me and as such their chilling elements had a stronger effect.

Aiding the book’s eerie atmosphere is the truly amazing art by Jane Laurie. These illustrations are the highlight of the book, providing gritty watercolored pictures of the book’s many gruesome stories. These images breathe new life into these old tales and create hauntingly beautiful portraits that pull the reader into the story in a way that the simple tales cannot. The book is also formatted beautifully, with purposely stained pages and a beautiful font that is reminiscent of the old Brothers Grimm books. This combined with Jane’s art creates a very stunning book that has an ambiance of both fear and beauty.

The one issue I took with this book is that, despite claiming to have a dangerous heart, the stories stuck too closely to the classic Brothers Grimm stories. If you are at all familiar with the origin of most of our beloved fairy tales you know that a great deal of them already have dark origins. Cinderella’s sisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the slipper, the Witch blinds the prince for falling in love with Rapunzel, the wolf eats Granny, and so on. When I began this book I assumed that these stories would be amped up to a more disturbing level, but for the most part, the stories simply returned to their origins and stuck with what was already dark about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was far from the new take on fairytales I was hoping for and left the macabre fan in me disappointed.

Overall, this was a solid fairytale retelling for an older audience. Though the stories are a bit predictable, they maintain their enjoyability and the style and artwork make them unique. If you’re in the mood for a classic retelling that embraces the dark side of fairytales, Twisted Fairy Tales may be what you’re looking for.

Book Review

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Publisher: Tordotcom
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

What if you were a killer cyborg—built to be the perfect murdering machine—but all you wanted to do was watch soap operas?

Murderbot is a SecUnit owned by a company that provides resources for planetary exploration. It has secretly hacked its governor module (the part of its brain that forces it to obey its corporate masters). It uses this newfound freedom to watch the 35,000 hours of television it has downloaded to its personal hard drives—or it would, if its human masters weren’t constantly getting into danger. If anyone finds out it is free, it will be hunted down and killed (because everyone just assumes rogue SecUnits are rampaging Terminators bent on eradicating all human life). And so it goes on doing its job, hoping to keep its humans alive long enough for it to finish the next season of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

Thoughts

At their core, The Murderbot Diaries are sweet, funny, and intensely personal stories about building a life in the aftermath of trauma and despite a society that wants you dead.

I instantly fell in love with the character of Murderbot. Books, TV, and movies are saturated with misanthropic, hyper-competent characters: your Tony Starks, Sherlock Holmes, and Mavericks. I normally hate these characters—I don’t want to read about übermenschen who can treat everyone around them like objects because they’re the Heroes (with a Campbellian capital ‘H’). But Murderbot takes this trope and flips it on its head.

Yes, Murderbot is misanthropic and hyper-competent, but it is also deeply moral. Despite having every reason to seek vengeance for the terrible violations society has inflicted on it, Murderbot spends All Systems Red carefully preserving the lives of the humans under its care. Murderbot refers to itself with a name that represents how society perceives it, but in actuality spends all its time making sure people don’t get murdered despite their best efforts to the contrary.

All Systems Red is not Martha Well’s first book by a longshot, but it is her first book to receive widespread critical acclaim. It swept the holy trinity of science fiction awards, winning the 2018 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for Best Novella. And Murderbot hasn’t stopped winning awards since. Network Effect—the fifth entry in the series—is poised to pull off the same feat; it’s won both the Nebula and Locus and is currently nominated for the Hugo. This is even more impressive considering that Network Effect is significantly longer than All Systems Red, forcing it to compete in the “novel” category which is (comparatively) more competitive than the shorter “novella.”

Never before have I wanted so badly for a character to make some friends and have a happy life. After all its been through, Murderbot deserves to be safe and cozy for a century or two. Fingers crossed that by the next book the humans will finally get their crap together and let Murderbot have some peace and quiet.

Book Review

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Publisher: Gallery Books
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Still Alice is a story about Alice. And her family. And her diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice, a happily married college professor with a family, is only fifty years old when she develops the neurological disease. She begins to forget things, to lose her memory, and to experience cloudy thinking.

Alice’s story is about her struggles and triumphs in dealing with the disease and how it feels to navigate the heartbreak.

Thoughts

Every portrait is really a mirror for others to see themselves in. Still Alice is not a story about Alzheimer’s; it’s a story about Alice, her family, her career, her life, and also her struggles with Alzheimer’s dementia.  Research on dementia often tells a story that is essentialized to a medicalization, forgetting the person, the biography, the daily life. Says the book’s author Lisa Genova, “Five million people have Alzheimer’s, and each has family and friends who know them and care about them.” Alice’s story is a portrait for others with dementia or with loved ones with dementia—to see themselves in.

Still Alice serves as evidence for promoting a person-centered approach to researching dementia and caring for those with it—a holistic approach seeing the whole person and not just their illness. The story is unique in that it is told from the inside looking out, from the point of view of Alice, the person with dementia instead of being told by a caregiver or family member. It’s her story. 

Lisa Genova has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, and after she graduated, her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Still Alice is the result of a rigorous research process. She emailed daily and met with people with early-onset dementia. “They let me in and shared with me their most vulnerable selves.” She shadowed neurologists and social workers, she watched neurological testing with patients, she role-played with doctors, and she volunteered with the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network. 

Her research endeavors culminated into a novel, the best way she thought to reach people with the truths about dementia she had uncovered. Publishers initially rejected Lisa Genova’s manuscript, arguing both that it would only appeal to people with dementia and given her academia background, she should stick to writing non-fiction only. But fiction may be a powerful tool in creating empathy, especially for people with illnesses.

This novel offers a portrait of a person with a real illness and is a catalyst for developing empathy for people with those illnesses. Reading Alice’s story “can show us what it is like to be another person.” Fiction creates empathy for others through identification with a character, seeing yourself in their portrait. Because Still Alice is a story about Alice, what do you see in the mirror of Alice’s portrait? 

Book Review

Laziness Does Not Exist by Dr. Devon Price

Publisher: Atria Books
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Have you ever procrastinated until the last minute and felt guilty? Or beat yourself up for missing a deadline? Maybe you lamented how “lazy” you’d been.

Dr. Price argues in their recently published book that the “lie” we’ve been told about laziness is wrong. What we call “laziness” might more compassionately and more accurately be described as burnout, rest, being overworked, not having access to resources, facing inaccessibility or discrimination, or not having your needs met.

With roots in Puritanism and capitalism, the “laziness lie” as Dr. Price calls it, makes us push ourselves past our abilities and into distress or even illness when our bodies beg us to rest.

Thoughts

Dr. Price drove themself to illness and burnout after overworking for years and years, constantly chiding themself for not working hard enough, not achieving enough, needing any rest or breaks. They share their story and also the stories of dozens of others finding themselves tired and guilty for it. You can see yourself in these stories because we all share in the “laziness lie.”

“We expect ourselves to achieve at a superhuman level, and when we fail to do so, we chastise ourselves for being lazy.”

But this book is permission to rest: it’s a comfort for burnout, it’s a treaty against so-called “laziness.” These sentiments are more valuable now than ever as we face unprecedented climate disasters, environmental collapse, political unrest, and a seemingly endless global pandemic. Things are hard. And yet we are expected to keep working, keep pushing, keep hustling like nothing has changed. We need this book.

Even as a reader already critical of capitalism and productivity, I learned from this book and saw so many insidious ways the “laziness lie” finds its ways into our lives. As radical as this book may be, my only criticism is that it’s not radical enough. Dr. Price urges we take sabbaticals, say no to side hustles, and drop extra responsibilities, but that’s not possible for everyone. Personally, living between paychecks, I cannot say no to work responsibilities no matter how burned out I may be. The arguments from Laziness Does Not Exist must be paired with activism and social action to change the structures that allow the “laziness lie” to exist and thrive.

“If your life has value no matter how productive you are, so does every other human life.”

Part memoir, part interview series, part activism, part self-help, Laziness Does Not Exist is permission to opt-out of the lie. Maybe you’re not lazy for missing that deadline—maybe you were burnt out after working through a year of a global pandemic. Maybe you’re not lazy because you waited until the last minute on a project—maybe you didn’t have access to the resources you needed. As Dr. Price encourages, it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to take a break. Maybe you’re not lazy after all.