books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

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Before the country was destroyed and became a mostly dead wasteland, ten men and their families journeyed to an island off the coast and made it their home. Patrilineal, obsessed with ancestor worship and controlled breeding, the island isn’t an easy life for anyone, but especially for women. Only the wanderers–always male–are allowed to cross the water into the wastelands to scavenge. When girls become women at the first sign of puberty, they are married off. But before that, the summers belong to them to run wild and free. When one of the girls sees something that contradicts everything they’ve been taught, she tells the others and sets in motion a rebellion unlike anything the island has ever seen.

Melamed’s excellent, harrowing story of a dystopian society is gripping from start to finish. A wide cast of characters, a fully developed sense of place, and gorgeous writing make this a standout of a novel. This one will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the last page.

While comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale abound and aren’t without merit, the truth is that while Melamed is clearly influenced by Atwood, she has crafted a society and story that is uniquely her own. She creates a believable world in which technology doesn’t exist, the climate is harsh, and everything is man-made. The descriptions of the icy winter and the mosquito-infested summer are particularly well done, and her sense of place envelops both the characters and the reader.

The characters take turns narrating the story, and each girl has a unique voice, a distinct personality, and a well-crafted family life that makes them stand out from one another. Readers will grow to care for each of these girls, and the narrative tension builds to a terrifying degree, making the girls’ futures all the more tenuous.

 

This is a truly spectacular debut, and Melamed is an author to watch. Hands down one of my favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed. Little, Brown: 2017. Library copy.

books and reading · reviews

What I Read This Week

These are the books I finished this week:

32187419Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Frances and her best friend Bobbi are young and beautiful and perform spoken word together. In college, they share an intertwined past. When a journalist named Melissa approaches them and tells them she sees great potential in their act, the two find themselves drawn to her more glamorous, older life. Frances finds herself particularly drawn to Melissa’s actor husband Nick. As she succumbs to temptation, she finds that many of her other relationships suffer at the hands of her actions.

I wanted to love this one, and there were parts of it where I did–the exploration of complicated female friendships reminded me a little of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals–but here the narrative gets too bogged down in Frances’s navel-gazing. A lot of reviews focus on how unlikeable all the characters are, which isn’t a problem for me (people are, generally, the worst), but there’s a meandering quality to this novel that didn’t quite work for me.

 

Bad Romance by Heather Demetrios:

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Grace’s family life is anything but perfect, or even pleasant. Her mother makes her clean the house even when it’s spotless, and her stepfather uses fear to control her. She wants an escape in the worst way. When Gavin shows interest in her, she can’t believe it. But it isn’t long before Gavin starts controlling every aspect of Grace’s life, and Grace is caught up in a romance that is anything but the beautiful escape she wanted it to be.

I’ll be the first to admit it: the gorgeous cover drew me in, as well as the obvious illusions to Gaga’s best song (who will fight me?). But the narrative is surprisingly captivating, despite its length, and there aren’t any easy outs here. Demetrios tackles a trope in YA that isn’t always handled with subtlety and really does it justice.

What did you read this week?

 

books and reading · pop culture

Internet Things I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

Bachelor in Paradise Treats the Idea of Sexual Misconduct as Entertainment (Vulture)

One day, I won’t include links to articles about the Bachelor franchise. Maybe. In the meantime, here’s a good piece about ‘Bachelor in Paradise,’ how garbage the franchise is, and how monstrously they’ve handled the sexual assault allegations that shut down the show for a few weeks:

From the moment Chris Harrison walked out onto an empty beach at the beginning of Monday’s episode, using a serious voice to look seriously into the camera and say serious things to the audience, the show began capitalizing on a winking, self-aware subtext about why viewers were watching. Harrison’s words were about the interrupted production and a promise for transparency about everything that happened during filming. But while the surface message was that the controversy would be addressed, the implicit message was, “you’ve tuned in to watch some extra-special drama, and we promise you we’ll deliver the goods.” And just in case it wasn’t absolutely unambiguous, let me be clear once again: The extra-special drama here is the allegation of sexual misconduct lingering in the air.

The Truth About Women and White Supremacy (The Cut)

A fascinating and super important piece about how we think about white supremacy and default to the maleness of the movement, when in fact it’s white women who have also powered the movement:

Undergirding this troubling belief that women aren’t central to racist movements is another: That racism occurs in a vacuum. Those who think white supremacy is a “white guys’ thing” must ask themselves about the nature of the fantasy they have constructed. Do we really believe the men holding torches in these photographs live in some sort of single-gendered society, or that the women they interact with hold no sway in their communities? There may be fewer of them marching with lit torches, but rest assured women are playing a powerful role wherever they can enact their agendas. If the 1920s Klan showed us anything, it’s that racist ideologies are nurtured in communities — not in isolation — and woven into a society’s very fabric. We will never understand the mechanisms that enact racism until we understand the whole societies from which they spring.

This is a must-read piece this week.

How Black Women’s Bodies Are Violated as Soon as They Enter School (The Guardian)

Part of a series of pieces on policing at the Guardian, this closing report talks about how black women’s bodies are not their own from a very young age. It also examines the use of force and the use of police inside school buildings. It is horrifying:

Alarmingly, among the violent policing tactics that have migrated from the streets to schools is indiscriminate use of stun guns, or Tasers, which are used to subdue people by firing barbs into them that deliver a jolt of electricity.

While researching a 2006 report on the US government’s failure to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture, I discovered a 2004 case in which a Miami-Dade police officer used a Taser against a 12-year-old girl, shocking her with 50,000 volts of electricity – for skipping school.

What did you read this week that got you incensed or thinking?

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

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Quincy Carpenter survived a massacre at a cabin when she was in college. She was the only one of her friends to survive. It’s been ten years, and she’s managing pretty well. She has an almost fiancee, a successful baking blog, and a Xanax subscription that never ends. Dubbed by the media as one of the infamous Final Girls, she has tried to move on from the night she cannot remember. Then Lisa, one of the other Final Girls, turns up dead in what appears to be a suicide. Then Samantha Baker, the other Final Girl, shows up on Quincy’s doorstep, and forces her to confront her past.

It’s important to note that “debut” author Riley Sager is really established author Todd Ritter, and that the deliberate use of a female-sounding pseudonym to publish this thriller is a calculated marketing move that doesn’t sit quite right with me as a reader. While the book is fairly fast-paced and has a few genuine twists (however implausible they might be), it’s also not very good. The writing is mediocre at its best moments and laughably terrible at its worst. Still, it’s a thriller with a “fresh” perspective, it’s been blurbed by one of the greats, and it will find a reader base.

It’s a book that demands to be gobbled up quickly, and readers will oblige. But the truth of the matter is that the longer I’ve sat thinking about this book, the more uncomfortable I become with some of the book’s glaring issues: the internalized misogyny, the tired trope of the sexy bad girl, the reinforcement of the idea that women can never truly be friends with one another because they’re always secretly in competition for men, and on and on and on. There was never a moment while reading the book where felt as though any of the characters were at all authentic or even realistic, and that still nags at me. I know that this is basically a horror movie put to paper, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck this badly.

Also, there’s a scene where Quincy and Sam become vigilantes and search Central Park for people who need saving. They immediately come across a female in trouble, and her assailant is the only person of color in the entire book–and his skin color is mentioned. Not only does the scene itself fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny, but it feels like something an editor should have excised from the text prior to publication.

But it hardly matters, right? This book is what we are gifted in a post-Gillian Flynn world. We love our pretty white girls in peril, and this book perpetuates all those same sexist tropes. It’ll fly off shelves for a while, but there’s much better fare out there.

Final Girls by Riley Sager. Dutton: 2017. Library copy. 

 

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

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Ava Antipova’s family is a mess. Her father abandoned them and their failing vineyard, her mother has all the symptoms of early dementia, and her identical twin sister, Zelda, betrays her with a boy she loves. So she runs away to Paris, and she starts a life there with a French boyfriend and develops a taste for (better) wine. But when news arrives that her sister has died, Ava must return to upstate New York to pick up the pieces of her fractured family. Only: is Zelda really dead? Because the emails start arriving, and Ava wonders if Zelda has played her best trick yet.

Dolan-Leach’s debut novel is a twisty, beautifully written novel that has hints of Agatha Christie while also providing a fresh perspective on the literary mystery genre. Her characters are starkly drawn and her prose is oftentimes darkly funny and smartly observant. The book’s central mystery will be compelling enough for some readers, but it’s Dolan-Leach’s careful crafting of her complicated characters that make the book a standout in its own right.

The book’s ending will surprise some readers while leaving others feeling weirdly let down. But it’s also clear that Dolan-Leach isn’t that concerned with the ending so much as the journey to get there. Ava is a fully realized character, full of self-deprecating observations about herself, and her thorny feelings about her family feel realistic and terrible all at the same time. There’s a lot of interesting ruminations on families and sisters and the pervasiveness of alcoholism here, and it’s a memorable book, if perhaps a bit overly long.

An author to watch.

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach. Random House: 2017. Library copy.

books and reading

What I Read This Week

These are the books I finished this week.

32796253Final Girls by Riley Sager: Quincy Carpenter was in college when she was the only one who survived what the media dubbed the Pine Cottage Murders. One of the Final Girls, Quincy joins a few other very unlucky women who were the only survivors of similar massacres. It’s ten years later, and Quincy is doing okay, thanks in large part to her Xanax prescription. But then Lisa Millner, one of the other Final Girls, turns up dead. And Samantha Baker, the other Final Girl, shows up at Quincy’s apartment. Suddenly, Quincy’s unable to keep the past hidden away in her mind, and what she discovers about herself is surprising.

I tore through this one, but I have really complicated feelings about it. It’s certainly an interesting thriller, and it’s a book version of a horror movie in many ways. The writing is competent enough, but none of the characters ever felt real for me, and I couldn’t ever quite shake that

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feeling.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed: It’s been years since the country burned and a brave group of men moved their families to the island. They colonized the space and built a society based on ancestor worship and child-rearing. The only people who are allowed to leave are the Wanderers, men who explore the wastelands for salvageable goods. The women on the island serve the purpose of being brides and child-bearers. When they are no longer useful, they take a final draft and die. But when wone of the girls sees something that breaks with everything she knows to be true, the daughters put in motion a revolt that will forever alter the island.

 

This gorgeously written debut is a hell of a read. I absolutely devoured it and found myself thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading it. It’s part Handmaid’s Tale, part Never Let Me Go, and yet it’s wholly original and harrowing and wonderful. I can’t wait to see what Melamed does next.

What did you read this week?

pop culture

Internet Things I’m Reading and Thinking About

These are the articles that got me thinking this week:

The Heartbreaking First Black Bachelorette (Slate)

I’m a trash monster who loves watching The Bachelorette and judging people. This season has provoked a lot of think pieces, and this one about how the season wrapped up is worth a look, if only because it provides a more unique perspective:

Over the course of the season, it became clearer and clearer that the decision to cast a black bachelorette was merely evidence of the network’s interest in pushing faux-colorblind love stories as fairy-tale fantasies; the show failed to account for the ways that race would complicate the existing narrative, including the real challenges that interracial couples experience—especially black women who date nonblack men. I was confounded by the ways the men (both black and white) talked about Rachel as an anomaly. The subtext of their praise seemed to imply that it is unusual for black women to be smart, beautiful, or successful, let alone at the same damn time.

We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction Gifs (Teen Vogue)

This has been making the rounds this week, and it’s an important piece about how we (white people) use GIFs without thinking about how we might be contributing to damaging images of black people as a result. It’s a fascinating piece, and it’s thought-provoking and worth your time:

Now, I’m not suggesting that white and nonblack people refrain from ever circulating a black person’s image for amusement or otherwise (except maybe lynching photos, Emmett Till’s casket, and videos of cops killing us, y’all can stop cycling those, thanks). There’s no prescriptive or proscriptive step-by-step rulebook to follow, nobody’s coming to take GIFs away. But no digital behavior exists in a deracialized vacuum. We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from “real life.” The Internet isn’t a fantasy — it’s real life.

Toxic Drama on YA Twitter (Vulture)

I’m active on Twitter, and I consider myself firmly on the pulse of what’s going on in the book community, but I grew tired of the infighting and petty dramas a long time ago, so I stopped following most YA authors and most book bloggers and started focusing on other things.  This piece by Kat Rosenfeld investigates how toxic YA Twitter has remained, and it’s fascinating, no matter how you feel about Rosenfeld (who is no stranger to Twitter controversy).

She focuses largely on the response to one book, but it’s also about a larger issue within the Twitter bubble and callout culture:

It’s also a process in which tough questions lie ahead — including how callout culture intersects with ordinary criticism, if it does at all. Some feel that condemning a book as “dangerous” is no different from any other review, while others consider it closer to a call for censorship than a literary critique.

I read the entire thing with this weird pit in my stomach. It’s worth a read.

What articles did you read this week that got you thinking?