After the amazing end of April, I continued on the “reading lots of arcs” trend. While I did read a lot this week, I felt like somehow my progress was slowing down. Probably because while the number is still high, I read quite a few shorter things: 4 books of poetry and a graphic novel. But hey, reading is reading, and one of my (unofficial) goals this year was to read more diversely in terms of format. So, I definitely accomplished that this week!
The Girls, by Emma Cline. Read May 1st. This book was really a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” I think most people are going to love this, and I get all the hype surrounding it. The writing is amazing, and it’s infinitely quotable. Emma Cline captures the experience of being a teenage girl so, so well. Everything Evie, our main character, feels was so eerily familiar to me. The way your youth becomes all about presenting yourself, trying on different identities and seeing what people make of you. The way you’re shaped not by how you feel about yourself, but by how others see you.
This book is really two things: a book about a fictionalized Manson family and a book about being a young teenage girl. The two meld together well but I found myself wanting more from both, like the balance between them is so even we don’t get enough depth from either end. Evie spends a lot of time working on her feminine presentation, sexualizing herself from a young age as she’s been socialized to do. There’s some great moments where the extend of sexual abuse and assault that 99% of girls go through (the guy flashing you in the movies, a drunk trying to stick his hand down your pants, mom’s boyfriend being really inappropriate, a terrifying moment in a car with a stranger) is really put into focus. Most of us have experienced it, and there’s a tendency to push it away and laugh about it and say, “oh, that’s just life, it wasn’t anything serious!” when it so greatly shapes how we view ourselves. The sexualization of girls is fed by the violence and pressure around them, but also conflates those experiences. It’s a fascinating dynamic, but this book discusses it just enough to whet your appetite without going in-depth. I wanted more on these topics, which were handled so well but tapered off before I felt the discussion was finished.
The titular Girls are part of a sanitized Manson family. It’s the Mansons without the racism and with way less violence and murder. This is an odd choice, because for so many parts this could almost be a true crime novel. The characters are directly related to the actual Manson family, and so are almost all of the events surrounding them. And while we get tons of creepy cult moments, it’s just much cleaner than reality was. It was an odd choice to remove Helter Skelter and the race war (and yet not have any black characters, smh) but keep in everything else. Except there’s only one murder here (well, 4 people die, but there’s one murderous event), where the real life Mansons killed many times. It’s just… strange editorial decisions that I don’t really understand. In my mind, I’d like it either 100% true to reality OR vastly different and just inspired by reality. My brain got stuck up on all the similarities and differences here, which I found a little distracting.
My favorite part, by far, was the friendship between Evie and Suzanne, the main Manson girl. You know I love toxic, passionate female friendships and we get an amazing one here, along with a discussion of sexual fluidity (though, like before, this is really not gone into enough for me–I wanted more self reflection!). All in all, I’m torn. Parts of this book were magnificent and parts left me wanting.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix. Finished May 2nd. I read Hendrix’s Horrorstor earlier this year and enjoyed it but didn’t love it, so my expectations weren’t super high for this. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised!
I’m not sure if it’s common with readers or just a particular quirk of mine, but whenever I read a book about exorcism I spend the majority of the time trying to guess if it’s a “real” possession or just plain old madness. I never quite believe it’s a devil inside of someone, no matter how strange it gets. I think most books either play it too “obviously it’s just a crazy person” or go so overboard with the demon stuff I kind of lose interest. Few books walk that line really well, which is why exorcism horror is a genre I rarely read. When it’s done well, though, it’s brilliant, like A Head Full of Ghosts.
Given my high rating for this I’m assuming you can guess how it fares in the is-it-a-demon curve. It’s an interesting book: I guess, technically, it’s young adult. It’s about a group of teen girls, and while it’s about demons and shit it’s mostly about friendship. But it doesn’t have any of the obnoxious YA tropes that have recently put me off the genre (insta-love, love triangles, everyone’s an orphan, “special magical girl,” etc). It’s YA as it should be: a story about young people that doesn’t feel dumbed down for the audience.
I am a particular sucker for books that center on female friendship, and that’s really the core here. Gretchen and Abby have a wonderful, realistic teen relationship with all of the ups and downs that come with it. And, of course, the possession works as a metaphor for diverging personalities and the angst of losing a close friend. It’s also got some great gross-out moments (vomit, worms, dead birds, everything you could want) along with some really emotional moments centered around violence (the bathtub, sob). And while it takes over 80% of the book to get to the exorcism, what an exorcism it is. Emotionally charged and comedic while being quite dark and hard to read.
This is horror based firmly in reality. A lot of the issues the girls deal with (eating disorders, sexual violence, the ignorance of adults) are realistically what real teens face. Of course there’s an added layer of threat here, but none of the “teen drama” feels overplayed or out of touch (though this is a book that takes place in the 80′s). Definitely recommended if a blend of female friendship and horror is up your alley.
Last Sext, by Melissa Broder. Finished May 3rd. Poetry is a tricky thing to review. Reading it is so deeply personal, and a great poem for one person is not an objectively great poem for another. For example: I hate Emily Dickenson. I don’t think she is a bad poet, but nothing she’s written has moved me at all. I find her very dry. And a lot of people find her one of the best poets to ever write. So when I say I loved and adored Last Sext what I mean is that it spoke to my soul in a way few collections of poetry do.
This is a raw, visceral collection. The bones of Melissa Broder are splayed open. It’s dark, twisted, and lyrical. There are moments of quiet self-reflection, but more loud and explosive moments of violence (against others, against the self, against god). Gender, self identity, sex, death, and god are the main themes: all things that are pretty much universal, but she handles them in a way that felt so unique. At times the lines are so personal and exposed you almost want to look away, until you realize you identify so strongly with them it brings tears to your eyes.
This is not an easy reading collection. There are many changes in tense, pronoun, subject… pretty much any linguistic comfort is turned on its head. There’s lots of vomit and drowning and death. The language is at times crude, not for shock value but to highlight the raw grossness of the human experience. The whole book is a struggle, and it reads like one. Nothing is clean or neatly wrapped up. Emotions are not displayed in little glass boxes for the reader to go “oh, yes, I’ve felt that.” They sweep you up like the thematic ocean that runs through many of the poems, and it’s easy to get lost in them. If you like darker, more experimental poetry with a depressing twist I would definitely recommend giving this a go, but if you like the more traditional it probably isn’t for you.
History, by David O’Hanlon. Finished May 3rd. As I said, I find it very difficult to review poetry. Either it speaks to me or it doesn’t. And for the things that don’t, it’s really hard to say “objectively, here are all the issues with it.” It’s just a matter of taste. With a novel you can point to characterization or plot holes and say “this is why I didn’t like it.” With poetry? Yeah… hard to pinpoint why, exactly, I found this kind of middle-of-the-road.
I think mostly it’s thematic. I like my poetry either dark and surreal or very descriptive. This is a more homey, cozy set of poems. Even when the poems tackle ancient Greek myths or works of literature, it still feels comforting and somehow familiar (though not derivative). And wholly based in real, prosaic life. The language is nice, but it’s more choppy (without being surreal) than I generally prefer. I don’t think this is a bad collection by any means, it’s just not really for me.
White Sand Vol 1, by Brandon Sanderson. Finished May 4th. This has pretty much everything you’d expect in a Brandon Sanderson work, only it’s accompanied by beautiful illustrations. And I do mean beautiful: the art here is just gorgeous, really evocative and does a great job creating a unique alien world. And while this is a desert planet, it’s not like your usual scifi desert world. Sure, there’s giant beasts under the sand, but in this world the earth is in perpetual day and the sand is a conduit for magic.
Of course there’s a cool magic system: it involves manipulating the sand itself, everything from using it to move around to transmuting it to water. So far we haven’t seen a ton of how it works, so it’s not as complex as, say, Mistborn’s magic, but it’s interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s used in the next volumes. Especially since our main hero, Kenton, is a novice and will be discovering his powers right along with the audience. Speaking of Kenton, I found him the least-interesting of the characters, but that’s almost always true with Sanderson novels. I’d pick pretty much any character in Alloy of Law over Wax and Vin is okay, but I’d hang with Sazed over her any day.
There are of course other Brandon Sanderson traits in full effect. We have some really great characters (Khriss and Aark were my favorites), and this is also one of his more diverse books. All of the people who live on the Darkside of the planet (which I REALLY hope we see in vol 2 or 3) are black. There are tons of interweaving plotlines that have already started to come together in interesting ways. We’ve got lots of magic-driven fights. And while there are no big twists (yet, I expect many later on) there is a particularly brutal plot shift that happens towards the beginning. I hadn’t read the synopsis so it came as a bit of a shock to me!
If you like Sanderson, you’re going to like this. Don’t expect as much character development or complex magic as his written works, because that’s not something you’ll get a ton of in a visual format, but it has all of his flare. Plus any Cosmere fan has to be DYING to find out what the deal with Khriss is.
Your Glass Head Against the Brick Parade of Now Whats, by Sam Pink. Read May 4th. This was my one non-arc read of the week. I’m a huge Sam Pink fan, and Rontel single-handedly cured me of of fear of tarantulas. Not spiders in general, they still terrify me. But tarantulas? No big deal thanks to our lord & savior Sam Pink. And I was obviously on a bit of a poetry kick, so when I found out I Pink had written a collection? Oh hell yeah. Also I had a bunch of Amazon credit saved up from shipping things slow as hell and I felt like burning them.
Anyway, I don’t even know what to say about this. It’s so perfect. If you’ve ever been depressed and not known where your life was going, but gotten to that point where it’s kind of funny? You know, you’re all “wow life can’t really be THIS bad” and your depression is all, “haha, guess what, I’m gonna make it worse!” And you laugh and cry at the same time because how even? That’s Sam Pink in a nutshell. He’s a national treasure.
Whispers in the Mist, by Lisa Alber. Finished May 5th. To start off, this is the second book in a series but you definitely can start with it (or read it as a stand-alone). While there’s some mention of the previous book and we obviously get character and relationship-related spoilers, not an inch of the mystery from Kilmoon is talked about. So the ending (and the case, really) of the first book are kept totally in the dark! Which I appreciate, because I tend to read mystery novels out of order based on the plot summary (and let’s be honest, the cover. It’s spooky woods! of course I need to read it!).
The location is really the star of this novel. It’s set in a sleepy town in Ireland, and there’s a lot of folklore elements to the mystery. People are convinced it’s the Grey Man, a spirit who lives in the mist, who is murdering ‘Lost Boys.’ There’s also a sparrow-as-psychopomp theme running throughout that I found really intriguing.
It’s hard to pinpoint what I didn’t love about this. Not that I disliked it, but I ended up feeling kind of lukewarm. I loved the setting and the atmosphere. The characters (especially Gemma, Alan, and the dog Bijou) were really well rendered. There were many different plot threads that came together beautifully, and I was actually surprised by the very final reveal. But. But. I guessed the bad guy about 50 pages in (I really think it was too obvious, and not a case of having read too many mysteries because it’s not my usual genre), and the plot relies on amnesia in a key witness. A plot trend I’m pretty darn tired of, even if it was trauma-induced here and made a lot of sense. Or, you know, more sense than it does in most thriller/mystery books.
While individual elements here were great and I think there’s a lot of potential in this series, it never quite came together for me. However, I will say that it’s miles better than most mystery series out there. Good characters, quite decent writing, and a really wonderful setting. I’d definitely be willing to pick up the next book.
Reward for Winter, by Di Slaney. Finished May 7th. This is a hard book to pin down. It’s part poetry, part flash fiction. It’s non-fiction with an edge of the fantastical. Lyrical but realistic. A lot of contrasting elements that wouldn’t seem to fit together, but they do–and beautifully.
I tend to like my poetry pretty description-dense. Give me 20 pages of descriptions of mountains and trees and goats. And this slim collection, which is divided into 3 very separate parts, really delivers on that. The first section centers on Di Slaney’s farm, the animals and the chores and the day-to-day reality of it. It’s earthy and homey and beautifully written. I mean, there are goats and cats. What more could I want?
The second section, my favorite, is about the life and times of a single chicken. That may not sound interesting but man, Slaney made it work. Plus it’s passively educational, teaching me all kinds of chicken-related tidbits without feeling like a school lesson. I could read a massive volume that was just her embodying different animals. The life of a cow. The life of a pig. Yeah, bring it on.
The third, and my least-favorite, was about some of the history of her farm & village. It was actually pretty interesting and covers some unusual historical events (a king hiding in a box, witch trials, forbidden love in the middle ages), but for some reason it just didn’t speak to me like the first two sections. I suppose it’s because these poems are much less personal, and telling a story rather than dealing with emotions.
The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan. Finished May 7th. This beautiful little book is, technically, science fiction. It takes place in the very near future and after reading it you might get a little nervous about the state of the world. The main event here is the melting of the polar icecaps, which starts to plunge earth into a new ice age. This, however, is really background noise to the main story, which focuses on a few lost souls in a trailer park in Scotland. They’re dealing with the incredibly cold weather, but also with their own twisted lives.
We have Dylan, a refugee from London who just lost his mother and grandmother in a 6-month period, and also the cinema both women devoted their lives to. There’s Stella, a teenage trans girl who is struggling with her body and classmates, waging a war of acceptance in a small and insular town. There’s Constance, Stella’s mother, who accepts her daughter with open arms but worries endlessly about her future. And she also is in a, shall we say, non-traditional romance with two men that causes the other townies to look down on her a bit.
In a way, this is a family drama. It’s also about the importance of identity. Stella is an amazingly rendered character, and Jenni Fagan captures the day to day struggles of a trans girl so so well. I loved every second of being in her head, even if it was incredibly painful at times. I think this is a great example of dysphoria and a good place for people who want to understand the trans experience to start, because Stella is wonderfully relateable.
The apocalyptic aspect plays out slowly, with days growing steadily colder and colder in the background. We get snippets of news from around the globe, but this book is not heavy on the science aspect at all. Not that that’s a bad thing: not every scifi book needs to be hard and dense. It’s more like Station Eleven, where the event just serves as a backdrop to study human nature.
Until the very end, this was a 5-star read for me. I honestly have no problem with open-ended or ambiguous endings (and I did like how this ended), but there was an important plot thread left totally hanging. I was really frustrated that there was no closure, or even mention, of it at the end. It just kind of faded away and the characters never even got to talk about it, and given how character-driven this is I was kind of desperate to see it play out.
Reading Challenge Progress
14/33 Series Books
40/50 TBR Books
17/15 Different Countries
[arcs provided by Netgalley in exchanged for an honest review]