review · two stars

Review: Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Title: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
Author: Alice Bolin
Rating: ★★
Summary: In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead or alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories — investigating the implications of our cultural fixations and her own role as a consumer and creator. Reminiscent of the piercing insight of Rebecca Solnit and the critical skill of Hilton Als, Bolin constructs a sharp, incisive, and revelatory dialogue on the portrayal of women in media and their roles in our culture.


To me, the subtitle of Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession advertises itself as a cohesive essay collection emphasizing both dead girls and the men and women who obsess over them. But this kind of reflection only happens in the prologue and first section. Otherwise, the book focuses mainly on Bolin’s first few years in Los Angeles – the public transportation she takes to her job, the various (and often nightmarish) roommates she meets while subletting, her first real relationship with a man she later dumps – while peppering in numerous reflections on Joan Didion and her father’s own obsession with Swedish procedurals.

Which I suppose is all fine and good – except, this is not what I wanted out of an essay collected entitled Dead Girls.

I wanted a book-length exploration of the Dead Girl Trope, not Bolin’s singular cultural awakening to her own obsession. The summary even states that the book “begins by exploring the trope of dead women in fiction and ends by interrogating…the persistent injustices [living women] suffer.” But only a couple of essays “explore the trope of dead women in fiction” while none even touch on the Dead Girl Trope in real life. (Because here’s a handful of women off the top of my head that weren’t mentioned once: Kitty Genovese, Natalie Holloway, Jon-Benet Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpson.) Then the whole middle is a forgettable ride through LA before Bolin and her summary cross paths again, and she “ends” on the “persistent injustices” advertised. (I mean… a book explicitly about dead girls needs more dead girls, right?)

And it’s not that Bolin doesn’t touch on Dead Girls elsewhere; she’s actually written some really great pieces about the trope, listed on her website, as well as a piece for Vulture regarding the ethical dilemma true crime fans (should) face as they consume their obsession. She even mentions this absence in the final essay of Dead Girls, writing, “That day was when I slowly began to realize that my book was maybe not about the noir but about those forces of which the noir was a symptom.”

Cool?

I enjoyed Bolin’s writing, but her essay collection ultimately failed in its intended purpose. If only the rest of the book had lived up to this one particular quote from the prologue: “Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness and innocence: they are never the instigators; they are only righting what has been done to them.” That is what I’d hoped for; instead, I read about a twenty-something moving to LA and “finding herself.”

review · two stars

Review: Feminism Unfinished by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry

FeminismUnfinishedTitle: Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements
Authors: Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry
Rating: ★★
Summary: Eschewing the conventional wisdom that the American women’s movement began in the nostalgic glow of the late 1960s, Feminism Unfinished traces the beginnings of this seminal American social movement to the 1920s, creating an expanded, historical narrative that dramatically rewrites a century of American women’s history. The authors carefully revise our “wave” vision of feminism, challenge the contemporary trickle-down feminist philosophy, and show how history books have obscured the notable activism by working-class and minority women – providing a much-needed corrective.


Feminism Unfinished knows its history, but the book – split into three sections, each written by a different author – is nonetheless a dry, textbook history of, as the title suggests, American women’s movements from 1920. I think that, in trying to cover everything, the authors left a lot out, and what was covered was just not that interesting. (Is it an age thing? Maybe it’s an age thing.) This is recommended for readers who don’t have the time to sit through a semester-long course on women’s studies and just want the quick and dirty lowdown of capital-F Feminism.

This book really left me wanting a bit more. Below are other feminist titles I have on my TBR I think might fill that gap.

review · two stars

Review: Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

Title: Emergency Contact
Author: Mary H.K. Choi
Rating: ★★
Summary: Penny’s heading to college to learn how to become a writer, seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind. Sam’s stuck – working at a café and sleeping on a mattress on the floor upstairs – but knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director. When Sam and Penny cross paths, it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.


Emergency Contact is a mess of a meet-cute: there are eye-rolling tropes atop eye-rolling tropes, everyone gets their own version of a tragic backstory, and the phrase “sci-fi classic” describes Ready Player One. I gave Emergency Contact much more time than I normally would something so cringe-worthy – mostly because of that gorgeous cover – and it did get slightly better as time wore on… but still, it was only just okay. Choi’s protagonists, Penny and Sam, trade off narrating the story, but the voice sounds too familiar to be anything other than a nuisance. (Can we all just agree that third-person omniscient is a perfectly acceptable choice for dual narration??) Penny is self-absorbed and unnecessarily cruel to everyone except Sam because ::hearteyes::. (I guess??) I’m sure that Choi wanted us to understand deep in our bones how awkward and out-of-place Penny feels in her small Texas hometown, but Penny instead comes off as grating and inconsiderate – a Cool Girl™ rather than a misplaced outsider. Nobody really seems to care that Sam is homeless and either needs to be medicated or in therapy or both. Penny belatedly realizes that her mother is a human being with faults and feelings and that maybe it’s not cool to slut shame people who don’t dress the same way as her. Perhaps I’m just too old to “get” eighteen-year-olds, but there were too many scoffs and eye rolls while I was reading this that I just get annoyed when I think too hard about it.

review · two stars

Review: Incendiary by Michael Cannell

Title: Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Author: Michael Cannell
Rating: ★★
Summary: Long before the specter of terrorism haunted the public imagination, a serial bomber stalked the streets of 1950s New York. The race to catch him would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

The most interesting chapter of Incendiary was its epilogue, when author Michael Cannell finally pulled all of his interweaving threads together to tell a concise ending to his story. In my opinion, he spends far too many words on the Mad Bomber and the NYC police department and too little concretely connecting them to the psychologist who used reverse psychology to catch said bomber. This could have been a great magazine article, stripped of its fat and zeroed in on just how revolutionary a case it was. As is, I got too bored trying to wade through the minutiae to make that connection myself.

Interested in more true crime? These sound much more interesting.

review · two stars

Review: The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

Title: The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium #5)
Author: David Lagercrantz
Rating: ★★½
Summary: Lisbeth Salander has never been able to uncover the most telling facts of her traumatic childhood, the secrets that might finally, fully explain her to herself. Now, when she sees a chance to uncover them once and for all, she enlists the help of Mikael Blomkvist, the editor of the muckraking, investigative journal Millennium. And she will let nothing stop her…


Lagercrantz certainly tries to live up to Stieg Larsson’s writing, but so far neither The Girl in the Spider’s Web nor The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye live up to the breathless anticipation I felt while reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (even after I’d already seen the movie). A lot of things happen in this installment – not all of which seem very reasonable – and it comes off feeling more of a Mikael Blomkvist story than a Lisbeth Salander one. Even though I wasn’t in love with Larsson’s writing style, his books didn’t feel so contrived, the action always revved up to eleven.

However, as long as Salander lives on in some way, I will keep reading her story – but the over-heightened plot (which almost bordered on bland) and the ‘wtf was that??’ ending just proves that Lagercrantz lacks the je ne sais quoi which made Larsson so famous.

review · two stars

Goodreads Review: Lumberjanes, Vol. 3: A Terrible Plan

LumberjanesV3Title: Lumberjanes, Vol. 3: A Terrible Plan
Author: Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters
Rating: ★★
Summary: Trying to take advantage of the first quiet day at camp in a while, Mal and Molly’s date takes a bizarre turn with the appearance of the Bear Woman! Back at camp, Jo, April, and Ripley must stay on their toes as they try and earn every badge possible, which ends up being a lot harder than any of them planned.


Noelle Stevenson deftly continues her summer camp saga Lumberjanes, but this third volume doesn’t feel as action-packed as Beware the Kitten Holy or Friendship to the Max – perhaps because our fearless five-some is split up for three of the four issues and, when they are together, we just get to read their attempts at scary ghost stories. Plus, the lack of Brooke Allen’s illustrations is noticeable enough to affect the story. Ultimately, A Terrible Plan just feels like a terrible Lumberjanes installment.

review · two stars

Review: The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

TheLostTimeAccidentsTitle: The Lost Time Accidents
Author: John Wray
Rating: ★★
Summary: Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar ‘Waldy’ Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back – a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather’s fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself. Part madcap adventure, part harrowing family drama, part scientific mystery – and never less than wildly entertaining – The Lost Time Accidents is a bold and epic saga set against the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century.


I tried to like The Lost Time Accidents, okay. I really, really tried. Look at that cool cover! That wavy green font!! The weird plot I don’t quite understand!!! But the thing about John Wray’s novel is that it is narrated by a whiny, pretentious a-hole who is a) pining after a woman who doesn’t love him and b) buoyed by the belief that he is the only one who can fix his family’s legacy.

*groan* 😔 💤

My gut told me to give up by, like, page 100, but I convinced myself to keep going… and let me tell you, that was a stupid decision. (Always trust your gut.) The book interweaves two narratives: Chosen One™ Waldemar Tolliver exiled from time in his aunts’ claustrophobic, hoardish New York apartment and the story of the Toula/Tolliver family, conveniently narrated by Waldemar through the letters he writes to a Mrs. Haven. The plots finally converge at the end – when beginning-of-book-Waldemar makes an appearance in end-of-book-Waldemar’s final letter – but everything feels disjointed as a result. I kept wondering if I was looking at this alternate twentieth century as Waldemar’s great-grandfather Ottokar or (in the one bright spot in Wray’s otherwise dreary escapade) as his grandfather Kaspar Toula; as a young, pre-Mrs. Haven Waldemar, digesting and narrating his family’s history after the fact; or as exiled-from-time Waldemar, explaining both the events AND their reflection as he writes to Mrs. Haven.

I mean, I didn’t even fully understand what a lost time accident was until it’s explicitly explained in the text – some 90% of the way through. This is on top of the book being a perfect DNF candidate AND having a main character who grates on my nerves – like, a straight-up STFU kind of privileged elitist who will not accept that a woman does not (and probably never did) love him and so writes his emotions as irrefutable fact so that she will “better understand” how much he has suffered and is thus entitled to a second chance. It’s called ghosting, Waldemar, and your failure to accept that Mrs. Haven straight up ghosted out of your not-so clandestine affair means she’s not interested. Going back to her husband means she’s over it. LEAVING THE COUNTRY WITHOUT TELLING YOU MEANS SHE’S NOT INTO YOU. MOVE ON.

(Side note: let’s all just conveniently overlook the fact that Waldemar exclusively refers to Mrs. Haven as Mrs. Haven because I do not have the energy to explain why a female character should not be solely identified through her marriage to a man. Okay? Okay.)

I have seen reviews of The Lost Time Accidents praising its brilliance, but I’m at a lost as to why there was such a disconnect between what those reviewers got out of the novel and what I came away with. As such, it’s hard for me to say “this book sucked, ergo, don’t read it” because I seem to be in the minority. Maybe, after slogging through a less-than-stellar City on Fire, I’m just at my cap of Novels Featuring White Dudes Saving the Day Written by Upper Middle Class White Dudes? (You know who isn’t? People loving this book.) By all means, read The Lost Time Accidents if so inclined. You can find me enjoying something else entirely.