review · three stars

Review: Call Them by Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit

Title: Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to battles over meaning, place, language, and belonging at the heart of the defining crises of our time. She explores the way emotions shape political life, electoral politics, police shootings and gentrification, the life of an extraordinary man on death row, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the existential threat posed by climate change. To get to the root of these American crises, she counters the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.


I always go into Rebecca Solnit essays expecting so much, mostly because it takes all of my brain power to focus on both the subject of her words and the particular way she writes them. In the foreword to her newest collection, Solnit writes that “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, [and] obliviousness.” Naming something means acknowledgment, and acknowledgment inspires action. This theme runs through each essay, and Solnit encourages us to explore with her. How do our reactions to events help define both them and ourselves? In what ways can we make connections between experiences and history?

Although Solnit included essays written years ago, they still feel pertinent, book-ended by injustices that happened only months prior. And I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much: she’s able to react to something in the moment as well as from a historical perspective. She’s published collections consistently every few years, and her commentary always brings a breath of fresh air to what otherwise is a shitty situation.

(Solnit is a regular contributor to Lit Hub should you desire more of her writing.)

one star · review

Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Rating: ★½
Summary: Laurie is pretty sure that love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere except the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic… and then her bus drives away. Despite searching for the next year, they don’t “meet” until Laurie’s best friend giddily introduces him as her new boyfriend. What follows is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into, and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.


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

One Day in December has SO many things going for it: a Christmas-themed holiday meet-cute, a friends-to-lovers arc, and that super-adorable cover art (which I know isn’t that important, but still, it’s super adorable). Instead, Josie Silver’s novel feels like fanfiction of something else, where we KNOW that a certain couple is endgame, but we have to suffer through all of this pointless bullshit before they get their happy ending. (Especially when she puts our OTP in the freaking summary. If I know where the story is going – that basically, Silver’s going to purposefully put her characters into pointlessly dramatic situations – the entire story becomes drama for drama’s sake. Stupid, pointless drama.)

I found myself reading in binges while on vacation, one half of me hoping the novel would get better and then the other immediately regretting it. Like, I would actually roll my eyes and yell at my iPad. Will this book get better? I hope it gets better. But do I hope it gets better? Why do I hope it gets better? Ugh this book is such trash! I never really bought the initial premise of the meet-cute and so always kind of felt like there was no real motivation to want Jack and Laurie to get together. (And their actions never convinced me, either.) Then Silver finally gives them their Moment and it’s like, meh, I’m more happy that this book is finally over.

On top of all that, Silver uses dual narration as a crutch, which is one of my absolute biggest fictional pet peeves. When an author chooses to use dual narration, there better be a good fricking reason for it. If the only way to know which character I’m following is by the name that’s written at the start of the chapter, an author has failed. Most of the POV switches happened at pivotal scenes, too, when knowing how Jack felt about Laurie would “tug at our heartstrings”. No! It annoyed me! Who the f*ck cares what Jack thinks!

So, I don’t know… should you read this book? Maybe. A lot of other reviews are giving it high marks – but maybe those same people think Andrew Lincoln’s character in Love Actually was romantic. (I didn’t.) There are so many good holiday-themed romance novels out there; you owe it to yourself to find one.

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.”

top ten tuesday

Top Ten: Longest Books I’ve Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme was the longest books I’ve read. To keep from padding the list, I only included the longest book in any one series. The number of pages is included in parentheses.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1,069) // City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (911) // A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (1,016) // Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling // I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb (897)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (849) The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1,187) // The Passage by Justin Cronin (879) // The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (819) // 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (898)

month in review

Month in Review: September 2018

Favorite Media

To say that The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox surprised me would be an understatement. This book swaddled me in a hand-knitted quilt, plopped me in front of a cozy fire, and then lulled me to sleep. UGH. So beautiful. Much spooky. Such romance. (Read my review here.)

Even though September introduced me to a tasty snack named Noah CentineoLove, Simon gave me a good punch to the stomach. Although it wasn’t perfect (Simon has kind of shitty, friends, y’all), Nick Robinson is just so damn quiet and perfect and longing as Simon, and I literally screamed when Blue and Simon got their Ferris wheel ride at the end of the film. Then I tweeted about it. Then I watched it again.

I’ve been on a huge Panic! at the Disco binge right now, but especially their most recent album, Pray for the Wicked, and most especially “(Fuck a) Silver Lining.” It’s just so damn catchy.

Stuff I Added to My Queue

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton is giving me a lot of the same vibes I felt after reading A Discovery of Witches, but it’s not really hard to pique my curiosity with a found-item mystery spanning centuries set in England, so… 🤷‍♀️.

Then there’s Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump which has kind of flown under the radar since it was published in July, but from the introduction, it reads like a smart apolitical look at truth and democracy as it stands today. (Aka sign me tf up.)

Sometimes you just need a funny, well-written friends-to-lovers romance in your life, and I’ve heard no bad reviews about Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren. (Or, really, anything by Christina Lauren.)

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be that ~cool auntie who lives alone with her non-human companions, though, so No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol speaks to me on a spiritual level.

But then there’s Ibi Zoboi’s newest, Pride, to remind me to believe in love again. (AND OH YEAH IT’S A PRIDE AND PREJUDICE REBOOT.)

On My Radar

  • I’m volunteering at the Boston Book Festival next weekend! I’ll be listening to short fiction all day, and I’m hoping for lots of books and/or book-adjacent swag.
  • Then, I’ll be attending a librarian conference the weekend after. Perhaps more books and/or book-adjacent swag?
  • Archenemies drops on November 6th, but I’m crossing my fingers that my library will not only purchase a copy but that we’ll also get our copy early so I can read it asap. 🤞

What were YOU up to in September? Let me know!

four stars · review

Review: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to both Lydia and Emeline. All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end.


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

Do you ever read the summary of a book and think, “yeah, that sounds like something I would like”? That’s how I felt about The Witch of Willow Hall. Normally, though, books like this languish on my TBR list, something I can never quite find the time (or interest) to read once it’s been published. Months pass. Newer, more interesting books take precedence. I might eventually forget what the book was even about, only to re-read the summary years down the road and think, “meh.” And maybe (just maybe), I’ll take it off my TBR altogether.

Do not make this mistake. This book cleared my skin. It watered my crops. It set up a 401K and then invested in a robust stock portfolio.

I mean, yes, Hester Fox’s novel has its faults. Her characters can come off as overwrought and trope-y as hell: Catherine, the eldest sister, is not merely looking for marriage but scheming, using her hyper-sexuality to ‘trap’ an eligible bachelor. And Lydia – poor, good Lydia – is the naïve ingenue who is ‘blinded’ to reality and compares their sororal relationship as a catty no-holds-barred competition for the affections of the mysterious and dashing John Barrett. Then there’s the plot, which falls somewhere between historical romance and gothic horror but doesn’t convincingly meld the two until more than half-way through. We think Lydia is the witch referenced in the title but is there someone else? Does Willow Hall itself hold supernatural power? (So ~spooky, y’all.)

But listen. I started this book not expecting much, and I was so thoroughly surprised and delighted at the end result. Read during a week when the turning weather felt especially serendipitous, I felt literally and figuratively cozy – surrounded by the whistling wind and dreams of a crackling fire as Lydia and John got swept up in their own romance. At first pass, Fox writes everything so harshly that part of me wondered why a character’s behavior had to be taken to such extremes, why there was no gray between the black and white. But then, chapters later, an impulsive action would be re-evaluated or a character’s motivations would be explained and I would think, “oh, that’s why.” (Some readers will probably love the way the plot trundles forward but then others may roll their eyes at the heavy-handed foreshadowing. To each their own.)

I don’t think I can fully explain why I enjoyed The Witch of Willow Hall so much, not even to myself. Maybe it was the way the plot seduced me and I could think of no better activity than to keep reading. Or maybe that the stakes felt real, or that the characters were given agency, or simply that Willow Hall was so vividly realized I felt like I could drive there and visit. Maybe it was the tense, gothic elements or the acute remembrance of being eighteen and feeling everything so forcefully: the lows abysmal but the highs astronomical. Perhaps it was everything together, the sum greater than its parts.

Early in the novel, Lydia tries to articulate her feelings for John Barrett. “Suddenly sitting here beside him is not enough,” she narrates. “The empty place that I didn’t even know I contained is aching with want, trembling with fear that it may never be filled.” Same, sis. Same.

top ten tuesday

Top Ten: Books by My Favorite Authors That I Still Haven’t Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme was books by my favorite authors that I still haven’t read – because oops life gets in the way. 🤷‍♀️ (Btw: this list is by no means exhaustive!)

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green // Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld // The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling // Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay // The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Night Film by Marisha Pessl // Nimona by Noelle Stevenson // Origin by Dan Brown // The Towering Sky by Katharine McGee // What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson