“Delightfully Bendy”

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal GirlPaul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightfully bendy!

EDIT:
This book was delightfully bendy and kept me constantly trying to untangle its interpretation of gender. It seemed to reinforce the gender binary one moment, and then to tear apart the binary a moment later. I’m intrigued that Paul never seemed to entirely identify with either being a boy or a girl; however he transformed his body, it didn’t change who he was inside in the slightest. Sometimes I had surface level knee-jerk reactions — like feeling a little defensive while reading Paul’s assessment of femininity and women — but Paul had such fascinating observations, and there was truth in a lot of what he observed. I loved this little adventure book.

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This Is How You Claim Your Story

The Epic Adventures of Lydia BennetThe Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet by Kate Rorick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prepare for a messy review, because I don’t think I can be articulate when it comes to this book.

The ways this book depicts mental illness, especially deep anxiety and trauma responses, is painfully accurate. To my experience, anyway. One of the themes of the books is failure. How to define failure, how to respond to it, how to learn from it. And moreover, how to not let a past failure define you.

Although I don’t think the word is ever used in reference to what George Wickham did to Lydia Bennet, the word that kept coming to mind as I read through this book was that what he did was “assault.” He took advantage of an insecure young woman, manipulated her into being vulnerable with him, into proving she loved him enough to make a sex tape, and then tried to sell their tape on the internet. Something that hit me so hard in this book is Lydia’s confusion. She talks a lot about the difference between understanding something with your mind vs. understanding it with her heart – Lydia really applies her new psych classes well here — and something she struggles with is understanding how her relationship with George ended. She knows logically that he left her and betrayed her, but she can’t reconcile those actions with the man who made her feel so loved and protected. Her heart can’t understand how it happened and changed so fast. There are a lot of facets of Lydia’s journey and healing in this book, but I’d say the biggest is Lydia reaching an emotional understanding of what happened, knowing this wasn’t her fault, and it was completely George in the wrong. She originally told her story to the LBD fans with careless abandon because it seemed fun, but then George and the internet ripped her agency away from her and tried to write their own ending.

They silenced her.

And in all the months since then, Lydia is trying to find a way to reclaim her agency, her story, and tell it in a way that encompasses who she was and who she now is, so that she can live with it and feel some kind of peace.

The original web series had a lot of compassion for Lydia Bennet and her situation, and that comes through in this novel as well. This novel, which gives closure to her story, is a way of letting Lydia take back her dignity after countless people took it away and stomped all over it. It’s impossible not to read this and extrapolate its messages out to anyone else who has suffered a trauma or been betrayed: Be kinder to yourself. You are trying to heal. And It’s okay not to be “over it.” Be kinder to yourself.

And as someone who needed to hear that message more than a few times in her life, I am so grateful this book exists and that Lydia found her way out of it. Lydia is a kind of blueprint for surviving traumatic relationships.

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Biting Back

Salt SlowSalt Slow by Julia Armfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this entire book in nearly sitting. Literally, I didn’t want to put it down! This book exposes the seams of the world and of daily life.

UPDATE: So I wrote tiny associative reviews for each story.

Mantis — 5/5 stars
Alternative puberty in the grand tradition of girlhood transformations. There is something in here about repressed girls suddenly being able to bite back at the invisible harm that power systems can do to them. (Or maybe I’m projecting my own Catholic baggage onto this story.)

The Great Awake — 5/5
Something beautifully psychological about this. Wistfulness and wishing. A sweet semi-unrequited love story at its core that encapsulated “almost.” Captures something universal living inside an surreal, alien-to-us shell.

The Collectibles — 4.5/5
Captures the way good friends are when living together, the way ideas kinda simultaneously form between 3 heads that all think a little alike but not quite, the kinds of telepathic leaps that get made. Something I noticed in this story is how it (and some other stories) end; some of the endings feel like they stop right at the point of no return, after which nothing will ever be the same, but then the story ends there. Likely just because that’s not what the story was interested in circling around, but as someone interested in consequences, that move stood out to me.

Formerly Feral — 5/5
This story teethers on the edge of absurdity but by surrounding our immediate main characters with a cast of absurdly horrific background characters — the homicidal neighbors — this story manages to lean decisively into the beauty and horror of making a real emotional connection. The unbecoming of girl and walk until they meet in the middle is fascinating to read.

Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax — 5/5
This is our world but tilted on its axis. Horror and realism despite the supernatural bend. Teenage girls and grown women desperate to be heard, understood, to be told its ok to let your fury and hunger spill over into entropy. A seduction of a kind. Glitter and blood and a mythology until itself. My favorite story in the collection.

Granite — 4.75/5
I understood this story more on my second read. The fragility of loving a man. Still undecided on how to fit the pieces of this story together — the neighbor, the boyfriend, the friends’ advice. Beautifully rendered, though, with imagery that took my breath away: “Morning sky. Gasp of purple, like the dark pit at the back of a throat. Day like a wallow. Promise of snow.”

Smack — 4/5
I enjoyed this for the portrait of Nicola and the look backward at her disintegrated marriage. The tone/genre felt different and certainly leaned more realistic. I love the imagery at the end. Think there’s a connection to be drawn between the fragile helplessness of jellyfish and Nicola… fragile with a sting? With some fight still in them both.

Cassandra After — 4.5/5
Structure felt more traditionally braided than the dreamy organic pace of previous stories. I felt conscious of how we moved through time. I do like the rendering of a complex relationship and the musing on being so float-y on the surface on someone’s life that you almost miss their death.

Salt Slow — 5/5
Surreal, horrifying. The most horrifying parts are the body horror but the implications of analogous real-world violence. I don’t know how this couple ever feels normal again, but the end felt like a benediction, an answer to the violence implicit elsewhere in this story.

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Homeric Tragedy for a Modern Me

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. The hype wasn’t wrong about what an excellent story this is. The development of the friendship and relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was very organic and sweet, and also bittersweet at times. Because this is based on the legend of Achilles, it got darker toward the end, and that was emotionally difficult to read sometimes. However, I don’t think it lingered too much in its own grimness or brutality, and Patroclus, despite being grieved by people’s deaths in the Trojan War, remained hopeful enough that I never felt so overwhelmed that I needed to put the book down for a while. There was a moment very close to the end where I was very scared and pained for a particular character, and I had to skim over that, but for better or for worse, that part is over quickly, and the story continues on toward its endgame.

What I was most struck by in the second half of the book — which is all about the Trojan War — is how the ending comes about. Anyone who’s familiar with the legend knows how it ends for Achilles and Patroclus, so it’s hard to write an ending that feels satisfying when the original Homeric tale is a tragedy. My fluffy little heart may have wanted a little more joy, but honestly, I’m still blown away with how she approached the ending. As someone who struggles with writing endings, I feel so inspired by how well she handled it.

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Came for the Doctor Who Reference, Stayed for the Story

This Is How You Lose the Time WarThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t remember if I heard of this book through Instagram, a magazine, or YouTube, but I got it at the library the day it came out and read it immediately. I expected to like it and hoped even love it because it sounded poetic and magical and queer — all things right up my alley. And yes, I loved it! Still, the first 68 pages were — dare I say it? — a bit difficult. In her blurb, Kelly Sue DeConnick calls it “poetry disguised as genre fiction,” and that feels accurate. My struggle was that I haven’t read poetry in several years, and it took me a while to get back into the groove. Although, it also felt like as Red and Blue got to know each other better, their language became more grounded somehow. Their delight in each other was mirrored in a delight in the world around them. And so I re-learned how to read poetry, and I fell in love with this book.

I read the last half in a frenzy, unable to put it down. It was impossible for me not to get invested in these characters. There was so much yearning and desperation in this story, and especially where queer lives are concerned, that feels so relatable. And there’s something about impossibility that touched my heart here. I loved that while so much of this story felt mutually exclusive (in a “neither can live while the other survives” kind of way), the story was continually teaching me that, actually, no, I’m just not using my imagination enough. And if there’s one thing Red and Blue don’t lack for, it’s imagination.

I adored this story. It’s a beautiful, painful, gem of a fairy tale, and now I want a copy for myself to love forever. Can’t wait to read this again.

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Quiet Lives on the Edge of Space

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3)Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Years ago, I remember hearing buzz about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, things like what a different approach to science fiction this was and that it was super inclusive story.

This was in the back of my mind as I started Record of a Spaceborn Few knowing that this would be a “different” sci-fi story, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I enjoyed this book and will probably read more of Becky Chambers work at some point, but am left with mixed feelings about this first reading experience.

Things I loved: the characters, the genuine thought and consideration of the question of “well, how would a bunch of humans survive in space?”. I love the anthropologic curiosity and approach to all these different races, but especially to the born-in-captivity Exodans.

Things I didn’t not like, but wish I’d understood about the book going in: this book is slow. The plot is very barebones, and the actual big, inciting incident happens two-thirds of the way through the book. The description on the back of the book kept describing a big tragedy, but I didn’t even notice when that tragedy happened. The book begins with a tragedy, obviously, but then there’s something else “big” later in the book which starts the “plot” rolling, but to me, the tragedy in the prologue felt so much more moving and shocking than what came later. This is a quiet story, which I didn’t really understand before. The danger and suspense comes almost entirely from character’s internal mechanisms. I don’t not like it, because I do like the characters, but it’s also been a few days now since I finished Record, and I still feel like what I actually just read was just a very long first act.

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My Continuing Book-ish Affair with the Owens Family

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t love this one *quite* as much as I loved Practical Magic, but honestly, given how much I loved that one, that’s a pretty high bar. At any rate, this book has a lovely beautiful and believable backstory for the aunts, and I understand more why they are as they are in the original book. I think I would’ve liked to have seen more peripheral story, because this story does take place r an interesting time in history, but where history does enter, it’s always very meaningful and deliberate. I’m looking forward to rereading Practical Magic sometime with my new knowledge.

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More and More Fairy Tales

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday HorrorThe Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wish I’d had read this all in one sitting as opposed 2 sittings with many months between, but this was a lovely book regardless. The stories manage to capture the vagueness and peculiarity of classic fairy tales while still turning the narrative on its head. It’s fascinating to see the varied sources that inspired each story.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “remixes”, especially as it relates to visual media, and reading this book while keeping remixes in mind made for a different, more critically engaging experience. I would say this is an example of a high art remix vs. the kind of remixes I’m used to thinking of like fanvids and fanfiction.

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Critical Essays from Pop Culture…

Buffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TelevisionBuffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Television by Lynne Y. Edwards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of essays was well-worth the read! Obviously, I’m a literary nerd, so my favorite points of entry revolved around literary points of entry — oh my god, the Yeats essay was phenomenal. But this opened my eyes to so many different readings of BtVS, and I love that the editors weren’t afraid to include contradictory essays within this collection, sometimes even right next to each other. Overall, I think this collection is at its best when delving into character analyses, but all parts of it were interesting.

As someone who is interested in analyzing television and movies in this way, I feel like I’ve learned so much just by engaging with this text.

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First Book of 2019

Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer DesireFist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire by Amber Dawn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an effort to be less precious with my words, I’m going to start posting reviews even if they are less intellectual and more my impressions of books. So, here goes.

This collection was a little darker than I expected — somehow, I wasn’t expecting actual horror stories, and I thoroughly regretted reading some of these at night. While it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I really appreciated the fact the queer content in here was expansive in its definition of “queer.” Whereas other collections I’ve read focus very narrowly on the individual letters of LGBTQIA+, a good portion of these explored varied kinds of relationships and kinks as well. That’s not something I see very often, and it was kind of refreshing, even as I wanted to pull the covers over my eyes because I was scared of ghosts.

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