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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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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The Careful Undressing of Love

The Careful Undressing of LoveThe Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beware, here there be spoilers.

There is so much to love in this book. I love how aware of itself it is, how Lorna points out the casual racism in Brooklyn that meets the Devonnaire Street Girls. The language is so so beautiful (I drew pink hearts next to all my favourite sections, and there are a lot of hearts). I adore how the prose weaves in and out of the past, how memories break into the present moment and color the reader’s understanding of the current events (like Lorna and her father’s conversation on page 95, with the conversation abut measuring love, or like all the other memories of Lorna’s father).

Throughout most of this book, I was screaming, “But what about the girls that don’t fall in love with boys?!” Aka, any girl who isn’t straight. And then the book addressed it. I feel mostly positive toward its portrayal of gay girls. What bothers me about it is how she was forced to closet herself, to “sacrifice,” but that’s more an issue with the toxic Devonnaire Street culture than it is with the story itself.

But that’s a perfect segue into my other nitpick with this story, and that’s Angelika, and the way she controlled the entire street. I thought the way Angelika acted was emotionally abusive, the way she slut-shamed the girls, policed their bodies and their agency, enforced the gender binary, and employed her racist views when choosing their clothes. Even though she thought she was justified, she psychologically tortured them and terrified them for this entire book, and it was cruel. And no one ever called her on it, even in the end, when it was pretty obvious that the Curse wasn’t real and her propaganda had killed a girl. The young women on this street were so damaged by this culture around them, and not once until the very end (until it was too late for one of them) did a logical adult step in to remove Angelika’s influence. I thought that was a little unsatisfying, but I suppose it could argued that it’s realistic; abusers don’t always get punished. (But I want them to!)

(Also, the press was so gross in this book. Can they just not sensationalize the tragedy of these girls’ lives?)

Overall, I liked the ending. I wanted Angelika to get punished, but it was beautiful that it was Lorna’s mom’s love for her daughter that ultimately saved them both, got them free of Devonnaire Street and let them have a fresh start. Especially since it was clear that they did both have people they loved romantically, but for their own good, and because they loved each other, they left them both behind.

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A Book For Our Times

Our Hearts Will Burn Us DownOur Hearts Will Burn Us Down by Anne Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while, I come across a book that hits the perfect note between “I have something to say” and “I have a story to tell.” This was one of those books. The inescapable thought I had while reading was that this school shooting is not unique. This shooter is not unique. In America, there’s a new incident every week. If we’re lucky enough not to be touched directly by these events, we go numb after a while out of self-preservation. This book rips the Novacaine from our hands and asks us to confront the reality of the lives lost, because these characters and their experiences are not abstract. Everything in here is brutally real, even the more supernatural elements.

This book is not easily categorizable by any means, with genre or otherwise. In speaking with the author, the word that came up was “intangibility,” and that sounds right. The book is concerned the power of intangible emotions, namely intense grief, and the horrific effects of bottling up such emotions, writ large. Within the first few pages, it becomes clear that the memory of the shooting never leaves these characters, and it’s confirmed again in the beautiful final chapters, where our narrators say they’ve tried to forget and move on, move away, and haven’t entirely succeeded. The first-person plural voice was especially striking. It felt like the voice of a community as a whole, struggling to heal in the midst of further tragedies.

Though I’ve had days to gather my thoughts, I’m still a little at a loss for how to articulate it. It was beautiful and resonant and exactly the book I believe everyone should read. Yes, it’s hard and intense and I definitely cried several times, but it also served to wake me up and remind me that mass violence is not a problem for tomorrow, but today.

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A Gem on my Bookshelf

The Accident SeasonThe Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

SPOILERS AHEAD. Okay, now you’ve been warned. This book was beautifully written. As another reviewer pointed out, the magical realism and even the prose reminded me of Nova Ren Suma, particularly her Imaginary Girls. The language was so lovely, so much like poetry. From a craft standpoint, I loved the construction of some of these sentences — the repetition, the way certain sentences fall like stones in a pond, the cold delivery of magical lines. Some stand-out lines:

“Alice wasn’t the first to jump, but she was the first to fall. It started with dares. Dare you to roll down the hill. Dare you to touch a nettle. Dare you to jump across the stream.”

“So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season, / to the river beneath us where we sink our souls, / to the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling, / one more drink for the watery road.”

“His mask is askew. Nick’s wolf face is on the ground in front of me. Its eyes are empty sockets. It has no mouth but it is still whispering: if you’re going to do this just give me one last chance you know you want to come on if you really want to end it you owe it to me just give me one last—”

“I am wet to the skin, I am shivering and my wings are shaking. I am cold stone behind my mask. I might not be human at all.”

“I remember a slap across my cheek in a hallway; I remember hands on my shoulders pushing me down, keeping me underwater; I remember being told to forget.”

This book perfectly straddled the line between our reality and magical realism. The accident season was the overwhelming shadow that hung over the entire book, but as you read, you start to get the sense that the accident season is an illusion that Cara’s family believes so that they don’t have to face the truth. Slowly over the course of the book, it becomes clear that something awful happened in their family, and no one can talk about it. The metal man with the evil smirk and Cara’s memories of almost drowning and being slapped as a child and Alice being “bundled up warmer than October every summer, afraid of showing her body.”

Cara’s blindness plays out in a similar way. At the start of the book, there’s the sense that she’s not seeing the world for all his ugliness, that she can’t face it, and it hits like a hammer when you realize she doesn’t see, doesn’t remember the ugliness of her childhood because her sister’s abuser told her to forget or he’d hurt her, and what else can a child do but forget when faced with an adult trying to drown them. When Cara starts to see, the horrible puzzle pieces start to come together, how Nick is hitting Alice and she takes it because she’s been miserable for so long, she doesn’t know any other way to live, she stays with him because at least this is the pain she chooses rather than the pain someone more powerful inflicted on her as a child.

“I laugh at the accident season, at the accident of Alice hitting her head on Nick’s mantelpiece, at the accident of the bruises on her legs, at the accident of the cuts on her arms. I laugh at the accident of the broken glass a few years ago that somehow managed to slice her wrist in a perfectly straight line. I laugh at the accident of Sam punching the wall in the secrets room. I laugh at the accident of the day I almost drowned. I laugh at the accident of my uncle’s death. Seth knew too, I think. That’s why he pushed him in… I stop laughing.”

I don’t know what else I can say. This book is a trip, but every heart-wrenching moment came together perfectly. The fact that not everything can be explained away at the end was lovely. The mystery of Elsie, their little guardian angel. The magical costume shop and the ghost house that listens to Cara’s wishes.

Just read it.

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