Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Book Review: Tits On The Moon


Book Review: Tits on the Moon by Dessa 

Goodreads Description: Tits on the Moon features a dozen “stage poems,” many of which Dessa performs at her legendary live shows; they’re funny, weird, and occasionally bittersweet. The collection opens with a short essay on craft (and the importance of having a spare poem around for when the power goes out). Proudly published by Rain Taxi in association with Doomtree, Tits on the Moon features a stunning cover pressed with gold foil and structurally embossed.

My Review: Dessa's collection of poems begins with a short essay that sets the 'stage' (heh) for the rest of the collection - when technical difficulties delay the show, it's important to have a handful of poems to appease the waiting crowd. As a writer and rapper, Dessa's comfort with the written word shines through her experimentation with different poetic forms. Some poems are free verse, some use a more rigid rhyme scheme and meter, while others play with cliched phrases. There's a nice balance of cynicism and hope, so while Dessa pokes at some darker subjects, they're handled with a nice dose of dry humour to keep things light. The collection also ends with a piece called Stage Dive, which coupled with the opening essay, create perfect thematic bookends for this short and sweet collection. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A rap artist's perspective on poetry. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Book Review: Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory


Book Review: Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Goodreads Description: Written with all the scathing dark humor that is a hallmark of BoJack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg's stories will make readers laugh, weep, and shiver in uncomfortably delicious recognition. In "A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion," a young couple planning a wedding is forced to deal with interfering relatives dictating the appropriate number of ritual goat sacrifices. "Missed Connection--m4w" is the tragicomic tale of a pair of lonely commuters eternally failing to make that longed-for contact. The members of a rock band in "Up-and-Comers" discover they suddenly have superpowers — but only when they're drunk. And in "The Serial Monogamist's Guide to Important New York City Landmarks," a woman maps her history of romantic failures based on the places she and her significant others visited together.

My Review: As the title implies, this collection takes a look at love -- the good, the bad, and the downright weird. This isn't your happily-ever-after kind of love, these stories dive into its bittersweet transience: how people grow apart, how things don't work out, how hearts get broken, bandaged up, and put out there just to get banged up again. The opening and closing pieces make perfect endcaps to this theming: the book opens with a woman on a first date, wondering if the man she's with is worth trusting or if she's going to get hurt again, while the last piece features a one night stand where a couple comes to know each other completely, only to become strangers again in the morning. Throughout the collection, Raphael Bob-Waksberg plays with the concept of love -- along with the form of his poems and stories -- in order to view the traditional love story through a fresh perspective. We get a love story told through the point of view of the boyfriend's dog. The love poem about writing love poems. The rules list for a game of Taboo that explores the things you can and can't say in relationships. Whether it's playing with form, or inserting superheroes or Satanists into age-old tales of marriage or growing up, each story has something that makes it feel like it's never been done before. 

The writing style isn't overly flowery, but the narrative spends a lot of time contemplating the nature of people, things, love, etc. Any plot or action is used as a framing device for the emotions or atmosphere Bob-Waksberg is trying to communicate. Even pieces that are more plot-driven don't seat us inside the action; the focus is always on the internal and interpersonal drama playing out around it. If you enjoyed Bojack Horseman but found it a little dark, this collection may be just right for you. While many of its stories are bittersweet, it's not nearly as hopeless as Bob-Waksberg's popular Netflix show. It may make you feel lonely and like finding love is utterly hopeless, but it won't make you hate the rest of humanity (hopefully). 

The book has such a powerful emotional impact that it's hard not to dwell on some of these stories, even months later. If, like me, you love that sour punch of bittersweet love and loss, you won't be disappointed with this collection. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A bittersweet collection exploring the transient nature of love. 

Friday, April 26, 2024

Book Review: I'm Glad My Mom Died

Book Review: I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy 

Goodreads Description: A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by iCarly and Sam & Cat star Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life.

Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.

In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.

My Review: I'm usually not interested in celebrity memoirs, since most celebrities aren't writers and many publishers are unwilling to give their manuscripts the editorial feedback they need. Jennette McCurdy's book is a different story. After hearing snippets of the audiobook online, I was quick to snatch it up. Right from the first page, McCurdy demonstrates a knack for storytelling and a keen eye for scene construction that leaves every chapter feeling poignant.

If you pick up this book hoping for a behind the scenes look at Nickelodeon and McCurdy's time with Dan Schneider, you'll end up disappointed. The book spends very little time discussing her work on set, and almost no time on Schneider himself. McCurdy's intention with this book was to tell the story of her abusive and codependent relationship with her mother, so the book doesn't linger on her career as to not detract from the heart of the story. 

Unlike most memoirs, McCurdy does far more Showing over the course of the text than Telling. She doesn't interrupt the flow of the scene with introspection or tell us what to think about her story, she just lets it play out and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. It's through this first-hand, novel-like account that McCurdy is able to demonstrate how love and abuse can become to enmeshed. How a mother who loved her daughter so much could cause so much harm. This is exceptionally important because people who have never experienced this type of abuse often cannot fathom how that relationship functions. However, during the final chapter, McCurdy switches gears and inserts her present day reflections as a sort of "conclusion" to clear up anything that may have been misunderstood. McCurdy spends the entire book showing us how her mother has treated her and in the final chapter, names it: "I was abused." 

McCurdy's strategic use of showing and telling, coupled with her masterful characterization, speaks to her incredible talent for storytelling. At first, her writing may appear bland with no flowery language, but this utilitarian writing style allows us to focus on the action of the scene without distraction. Every bit of the story is intentionally placed to communicate how the helplessness and powerlessness from her childhood manifested as shame and anxiety in her adult life. The real power in McCurdy's storytelling comes as she leads us through her recovery after her mother's death. The book takes us through her healing process and demonstrates not only that healing is possible, but what it actually looks like, with all its highs and lows. This representation is exceedingly powerful for people who see themselves in McCurdy's abuse story, but have yet to figure out what their own path to recovery looks like. 

All in all, marvelous, spectacular. This book left me with that tingly, 'wow' feeling that only comes from a powerful story expertly executed. While its messages on abuse, addiction, and recovery are moving, ultimately what sets this book apart is its focus on relationships and how they ultimately shape our lives - for better or for worse. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. One celebrity memoir that you don't want to miss. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Book Review: Dracula


Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker 

Goodreads Description: When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula with the purchase of a London house, he makes a series of horrific discoveries about his client. Soon afterwards, various bizarre incidents unfold in England: an apparently unmanned ship is wrecked off the coast of Whitby; a young woman discovers strange puncture marks on her neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the 'Master' and his imminent arrival.

My Review: Every year from May to November, a substack newsletter called Dracula Daily sends out Bram Stoker's novel in bite-sized chunks to readers all over the world. Since Dracula is an epistolary novel with every entry dated, Dracula Daily is able to send each letter to you on the day it happens, making it seem like you've got a gaggle of eccentric, one-sided pen pals. This was how I got around to reading Dracula, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to sink their teeth into the daddy of all vampire stories. It breaks the novel down into digestible chunks, which makes reading a Classic far less intimidating, and gives readers a new way to get involved with the story. Plus, the building tension as days pass with no word from the characters does provide an extra little thrill. If you want to catch up on your classics, Book Riot compiled a list of substack newsletters you can subscribe to that were inspired by Dracula Daily. 

And now, for Dracula itself. Published near the end of the Victorian era, this book amalgamates many aspects of Victorian purity ideology in a way that's both fascinating and frustrating. It smacks you hard with female infantilization, back-hands you with virginal purity and promiscuous corruption, drowns you in white knight chivalry, and then spits a little extra xenophobia onto the plate for flavouring. Mina and Lucy are placed on pedestals, one lost to foreign corruption and sexuality while the other must be protected from it. It plays into a Christian heteronormative hierarchy that says while women are pure and good (and sometimes even smart and skilled, like Mina), they are still ultimately weaker than men and must be cared for like children. Despite Mina being a key player in the hunt for the Count, the men often leave her out of conversations or keep her in the dark for "her own protection," which can be irritating for modern readers. While those pieces may be annoying, Dracula also encapsulates this sexist, puritan ideology to such a perfect degree that it becomes fascinating to analyze. Count Dracula's foreign otherness, combined with his thirst for young, innocent girls, makes him an interesting caricature of what Victorians, and even some people today, think of as monstrous. 

Bram Stoker is a master of dread tension - the kind of creeping terror that defines the horror genre. It's the moment before the pounce, before the jump scare, where every hair is raised and something is screaming at you to RUN, even if there's no logical reason for it. The first quarter of the book, when Johnathan Harker travels to Count Dracula's castle, captures this feeling perfectly. Johnathan explores the castle and gets to know the count, all the while seeing strange sights and suffering from stranger afflictions. Despite numerous warnings, including a woman begging Johnathan to flee from the horrors to come, our naïve horror protagonist pushes on until it's far too late to turn back. The tension hovers at a perfect boiling point through much of the novel, though it does suffer later when vampire hunting devolves into paperwork and shipment tracking. To make a convoluted story short, Dracula hides in boxes of grave dirt and then ships himself out of the country, leaving our protagonists in a scramble to track down the box he's hiding in. While some complain that the Victorian bureaucracy grinds the narrative to a halt, Stoker manages to keep the stakes and tension high enough to carry readers through the duller bits. Plus, this aspect of the story places constraints on Dracula's power that makes his ultimate defeat feel reasonable. Dracula may be insanely powerful, but the 'rules' of his vampirism reduce him from a god-like figure into a mortal one. One can get the best of a vampire, so long as they know how. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A dreadfully tense classic wrapped in Victorian puritan values. 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Book Review: Cinder

Book Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer 

Goodreads Description: Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg.

She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

My Review: I picked up Cinder about 10 years ago when the book released, so this review has been a long time coming. As the cover and title suggest, Cinder is a steampunk retelling of Cinderella, set in a futuristic New Beijing filled with cyborgs and robots. It expands the original story by introducing a deadly plague that's crippled the globe and tense intergalactic politics centered around a possible royal marriage. In the midst of all this lives Cinder, who works as a mechanic in a Tatooine-like market in order to buy herself a new ankle and car to escape her abusive family.

Let's start with the positives: Meyer's characterization is on point. The chemistry between Cinder and Prince Kai is POPPING. They're both strong, charismatic individuals with their own lives and motivations who end up crossing paths again and again until it leads to something more. It's a satisfying change from YA books where the love interest seems to have no life outside the main character. I was also pleasantly surprised by the political drama between the Lunar kingdom and the people of Earth/New Beijing. Meyer simplified world politics into a handful of state powers to create an us-vs-them structure between Earthlings and Lunars, while still showing how New Beijing is under pressure from other states to make peace with the aliens. This simplified political drama feels perfect for YA readers transitioning from younger fantasy stories towards adult "romantasy," with court drama, politics, and inter-cultural clashes. Despite that, the line between Earthlings and Lunars was depicted as very black and white. Meyer describes how Lunars are savage, totalitarian, and oppressive to their own peoples, committing genocides and using mind control without hesitation. While there is some evidence that "not all Lunars" are evil, the book doesn't do enough to show that good and evil are not tied to one's race. It's trying to play out a more adult political drama, yet falls back on a childish good guys and bad guys dichotomy that feels out of step with what the rest of the book is trying to do. 

While the book does make an effort to avoid the "love at first sight" trope, it steers headlong into "not like other girls." In the years since this book was written, a lot has been said about the "not like other girls" girl who presents herself as "one of the guys" while putting down girls with traditionally feminine interests. This trope ultimately perpetuates misogyny by pitting women against each other while arguing femininity is somehow inferior. Cinder uncritically leans into this trope -- she puts down other girls for wanting to go to the ball, she implies other girls are vapid while she's smart because she cares about mechanics, she resists Prince Kai's flirting and somehow this is supposed to make her cool, etc., etc. This book could have thoughtfully deconstructed and subverted the trope, as Cinder's condescension could have been seen as a defense mechanism for the insecurity she feels about her cyborg parts, but instead the book uncritically embraces the trope without any awareness for the misogyny being perpetuated. In the wake of feminism's sisterhood movement, this book feels both cringey and dated. 

As far as plot goes, I was disappointed by how predictable it was. The book is a retelling, so I expected a certain degree of predictability, but the new parts of the story that Meyer added-- the plague, the politics with a different state, the Lunar people's magic (or lack thereof) -- were so predictable that it was a struggle to stay focused. There was no attempt to subvert expectations - it was almost cliched in the way it did exactly what you thought it would, yet the narration ups the drama by trying to make these incredibly mundane plot twists seem shocking. Perhaps it's my years of reading that make this book so predictable, because Cinder isn't bad at what it does. If you want something that plays into your exact expectations for a teen princess story, then Cinder is it, but unfortunately, that's all it is. 

The final letdown for this book was its lackluster sense of setting. Despite being a steampunk world set in a futuristic Beijing, little effort was put into worldbuilding. We get some description of cramped alleyways, concrete, or tall skyscrapers, but other than that, the world is largely blank. Meyer relies on the droid characters and Cinder's cyborg parts to expand the steampunk elements, yet only utilizes them aesthetically and makes no effort to show how their addition influences the world. Steampunk cities are often infused with so much personality that they become characters themselves, yet New Beijing is almost entirely flavourless. Sadly, this is probably Cinder's biggest missed opportunity.

Despite my complaints, Cinder is an incredibly solid story with some decent writing, great characterization, and decent political drama. While I found the book a little boring and Cinder's Alt Girl routine tiresome, the book never became a drag to read. It would likely be a hit for teen girls who are graduating from books like Anna and the French Kiss and moving towards Strange the Dreamer or A Court of Thorns and Roses. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A solid steampunk Cinderella retelling that errs on the side of predictable and anti-feminist. 

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire 

Goodreads Description: Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

My Review: Portal fantasies have a long history in children's fiction, but what happens when the portals close and we have to head on home? How do you go back to ordinary after experiencing the extraordinary? Seanan McGuire explores these questions by looking at the psychological effects of losing the one place we really belong. 

When teenagers return from their portal worlds, they’re often confused, lost, and desperate to return to their fantasy worlds, leading parents and friends to think they’ve gone mad. That’s where Eleanor West comes in. A left behind herself, Eleanor has opened a home for children who have walked between worlds to save them from mental institutions or abuse at the hands of their families. Funnily enough, the school Eleanor constructs functions much like a residential treatment facility. The kids live there, they go to school, but they also attend therapy-like sessions where they discuss the worlds they came from, process their experiences, and attempt to move on. While the story doesn't focus on this therapy aspect (as there's a murder mystery afoot), it was refreshing to see therapy represented in a positive light, especially with the fantasy elements layered in. Many writers vilify the therapy process for cheap drama (the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest effect), but Eleanor's home is represented as a safe space, possibly the only one available to them in our world. The teachers/counsellors are gentle and supportive, the environment facilitates healing, and characters are able to self-actualize by being true to themselves, rather than forcing themselves to fit a world that doesn't accept them. It would’ve been cool to see more of this, but there is a murder to solve, so I can’t fault the book from moving on. 

The book also focuses a lot on family – both the found families characters discover within the school, and the original families that may love but never truly understand or accept them. The way the story represents letting go of original and abusive families in order to find love and acceptance in a found family is quite queer. Of course, the book is very queer just based on representation – it has trans, asexual, and gender non-conforming characters – it pretty much covers the whole rainbow, but the approach to otherness and belonging takes on a very queer perspective that many will find comforting. The promise of a world that unconditionally accepts and loves you for who you are is a very tempting premise to queer kids growing up in a world that tells them they're inherently wrong, weird, and disgusting. 

The main character, Nancy, has some of the typical traits of plain or invisible YA protagonists. Some YA protags are Bella Swan clones, with little to no personality (aside from being 'nice') so they can be used as blank slates for readers to project themselves onto. While Nancy does fall into this category of boring, blank main characters, McGuire changes things up by creating relevant plot and character reasons for why Nancy is such a wall flower. Nancy's perfect portal world was the land of the dead, where she spent a lot of time impersonating a statue and aspiring to be unmoving and unfeeling. When she arrives back in the real world, she finds it difficult to reconnect to her body and emotions, triggering catatonic-like behaviours. McGuire's interpretation of the "bland wall flower" is a fascinating deconstruction of a writing trend, but ultimately I still found myself bored and annoyed with Nancy's lack of motivation or personality. I wish she had been a secondary character and allowed someone with more agency to take on the main role. 

All in all, this was a beautiful story with many fascinating aspects that I could probably blather on about for another few paragraphs. I'm not usually a fan of school stories anymore, since they often feel formulaic to me, but the heart at the center of this story -- that queer nonsense about belonging and otherness-- hits the nail so hard on the head that it's an instant win. This book has a way of seeing the unseen, acknowledging that deep desire for love and acceptance, and promising that it's out there, just waiting for you, if you're brave enough to go out and look for it.  

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A beautifully queer story that centers around a tense murder mystery.  

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Book Review: Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies

Book Review: Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson 

Goodreads Description: Mashkawaji (they/them) lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain. Each attempts to commune with the unnatural urban-settler world, a world of SpongeBob Band-Aids, Ziploc baggies, Fjällräven Kånken backpacks, and coffee mugs emblazoned with institutional logos. And each searches out the natural world, only to discover those pockets that still exist are owned, contained, counted, and consumed. Cut off from nature, the characters are cut off from their natural selves.

My Review: If you're searching for something out of the box, then Simpson's novel may be just what you're looking for. Noopiming mashes together prose, poetry, and traditional Indigenous storytelling to create a text that defies colonial genre boundaries and narrative conventions. 

Noopiming doesn't follow a traditional plot structure, so giving a description of events is challenging. The text follows seven characters as they navigate their lives in a hyperconsumerist society cut off from nature. Each character is an aspect of Mashkawaji, a being frozen in ice and isolated from the rest of the world, though the text is vague about who or what Mashkawji actually is. The seven eventually unite to resurrect Mashkawaji from their place under the ice, a moment of metaphorical connection that bonds each character into something bigger than themselves. This is largely what the book is about -- isolation and relationships, alienation and connection -- and we see this through the way the characters struggle on their own before ultimately coming together into a community. The book relies heavily on symbolism and metaphor, using a poetic abstractionism to communicate the story through feeling rather than action. Poetry readers will almost certainly have an easier time connecting to the text because of its willingness to eschew narrative for expressionism. 

There’s a beautiful equality all across the text. Human, animal, and spirit characters are on a level playing field – there’s no hierarchy of gods and monsters here. Every character resists the effects of colonialism, from animals dealing with loss of land, to nature reeling from climate change, to Indigenous people themselves displaced and disconnected from nature. This equalization crosses into gender as well – while there is the old man, the old woman, and gendered figures, almost all characters use ‘they/them’ pronouns. Simpson downplays pronouns and gendered indicators for most characters to allow the space to focus on other aspects of their personhood. The text is by no means genderless - it simply places their gender secondary to who they are as people. 

Noopiming is a bit of a strange beast and it's certainly not for everyone. It's not really a novel, or a prose poem, not fantasy or contemporary. It asks some hard questions about capitalism, consumerism, commodification and climate change, but wraps it in poetic symbolism that asks you to feel more than analyze. Lovers of poetry, nature, and spirituality may really resonate with this text, but if you're a fan of traditional western storytelling, this one might be worth skipping. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. An intense intermeshing of prose, poetry, and Indigenous storytelling that takes a hard look at colonialism and consumerism.