Review- The Red Word

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

Processed with VSCO with t1 presetGenre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Publication date: March 13, 2018
Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat
Page count: 352
Star rating: 4/5

Karen, newly out of the dorms, just moved into a house with new roommates. The three women refer to their home as ‘Raghurst’ and identify as feminists with particularly strong views. Karen attends the marches and vigils held by the women’s center on campus, but she is a bit different from the girls she lives with. Karen begins dating Mike, a boy who is part of a fraternity on campus, GBC. Her loyalty then gets split between her roommates, who hate fraternities with all their being, and Mike, who loves his house and brothers. Following this, sexual assault cases against frat members, specifically GBC, begin arising. Raghurst becomes loud with conversations about rape culture on campus with even more vigor than before. Suddenly, the women’s center and school paper are working on pieces about sexual harassment and mentioning GBC. Karen knows rape is not the victim’s fault and that Mike’s fraternity brothers see women as pieces of meat, but she also recognizes her boyfriend clearly respects her body. Rape culture is a huge problem in colleges and Karen wants to be on the right side of history.

Thank you to Grove Press for sending me an advance copy of this title! I’m grateful I was able to get my hands on it before it was released to the public.

The biggest takeaway from The Red Word is it truly makes the reader think. Consider this: consent is not always black and white. For example, if someone manipulates a person into saying yes, it is not consenting. If someone blackmails a person into saying yes, it is not consenting. If someone is too drunk to know what they are saying yes to, it is not consenting. A reader may already know all of this, but The Red Word highlights the many ways in which rape in not black and white. This is something admirable, because such a topic is not easy to portray. Sarah Henstra did it well.

Karen’s roommates are a very interesting crew of women. Their views are pretty radical and they firmly stand by what they believe. One of them, Dyann, sometimes does not care if an individual suffers (by her own doing) if it means a system of people benefit. The other women do not quite agree with this logic and it creates a tension in their household and activism. Mike, too, is a unique character. He believes his frat brothers are good people, no matter what the university newspaper has to say. That being said, he does not like when Karen roams around the house alone at night. He seems to be nervous his brothers might harass or assault her while intoxicated. The Red Word is full of tension—tension within oneself, with one’s friends, with one’s community, etc. Despite that, this book was never uncomfortable.

The references to Greek history and ancient Greek and Roman texts are really cool. Karen is registered in a class that discusses women in Greek mythology and texts, so the novel incorporates some writing techniques like calling to a muse. For any nerd who loves The Odyssey, the opening lines, “Sing. O Goddess…”, will make you very excited. Sarah Henstra truly knows a lot about feminism in ancient writing.

Any feminist or person looking to learn more about rape culture will enjoy this book. Anyone who is both of these things AND likes Greek history will extra enjoy it. Karen has a few shocking college experiences that, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Rape culture is a horrible issue on college campuses right now, especially in Greek life. Fraternities are very much protected by their universities. The Red Word explores the ways in which consent is not completely black and white and how fighting against the system is both complicated and slippery.

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Review- Before I Let You Go

Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

35758169Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback ARC
Publication date: April 3, 2017
Publisher: Graydon House
Page count: 376 (ARC)
Star rating: 5/5

Annie Vidler is in deep, deep trouble. She’s not only pregnant, but also currently addicted to heroin. After many failed attempts at detoxing herself at home, she calls her sister, Lexie, who she hasn’t spoken to in 2 years. The two used to be incredibly close, as they grew up in a strict, religious household and only had each other to keep them company. Last time they talked, Lexie kicked Annie out because of her spiraling addiction. Now, Annie has no one to turn to and her baby’s life is on the line. Lexie has always been a “fixer” and seems to be there to catch Annie whenever she falls, so of course she swoops back into her life and tries to save the day. Unfortunately, in Alabama it’s illegal to use heroin while pregnant, so Annie gets charged and may lose custody of her baby before it is even born. Once again, Lexie is expected to magically make everything better, no matter the toll it might take on her own, personal life.

Thank you to Graydon House for sending me an advanced review copy of this title, I’m grateful for publishers who continue to believe that diverse books are important and need to be talked about more often.

Before I Let You Go is beautiful. It’s beautiful and raw. Annie experiences so much hurt throughout the entire novel . The reader feels all of Annie’s emotions, too, every step of the way. Pain, shame, and anger radiate through the words of Annie’s narration, which is almost addictive, itself. Both Annie and her child face struggles felt by the many people who are affected by the opioid epidemic. Kelly Rimmer’s novel helps educate readers on a disease that is not discussed enough in literature.

From the very beginning, Annie’s pain pours out through the language of Before I Let You Go. She is pregnant and wounded badly in many ways. Annie is ashamed of using drugs while pregnant, but she is hurting on the outside, too, because of the damage caused by all her attempts at getting sober at home. She’s in desperate need of medical attention, though scared of going to a hospital in fear of them taking away her baby. Annie is stuck and her last hope is Lexie.

Lexie, too, emits a lot of pain through her words. She has suffered tremendously, watching her sister fight addiction and fail to get sober time and time again. No matter how many intensive programs Lexie pays for, Annie can’t seem to get sustainable clean time. It’s obvious that Lexie will do nearly anything to help her sister, no matter how much destruction it causes in her own life. The two sisters love each other, but obstacles prevent them from effectively showing it. While reading this title, the reader grapples with this unhealthy, borderline toxic relationship. It’s obvious both Lexie and Annie want to heal and face their past traumas, but they are not sure how to do this.

The way Kelly Rimmer describes the emotional and physical toll addiction puts on an individual and their loved ones is both accurate and honest. Annie is part of one of the most stigmatized populations—she is an addict and she is pregnant. She is treated poorly by medical professionals, despite the training doctors receive in bearing no bias towards their patients. Even Lexie, who loves her sister endlessly, catches herself placing blame on Annie for not being ‘strong enough’. Lexie knows addiction is a disease, but the stereotypes sometimes seep into her mind.

Before I Let You Go is powerful because it provides insight into what addiction truly looks like. The pubic is constantly fed lies about addiction—that it is a choice or the fault of the individual. Kelly Rimmer tells her readers that addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as one. Hopefully, this novel will reach readers of different backgrounds to show them how devastating addiction can be for an entire family. Thank you, again, to Graydon House for sending me this engrossing novel.

Review- Femme Confidential

Femme Confidential by Nairne Holtz

IMG_7620Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Publication date: August 10, 2017
Publisher: Insomniac Press
Page count: 290
Star rating: 4/5

It’s hard for me to write a summary of Femme Confidential, because it reads more like a collection of short stories. The title follows a group of queer femmes who grow up in different cities, but find their way to each other as they get older. Their lives intertwine in interesting and oftentimes sexual ways. Liberty, the most central character, raised in a Quaker family, ran away from university. Veronika didn’t realize she was queer until she hooked up with her best friend in high school. Dana, first introduced as a man, learns what it means to live as a transgender woman in Toronto. Although the book focuses on these three women the most, other queer females go in and out of their lives as friendships and relationships bloom and fail.

First, I want to thank Insomniac Press for generously sending me this title in exchange for an honest review. Queer ladies are my favorite characters to read about, so this was quite a treat.

I really enjoyed Femme Confidential’s writing style. The way the short chapters jumped around from different characters and different years made the book very gripping. Now that I’m writing this review, I realize this format could easily be confusing, but it was executed so well that it didn’t raise any questions for me. It’s quite a skill to be able to pull such a complicated storyline together, but Nairne Holtz did a wonderful job making sure there were no plot holes or missing parts.

Sometimes, books portray most of their queer, female characters with similar (or mostly the same) personalities. People who are aquatinted with more than one gay woman know this stereotype is not true, as LGBTQ individuals don’t all have the same interests and mannerisms. I loved how Liberty, Veronika, and Dana all had completely different personalities, passions, and sexual preferences. Each woman had her own career, relationships, and general life path. I also enjoyed the diversity in the way lesbian sex was portrayed. It’s easy to tell when a straight person writes queer female sex scenes because the anatomy isn’t right or the positions don’t make any sense. I actually understood where both parties were during intimate moments of Femme Confidential, which was awesome!

The only thing about this title that doesn’t quite sit with me is the ending. I think the book should have ended around 30 pages earlier, to be completely honest. Something about the way Liberty’s story wrapped up just didn’t make me feel right. Despite this, I’m sure the author has valid reasons for why she chose to end with certain events and I respect that. The ending did not change how much enjoyed Femme Confidential, it just left me with a weird feeling for personal reasons.

I want to give a big ‘thank you’ to Insomniac Press for sending me a copy of this title. It was very nice to read a book with a diverse set of queer ladies who have their own personalities and identities. Liberty is my favorite main character, but they all sound like people whom I would like to hang out with. I look forward to reading future works from Nairne Holtz!

Review- Sodom Road Exit

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

514ml4X1etL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback ARC
Publication date: May 2018
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
Page count: 404
Star Rating: 4/5

Starla is disappointed that she has to move back in with her mom after dropping out of college. Originally from the small town of Crystal Beach, she’s been living in the city of Toronto while slowly falling more and more into debt. Upon coming back home, she begins working as the night shift manager of a campground and RV park, The Point. One would imagine that this job might entail some pickup around the grounds and a little downtime, but Starla’s experience is much more extraordinary. From the very first day, strange things start happening at The Point. The ghost of a girl who died in Crystal Beach takes special interest in Starla and begins communicating with her inside her head. As Starla becomes closer to the residents of the campground, the ghost’s pull on her gets tighter. The strangely sexual bond that the two have may end up hurting Starla in a way that her new friends can’t understand or see.

I’m so excited that Arsenal Pulp Press agreed to send me an ARC of this title. Ever since I discovered they were releasing a lesbian, ghost novel, I’ve wanted to get my hands on it. I’ve read a few lesbian mystery-ish books that ended up being too predictable or too much like fan fiction, but Sodom Road Exit is not like those at all.

Starla is queer and mentally ill and her struggles are very realistically written. I think the way that Amber Dawn portrays her symptoms of PTSD and general suicidal ideation is accurate, which is a great feat because these illnesses can be hard to describe. I especially liked learning about Starla’s way of coping with triggers and stressors—spelling out words to calm herself down and distract her brain. This is a real technique taught in therapy and seeing it in literature was pretty cool. I found the way that Amber Dawn imagined that a ghost would affect someone with these illnesses interesting as well. PTSD and irregular moods can be difficult to manage on their own; putting sexual chemistry with a ghost on top of them certainly wouldn’t help!

One of my favorite things about Sodom Road Exit is the ending (and not because I’m glad it’s over). It is neither too happy nor too unsatisfying. The ability to wrap things in a way that’s believable and concluding is one that I admire in authors. I really appreciated the character evolution that Starla and her friends at The Point went through. It’s weird that a supernatural/lesbian mystery made me feel so good after finishing it, but I guess that’s Amber Dawn’s special talent.

Lastly, I want to comment on how Sodom Road Exit dealt with one of its character’s wavering sobriety. Hal, someone residing at The Point, struggles with alcoholism. Starla notices that Hal’s drinking is interfering with him properly treating his wife and son, so she works to get him set up with a twelve step program. The way that AA is discussed in this book is really positive and educational. Sometimes addiction and alcoholism are displayed in such a negative light in works of fiction, which is not helpful for reducing the stigma around the disease. Amber Dawn did an excellent job writing about alcoholism in a respectful way.

Overall, I loved Sodom Road Exit. As someone who enjoys reading books with supernatural elements and books with queer characters, I knew I was going to like this book from the very beginning. It definitely met and exceeded my expectations. I want to give a big ‘thank you’ to Arsenal Pulp Press for sending me this title in exchange for an honest review. I know I’m going to be thinking about Starla’s story for a while. I’m excited to read more Arsenal Pulp Press books in the future!

Review- Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl

Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor 

Processed with VSCO with t1 presetGenre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Publication date: November 1, 2017
Publisher: Rescue Press
Page count: 240
Star rating: 5/5

“Dykes were so cool. What could be more punk than being a dyke? What better way to say fuck you to the Man?”

Paul is a young man, thriving in his college town full of queer kids and working his way through school. Paul has a secret, though: sometimes he can choose to be in a female body. He’s always on the hunt for a new hookup and the fact that he can change his body helps him connect with different types of people and attractions. Paul has always identified with his male self, as it’s his body’s natural form. Suddenly, after Paul spends time at a women’s retreat and develops feelings for a lesbian, he’s unsure where he stands identity-wise. He’s always been a male attracted to all sorts of people, but now he wants to be in his female body for his new love interest. Paul has a lot of learning to do as he realizes he has the power to remain in a female body for longer periods of time than he thought.

I’m so excited to write this review! After a dry spell of LGBTQ books that I didn’t enjoy very much, I’ve hit the Holy Grail. One of the first things that immediately made me like this book was the fact that it used so many queer references that only a queer person would fully understand. Everyone knows that gay clubs play Madonna and sport rainbow flags, but not everyone knows references to queer zines and movies (Paris is Burning!). I enjoyed recognizing some of the culture that Paul mentions and also enjoyed the fact that not every reader would get it the way I did. Books written by queer people for queer people specifically are hard to find. I’m so glad I received this book for the holidays this year (from my girlfriend!) because it put me in a great mood to read more LGBTQ fiction.

There truly was a light bulb over the head moment while I was reading Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl. When Paul begins spending more and more time in a female body, he starts seeing ways in which women are mistreated by men in sexual situations. A man that Paul (as Polly) is flirting with basically forces him to perform oral sex, even though he does not want to. Paul ends up wondering if he was asking for it since he had been flirting with the man. The book outlines common thinking associated with victim blaming and the self-blame victims of sexual assault face. I think Andrea Lawlor introduced many very important lessons throughout her novel, including this one on rape-culture.

I’ve already told my girlfriend that she could start reading this book once I’ve posted my review of it and I plan to recommend it to many other queer people in the future. Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl was almost a feel-good novel for me, as a queer person, because it just made me feel happy to be friends with so many great LGBTQ people who lift me up. That being said, straight, cis people will definitely enjoy this book as well. It  gives a close look into gay culture and straight, cis people can learn a lot from reading it. I’m very pleased that I picked up this book and I look forward to reading more titles from Rescue Press and Andrea Lawlor in the future. I’m eagerly waiting for a sequel!

Review- Where Women Are Kings

Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson

Processed with VSCO with t1 presetGenre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Publication date: April 28, 2015
Publisher: Other Press
Page count: 256
Star rating: 5/5

“She felt fiercely protective of him, with his slight frame and huge eyes. She realized that she loved him already, within days, that she’d kill anyone who hurt him.”

7 year old Elijah is looking for an adoptive family. In his short life, he’s been moved around quite a bit, as a result of being hard to work with and violent at some times. Finally, Elijah has found a couple who wants to permanently adopt him. Nikki and Obi make it their mission to provide the best home for Elijah as possible. Slowly, Elijah’s family history comes to light as his biological mother writes letters addressed to him. As more is learned about his birth and experiences as a baby, perhaps Elijah’s actions can be better understood. Nikki and Obi will no doubt try their best, and hopefully that’s enough for Elijah to prosper.

This is the first book in a long time that I finished in less than 24 hours. I. Could. Not. Put. It. Down. Books don’t usually make me cry, but Where Women Are Kings made me cry TWICE. Christie Watson really knows how to play with your heart. This was an all around amazing title. I wish I could give it more than 5 stars.

Where Women Are Kings has a unique format. It’s written in 2 styles. About half of it is in the view of Elijah or his parents. The other half is in a letter format from Elijah’s birth mother. I loved slowly figuring out Elijah’s story and piecing together why he might act out or behave the way he does. Elijah is so delicate and innocent; I wanted to fight for him because he has such a big heart, despite invisible struggles he faces every day. Obi and Nikki care about him so much and it was heartwarming to see their love for him grow and grow. The character development was so beautiful in this book.

I initially picked up Where Women Are Kings because reviews say it touches on racism and mental illness. Both of these themes were very prevalent in the book, so I was not let down. Elijah is Nigerian and Nikki is white. I enjoyed reading the racial and cultural sensitivity that Elijah’s case workers, therapist, and adoptive family give him. A white mother adopting a child of color is something that is so rare in literature, at least in books that I’ve read. It was refreshing to read a title that talked about the thought that goes into adopting child with different colored skin as oneself. In addition, the way Christie Watson wrote about serious mental illnesses was respectful and factual. I don’t want to give away too much, so that’s all I’ll say.

I want to give a big ‘thank you’ to Other Press for sending me a copy of this title for review. I’ve officially added this book to my ‘favorites’ shelf on Goodreads, which says a lot. I’m extremely thankful that such a wonderful and moving book found its way to me. I honestly want to give out copies of Where Women Are Kings to my friends for the holidays. I finished this book about 2 weeks ago and I’m still continuously blown away.

Review- Elmina’s Fire

Hey everyone! Sorry for the delay between reviews. I got really sick last weekend and it set me way, way behind. But, I’m back with a review request I got from Selby Ink a few months ago. I’m so excited to share my thoughts with you all!

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Elmina’s Fire by Linda Carleton

51mICVoYh3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Publication date: June 13, 2017
Publisher: She Writes Press
Page count: 330
Star rating: 3.5/5

Elmina’s mind, full of guilt, torments her daily. Her father raised her as a Catholic, but didn’t have the funds to set her up with a husband and sent her to live with the Cathars, who oppose Catholicism. Elmina respects the Cathars, since they treat her kindly, but feels like a traitor living in a house run by people who don’t agree with her views. The Catholics and the Cathars are in the midst of a war that’s only getting worse and Elmina feels like she’s in the middle of it. Elmina has urges to run away from the generous people who have become like her family, in hopes of finding refuge within the religion she’s always loved. Living in a house full of those who do not respect her faith is too much guilt for such a young girl to handle.

I like Elmina a lot—her character, her voice, her mind. Her faith and loyalty to Catholicism is very admirable. The internal hell that her mind resides in is one I’ve seen in many stories featuring strong females that are faced with big obstacles, like Elmina. She certainly tackles the war within her body and mind with determination not often found in women that young. Elmina’s depression is very evident in the tone and choice of words that she uses; it made me very sad to hear such hopelessness. The book reads as a letter to her God, whom she has tried so hard to devote her life to, but been faced with opposition to almost all her young life. I wanted so badly to hold Elmina’s hand and tell her that it is possible to calm the battles within your mind; it just takes practice and hard work. The entire book felt so raw, it really touched me.

Elmina’s Fire is the first book I’ve read that talks about the type of guilt that can be associated with religion and questioning one’s faith. On the other hand, this book also sheds light on how healing and uniting religion can be. Elmina experiences both of these extremities. The pain and shame she feels while living among Cathars is enormous, and yet, the sense of community she feels when surrounded by Catholics is also huge. This book definitely showed me some aspects of religion that I had never been exposed to before.

Even though I liked this book a lot, I have one critique. For me, Elmina’s Fire was a little slow in the beginning. I could tell that the pace was going to pick up closer to 1/3 the way in, but the first 50 pages or so were hard to get through. I’m very glad I stuck with the book, because I ended up enjoying it. I do wish the beginning of the book had been as interesting as the rest of it, though.

I want to give a big thank you to Selby Ink for the giving me a copy of this wonderful book they represent in exchange for an honest review. I enjoyed getting to know Elmina and being exposed to aspects of Christianity that I hadn’t known before. Empowered, brave female characters are my favorite, and Elimina is certainly one of them.