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Maya Angelou

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”–Maya Angelou

On this site, you can find Book Reviews written by people who identify as women of books written by people who identify as women. You’ll also find interviews under Meet the Writer with people who identify as women who do any kind of writing: fiction, memoir, poetry, blogging, journalism, you name it! Not all of these authors are published, so you’ll get a variety of insight. My name is Melanie, and I’m happy you’re here! Please see the About GTL section to learn more about my reviewing process and FAQ for answers about review requests and why there are no people here who identify as men.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


Němcová’s own life contained elements of the fairy tale:

her parentage was possibly noble, though she was raised among the household servant class;

she was forced to marry a man she did not love;

unwise decisions brought her personal hardship later in life as well as financial troubles;

and she came to an untimely end.

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What is a biographical collage? Collage is a form that has allowed me to express myself through the years when I hadn’t the words to say what I felt, but of course traditional collage focuses more on image, less on text. Why don’t we see collage writing more often? The beginning of Parker Ervick’s third book reminded me of some potential hurdles: giving the original texts proper credit, obtaining permission to use those texts, and organizing information to make meaning in a creative way. I began with an obsession: track all of the source material while I read and be sure I knew who wrote what. Parker Ervick tells readers in the introduction that we will see footnotes for the fragments from other texts and that the font would be italicized when the sources were primary. But would she note when she cut information out of an original passage and rearranged it? And where would I find her voice?

Of course, I was stupid to begin in such a fashion. It’s like I lacked… imagination.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage is organized beautifully and helpfully. In “Introduction: This Is Not a Biography,” Parker Ervick explains her obsession with Božena Němcová, a Czech fairy tale writer from the 1840s who influenced Kafka. Parker Ervick began visiting Prague in 2003 and has been back many times, seeking not only to find all things Němcová, but her extended family. Due to political and historical factors, Němcová’s writing has remained largely untranslated, and thus unknown to English language readers.

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“To where are they leading the maiden in the white dress?” acrylic, graphite, and collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick

So readers are not confused, the author adds a brief section up front, “A Few Notes on Czech Names,” demonstrating both the complexity of the language and the sexism inherent in it: “–ova was a not-so-subtle way of adding ‘egg’ to a name to feminize it.” Thus, when Božena married Josef Němec, she was Božena Němcová. Readers learn “the proper pronunciation of Božena Němcová is BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah.” Wisely including a note on language and pronunciation gave the book a new layer of meaning and enabled me to feel close to the subject matter; if I can’t pronounce her name, how much affinity can I feel for Božena Němcová?

The collage text itself is broken in to two parts. Part I includes five sections that move through Němcová’s life, from her obscurity to her passions, her loveless marriage to her last days of poverty, illness, and starvation. Each section includes excerpts from Němcová’s writing, primarily her novel, Babička (also known as The Grandmother or Granny); letters Němcová wrote to friends and lovers; images, mostly photos taken by Parker Ervick or collages she created; and scholarly works, chiefly the book Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers. No page in the book is completely filled; these are pieces, excepts.

Readers get to know and fall in love with Němcová. In 1954 she writes, “my favorite fantasy was to enter a convent — Just because I had heard that nuns learn so much.” Often known for her aversion to traditional expectations for Czech women, Němcová surprised and astonished people. The young woman was admirably to the point: “…but you know that to have human feelings is considered a sin. . .. In my belief a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit — what is not beautiful about it contains it’s own punishment.”

A biographical collage juxtaposes information in a way that otherwise reads stiffly in an academic text. On the left page, Němcová’s maid recalls how Božena and husband Josef were not right for each other. On the right page, Žofie Podlipská (another Czech writer) admires Mr. Němcová and his opinion of his writer wife. The two first-person accounts almost reminded me of reality TV shows on which participants enter a booth with a camera in order to confess or vent.

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Though unknown to many, the writer made it onto Czech money.

Němcová certainly wields a talented pen. When I can’t let something go, I call it “fixating.” When she can’t let something go, she declaims:

My soul is often as a lake, where a slight wind stirs up waves that cannot be calmed.

One thought chases the other as little clouds in a thunder storm, each more somber than the next, until the whole sky is covered

with heavy clouds.

Part II contains “postcards” (they don’t actually look like real postcards) Parker Ervick wrote to Němcová about her time in Prague, learning Czech, and the conclusion of her own unhappy marriage. The postcards aren’t self-important. Parker Ervick reaches out to Němcová like a best friend or long lost sister. Her time in Prague suggests her life is a fairy tale, both lovely and painful, when she takes long journeys through the woods by foot to find monuments to Němcová and later finds a happy ending.

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Parker Ervick meets relatives: “Na zdravie,” personal photo of author, her cousin Josef, and slivovitz, taken in Okoličné, Slovakia.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage brings back the passion and beautiful language of Parker Ervick’s first book, For Sale by Owner, which I so desperately missed in her second title, Liliane’s Balcony. She keenly examines her identity as it changes: Who is she in Prague? In the U.S.? In her writing? In her marriage? Thanks to the form, each postcard deftly gets where it needs to go, but without losing the pathos.

A deeply intimate and creative endeavor, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage could work beautifully in a classroom or on your bedside nightstand.

Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

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Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante by Monica Nolan is the 3rd book in the pulpy Lesbian Career Girls series. While I maintained that Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (LCG #1) and Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (LCG #2) could each be read as stand alone novels, Maxie’s story is depending upon you knowing the characters from Lois’s story.

In Lois Lenz, we hear little about Maxie Mainwaring other that she has an allowance that she gets from her rich family. Happy to loan small town girl Lois some fancy clothes for her secretary job, Maxie appears to be a generous friend.

Yet, Maxie’s own story tells otherwise! In Maxie Mainwaring, she frequently cheats on longtime girlfriend Pamela with the excuse that she can’t be tied down. While her friends on the 5th floor of her apartment, the Magdalena Arms, count their pennies and hold down careers, Maxie spends indiscriminately and runs up tabs everywhere she goes. That is, until her mother sees her kissing another girl in the power room during a socialite gathering! Maxie is cut off and forced to find employment and learn to balance a budget. The girls at “the Arms” help Maxie out by loaning her work-appropriate clothes, teaching her basic finance skills, and encouraging her to hold down a job.

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Maxie on the right and “the beautiful butch” Lon on the left.

I appreciated Nolan’s attention to women’s relationship to money, especially in this 1960s setting. It wasn’t until 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in the U.S., allowing women to get a loan without a co-sign from a male relative. Maxie’s notices that she had “always made affectionate fun of the earnest ideologue [Phyllis, a statistician]; now she felt a new respect for her friend, who knew how to stretch a dollar until it screamed.”

But a dilettante by definition doesn’t typically “do” a career. Like it says on the cover, “She had experience in everything…except employment!” My guess was the plot of Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante would be the eponymous young woman struggling with job after job and failing in hilarious ways; it’s right in the title! However, Maxie has two actual jobs in the entire book: one is hilarious like I expected, the other is a highly-coveted position with a magazine, as if readers are to believe someone with no resume could jump into such work. To be fair, Maxie tries to freelance writing gigs, but neither play a big role in the book. Mostly, you’ll get mobs, FBI, tailing people, and girlfriends fighting. So little about employment! How disappointing!

If you’re wondering why I’m writing with so many exclamation points, it’s because Nolan uses this under appreciated punctuation mark to really amp up the camp, so to speak. The tone of the Lesbian Career Girl novels is always fun and dramatic. The book is full of puns:

“That’s government property. I know all about you and your madcap ways, Maxie Mainwaring — I’ve read your file. But this time, you’re playing with fire!”

“I’m a Campfire Girl from way back,” Maxie assured her. “I know how to stoke the flames and put them out.”

Although I enjoyed meeting new characters in the previous Lesbian Career Girl books, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante overwhelmed me with names and occupations to remember. During a very brief stint writing for a volunteer-run magazine, Maxie is introduced half a dozen new women, though only one comes back later. I wished the book were shorter. By chapter 7, only 24 hours had passed! By chapter 13, I was having trouble remembering who did what and was related to whom.

Bursting at the seams, full of characters who come and go without consequence, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante should be passed up in favor of the more cohesive Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher.

The Woman in Cabin 10 #mystery #suspense @ruthwarewriter

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The Woman in Cabin 10 #mystery #suspense @ruthwarewriter

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Audiobook narrated by Imogen Church

Published by Simon & Schuster Audio, July 2016


It feels so weird to me that I am reviewing a book that pretty much everyone else has read. That doesn’t happen often at Grab the Lapels, as my original mission was to champion little presses, find new voices, and focus on women. However, my book club chose this book, and I was mostly happy that Ware fits into my “ladies only” theme! The Woman in Cabin 10 was difficult to procure (a protest I raised when the book was chosen), and I was only able to get the audiobook. If you’re never tried audiobooks, the good voice actors tend to have more emotion and bring multiple characters to life rather than simply “reading” the story. The bad voice narrators: pee-yew! The big downside, though, is that audiobooks take what feels like forever to get through. And I listened to Imogen Church read Ware’s book for almost two weeks.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is about British journalist Lo Blacklock, who has managed to settle for a job at Velocity, a magazine about travel. Not exactly the investigative stuff Lo dreamed she’d do after college. When her boss cannot attend a work event on a luxury boat, the Aurora Borealis, Lo goes instead, hoping this is her chance to show she deserves a promotion. The night before she is set to leave on the ship, she wakes to find a man in her apartment. He traps her in her room and robs the place. Lo is frazzled, feels violated, perhaps breaks up with her boyfriend (she’s not 100% sure that’s what they decided), and boards the Aurora Borealis for a week. As a result, Lo doesn’t sleep much for days. She has a drink (or several) to calm herself down. Ware sets readers up clearly to have an unreliable narrator. Because, of course, something has to happen.

The first night, as Lo dresses for dinner, she remembers her purse was stolen during the break in, so she has no mascara. She bangs on Cabin 10’s door and borrows some from a young woman, whose room looks unkempt like that of a teenager’s. Later, sleepless, Lo is startled in the middle of the night on the Aurora Borealis, sure she’s heard a scream and a splash, sure she see’s blood on the railing of the veranda to Cabin 10. But when ship security finds nothing and shows her Cabin 10 is empty, the doubts flood in.

Imogen Church is an excellent voice actress. Her voice soothes; I wanted to listen. Church narrates Blacklock’s fear with trembles in her voice and urgency in her pleas. Every sentence is rich with emotion. However, this is what slows the reading time down. Also, the audiobook has really long stretches between tracks. The chapters of the book are each one audio track, meaning if I didn’t have 30-45 minutes, I couldn’t start a chapter for fear of losing my place. With a book, I may read 10-15 pages and stop, which takes about 10 minutes.

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Since my husband is in the book club too, he procured a copy of The Woman in Cabin 10 and was patient enough for the hardcover version. I compared his text to what I had listened to. During the break in, Lo thinks the following: “Please, I thought. Please don’t hurt me. Oh God, where was my phone?” But Church’s voice digs up the terror. I was scared for Lo! Honestly, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the hardcover book. All the pleading might have sounded forced, and thus I recommend the audiobook over the hardcover edition.

I also noticed that Church uses different voices for all characters. Many of the employees on the Aurora Borealis are Norwegian. Church does them all with accents in addition to male and female British passengers, some who sound husky, others who are jovial. Church captures Lo’s boyfriend, Judah from Brooklyn, too. In the hardcover version, though, none of the voices are written in dialect. It would have been easy for me to forget that so many characters are Norwegian and that the Aurora Borealis is headed toward Norway. Basically, the voices reinforce the setting.

While I tend to avoid mystery-thriller books for their predictability or outlandish plots that attempt to avoid the unpredictable, I mostly appreciated The Woman in Cabin 10 for all the smaller issues Lo points out. For example, she doesn’t feel like she belongs on the Aurora Borealis because the rooms are around $8,000 per night. Lo notices the ship is like a doll house: everything extravagant, but sized down. The staff have such small quarters compared to the guests. The staff rooms aren’t bad — the staff note that their quarters are much worse on other ships — but the smallness of the rooms for the workers strikes Lo, and I appreciated Ware’s attention to class differences.

Also, Lo points out that the women guests are tiny, sleek, hungry-looking, while the men are rotund and could survive a shipwreck for ages. The double standard — men can be fat and powerful while women must almost disappear to be noticed — stood out to me in a positive way. Ware’s narrator doesn’t float through reality, she pays attention to it. Smartly, the narrator’s attention to class and gender come back ever so subtly in the last ten or so chapters of the book. You may have even forgotten there’s a connection, but if you’re paying attention too, you will be rewarded.

Although Hollywood films would have us believe strong women must shoot weapons, save worlds, and practically be ninjas (all while wearing form-fitting leather), Lo Blacklock is a strong woman with a regular personality and body.

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Notice her breasts and abs; that’s how tight it is. She’s amazing with weapons, and the wings suggest a divine savior of sorts, like an angle. Spare me.

She can’t climb over high walls, and the stairs may make her a bit winded. But she defends herself. When security on the Aurora Borealis suggest Lo may have not seen or heard anything that first night, she tells the man to stop speaking because he doesn’t have a right to make her feel crazy or shut out her voice. Security mentions that another passenger said Lo drank a lot and that she takes anti-depressants. Such a combo is sure way to destroy a person’s authority, but Lo throws security out of her room for such utter disrespect and lack of concern. If only all women could stand up for their own voices — and that includes me — what a different world it would.

Carli Lloyd #Memoir @CarliLloyd #WorldCup #Soccer #Olympics

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Carli Lloyd #Memoir @CarliLloyd #WorldCup #Soccer #Olympics

When Nobody was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World

by Carli Lloyd with Wayne Coffey

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2016


Here is a first for Grab the Lapels: a sports book. I was inspired to check out a soccer player’s memoir for two reasons: Fiction Fan reviewed The Perfect Pass, a book about American football, and my adventures watching the Holy Cross College men’s and women’s soccer teams play this fall. I’ve been at HCC for a few years now, but the previous fall I was teaching 5 classes spread out over 2 colleges, so I hadn’t made it to a game before. Fall 2016, though, is a different story. I go to every home game and cheer on current and former students and their teammates. The men’s team is consists mostly of guys from countries where soccer really matters, so they’re pretty intense (and it’s fun to hear all the accents and foreign languages flying all over the place).

However, the women’s soccer team was a dreary thing to watch. I soon learned that the coach only had 9 women to play, when there’s supposed to be 11 on the field. Too many women were injured, so we were short on (wo)manpower. I felt discouraged, as if men’s sports may be better than women’s. After all, isn’t that what everyone says? Women’s sports are a token effort? No one watches them? We even use the adjective “women” (WNBA, for example), as if men’s sports are the default. Then my brain realized I was a jerk and called bullshit. Though the HCC women’s team was dispirited, I wasn’t going to let it affect my attitude anymore. I got Carli Lloyd’s memoir from the library to school my attitude.

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In the prologue, Lloyd shares with readers a few things we should know about her: she doesn’t do “fake,” she doesn’t try to increase her social media presence, and she doesn’t sign on for Dancing with the Stars and nearly naked photo shoots with Sports Illustrated. I appreciated this about Lloyd, as I’ve wondered why I see female athletes with make-up and shorter shorts, for example. It doesn’t jive. Lloyd may have a touch of make-up on in her cover image, but she doesn’t wear it on the field. The message is immediately positive for girls and women.

Early on, readers learn that Lloyd has family issues: her parents try to control her career, but she wants to be independent, which I felt was reasonable, especially as she hits her mid-twenties. Lloyd never misses an opportunity to thank her parents for the support and give them credit where it is due, nor does she fail to take the blame when her temper flares. As a result, I trust what’s in Lloyd’s book more because she’s not pointing fingers and deflecting blame.

Lloyd successfully convinced me that no matter her fame, she has doubts about herself. Knowing that a world-class athlete must keep pushing made her relatable and trustworthy in my eyes. She wonders:

How could I have screwed this up? How could this be happening? A year ago I became a gold medal hero and the Player of the Year and now U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to renew my contract. Can anybody tell me how it has gotten to this point?

Never complacent, Lloyd returns home in the off season to train, and even on Christmas day she’s out working with her trainer/mentor, demonstrating how much hard work goes into athletics. The message is work hard, because winners aren’t complacent, a message that translates to all activities.

Soccer: Women's World Cup-Final-Japan at United States

Jul 5, 2015; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; United States midfielder Carli Lloyd (10) reacts after scoring a goal against Japan in the first half of the final of the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup at BC Place Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

My favorite parts of the memoir include Hope Solo, a soccer player whose story arcs through the book. First, she’s benched most of the way though a game during which Solo is playing well. Other players on the team apparently lobbied to have her to sit out in exchange for a previously famous goalie who hasn’t played in months. The score of this 2007 World Cup match is United States 0, Brazil 4. Solo goes on television to claim that she would have saved the game and criticized those who wanted her out.

Basically, the woman who replaced her as goalie in the game was well-known years before, but things change quickly in sports. One minute you’re on top, the next, someone fitter has come along. For talking to the media, the entire team shuns Solo. Except Lloyd. As a result, the entire team shuns Solo AND Lloyd, but Carli Lloyd makes it clear that players need to to what’s right, not what’s dramatic. Knowing that Lloyd doesn’t get involved in drama and instead sticks to her principles was impressive and made her seem trustworthy and responsible.

I was wondering how female players may interact differently as a team than male players, and Lloyd addresses this concern:

In men’s sports, people criticize coaches and managers all the time, and sometimes call out teammates too, and it’s not that huge a deal. Things get hot and then it goes away. Often the guy speaking out is even lauded for having the courage to tell the truth. When it happens in women’s sports, though, it always seems to be viewed as a nasty, claws-out catfight. I hate that our World Cup has devolved into this, but I am not going to be part of the Hate Hope Campaign.

 

Here, Lloyd brings up an important issues. Guys who state their concerns are brave for doing so, but women who do the same thing are catty, bitchy, drama-whores, etc. I’m glad Lloyd outs women’s teams for unfortunately playing to stereotypes, which means maybe we can all move past our double standards.

I like Lloyd’s humility. She never assumes she’s the best player on the team nor that she can make goals on her own. Solo is given credit for “a world-class save” to help her team, for example. To make it clear how her teammates help her look good, Lloyd occasionally goes into soccer replay, during which I read 3-4 pages in some areas describing how the ball was passed and to whom. More insertions of personal moments would have made the book stronger. How do the other teammates interact with Lloyd? How often does she call her long-time boyfriend–and how do they make a long-distance relationship work? What does she do when she’s not training or practicing?

https://usatftw.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/usp_olympics__soccer-women_s_gold_medal_match-jpn_50758101.jpg?w=1000&h=667

Aug 9, 2012; London, United Kingdom; USA midfielder Carli Lloyd (left) and USA goalkeeper Hope Solo (right) celebrate with their gold medals after defeating Japan in the gold medal match during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When Nobody was Watching is book meant for soccer fans. If you don’t know the terminology,  you can get lost. Here is an example: “It’s a 1-1 game late in the first half when Abby Wambach crosses the ball from the right, through the penalty area toward the left corner, where Stephanie Lopez runs the ball down. Stephanie nutmegs her defender and then toe-pokes a pass back to me.” I was happy to Google terms and learn more about the game, but not every reader will. I also did not look up every term, so I was in the dark a bit. I felt like if I wanted replays, I could YouTube them, but Lloyd’s determination made for an positive read about a female athlete. Continuing the fight for women and girls, Lloyd is part of the group that filed a law-suit against U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination.

http://www.espn.com/espnw/news-commentary/2015worldcup/article/13006977/how-getting-cut-helped-carli-lloyd-refocus-find-spot-us-women-national-team

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images Midfielder Carli Lloyd will enter the Women’s World Cup with 195 international caps and 63 career goals for the U.S. national team.

 

Interestingly, Abby Wambach came out with a memoir also published in September of 2016. Was it a race to see which teammate could tell the story of the amazing 2015 World Cup win? I’m not sure, but according to Goodreads, Wambach’s memoir is more personal and less description of soccer. I’ll read her book soon for comparison.

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.

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Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”

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Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?

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Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

Giveaway! 5 copies of Jen Michalski’s newest novel available! @QFPress

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Giveaway! 5 copies of Jen Michalski’s newest novel available! @QFPress

Hi, everyone! I am pleased to announce that Jen Michalski has agreed to give away five copies of her newest novel, The Summer She Was Under Water. Each novel will be autographed to the winner by Jen! Before you enter, be sure to read my review of this August 2016 release from Queen’s Ferry Press.

Here are some observations from my review:

“I thought I knew exactly what happened in the past based on contextual clues, but I was wrong. It’s much more complicated.”

“Michalski easily works in fluidity: lesbian, bi, straight, male, female, both.”

The Summer She Was Under Water is an emotional giant.”

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Before entering the give away, make sure you qualify:

  1. Winners must live in the United States.
    1. UPDATE: international folks can now enter to win a PDF copy!
  2. Winners must have a book blog or write reviews for a book blog.
  3. In the comments section, write the name of your book blog.
  4. Share this post on Twitter and tag Jen Michalski and me. Here is our info:
    1. @grabthelapels
    2. @MichalskiJen

Winners will be drawn at random on Friday, November 4th at noon. Good luck, everyone!


GOODREADS SYNOPSIS: It has been twenty years since Sam Pinski, a young novelist, has spent the Fourth of July weekend with her family at their cabin on the Susquehanna River. There, she must confront a chaotic history of mental illness, alcoholism, and physical violence and struggle to find perspective in the pulse of things familiar and respite from the shame of the taboo relationship that courses through her. As she does, a subplot emerges: Excerpts are included from Sam’s metaphoric novel in which a pregnant man tries to solve the mystery of his fertility and absolve himself of his past. Then tragedy strikes the Pinskis and they must draw together, tentatively realizing that they will continue to spin off in their own orbits unless they begin the hard work of forgiveness themselves.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

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#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016

*Disclaimer: I’ve known Jen for a number of years and consider her a friend. We’ve worked on a book tour together for her short story collection From Here; I used to write book reviews for her e-zine, JMWW; and one of my first stories ever published, “Hanged Cat,” appeared in JMWW. Therefore, I know I am terribly biased, but will be as honest as possible! Please check out Jen’s newest book available in both paperback and for Kindle!

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As Jen Michalski shared in her most recent Meet the Writer feature, The Summer She Was Under Water was two novels that got woven into one. The main story is about Samantha Pinski. We quickly learn that her father, Karl Pinski, a heavy drinker and mentally unstable, was a violent man. The family learned to placate the monster that is Karl. That is, except Sam’s brother, Steve, who felt he was Sam’s protector, pinning his father down during violent episodes.

But now Sam is 33 years old, has a book published, teaches writing at Hopkins. Her book, which is woven into the main story, is about a man who is pregnant. By page 8, readers are told Sam’s book is actually about Steve. Though she sounds like a success story, her past won’t let her go. And now Sam is going to the Pinski family cabin for the Fourth of July weekend. She’s bringing her new friend Eve as a sort of buffer. Steve, who has been absent for years, may or may not come. Sam can mostly escape her family in her world of academia, but she’s alone and tends to destroy relationships before they destroy her.

Readers learn that Sam has recently broken off a two-year relationship with a man from a wealthy family, Michael. Karl Pinski is now heavily medicated and sober, so he’s like a deflated balloon of his former self. The entire story takes place Friday through Sunday, Fourth of July weekend, though we also get flashbacks to explain complicated relationships, in addition to chapters from Sam’s book.

Readers are taught to like Steve when he finally shows up that weekend. We align with him when we learn in a flashback that Steve took the blame for binoculars Sam lost in the lake when they were kids, which led to his father beating Steve during a family BBQ instead of Sam. Yet, Sam doesn’t know if she wants Steve to come to the cabin, so we know something happened that caused her to hate her brother. But what?

Then Michael shows up — yes, the Michael with whom Sam just broke up — because he was invited by Sam’s mom, Pat Pinski. Sam thinks of Pat as a sort of Shakespeare of romance, trying to arrange staunch individuals into couples. Michael’s into craft beer and soccer (totally unAmerican) and crosses his legs in such a way that suggests he’s effeminate. What did Sam see in him?

Steve quickly suggests Sam, Michael, Eve, and he go out in the boat so he can pull them behind on inner tubes. Michael is goaded into taking a turn, and Steve does his best to fling Michael off in an effort to humiliate the “rich boy.” Really, you’ll want Michael to fly off because you’re rooting for the protective big brother at this point, not the unwelcome ex.

But Michalski expertly takes readers back in time to when Michael and Sam were dating and he first met her family at Thanksgiving. The uneducated Pinskis embarrass Sam, but she feels safe there with Michael. When Steve shows up — late and drunk — he starts to make remarks about Michael not being “vetted” into the family yet, so Michael can’t take over protecting Sam. Michael defends her, saying Sam is a capable woman. Steve won’t listen to some new guy:

I’ve known Sam a hell of a lot longer than you, buddy, better than you ever will. She don’t need no fucking preppy wallet to come in and be all high and mighty to her family.”

Where does Steve’s possessiveness come from? We see time and again the suggestion that Steve won’t let another man care for his little sister. At 35, Steve seems too old to be such a bully. As a result of taking readers back in time to show Michael is a supportive man, my opinions swapped. I realized that I had been tricked into distrusting the outsider with money and different tastes. Once I understood Michael isn’t a stereotype, I became a more attentive reader and suspicious of Steve.

Some parts of The Summer She Was Under Water are familiar: rich vs working-class families, an abusive father whose children turn into damaged adults, an overly-protective big brother, a mother who will always “stand by her man.” But the beauty of the novel is learning how it all really fits together. Why is Sam so miserable? Why did she break up with Michael? Why won’t Steve come home for years at a time? I thought I knew exactly what happened in the past based on contextual clues, but I was wrong. It’s much more complicated.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

Eve, the “relatively new friend” Sam brought along for the weekend, is an interesting outsider at the Pinski cabin. She has a ragged past more like Steve’s, so she relates to him, which is meant to make readers relate to him and see Steve through eyes unclouded. Then, Sam starts to worry that her friend and brother are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, the narrative implies Sam herself may be attracted to Eve when we’re given flashbacks of Sam’s and Eve’s developing relationship. Michalski easily works in fluidity: lesbian, bi, straight, male, female, both.

I did wish that Eve and Steve’s names weren’t so similar. I can’t imagine these names were chosen accidentally — “eve” is a component of “Steve,” right? But for that very reason, my eyes would fill in “Eve” to be “Steve,” and vice versa, when I read. I wondered if Michalski actually changed her characters names a few times to get them just right. In a few places the wrong person is named (surely an error in editing), such as confusing Michael for Steve, and Carol (an aunt) for Pat Pinski. Although I hesitated and pieced together what the sentence meant to say, these errors are few and didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story.

Don’t forget that there is a book within this book, too. The book Sam wrote has its own chapters written in italics. We meet a man who discovers he’s pregnant and wants to kill the baby. Then, a strange woman comes to help him prepare for the birth. The tone of Sam’s book is different from Michalski’s, which is a delight, as it wouldn’t make sense if Sam’s and Michalski’s voices were similar.

In a couple of places the chapters from Sam’s book are really far apart (about 60 pages), which could make it difficult to remember what was happening. I would flip back and re-read the last page of one of Sam’s chapters and then pick up at the next. Had Sam’s chapters been more evenly placed, the story of the pregnant man would be more familiar. It’s easy to flip around in the paperback version, though Kindle readers may have a more difficult time.

I do highly recommend this book, my friendship with Jen aside. Even now, I want to know what happens to Michael and Sam, to Eve and Steve, to Steve and Sam. Whose relationships strengthened, and whose died after that Fourth of July weekend? I keep thinking about them. The Summer She Was Under Water is an emotional giant.

*You can read an excerpt of the novel at The Nervous Breakdown!

Meet the Writer: Tess Makovesky

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Meet the Writer: Tess Makovesky

I want to thank Tess Makovesky for stopping by Grab the Lapels to discuss her writer life! Tess maintains a website where you can learn more about her writing and a blog to update readers on her life and work. If you like what you see, follow Tess on Facebook or Twitter!

Do you know someone who would like to be featured at Grab the Lapels? Send her my way so she can participate in the Meet the Writer feature!


Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Tess Makovesky: I wrote my first story, about a mouse having an adventure, aged five, and promptly announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer. They laughed indulgently, but actually it awoke a quiet but life-long passion and I really meant it. Sadly, it didn’t happen for many years as I had to go out to work to support myself, but I used to daydream about being a writer even while I was doing the chores or getting the bus to work.

Then two things happened which changed my life. The first was an injury at work which left me with a permanent disability in my right hand. It makes typing at 60 words-per-minute just about impossible and since I was a secretary at the time, you can imagine the result! Luckily, the second change was meeting my long-suffering Other Half, who has supported me ever since and given me the wonderful opportunity to practice and develop my writing.

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GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

TM: My writing has developed out of all recognition. When I first started, I was still in “essay-writing” mode and found it hard to use colourful, creative language, and to write anything other than brief, concise reports. My early attempts at writing featured long waffly novels because I didn’t realise there were any other forms. Then a local writers’ group introduced me to the concept of the short story, and suddenly something clicked. I could write creatively, but still be concise.

Since then I’ve written hundreds of short stories and been lucky enough to have many of them published. (There’s an example, called ‘The Floor’s the Limit,’ available to read free in Out of the Gutter Online here). More recently, I’ve realized that if I string a number of “short stories” together, in the form of separate but thematically-linked chapters, then I can develop longer pieces of work without giving up on my trade-mark snappy style. This is the format I chose for my newly-published novella Raise the Blade, which features sections from the point of view of seven or eight different characters. None of them seem to be linked at first, but gradually you realise that there is a link – and that link is a psychopathic serial killer.

I’ve also taken a journey through various genres, starting with my first love of gritty crime, moving on to romance and erotica (under a different pen name) and finally coming full circle back to darkly humorous noir. The romance/erotica was less successful for me because I kept trying to include dark, gritty aspects that I’m not sure the readers appreciated! I’m much happier with the grim reality of crime, which lets me explore character motivations and psychology to my heart’s content.

GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

TM: Well, for starters I get very grumpy. Like many creative people I have an unstoppable urge to give birth to my ideas, and if anything interrupts that process then watch out! It can also make me quite depressed – something I suspect a lot of writers are prone to.

If I’ve already written something but I’m still not happy with it, it nags me like an aching tooth. I know it’s not right; I know the character wouldn’t say something like that, or act in that particular way; or I know that the language I’ve used is clumsy or formulaic. At that point I either sit and stare at the screen in complete frustration for hours, or walk away and leave it to fester for a while. If I’m lucky, a solution suggests itself and I can get going again – although sometimes that process can take days, weeks, or even months.

GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?

TM: I’m a real “pantser” (flying by the seat of my pants) in that I tend to do little or no advance planning. I get an idea, a title, a first line, and a general idea of the direction/ending I want to head towards, and then I just plunge in. It can lead to disaster, but I find that too much additional plotting, planning and note-making sucks all my creative energy and I have nothing left to actually write the book!

I almost always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and muddling through until I reach what I’m happy with as the end. However, if my characters take over and run off with the plot, I do sometimes go back and add extra sections, paragraphs, or even whole chapters earlier on.

Being something of a perfectionist I used to edit as I went along, but realized that it was slowing me down, and sometimes meant I didn’t finish a piece because I got bogged down in depressing minutiae. Now I tend to write fast, first, and go back and edit later. Sometimes it leads me to think “what the hell was I thinking?” but mostly it seems to work!

GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

TM: When I first started writing I hand-wrote everything, painfully thanks to my wrist injury, and then typed it up when I was reasonably happy with it. Over time the keyboard took over more and more, and now I type everything straight onto the screen, and will only resort to pen and paper if I need to fiddle with a brief section that’s fighting back. Or to sort out something that requires mathematics, since my grasp of numbers is terrible! In Raise the Blade there’s a complex structure where each character discovers the body of the victim before them, and I simply could not keep track of that at all! In the end I had to make a list of exactly who had found whom, and where; otherwise, I’d have ended up in a complete muddle.

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GTL: Do you have a relationship with book bloggers? Why or why not? If yes, what is it like?

TM: I think book bloggers are wonderful! But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Heh, seriously, I think bloggers and writers often have a great symbiotic relationship where writers provide the source material, and bloggers help to introduce it to the reading public.

Done well, it benefits both. The bloggers develop their own supportive group of readers and gain access to a far greater range of reading material than they might if they were just shopping at their local book store. And the writers get a conduit between themselves and new readers, who might never otherwise come across their work.

However, as a note of caution, it can sometimes go wrong. I know of cases where bloggers and/or reviewers in general have made damningly negative comments about books, sometimes factually incorrect, which have gone on to blight a writer’s entire career. I’m not for one moment suggesting that bloggers should gush about every book they read, as that would be both dishonest and dull! But I do think it’s important for the relationship to be mutually supportive. Without bloggers, authors wouldn’t have as many readers, but without authors, bloggers wouldn’t have as many books.

A Medical Affair #bookreview #readwomen @annestr

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A Medical Affair #bookreview #readwomen @annestr

 A Medical Affair by Anne McCarthy Strauss
Self-published September 2014 through Booktrope

I want to thank you Anne McCarthy Strauss for sending Grab the Lapels this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

*Read by guest reviewer Caitlyn Faust

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a preconceived notion about what romance novels are and aren’t, regardless of whether it’s actually right or not.  When I started reading A Medical Affair by Anne McCarthy Strauss, I was somewhat convinced it might be a sappy girl-gets-the-guy story with lots of fluff and drama.  For the first chapter or so, I seemed to be right; the character of Heather was seemingly perfect physically and was instantly attracted to our other main love interest, Jeff.  They met when she had an asthma attack that landed her in the hospital, into his care, and couldn’t keep each other off of their minds.  I was very happy to be wrong, as both Heather and Jeff were well fleshed out as real people, both of whom, at a certain point, I was rooting for.

At a certain point in the story, the narrative turns and makes it obvious that this isn’t about love; this is a story about what is ethical and right in regards to doctors and patients, something I had never put much thought to before.  The point that hits home is that it’s unethical to have a romantic relationship with your doctor while they are still your doctor.  Strauss, the author, had done painstaking research in creating a fictional story that mirrors what can (and has) occurred in real life, involving lawsuits and the legal aspects that can go into people being violated by doctors.A Medical Affair Strauss

The narrative style of the story is mostly well composed; the perspective is third person semi-omnipotent, switching focus mostly between Heather and Jeff, with another character as needed for the plot.  Precisely why the author chose third person semi-omnipotent is unclear to me; while it works well enough for the book, it could have just as easily been switched for first person with little lost.  While the perspective focuses mainly on Heather, I thought it was clever that the author used other points of view to better see the situation in a larger sense.

There were a few points in the story during which I questioned the relevance; Heather occasionally brought up her Christian religion, the fact she wore prayer beads, and that Heather and Miguel (her best friend) stopped at Mass before going elsewhere.  In the spirit of Chekhov’s gun, I was pleased to see this was later relevant in the plot development between Heather and Jeff, although I won’t give away why here.

The author of the novel is a victim’s advocate, and according to her website, has spent the last decade educating people about the hazards of these types of relationships.  With this book as a tool to get the story of the potential consequences out in the public, I’m sure she’s informed many more people of the problems that can occur when you’re not careful.

*Caitlyn Faust graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a BFA in Studio Arts. By day, she works at the University of Notre Dame as an IT Help Desk Consultant. By night, she has many interests, including knitting a pair of socks originating from yarn dyers from each state (that’s 50 pairs of socks, folks).

In His Genes #science #BookReview

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In His Genes #science #BookReview

In His Genes (2013) by Robin Stratton is a slim novel at 183 pages. The story follows Cassie, a woman on the verge of 40, who works in a lab with the handsome do-gooder Dr. Jack Miller. Jack is tying to find the gene mutation linked to a rare disease called Voight’s that causes women to give birth to male babies who are covered in sores and screaming. A few days later, the mother, who was otherwise healthy, dies. Jack’s own wife died from Voight’s, and he’s racing against the clock to save his son, Jeremy.

At first, In His Genes felt like it followed standard protocol for a romance novel: the good-looking male boss and the woman who works way below her intellectual abilities for no money because she’s happy to be near the man. The old “this woman is so smart that she should be the boss, and honestly, he can’t do anything without her” thing. The familiar “she’s like a comfortable shoe” theme. Throw in the sexy, accomplished Dr. Renee Temple, with her excellent fake breasts, who visits Jack once per month for a good roll in the sheets, and we have everything we expect. Unfortunately, Dr. Temple is written with limited emotional range: uncaring, petty, catty. She was more like a paper doll than a person, so it was hard to hater her even though she forgets Jack even has a son.

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Although the cozy relationship between Jack and Cassie is meant to give readers something to root for — that moment when they admit they’re meant for each other and he stops seeing Dr. Temple — I was uncomfortable with how much they “played house” as boss and employee. Jack calls Cassie to have her come to the hospital when his son has flare ups of Voight’s disease — and she goes. He expresses sadness over being unable to pay her for all the extra hours she works. They have dinner together at his house, and she loves son and kisses him goodnight. The whole relationship is so inappropriate that I felt uncomfortable. Cassie’s life is on pause while she waits for her boss to figure out she cares about him and is acting as wife and mother in his life. It’s another movie trope, one that has women wait and wait and wait — where’s the initiative? The self-respect?

It was early on I realized I wasn’t sure how to perceive Cassie. First, I couldn’t keep track of her age (almost 40) because I kept thinking she was a post-grad student, someone in her early 20s. Whenever I did remember her age, I couldn’t figure out what she did before she worked in Jack’s lab. She’s only been there for 2  years. It’s weekends, late nights, almost no pay, so Cassie certainly works like a grad student. I felt sad that yet another woman was putting herself in financial jeopardy to play second trombone in the hopes that her boss would open his eyes and fall in love with her.

Cassie is supposed to be a nice woman: her parents love her, her boss loves her, her boss’s son loves her, she’s donating tons of her time for science (albeit so she can be close to her boss). Cassie is supposed to be a happy woman who was “a reader, straight-A student, volleyball star [who] attended Boston College on a scholarship [and] majored in anthropology.” Yet, at times, Cassie was petty enough that I was surprised by the extent of it. Jack’s sister, Margaret, quit her job to care for Jeremy. She’s an MIT grad who pays attention to the benefits of nutrition and rest to prevent flare ups. Still, Cassie is jealous of this woman, as if Jack may fall in love with his sister. Cassie mentally criticizes:

Tall and slender with long, glossy dark hair, [Margaret would] be pretty if not for her crabby pinched-up expression. Rarely smiles, never dates. Destined to be bitter and alone. I look away. Her choice has nothing to do with me.

I just… really can’t get behind this sort of negative criticism of other women, especially when it concerns a woman’s appearance or her status in relation to a man. Was Stratton trying to make Cassie seem petty?

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But Stratton throws readers a plot twist: Palmer, a guy in his 50s performing Beat poetry in a cafe who is able to magically fix Cassie’s car when the battery dies on a cold winter night. He’s weird yet caring, and I hoped that the introduction of Palmer would steer the story away from the familiar “underling who loves her boss” trope. Palmer appears everywhere without reason, like he’s stalking Cassie, but he’s kind and takes interest in her work (and even knows about the incredibly rare Voight’s disease). But he won’t take her to his apartment. Has Stratton saddled us with the married adulterer theme? No, Palmer is something entirely different, which I won’t describe because it delves into spoiler territory. The plot heads into some unbelievable directions, such as when a VIP gets Voight’s and Palmer works some magic on Jack’s suffering son.

The book tries to compare science with belief (not necessarily religion), which I felt wasn’t fully executed, make the comparisons unclear. Palmer, who represents belief, wants Cassie to trust without proof, but the science in the book is more about DNA strands and other jargon, instead of principles and hypotheses, so it’s hard to see how the two contrast.

I have a couple of other Robin Stratton books that I plan to read, but for now I would recommend choosing her novel On Air for the humorous comments, genuine emotion, and original plot, instead of In His Genes.